The Trans-Siberian Railway: Quit Putin it off and just go!

In the late 19th century it became apparent that the limited transport links in Russia were hindering the development of Siberia, and so by command of Tsar Alexander III the initial building stages of the Trans-Siberian railway were put into action.

Nowadays with various other transport options linking Russia to Asia, the Trans-Siberian Railway, which crosses an incredible 8 time zones and considered the longest rail journey in the world has become a popular adventure for tourists. Though it does remain as Russia’s most important transport route, accounting for 30% of the country’s exports, and despite the increasing popularity amongst foreigners, the vast majority of passengers are still Russian.

With a personal fascination with Russia I have always dreamed of making the journey myself, though unfortunately it is still placing on the bucket list. However, a friend of mine who currently studies Russian language at university, made the journey with four friends over the summer, and has kindly offered us an insight into his fascinating trip. Here is his story.

‘Why one earth would you want to do that?’ When I first proposed the idea of traveling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to my friends and family, their reactions were mixed, to say the least. They tended to be either amazed or horrified. When people think of Russia, they tend to either imagine the classical Russia of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, or the Russia of Putin, political conflict, and people queuing up for bread. The contrasts in this vast country are immense, yet (or rather, because of this) it had been a dream of mine since childhood to travel across it. The beautiful landscapes, vibrant cultures, and interesting people of this country so close to us, yet simultaneously so far from us, have always fascinated me. So, I persuaded four friends to come with me and we set off on this 9,500 kilometer journey across Russia.

Technically, the Trans-Siberian Railway begins in Moscow, and can either be taken to Beijing or Vladivostok (we took the second route). However, we decided to add a few days to the start of our journey to visit Saint Petersburg, too. Thinking it would be a shame to cross such a vast distance and only see the country from the window of a train, we also opted to stop off in a few cities on the way, staying in hostels of varying degrees of quality. When it comes to the train itself, you can pay thousands of pounds to travel in luxury on board a private train designed for tourists, or you can squeeze yourself in to a packed carriage of bunks, mainly used by elderly babushki and soldiers for a fraction of the price. Being poor students, we opted for the latter – a type of carriage known as platzkart.

Telling Russians that you’re planning to travel ‘v platzkarte’, will usually merit one of two responses: (a) a horrified gasp, followed by some concerning message about the threat of ‘hooliganism’, or (b) a solemn nod, followed by ‘Good Luck’. Although part of their concern does seem to stem from a certain protectiveness felt towards foreigners in Russia, in a ‘we can handle it, but we’re Russian and you’re not’ sort of way, it’s certainly true that platzkart is not for everyone. It seems to have been designed during some sort of ‘How many bunks can you fit in a single carriage?’ competition. And yet, travelling in platzkart you get to see Russians doing what they do best – telling stories, sharing food, and drinking vodka. There is a strong feeling of conviviality, as if people automatically become friends simply because on such long journeys there is nothing else to do. People shared food with us, were eager to talk to us in both Russian and English, and were always interested in seeing what we thought of their country.

One of the more bizarre instances of this hospitality was our second night on the train, traveling from Moscow to Kazan. Having left Russia’s capital in the evening, eaten a sandwich that I’d bought at the station and made my way into my bunk to go to sleep, I felt something poking me repeatedly in the leg. By this time it was past midnight, the provodnitsa (the woman in charge of each carriage – someone whose bad side you would not want to end up on) had turned off the lights, and the train was quietly rolling through the Russian countryside under the cover of darkness. I slowly turned my body around in the cramped space and tried to sit up to see what was going on, only to be greeted by an elderly man with his arm outstretched, staring up at me and nodding his head. It took me a moment to realize that in his outstretched arm he was holding a hard-boiled egg, gesturing in my direction.

I was confused, until I looked around to see my friends all sitting up holding their own hard-boiled eggs. The old man, traveling by himself, seemed to have just happened to be carrying six hard-boiled eggs in his bag, and had decided to share them with us. He then proceeded to fetch us some small pieces of sausage for us, before silently returning back to his seat and not talking to us for the rest of the journey. The whole thing took place in silence, and even when I went to thank him he just gave me nod. As day broke, he quietly left the train without a word to us. Yet, by the end of the trip, this type of hospitality had become almost normal for us. And the further away we got from the capital, the more excited people were to meet foreigners.

On our longest leg of the journey, more than 70 hours from Irkutsk to Vladivostok, we found ourselves placed next to a jolly (drunk) group of middle aged men, traveling back to see their families in small towns in the Russian Far East after having spent that last 3 months working at the nearby space centre. They quickly noticed that we were speaking in English, and started to talk to us, with my only other Russian speaking friend and I having to interpret the conversation, which at this point was taking place between about 10 people. One of the men told us that this was the first time he’d ever met anybody from the West. This shocked me until I realized that Europe was many thousands of miles away, even if the people this far into Russia mostly looked European and spoke a European language. They then reminisced about the time they had met an Indonesian man on the train three years before, and all nodded and agreed that that had been an exciting train journey indeed.

The whole experience was not only an insight into Russian society, but a brilliant chance to learn the Russian language as it is actually spoken. For example, while sitting with these drunken (yet, I must add, ultimately kind-hearted) workers from the space centre in the dining car, I noticed one of them looking at me and tapping his neck repeatedly with his fingers. After this, he nodded at me, and not really knowing why he was nodding I simply nodded back. This led him to jump up and run to the bar and return with beer for the both of us, which is how I learnt the great Russian gesture known as ‘shchelchok po shee’, most commonly known in English as ‘the Drunk’s Neck Tap’. Another instance of this, once again involving alcohol and the same space centre workers was when they tried to get us more drinks and we tried to explain to them that we wanted to go to bed. This led the largest of them to stand up in front of me and shake me by the shoulders and shout ‘Ty muzhik?! Ty muzhik?!’. At this point, I understood that he was saying ‘are you something?’, but I didn’t have a clue what on earth the word muzhik meant. It was at this point, staring this huge, drunk Russian man in the face as he shook me from side to side, that I thought to myself ‘If I give him the wrong answer, I could die’. Deciding that 50% odds weren’t that bad, I decided to answer ‘yes’. His eyes lit up, he slapped me on the back and then declared that in that case we must have another drink. (I later found out that the closest English equivalent to muzhik is ‘bloke’ – God knows what would have happened if I’d replied with nyet).

It wasn’t only the people that were fascinating – the Siberian landscape was outstandingly beautiful. Most people imagine Siberia to be a desolate wasteland, but in summer dense, dark green forests cover the hills, and the views of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, were enough to take your breath away. We were incredibly lucky when it came to Baikal, I think. Most people spend all of their time by the lake in Listvyanka, a tacky resort town on the road from Irkutsk, where the view of the lake is obscured by boats and buildings. We were lucky enough to be sharing a hostel room with a Biology professor from Yale, who recommended to us a series of beautiful hiking trails around the lake. These had been constructed by a group of local students in order to ensure the lake remains clean and untouched. The hike which we went on took many hours, with the rocky path climbing steeply up the mountainside. However, the view that we got of the stunning lake from the top of the trail was reward enough for the hours spent walking in the heat.

Getting such an amazing view of Baikal was hard work, but it was worth it. This experience sums up many aspects of traveling in Russia. It is a hassle to get there, with a ridiculously complicated visa process and a difficult language. You can’t actually book your train tickets until a month beforehand, and our own news doesn’t always show Russia in the best light. But in spite of all this, when you get there it’s fantastic. There is such rich culture, such beautiful scenery and such exciting people, and it is definitely worth going. You can spend ages sitting around, researching things and worrying about whether it will all work out okay, or you can just go. The experiences that await are worth it.

Robert Hume