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The Trans-Siberian Railway: a traveller's anthology

The Trans-Siberian Railway: a traveller's anthology

Extract: Preparations for the journey

Contents | Introduction | Foreword | Extract: Preparations for the journey | Extract: Clothing

Trans-Siberian Excess

Chris Moss, 2007

Guidebooks, brochures and trainspotters tend to paint a romantic picture of life on board Russia's big train. Many Russians handle the four to seven day ride by getting wasted. At any time of the day, men (and only men) skulk out of their compartments with vodka-blasted eyes, groaning and blithely ignoring all those vast steppes. Officers in the military sleep all the way. Chinese teenagers chat on their mobiles.

Loos are, at best, cleanish. There are no showers and little space for a sponge down. Buffet car food is basic and doesn’t change, so after a couple of stroganoffs you'll end up doing as locals do and heating up pot noodles at the samovar. You will be sat down half the time and lying down the rest – standing becomes a chore. Cabins are communal, and if you are in the lower bunk, your bed becomes a dinner table. Some provodnitsas (coach attendants) are polite; some are as cold as Siberian permafrost. If you don’t speak Russian, you can’t talk to them anyway.

Put all these factors together and do the whole seven-night epic from Moscow to Vladivostok and, rest assured, you will arrive looking awful, with your bowels shot, your hair insane and your energy sapped.

Of course, it all depends who you’re travelling with. What can seem like an ordeal when you’re on your own becomes a laugh with a group of friends. And couples should definitely consider upgrading to a two-berth carriage for the privacy and romance. And even on your own, there’s always the view. And the chug-chug of the train and eternal wilderness. The view is ... Russia. On the European side, this is flat, grey, forests blasted apart by settlements, power stations and factories built here precisely because the train runs nearby.

Siberia is prettier, sunnier, shapelier, but it is repetitive. China comes as a relief if you take one of the Beijing routes. That said, borders are excruciatingly tedious – up to ten hours to cross directly to China, and if you go via Mongolia, you've got two to cross.

There is a sort of exception. The No 9 and 10 “Baikal” trains runs between Moscow and Irkutsk only and have sliding cellophane loo-seat covers, DVD rooms, regular vacuuming, and, apparently, a shower - if you ask. This is as luxurious as it gets short of taking an Orient Express-style charter service.

Tips are: take heaps of books, magazines, music, fruit and chocolate - the latter for barter as well as pleasure. Take booze other than vodka and introduce yourself to everyone. Sooner or later an Anglophone will appear. Learn basic Russian and try Chinese. Get off at every station and do silly walks. And accept the invitations to have firewater and cold fish – monosyllabic conversations will ensue, then a rapid sequence of 40-degree, throat-singing shots, and soon you'll be back in bed. The train goes at 45mph, but time flies when you’re asleep


The Trans-Siberian Railway: a traveller's anthology


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