The Trans-Siberian rail journey has been on my list for a long time. When I was still adamant about not flying, I had planned to take it out to see Japan. So when I met Katie at TBEX and she talked about going, I was intrigued to hear how it went. She has now completed the journey and here is my interview with her.
Andy: Hi Katie, I have certainly met a number of people, friends and not, who have done the journey. The reviews have been mixed, but I still want to try it. It has been a while since we met in Vancouver. I know you laid out your plan beforehand. I’m interested in your experience.
Where did you start the trip? How long where you from beginning to end?
Katie: I started in Vladivostok, after flying there from Moscow. The full journey took me 28 days, but that includes 11 days in Irkutsk, where I had lined up a short-term volunteer opportunity with the Great Baikal Trail.
I know you stopped along the way. Was it too many? Too few?
I wish I would have stopped a few more times. If I hadn’t stopped in Irkutsk for as long as I did (see above), I probably would have stopped in Khabarovsk and Chita as well, which would have broken up my initial 62 hour ride from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude. I stopped in Ulan Ude, Krasnoyarsk and Kazan for about a day and a half each, arriving late morning one day and then leaving by overnight train the next evening. I stopped in Yekaterinburg for an extra day and I wish I would have done that in the other cities as well – those stops felt too rushed.
Tell me about your stops.
In Ulan Ude, I met two other travelers at my hostel and we spent an afternoon visiting an open air museum outside of town. The next day, I hired a guide to take me to the Buddhist monastery in Ivolga, not far from Ulan Ude.
In Irkutsk, while I was supposed to be volunteering there, that fell through so I ended up with a lot more free time than I expected. I spent a weekend on Olkhon Island, the largest island in Lake Baikal (which is the deepest lake in the world and the source of 20% of the world’s fresh water). I also visited a couple museums and the Taltsy Open-Air Museum of Wooden Architecture just outside of Irkutsk.
My stop in Krasnoyarsk was all about going hiking in the Stolby Nature Reserve, home to a number of large volcanic rock formations. Due to a minor fiasco with my ATM card the afternoon I arrived, I didn’t end up seeing much of the city, although it didn’t seem like there was a lot there.
Yekaterinburg was a nice stop because I actually had three whole days after arriving about 5:00 a.m. on a Tuesday and not leaving until 9:00 p.m. on Thursday. Because of this, I didn’t have to rush and I spent some time just wandering around and enjoying the city. My main goal in visiting Yekaterinburg was to go to the Ganina Yama Monastery outside of the city, which was built on the site where the bodies of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were discarded after they were murdered by the Bolsheviks.
I have seen so many pictures of the “platform stops”, with people selling all manner of stuff. Are they really like this? How often does the train stop like this?
It really depends on your route and timing of your train. Most of my legs were primarily just overnight so I was asleep for a lot of the station stops. On the multi-day journeys, I did get off at a few stops where there were kiosks on the platforms selling drinks and snacks. I didn’t see many people peddling stuff on the platforms, but it may be because I was traveling in the colder months.
That being said, there were vendors who came through the cars. A woman with a cart came by every few hours with drinks and snacks and a random assortment of women walked through the hallways selling things like smoked fish, pelmeni (dumplings) or clothing like shawls and hats.
I’ve heard stories of the train just stopping for no apparent reason. Did this happen to you?
If it did, I was asleep and didn’t notice.
Tell me about the trains and cabins you rode in. The stories I have heard and pictures seen seem to run the gammut.
The trains I took varied from standard passenger trains to faster and slightly nicer “firmenny” trains (as well as a couple “fast” passenger trains, which are in between ). I booked a 2nd class, or kupe, compartment for each trip, which included four beds – two upper bunks and two lower bunks. All of the trains I took were impressively clean – even the toilets! The passenger trains tend to be older, with leather bunks so you get a mattress that can be rolled out over the bunk. The newer firmenny trains have nicer, fabric-upholstered bunks that fold down from the wall. However, I actually found the roll out mattresses more comfortable. Bed linens, a blanket and a small towel were all provided.
Were there electrical outlets? For those of us addicted to our devices
Electrical outlets were scattered throughout the hallways on the trains. There were fold-out seats next to them so you could sit by your device as it charged, although many people just left theirs hanging from the outlet.
The Samovar is my favorite thing that I learned about Russia in my Russian history class at university and I know they have them on the trains. Is it just hot water, so do you have to bring your own tea?
The samovar situation confused me at times. I didn’t think to bring my own mug because when I took an earlier Russian train, from Veliky Novgorod to Moscow, the attendant came by and offered us tea as soon as we boarded. As it turns out, they only do that on the nicer trains. Most people who shared my compartment brought their own mugs and their own tea, although I think you could buy tea and get a mug from the attendant if you wanted to.
Food is the other aspect that I have read about. Between high prices in the dining car and raw eggs bought on the platform somewhere, it seems like a long time to deal with uncertain food.
Food really only becomes a big issue if you stay on the train for more than just an overnight. I stocked up before my first leg, which was three nights and two full days, but otherwise I didn’t bring that much. I had heard horror stories about the prices in the dining car and assumed that most of what they offered wouldn’t be gluten-free anyway, so I didn’t even bother checking that out.
Right, you are allergic to gluten as well. Did you buy along the way off the platforms or bring everything with you?
Typically I tried to eat dinner before heading to the train station and then I brought with me some dried fruit and nuts and an apple to snack on or have for breakfast in the morning.
The worst horror story I had heard from a friend was that they had no bathrooms for a day. I understand they are locked for several hours around the stops, but for her the attendant forgot to unlock them several times. Anything like that happen to you?
No problems with the bathrooms at all. They were kept very clean and I can only recall them running out of toilet paper once or twice. They do lock them shortly before, during and shortly after station stops, but in my experience it was never for very long and I don’t think it was even for all stops – just the longer stops. They post a schedule on the door of when the bathrooms will be locked, so if you need to, you can try to plan around it.
That being said, I have heard they are locked for the entire border crossing into Mongolia or China, which can take several hours.
What was the social aspect like? I have heard stories of parties and of just drinking with people that don’t speak a word of English.
I didn’t experience that at all – although that could be because I traveled in the off-season, in the opposite direction than most or because I was in kupe (2nd class, closed compartments) rather than platzkartny (3rd class, open compartments) – or a combination of all three!
Of the twenty different people I shared my compartment with at various times, I only had substantive conversations with two – one woman who helped me with my Russian and one man who wanted to practice his English. A couple people seemed to know other people on the train and spent their time socializing in other compartments, but many people just got on board and went straight to sleep. People seemed to sleep a lot!
Umm, so what do you do for so long on a train. I have done journeys of up to 24 hours and don’t ever really get bored watching.
Well, as I mentioned above, I did have a couple good conversations to pass the time. Otherwise, I brought a couple books with me to read. I also had my laptop, which I sometimes took out to work on editing photos or writing draft blog posts. Sometimes I roamed the halls and tried to take some pictures of the scenery (which was not easy!).
You know some Russian. I can imagine there is not much English along the way? How hard would this trip be for someone without it.
I was the only person I encountered on the train who spoke any English until the man who shared my compartment on my way to Kazan (my last stop) who wanted to practice. All of the signage and announcements at the stations and on the trains are in Russian, so it definitely helps to know at least a little Russian – or at the very least, be able to read the Cyrillic alphabet. That being said, I met a few travelers on my stops who were going the other direction and they didn’t know any Russian and were doing ok. I think the key is being patient.
Did you enjoy it? Would you do it again? If so, what would you do different? Same?
I enjoyed it, although I was exhausted by the end – it definitely wore me down a bit physically. If I did it again, I would stop in each city for at least two full days and I would try to make a few more stops to avoid any of the multi-day train legs.
The typical question… I really want to go and will likely convince my wife Ali to come with me if we stop enough. Do you have any recommendations?
Stop as often as possible and don’t rush your stops – try to stay at least two nights on each stop. I think most people would find ending in Beijing (i.e., the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian) more interesting than ending in Vladivostok, so think about that. Onward connections from Beijing are likely easier too. Bring a Russian phrase book and try to become familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet.
Thanks Katie for answering my questions. I’m happy we met at TBEX and kept in touch. I think a lot of my horror stories, if not fully dispelled (I’m sensitive to horror stories), at least have some weight against them. I am totally up for doing this thing. Taking plenty of stops to see stuff along the way though.
I look forward to reading more of your travels.
All of the pictures in this post came from Katie. She also wrote a neat round-up of the trip here.