Riding the Rails

After 20 hours on the train, we arrived in Chelyabinsk without incident. Traveling by coupe, with four people sharing one cramped room, this is not always guaranteed.

So far we've been pretty lucky: no wildly drunken revelers and no kleptomaniacs. We have had our share of chatters, though -- people who want to talk and talk, especially after they find out we're Americans. Sometimes the conversation is interesting, and I've even gotten some good tips for stories. Sometimes, it's utterly inane and I am forced to feign sleep.

The Novosibirsk train station, run down in 1995, has been beautifully renovated. (David Hillegas)

Overall, train travel doesn't seem to have changed much in the last 10 years. Here's how it works: You board the train and lug your bags to the coupe. You try to stuff them under one of the two bottom bunks, which never seem to have enough room for everyone's bags. You pay the wagon attendant 40 rubles -- about $1.40 -- for clean sheets and a towel if you plan to sleep.

Then, it's anyone's guess what happens next, depending on who's in the coupe, or even in the neighboring coupes. Russian trains are far friendlier than Russian streets, and people tend to wander up and down the narrow hallway, making conversation.

The most memorable train trip we've had so far was between Birobidzhan and Chita, a marathon 39-hour extravaganza in which two jolly salesmen spent the entire time -- morning to night -- drinking vodka and beer, and exhorting David and me to join them in their coupe. We put them off as long was we could, then finally joined them for what turned into a very long evening.

Each standard train coupe sleeps four people; you never know who your neighbors might be. (David Hillegas)

They were enormously concerned that David might not understand everything, so every sentence began and ended with a command for me to translate. Because they were drunk, they frequently repeated themselves, especially one named Sasha who was eager to give David a lesson in Russian grammar. "Lisa!" he would bark. "Translate!" And off he would go, waxing rhapsodic about the flexibility of word order in Russian, and the subtle differences in meaning it could imply. This went on for hours.

The train is also home to a whole catalogue of smells, starting with the smoking area at one end of the wagon. Smokers are plentiful, and they often leave their butts smoldering in the ashtrays, so the whole tiny area fills up with the pungent smell of cheap tobacco. Moving on, there's the toilet, which, no matter how diligent the attendant might be about cleaning it (usually not very), still always stinks.

The coupes themselves range from perfectly pleasant to absolutely fetid, depending on their occupants' personal hygiene and what they've brought to eat. There's a particular mix of pickles, sausage, stale tobacco, vodka and sweat that seems to permeate most train cars, to greater or lesser degrees. This smell, too, seems not to have changed over the last ten years.

For the most part, though, Russian trains are an agreeable way to travel -- they're reliable, cheaper than airplanes, and offer a great way to see the countryside. And if you can get used to the noise and the rocking, they provide an opportunity to catch up on lost sleep, too.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 17, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: Novosibirsk: Odd Contrasts and a New Destination | Next: Chelyabinsk: Life as a Pensioner


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Thanks for your nice description! This brings back some nice memories of two years of riding Russian trains while in the Peace Corps. Unfortunately I have not made it to Siberia yet. If you have a chance, you should stop in Petrozovodsk on the Petersburg to Murmansk line and see the island Museum Kizhi. Further north you could stop in Kemm and see the island Fortress of Solovki (the ferries to the island may be closed for the season though).

Posted by: Scott, Minneapolis | October 17, 2005 04:13 PM

Thank you for writing about the experience of being on the train. I was starting to wonder if you would talk about it after weeks of reading about destinations and people. Granted, travel is about destinations and people, not about the journey (usually: when I was getting on a domestic flight in Russia once I did wonder a bit as I watched fuel pouring from an access port in the wing... I now believe the tank was overfilled, but I was not getting on that plane if the fuel did not stop flowing...).

I hope to take the Trans Siberian Railroad the opposite way to you in a couple of years (My mother wants to get back to Australia, but doesn't seem to be in much of a rush.) and I have been avidly following your travels and experiences and printing them out to send to Mum to prepare her for the voyage. Thank you for recording your journey and the people you meet and places you go in such detail.

Posted by: Jesse Allen | October 17, 2005 08:40 PM

Yes, if you have the time for them, Russian trains are far more agreeable than air travel, especially in the Far East and Siberia. On planes in Russia I rode with my luggage on my lap (Moscow-Khabarovsk) because the central luggage racks were oddly missing from the jumbo jet. I had to pay huge fees (Vladivostok-Novosibirsk) for luggage over 20 kilos. I also got food poisoning on that flight. And in Kaliningrad, our plane was delayed by an airport "propiska" officer seeking a bribe from my Ukrainian fellow-traveller.

On trains we just faced the occasional reek of a fellow passenger and the toilets, as you mentioned. But we got great sleep and enjoyed tea in the morning as we watched the landscape roll by. I'll always have fond memories of those rides.

Posted by: Julia | October 19, 2005 02:46 AM

Nice description of the trains! I've been in talks with my friend on doing a trans-siberian railway trip across Russia. However, neither of us speak Russian well and are quite young. Would you recommend this sort of thing for us next summer? Are the trains safe? Thanks!

Posted by: Amanda Baltimore | October 19, 2005 11:50 AM

Hi, Amanda - Have you and your friend traveled much overseas? If not, it might be a tough way to learn the ropes. Not that many people speak English here, and even for people like me who speak Russian, there are always frustrating moments and snags. Russian trains are safe for the most part, though like anywhere you have to pay attention and be careful, with yourself and your things both... Feel free to email me at russianchronicles@gmail.com if you want any further info on this!

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | October 20, 2005 06:19 AM

A very interisting and informative story. My wife and I just returned from a 3,000 km driving tour of Latvia, Estonia (with many "echos of Russia") and Finland. We saw many similar sights and took lots of pictures. You were able to add a lot more text and local information that we could access. Hope that you took lots of pictures. Again, nice job

Posted by: Ron Dalton | October 28, 2005 05:50 PM

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