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Travelling by Train in Russia

by André on November 26th, 2011

A lot of people do the Transsiberian railroad, but my experience was probably a bit different from most others. First of all, this is because I am travelling in the off-season while most people go from june untill september. Second, most people are coming from Moscow and going south, I’m doing it the other way around. Also, I’m travelling in the cheapest place: platzkart. This means a lot of people (54) on one cart sleaping in places of six without any privacy and the smell of sweaty feet.

Travelling in the Platskart might not be the most comfortable, but it’s not bad either and it’s rediculously cheap: a 2,5 day trainride and travelling 4 timezones for 120 Dollars. Besides, you have a good chance to interact with the locals!

So, how does it al go? The first part is getting the ticket. This can be quite a challenge since the women working at the trainstation don’t speak any English. So, with a written note, a Lonely Planet or someone who actually speaks russian you get your ticket. It’s funny how the women behind the counter don’t realise that Russian is “like Chinese” to me but they still repeat what they said but than louder and more slowly. I just smile and say “Da”.

The next part is figuring your ticket out. Times are always in Moscow time, even in different timezones. So you need to check twice when the train is leaving. Also it’s good to now in which part of the train you are sitting because it’s a damn long train and you don’t want to go with your baggage through the whole train.

So, then the time comes that you get on the train. Each cart has a lady who takes care of the cart and it’s passengers so it’s good to befriend them. But every time I enter the train they say something in Russian, so then I reply: Njet Ruski, Angleski? Sometimes you get a smile, sometimes you get a question in Russian, slowly spoken so they think I’ll understand it.

Then I’ll get to my seat/bed. I stash my bag under or on top of the bed and sit down and take a look at the fellow passengers. When the train leaves I bring out my Russian phrasebook and say, in Russian: Excuse me, my name is Andre, 27 years old, from Holland and don’t speak any russian, nice to meet you. Most of the time they are surprised by my name, because it’s also a russian name so it’s easy for them to remember (In China I changed my name to Andy for this reason).

People start talking russian to you again, and I just smile a bit and ask some randomm questions from my phrasebook like “what’s your job” or my favorite icebreaker: “There’s no greater happiness than being with you”. I tell them about my travels by naming some cities I’ve been and showing some pictures.

From this point on it depends a bit on the people you’re with. Because of the language barrier you cannot really continue the conversation for a very long time so I bring out a book. But there is always someone on the cart that speaks a bit of English and is surprised by a tourist on the train. So they ask you to smoke a cigarette with them and it never takes long before they ask if I’m married and how much money I make.

Then it’s time to bring out the Vodka! So you go to sit with them and you introduce yourself to your new friends. So I’m from Gollandia, Amsterdam. “Whohoho…Amsterdam! You uh smoke? Hahaha”, and then I say “Njet, I only do Heroine”. Hahaha. So they poor in the Vodka, always a bit more for me to see if I can handle it. Then they cheer. Instead of the “Nastrovia” what I thought was cheers in Russia, they always cheer for something different: for life, for friendship, for an awesome trainride. So you drink it up and ‘prove your manhood’.

In the train from Irkutsk to Tomsk, one of the guys in the cart was a train mechanic and when the train stopped he brought me in to the ‘cockpit’(?) of the train, which was only for a brief moment but quite cool. He said he also sells this to some tourists for 50 dollars.

Then it’s time for some diner. On the train itself it’s very expensive so you bring your own instant noodles. Every cart has a tap for very very hot water so you can always make those. I love my sandwiches so I always make some of those before leaving and unwrap them in the train.

The main way of entertainment for me was, if I talked enough with my fellow passengers, reading (John le Carre), listening to my iPod (3 Doors Down) and play a game on my fancy phone (Sudoku). When it’s time for bed you unroll the little mattress, and cover it with the provided linnen. The space to sleep is always a bit too small for me, but when i’m curled up a bit I sleep like a little baby.

When you wake up the next morning you go back to sleep again, since you have all the time in the world if you’re on the train for a couple of days. Since I did the travels in little parts I never traveled more than 2,5 days in one run and most of the time only have one night. But when you have another day to fill you read a little bit more, listen to some more music and stare out of the window watching the snowy siberian landscape.

Then you get to your destination; another city. It’s funny how easy it became to just enter a new city. Even when it’s a city with ten million people where you’ve never been before. You figure out where you need to go (some hostel), go to a metro and just see where it al goes; travelling is easy…

From → Russia

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