It got to May last year, when I still didn’t have any summer plans. Thoughts of spending it in Amsterdam, or South-East Asia were floating around in my head, but I wanted something far more substantial to add to my armoury of travel stories. Then, I received a phone call from an old friend called Charlie. He was living in Japan, and fancied travelling all the way from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian, and then the Trans-Siberian railway. Fast-forward two weeks, and everything was booked. It felt very surreal – the names on the planner were alien: Ulan-Ude, Yekaterinburg, Perm – and it only started to feel real when we were at Beijing station, with six other backpackers, about to get on the oldest looking electric train that I have ever seen in my life.
That first train was ‘only’ twenty-seven hours, and we travelled second class, but there were nine others afterwards, most of which were in Platskart, or third class - basically a fifty-four bed dormitory on wheels. The longest of which was, obviously, fifty-four hours straight. If you ever get the opportunity to travel across Russia, here’s a top ten guide for surviving 54 hours on a train:
Learn to play Durak
Durak is the most popular card game on the train. Every single person, from pensioners, to mothers and kids, to school-age children knew how to play it. In essence, you have to get rid of your cards by group-attacking one of the players. Google it. We just asked the people at the hostel in Beijing to teach us before we left. Cue hours of time-passing playing cards with strangers.
Drink whatever you are offered – it passes the time.
The weirdest thing that we tried was North Korean soju, which, although exotic, is absolutely foul and tastes good only mixed with the pear juice that you can purchase from the food car in the middle of the train. There’s normally a bottle of vodka kicking around the carriage as well, and if you’re in third-class, make sure that you take a water bottle that you can put it in, or the provodnitsa (the lady who runs the train carriage) will give you a good telling off, and probably confiscate your alcohol.
Take your earplugs, Listerine, baby wipes and hand sanitizer
Right, so earplugs drive me absolutely mad, but honestly, if it’s between a screaming child and having little pieces of foam stuffed in my ears, I’ll take the foam any day. I only used them once, but it was a damn good idea to take them. Listerine is good for when the bathrooms feel too gross, same with baby wipes and hand san.
Use the bathroom every single time it’s open
If you’re lucky enough to get the newer trains, the toilets are eco-friendly and open all the time. But it’s unlikely. Most of the trains have pretty vile toilets. They smell awful, rarely have any toilet paper (extra tip: take your own) and worst of all, they flush by literally opening onto the track below. If the train’s going too fast, sometimes the contents will go the other way! This means that every time the train stops at a station, they lock the toilet 20 minutes before you arrive, and only open it 20 minutes after you leave because people need to work under the train. This is particularly irritating at drawn out border crossings.
In the same vein, take flip-flops and make sure your wash bag hangs up
The floor in the bathroom is pretty grim, and there’s no space for your wash bag except a hook. Don’t let the idea of the bathrooms put you off, the rest of the train is actually pretty nice.
If you smoke, buy a pen from the provodnitsa
It’ll cost you 300 rubles (£3.50) but she’ll let you smoke in peace in the gaps between the carriages. If not, she’ll keep coming and having a go at you. Mostly, she’ll be a friendly, reasonable woman. Some of them are horrible.
Take your own food
The food carriages are expensive and the portions are small (think one meatball with a small bowl of congealed rice). We mostly ate Russian gingerbread and croissants as snacks, and just-add-boiled-water noodles and mashed potato for our ‘real’ food. Take lots of coffee. The only thing available for free is boiling water in an urn at the end of each carriage.
Get to know everyone in the carriage
If you travel like we did, chances are, you won’t find very many other Westerners (although there are more going from Moscow to Beijing than the other way round). On our journey, to name a few, we met a load of Russian kids on their way to heptathlon finals; a mother and her son travelling 80 hours back to Moscow and numerous people desperate to discuss our opinions on Putin. All of them were super friendly, and after the initial Russian awkwardness (which you get used to very quickly) we could usually communicate. It’s worth learning a bit of Russian – I already knew some and Charlie had learned a little and it went a long way.
Don’t stop in Perm!
Our train journey had seven stops, and Perm was the most regrettable. We spent a day there, and really didn’t need to. We were tired from back-to-back nights on the train, so may be a little biased, but it was the most boring town we’d ever visited. Pick somewhere else that’s more fun. To put that in perspective, this was the number one attraction on TripAdvisor there:
Take every single opportunity you’re offered
Unless they seem really sketchy, Russian people are, on the whole, wonderful. One lady did a whole skincare lesson with us on the train, which was weird but got the dirt off our faces. Another gentleman offered us a guided tour of the next stop. There’s very much a we’re-all-in-the-same-boat mentality, so people are very happy to share everything from food to toothpaste.
The train was one of the most incredible experiences. It was completely immersive, and there were very few tourists, even though it was August. The most powerful thing though, is how small the world feels afterwards. We travelled 8,800km overland and almost halfway around the world. To come back to England, where you can go from one end to the other in about 6 hours, really put some things in perspective.
Have you ever been on a long train journey? Leave your thoughts in the comments below...