Taking the Trans-Siberian train features on most travel enthusiasts and train aficionados’ bucket list. The train ride, spanning over 6 or 7 days depending on which train one chooses, takes passengers across the whole of Russia, from cosmopolitan Moscow to seaside Vladivostok. It travels through 20 administrative regions of the country, each with their own landscapes and cultures. It is the ultimate rail trip, the stuff of legend with guaranteed stories to tell and people to remember.
Some people believe the Trans-Siberian to be one train. However, it would be more accurate to call it a network. Multiple trains cross this railway network, with some ending in Vladivostok but also others heading to Mongolia, Manchuria and the DPRK.
Some take the train allowing themselves a stop here and there, whilst others only take it for a short leg. At YPT, we believe this train is enjoyed properly when taken non-stop from one end to the other. While we have previously published a guide on how to prepare for the Trans-Siberian train, you might want to learn more about how to enjoy the train to its fullest, so here are 5 tips to enjoy the ride!
Learn some Russian
Apart from a high alcohol tolerance, being able to speak some Russian is certainly the most useful skill on the Trans-Siberian. Months before your trip, you might want to start learning that beautiful language, or at least learn the Cyrillic alphabet and common polite sayings.
Out of Moscow and St-Petersburg, knowledge of English is often minimal. However, on the train you’ll see many people wanting to engage with you and share stories, food and drink. Being able to describe your family, where you come from and so on in the language of Pushkin will greatly facilitate your first contacts with the locals. The more Russian you speak, the deeper you can get into conversations. Many passengers of the Trans-Siberian aren’t native Russian speakers as the train is often taken by people of the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia. In the wagons, Russian becomes a lingua franca which will allow you to interact with people of all walks of life, most of them being super generous, kind and interesting.
Not everyone likes learning languages, so you might not want to learn so much. If you can’t learn much Russian, however, don’t let it hold you back from interacting with the locals. A few words mixed with simple English and lots of gestures can go a long way when making friends on the rail!
Print out the schedule
Before you jump on the train, make sure you have a printed copy of the schedule of your train showing each stop in both Moscow and local time, as well as their duration. Underline the ones that are longer than 10 minutes. You’ll usually be able to get off the train, stretch your legs and see the surroundings of the station on any stop longer than 10 minutes.
Being able to know when the next long stop is (for example Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg or Khabarovsk) is useful as it will allow to plan your meals around those stops. Food purchased around the station is often tastier and cheaper than food on the dining car.
It’s not only useful, but it creates a fun “Christmas Eve” effect where you will soon get excited and count down the time until the next stop. Having a schedule will also help you make sure you don’t miss one of those stops because you were taking a nap at the wrong time or went to sleep just a bit too early. While no stop is longer than one hour and doesn’t allow you to get very far from the station, there are always some interesting things to see. In Russia, you can freely enter and exit the stage and station without fear of being stopped by security. Still, bring your passport and your ticket on these expeditions just to be on the safe side.
Visit the dining car often!
If you’ve decided to book a first- or second-class ticket, you might feel a bit of cabin fever after being in the same small room for a long period of time (that’s why I honestly prefer the dynamism and wide space of third class, where you are constantly mingling with new passengers.).
The best solution to that, apart from the stations stops, is to visit the dining car. It might be expensive for what you get, but it’s always fun to see the view from the wide windows of the dining car, have a beer and chill there. The dining car is also where the wildest and funniest events take place. Around dinner time, you can be sure interesting locals will come to start a bit of drinking, games and discussions.
My most memorable stories from the Trans-Siberian almost all took place in that car. I’ve drunk with rough bikers and hooligans, danced to I want to break free with Russian Special Forces and a Kazakh forced me to try all sorts of food usually consumed by nomads of his country.
Bring more to eat and drink so you can share!
While they are renowned for their stern faces, Russians are also super generous and kind once they’ve been introduced to strangers. You might often see people asking you if you’ve eaten offer you to share their meal if you answer by the negative.
There is something about being stuck on this stinky train together that makes people bound very quickly and creates a wonderful atmosphere of camaraderie.
While receiving a few pieces of cheese, bread and shots of vodka is very nice at first, it can soon become embarrassing if you don’t have anything to give back. There is a tradition of sharing most things with your cabin mates (especially in third class) so you might want to buy a bit more of those snacks so you can readily offer them to your neighbours. It also makes a great icebreaker. Don’t forget that what comes around goes around!
Learn to read the situation
Small cabins with nowhere else to go, lots of alcohol and people from all walks of life and opinions can sometimes make quite an explosive mix. There is something in the Russian temper and culture which makes first interactions between people often very volatile.
While the Trans-Siberian is very safe and its staff highly experienced with people trying to throw their weight around, you might want to be careful with some of the most colourful passengers on the train.
It is common for the bad eggs on the train to start by insulting each other to assess what they are worth and then, 5 minutes later, become BFF. Vodka is both useful at defusing situations but can also ignite fiery characters. Learn to defuse the situation by laughing and offering shots or food. You’ll find the phrase “всё нормаль?” or “everything ok?” very useful at showing that you’re not harbouring any hostile intentions.
Learn to spot the trouble-makers and how to be on their good side. Everyone should be friends on this train and it might be wise to leave political and ethical opinions aside for the time of the ride.
Don’t take insults seriously and try to avoid refusing generosity from rougher people. It is common for Russians to get really offended if you refuse to drink with them. If you feel like you had enough, you can either switch to beer or wait for an opening to go to sleep. When stuck in a corner, pretending to be very drunk and passing out is an effective solution. Russians respect a drunk person’s sleep.
With these five tips in hand, I’m sure you are ready to turn this unique experience into one that will be extremely fun and memorable. The best way to have a great Trans-Siberian experience though, is to join us on our Eurasian Adventure Tour!