Trans-Siberian Trains

The Trans-Siberian trains are going to be your home for at least seven full days of your time in Russia, so it's a good job that they are, on the whole, comfortable things in which to travel. There are a number of different classes of train travel in Russia, bur in reality you'll be travelling by either one of two - and I recommend you try them both out, as they each have their own benefits.

• Kupeny - aka kupe
Kupe is compartment class, and I strongly recommend you consider it for the majority of your journey throughout Russia, particularly any journey longer than an overnight 12-14 hour stint. A second class kupe compartment consists of four bunks - two lower, two upper - inside an enclosed cabin, with a small table between them just below the window. The lower bunks fold up to reveal an enclosed hollow space to place your luggage, and for this reason I recommend booking lower bunks where possible (they cost slightly more, but it's a negligible amount compared with the total cost of a ticket). If you get an upper bunk, there is luggage space for you above the door which extends out over the corridor of the carriage. Note that when Russians travel, they do it with gusto - lots of luggage in stripey bags, or crates/sacks of stuff! So claim your space as soon as you can and pack as lightly as possible. I found taking a 40-50 litre pack was the way to go, and I used it as a pillow when I could only get a top bunk, keeping all my valuables inside. Pick up a cloth bag locally (or a sturdy Russian supermarket bag) for your food and drink.

The kupe beds are pretty comfy, and included in your ticket should generally (but not always) be provision for some bedding, handed out to you by the provodsnitsa (carriage attendant) shortly after you board the train. The carriages are usually comfortably warm, even in winter, being heated centrally by the train's samovar (hot water heater) which in turn is fuelled by coal shovelled by the provodsnitsa, but beware that rare extremes of temperature might occur, so be prepared. A friend of mine taking a train up to Murmansk in the Arctic Circle in Winter reported how his carriage's samovar broke down and they went without heating - leaving inch-thick ice to form on the window inside the compartment! Even the Russians were cold, apparently, and when that happens, you know you're in trouble! Conversely, I was once on a carriage in Siberia whose ambient temperature was running at over thirty degrees Centigrade die to an overstoked fire in the carriage. It was sweltering, and the windows were locked shut (as they commonly are), so the only way of temperature regulation was stripping down to almost nothing and kicking off the bedding!

Some people like the comfort and privacy of kupe, and I'm among them. Solo women travellers, however, may prefer the more open (and cheaper) third class of platskart rather than being couped up with three (possible male - the compartments are mixed) Russian strangers.

• Platskartny - aka platskart
Platskart has no compartments, instead being one long open carriage of beds. The same space that occupies four people in kupe class contains six people, with two beds "on the end" where the corridor would be in kupe. This makes things more cramped, particularly as platskart passengers seem to travel with just as much luggage as those in kupe, but it also makes it more sociable. You'll meet far more "ordinary" Russians in platskart, willing to share their pigeon English, food and drink (and you should reciprocate as much as possible to be polite). Platskart will do your head in eventually, though, so I'd recommend only using it for overnight hops or early morning to evening journeys, as everyone is on top of each other - crying babies and all!

• Spalny Vagon - aka SV
Those with the readies may consider the occasional first class trip. SV compartments are like kupe, but just house two people (without the upper bunks) for roughly twice the price. You'll obviously meet fewer Russians travelling in SV, but they can be good when you crave a bit more privacy on your trip. If you're a couple or pair travelling together, you might consider getting an SV compartment for the both of you. In SV you'll benefit from cleaner toilets (well, usually) and occasionally some luxuries like a power socket in your compartment (plug sockets in kupe are few and far between, and are normally in the corridor).

If you're travelling end-to-end on a Full-Monty 7 day trip all the way through, or taking a Half Nelson and breaking your trip at Irkutsk, I'd recommend kupe as the best choice for comfort and getting a "genuine" experience of meeting Russians. For those who can afford it, and would prefer more privacy at the cost of meeting Russians on the train, you may want to consider SV. If you're stopping off more frequently in a Hop-On, Hop-Off style, consider a mix of kupe and platskart.

Eating and Drinking on a Trans Siberian Train

Most long-distance trains in Russia should have a dining car somewhere roughly in the middle of the train, often dividing the kupe/platskart classes. Depending how long the train has been travelling, though, they may have run out of most of the menu options! The standard of food is not great - it is train food, after all - and is expensive for what it is, but the dining car can be a good break from your carriage and is often the only way to meet the other foreign travellers on your train.

Your food and drink lifeline on the Trans Siberian is your carriage's samovar, which provides supplies everyone with a constant supply of piping-hot water. As a result, your self-catering options for hot food are largely limited to "stuff you can add hot water to" - namely instant noodles, and lots of them! You'll be sick of noodles by the time you've finished your trip. Stock up on trays of DOWNPAK (doshirak) noodles or a similar brand at train stations before departure, or better still from local supermarkets where you'll find a better selection and cheaper, too. Also, buy up plenty of fresh fruit, biscuits, bread and other items of food that don't require refrigeration. At station stops there will also be lots of sellers plugging their wares, often local specialities such as smoked fish and the like. Know your Russian! "How much" ("skol-ko"), plus your Russian numbers too so you don't get overcharged.

Trans Siberian Toilets

There's no avoiding it - sooner or later you're going to have to use the toilets on the Trans-Siberian. The cleanliness of the toilets depends on the industriousness of your compartment's provodsnitsa, but in my experience based on taking ten different trains throughout Russia on my trip, I can honestly say I didn't see an unpleasant or dirty toilet once. The bathrooms themselves are very basic, being very metallic - metal floors, metal toilet pans, metal sinks, metal everywhere! - and they have their own unique smell, not unpleasant but not particularly pleasant either, probably due to the type of bleach used rather than anything else.

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