July 30, 2019
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Tips for Russian Train Travel


Tips for Russian Train Travel
Riding the Rails Helgardas
Spontaneous conversations, new friendships with fellow passengers, endless birch and pine forests, sunsets over lakes, mountains, unexpected rainbows...

Train travel is one of Russia’s most iconic and rewarding experiences. In fact, there may be no better way to understand Russia’s land, culture, and people than spending a few days chugging through the country atop a pair of iron rails. So we have compiled a list of helpful tips to make the most of your experience.

Rainbow over train tracks
Let us help you make your train your trip as bright as this Transsiberian rainbow. / Katrina Keegan

Attitude

Train trips are one of the easiest ways to make meaningful connections with all kinds of Russians, especially those you might not frequently encounter as a tourist: children, the elderly, people from small towns, the less-well-off. 

And so, our first train travel tip is to take a risk and just start talking to people; they will likely be fascinated by you as well. 

Packing

Embrace train travel as a retreat from the real world. Pack the bare minimum of what you need; traveling light can offer a sense of freedom. Similarly, minimize your expectations about creature comforts like showers and internet connectivity. All those things will be there when you return. For now, start the adventure...

Booking

Trains trips start with a ticket. Luckily, you no longer need to stand in line to get a paper ticket.  

BOOK DIRECT

RZD phone app
Note the small light grey time below,
or you will run to make a train that
doesn’t leave for hours. Luckily, given that
Moscow time is earlier than all of Russia’s
other time zones, you won’t miss
the train either way. 
  • Russian Railways (Российские железные дороги, abbreviated RZhD) is a monopoly. Many websites can sell you tickets, but minimize price and misunderstandings by booking directly. You can do this through the official website, www.rzd.ru, from anywhere in the world. Then download the official app, which syncs automatically with tickets you buy online. 
  • There is no need to print your tickets at all, in fact, and often you don’t even need to have the tickets downloaded to your device (though the site says you should). For electronic tickets, you just show your passport. 
  • The big bolded time on the app tickets is Moscow time, look for the local time in the smaller font directly below. Yet, when booking on the website, the larger time displayed is local time. 

 

 

LEARN RUSSIAN (OR AT LEAST THE ALPHABET)

  • Even the English version of the RZhD website only allows you to enter the name of train stations in Cyrillic. If you don’t know how to write Nizhnevartovsk in Russian, look it up on Wikipedia, which normally also shows city names in Russian. Copy and paste.
  • Unfortunately, you also must enter your name in Cyrillic. The spelling of your name that you use for booking your ticket should match your name as it is written in your visa, so don’t blindly Google translate.
Names of stations in Russian on website
The “English” version. 

WHICH PASSPORT?

  • Getting an error message when booking online? It might be because you selected “foreign passport” (заграничный паспорт – for Russian citizens). Instead, select “foreign document” (иностранный документ) as your form of identification. As you may or may not know, Russian citizens have two passports: an internal one "внутренний паспорт, общегражданский паспорт" (that functions similar to how a state ID functions in the US),  and an external passport "заграничный паспорт," which is used solely for the purpose of international travel. Traditionally Russians will use their internal passport to book train tickets.

LAST-MINUTING

  • You can return your ticket for its full value up to eight hours before the train departs. This is another reason to always book directly through Russian Railways. Go ahead and buy far in advance – it’s cheaper that way – even if you aren’t confident in your plans.
  • If you are traveling alone, you will almost certainly be able to find a suitable seat a day or two before travel by going to the train station. However, in busy stations like Moscow and St. Petersburg, this can be a hectic experience, and, if you are travelling with others, you might not find good seats together. 

SECRET AGENT

  • Don’t feel comfortable booking a ticket in Russian, navigating all of that digital stuff, or traveling alone for that matter? No worries, that's what travel agents are for. For decades, Seattle-based Mir Corporation has been offering group trips, as well as full service private journeys, for train travel of all lengths, including the Transsiberian. If you are already in Russia, most train stations will have an at least minimally-English-speaking agent. 

Choosing a Seat

The lower the class, the more authentic the experience (read: more interaction with fellow passengers). Surprisingly, sometimes higher class tickets are neither safer nor more comfortable. 

STAY SAFE

  • Women and ethnic minorities travelling alone will likely feel safest in platskart (3rd class), because everything that happens is open to viewing by all. Furthermore, in kupe (2nd class), with its closed compartments, people are much more likely to break the rules and drink. The best position in platskart is an upper bunk in the cubby area, because that makes your body hardest to access when sleeping.
  • If you have an allergy to dog or cat hair, choose a train car that does not allow animals. You will see a paw icon with or without a dash through it for each wagon when booking online. 
Cat looking out window of Russian train
If you are an animal lover, you could also specifically book wagons that allow pets, and you might get lucky! / Khvost Nyus

STAY COOL

  • If you are travelling in summer without air conditioning, the coolest places are platskart upper bunks in the cubbies, which are next to windows. If you don’t mind the wind in your face as the train moves, choose the left side. Even if kupe wagons have AC, it is likely only in the hallway, and windows typically don’t open, so you could get very hot at night. 

STAY CHARGED

  • Availability of electrical is unpredictable. The most likely locations for them are under the table in the cubbies of a platskart, and in the hallway of the kupe wagons. If you are lucky, there may be more. 

SLEEP TIGHT

  • A person who is about 5’8’’ will just barely fit comfortably on a platskart bed. If you are taller, you will be more comfortable in kupe
  • In platskart, the middle of the wagon is darkest at night. Kupe will always be dark.
Here’s what you will see on the website when booking tickets:

Platskart / “open seating” / 3rd Class

Diagram of Russian platskart

Kupe / “Sleeping compartment” / 2nd class

Diagram of Russian kupe

 

Sleeping

Stretching out horizontally during an overnight trip while being rocked to sleep by the rumbling tracks can be wonderful, but it's not for everyone. If you are not sure, try a Moscow-Petersburg overnight train before booking the Trans-Siberian. 

BLANKETS AND BEDSHEETS

Platskart beds
Typical platskart beds. The sheets open are
folded counterintuitively. You'll try making
the bed and see what I mean. / Drugoi Pskov
  • Keep your blanket nearby, even if you are boiling hot and cannot possibly imagine needing it. Train temperatures can fluctuate radically.
  • For extra privacy, you may be able to use one of your bedsheets as a curtain. For an upper bunk, you will need at least two pieces of luggage on each end to hold it up. For a lower bunk, you need to know the person on the upper bunk and secure one end under their mattress.

BED ETIQUETTE 

Do not sit down on someone else’s bunk, especially if their sheets are on it, without their explicit permission. Even if you have a top bunk, you do not have a right to sit on the bed under you during the day. However, the vast majority of people are reasonable and will tell you that of course you can sit. If you have the bottom bunk, be the reasonable person.

Safety

Trains can be a safe option for everyone, from 90-year-old granny to the family cat. 

PROTECT YOURSELF

  • There is always an on-duty conductor in each car, and there are police in every train. Get help if you need it.
  • If you are a woman or minority and end up in a kupe with all men, especially if one of them breaks out alcohol, ask to be moved. Trust your instincts; bad things have happened.
  • There are almost always bars to keep you from rolling off the top bunk at night, so that’s one less thing to worry about. 

PROTECT YOUR STUFF

  • Protect your valuables when you sleep. If you have a bottom bunk, sometimes you can lift the seat and store your things in a closed compartment beneath it, which is impossible to access while you are asleep. Otherwise, store valuables under your pillow, with zippers facing the wall. 
  • Most Russians are trusting enough to leave their stuff when they go to the bathroom. Use your best judgement of your fellow travelers. Never leave your bag near the aisle when a stop is approaching, as it would be easy for someone to take it right off the train.

PROTECT YOUR FEET

  • Make sure to pack slippers. All the Russians around you will be fully convinced that you will catch a cold if you walk around the train in socks. Besides, the floors get icky, especially in the winter. 

Eating

You won’t be eating gourmet, but it is possible to eat a relatively well-balanced diet, with some advance planning.

WHAT’S INCLUDED

  • The train reliably provides silverware, signature tea glasses in a metal holder (you can buy them, by the way; makes a great souvenir), and boiling water. 
  • Some trains have drinking water spigots, some will cool boiled water for you in a tea kettle, some will have bottled water for sale, and some will look at you like you were crazy for asking. You can always cool the boiling water.
Tea on Russian train
Your most reliable travelling companion. You will see it on every table, smell the slightly metallic water, feel it burn when you spill at least once on the moving train, and hear it rattle with the tracks. And taste it obviously. / Tonkosti Turizma

STARTING FROM THE US? Pack these.

  • Peanut butter, protein bars, and camping-style freeze-dried meals are hard to get in Russia and make great train foods.

STARTING FROM RUSSIA?
Buy these at any Russian supermarket.

  • Tea and/or instant coffee. If you like your hot beverages with milk, look for small cartons of ultra-pasteurized “children’s milk” (детское молоко). They don’t spoil at room temperature until they are opened, and then they last at least a day. 
  • Oatmeal. You can buy small flavored packets, or plain is great with jam and nuts.
  • Instant mashed potatoes, soup and ramen. 
  • Canned meat, fish, beans, vegetables. Canned tuna and peas turn ramen into a vaguely balanced meal; potatoes with red beans is a tasty vegetarian combo. Make sure that they don’t require a can opener, unless you bring one. 
  • Low-salt seasoning packets. If you are adding canned food to your instant meals, the salt levels will become unbearable if you use the provided flavor packs. 
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables: apples, bananas, tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers hold up well. 
  • Bread, smoked cheese and dry pepperoni. Smoked cheese and dry varieties of pepperoni hold up better than many of their cousins, but still not more than a day or two.
Women eating on train
Step 1: These ladies have been on the Transsiberian from Moscow to Vladivostok for four days, and are consuming staples like instant mashed potatoes and dry pepperoni. / Katrina Keegan
Woman eats sunflower seeds on train
Step 2: Sunflower seeds are one of Russian’s favorite train snacks.
When you have lots of time on your hands, cracking open
a few hundred can help it pass. / Katrina Keegan 

DRINK ONLY AT YOUR DESTINATION

  • Despite the stereotypes, you are not allowed to drink alcohol on the train.

CAN’T EAT MORE RAMEN?

  • You will be able to purchase some food at stops. This can range from more ramen packets (ugh) to hot pirozhki (filled savory or sweet pastries), from ice cream to roasted chicken. Take advantage of this, but don’t rely on it, because the long stops may not align with your stomach growls, and you can’t know in advance what will be available. The offerings depend not only on the stop itself, but also what platform you end up on and even the weather – babushki are less likely to peddle pirozhki in the snow.
  • Technically, there are meals available in the dining car. Russians order them almost never, as they can be overpriced and not particularly tasty. 

Bathroom

Don’t avoid the bathroom. Even if it is logistically challenging and ill-maintained, washing up will help you feel far more civilized. 

YES, IT WORKS

  • Bathroom faucets can turn on a variety of ways, including: pushing knobs down, sideways, and – the trickiest to see – up on a rod that sticks down from the spout. It rarely involves the handles or knobs above the faucet.

POTTY RE-TRAINING

  • Ladies who want to feel like a real Russian should squat to pee. The toilet seats, often metal, can be pretty gross, largely because men also use the same toilets standing, which on a moving train can lead to a royal mess. The door handle (don’t forget to lock it!) is usually at an ideal distance to steady you.
  •  Get in the habit of throwing your toilet paper out in the trash cans rather than in the toilet. You don’t want to be the person who clogged the toilet on the train.
Train bathroom
A sink of the push-up-to-turn-on variety. / Ural96 / Pikabu

 

Technology

It’s unreliable. Savor your tech detox. 

  • Outlets may be sparse. Bring a battery pack and a book, an outgoing personality, exhaustion, and/or the desire to stare out the window.
  • There is no reliable wifi on board. If you buy a Russian sim card or a mifi device, internet may be available sporadically. If you are traveling along the Transsiberian, forget it, though you can occasionally send and receive messages or browse web pages when stopped at stations. 
Definitely no wifi here. / Katrina Keegan

 

Disclaimers and Acknowledgements

EXPECT DETAILS TO DIFFER

  • From bathroom layout to outlet placement to tea cup design, Russian Railways is constantly tweaking things. I once saw a head conductor of the train surprised by the existence of USB outlets near upper bunks on her own train. So be ware of anyone who says they can tell you exactly what the train will be like. 

THANK THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT

  • State-owned RZhD, and therefore the Russian government, indirectly subsidized your trip. An economist for Russian Railways we met while riding the rails admitted that all the passenger trains run at a loss.
Sunset from train window
The trains might run at a loss, but you won’t lose out when you ride one.
From the first step on the train to when the sun finally sets on your journey. / Katrina Keegan

This post was sponsored by Seattle-based MIR Corporation, which for three decades has been providing quality individual and group travel services to Russia, the FSU, and beyond.

 

 

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