All aboard the Trans-Siberian railway

Setting off on the mother of all train journeys

The Trans-Siberian express, also known as the ‘Vodka train’, runs on the longest railway track in the world. It also happened to my home for 4 days last month. And it’s one experience I can’t wait to share.

Built in just 10 years from 1891 across treacherous terrain and in the harsh Siberian climate, the Russian built line has evolved to become today a critical trade route between the east and west, with enormous cargo trains accompanying those carrying passengers. The track runs from Moscow in the west of the country through to the east of Asia, branching into three routes soon after reaching the city of Irkutsk in Siberia, which happened to be my first stop. The first route being Beijing via Mongolia (my eventual destination, known as the ‘Trans Mongolian’ at 7621 km), the second also reaching Beijing but bypassing Mongolia (Trans Manchurian, 8961km), and the third to Vladivostok near North Korea (Trans Siberian, the longest at 9288km).

Departure board at Moscow Yaroslavskiy station

The first leg on the journey to Irkutsk would take just under 4 days and span five time zones. I decided to travel in third class (yes it does exist), or platzkart as it’s known in Russian, not necessarily to save money but with the intention of having a more authentic experience with some native passengers.

Settling in

My first impressions onboard were rather alienating.

It was well past midnight when the train arrived into the station, with a huge crowd of passengers pushing their way to get onboard. After finally setting foot on the train, I almost retched at the overwhelming scent of a cattle barn. The general cabin ambience was dark and uninviting. I was keen to find out who I’d have the pleasure of accompanying for the next 4 days, but everyone was speaking in Russian. There were no tourists in sight, as I had suspected. I looked around for some home comfort and didn’t find any.

Everyone seemed to know what they were doing getting settled in, arranging bedsheets and stowing luggage in hidden containers. It took me 30 minutes of gazing around dumbstruck to figure out what I had got myself in for. The lady opposite me figured that I hadn’t a clue on the bedding arrangement and kindly offered a hand before I called it a day.

Despite the initial uneasiness, it wasn’t long before I was busy exploring the train’s onboard facilities and meeting the people around me.


The train I was on was operated by Russian Railways, and it’s huge. I counted at least 13 carriages. Second class consists of closed compartments of two sets of bunks. In third class the seats are all open and more densely packed, with a third set of bunks aligning the corridor. There’s about 60 passengers sharing a carriage. I wouldn’t recommend this class for those who value personal space!

Much like the Paris-Moscow train, there’s an attendant per carriage who helps check in passengers, takes care of cleaning and provision of the services. The language barrier made communication a sign-language affair again.

A boiling hot water tap is provided for each carriage for passengers to heat meals. This was a lifeline for preparing my spaceman diet of dried packet foods (side note – I’ll happily declare now being an expert in preparing instant pasta!) Plenty of snack bars and raw nuts/seeds also kept my stomach churning between meals. There’s a dining carriage which sells some basic warm foods. Veggie food was pretty much non-existent so it was bread, cucumber and tomatoes for my evening meals.

When travelling this train, all expectations of personal hygiene need to be lowered or eliminated. There are two lavatories per carriage. Generally the condition in both was atrocious, although I think our carriage was particularly bad compared to others. Toilet paper was not to be seen again after the first day, and soap is a luxury for second class only. The facilities are closed for large proportions of the journey due to proximity to towns and cities (I’ll leave it to you to figure out where the waste goes). Oh, and in case you were thinking, no there aren’t any showers so yes, along with everyone else I did reek after 4 days.

Life onboard

The initial cattle-barn scent didn’t disappear, but instead morphed into a combination of sweat, smoke, and another foul substance beginning with ‘S’. After the first day I became accustom to it although still treasured the chance for a breath of fresh air.

Every 3 to 4 hours the train stops for 30 mins to let passengers top up on snacks and get their cigarette fix. I was always paranoid about leaving the train as it leaves without any notice whatsoever – no announcement or horn, nothing. So usually I’d meander around the door and not bother to fetch any food from the various platform vendors.

Stretching my legs while staying close to the train

I tried to maintain some routine and not degenerate into a sloth. Each morning I would prepare some porridge, brush teeth and change clothes. My daily exercise involved walking up and down the whole train, dodging sweaty limbs hanging into the the corridor and those taking a smoke between carriages. I slept like a king. The seats are very firm but the gentle rocking motion of the train knocked me out in an instant. The passengers seemed very respectable towards one another and overall it was surprisingly quiet, both day and night.

Smelly feet – not mine of course!

The view along the way is mainly of woodland and marshes. Cities would pass by only a couple of times a day. After a while the landscape does become somewhat repetitive, although I didn’t get tired of the gorgeous sunsets over the Siberian plains. Talking with fellow passengers, watching TV on my iPad and reading books, and of course documenting my experience kept me busy. Others were more creative. Some were giving each other pedicures, tending pet tortoises, singing along with guitars, downing shots of vodka, painting canvases, amongst other things.

Siberian wilderness

Days passed quickly due to our easterly path and passing through time zones, about one per day. I didn’t suffer from “train lag” but actually the more basic matter of figuring out the correct time. All timing on trains, timetables and platforms run to Moscow time, so the clock could show as 3PM but it’d be pitch black outside.

Local company

From my initial impressions, I was concerned about not having any meaningful social contact over the course of the journey. But in retrospect, I needn’t have worried. Many of the passengers were able to converse in English just fine.

“Hey London, how do you do?” That was the (slightly mocking) greeting I’d receive when passing the permanently intoxicated group of ex-soldiers at the end of the carriage. Despite vodka being to them what the hot-water tap was for everyone else, they injected much of the excitement into the journey and it was fun to speak with them and hear their story.

Enjoying a drink the Russian way

Many of my social interactions on the train were with a lady called Elena and her young daughter Sophia, who were seated beside me. Elena couldn’t speak English but Sophia did (and with an adorable accent), so she would translate for her mother and drop me questions on post-it notes from her upper bunk when she couldn’t pronounce some of the words. Is England actually always rainy? Is the countryside like Russia? What kind of pets do Britons have? Over three days we built friendship through long conversations about our respective backgrounds and cultures.

The staring that I received in most of Moscow continued onboard the train. But the more I talked with the passengers, I realised that maybe I had been perceiving it overly negatively. After various conversations it transpired that the curiosity and intrigue from fellow passengers exceeded my own even of them. I was possibly the first person of darker skin some had ever encountered in person, so they were keen to know more about me. Having said that, the initial look of confusion when explaining my British nationality was remarkably consistent between everyone I spoke to.

The real Russia

This journey was my opportunity to experience and see the real Russia.

My first reflection point is that Moscow is really a playground for the rich and my presumption of widespread affluence across the country was misguided. Throughout the journey I met many generous and kind people from humble origins, but many of them were enduring hardships that I’ve been fortunate to live without. Some would forgo a flight in favour of a 3 day train journey to save a few rubles, and others were unable to afford everyday things like a car or even their own bedroom.

I did ask myself before requesting a third class ticket if I might end up regretting it; that perhaps 4 days of squalid living might be asking too much of myself. In the end, the humility it has instilled within me far outweighs any of the meagre benefits of travelling more luxuriously. I can live without a shower for 4 days if that means the chance to hear the story of two Kazakh students trying to get a break in their industry, or the aspirations of a young Siberian girl. When Sophia’s eyes lit up as I passed her my old rail tickets, it summarised for me how we can often take everyday pleasures like international travel for granted.

If ever you feel the need for a reality check (while also having lots of vacation time), I encourage you to book a third class rail ticket on the Trans Siberian railway. The fulfilment through heartwarming encounters with the incredibly friendly Russian people will far outweigh any other experience at the end destination.


Next: Sailing Baikal

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