The longest single rail journey in the world is the Moscow-Vladivostok route. One country, six thousand miles, seven days.
The main purpose of the route is obviously to shuttle Russian people around the country, especially in the absence of local, budget air travel, but it’s a popular tourist route to take in other areas of the country and to transfer to the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian lines.
Some people really do seem to see the adventure in the non-stop, seven-day journey. The challenges of maintaining hygiene and sanity aside, that misses out on seeing so much of Russia and surviving a 24-hour stint on the railway was my maximum. This took me from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude.
One step at a time
My first day was a short, five hour ride from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod. That was a standard train rather than one with sleeper berths and it terminated at Nizhny. I chose Nizhny over Vladimir or Kazan, but opting for any of these as a first stop means the initial leg of the Trans-Siberian is a short one rather than an overnight trip and it felt like a sensible way to start off.
Many other people I met had travelled non-stop from Moscow to Irkutsk (a four-day trip) but more regular stops felt like a better way to travel.
Sleeping through anything
I had several hours to kill at Nizhny Novgorod station on a warm, muggy night. Cursing myself for booking the 11.30pm train, it rocked up on time and I boarded, ready for sleep. I was the fourth person in the kupe, the others already snoozing. There was an older Russian woman across from me and the noises coming from her were like nothing I’ve ever heard before, vaguely similar to the raptors from Jurassic Park.
Despite the rocking of the train, the dinosaur noises across from me and the noise from stopping at stations, it was a reasonable night and eventually I nodded off to sleep. But if you’re a light sleeper, it may be a struggle.
Don’t go for the scenery
If you’re looking for scenic train trips then go to Norway, take a train through the Alps, travel through the Canadian Rockies, but don’t go on the Trans-Siberian. The Russian railway may throw up a mountain here and there, getting more scenic for a short stretch around the south of Lake Baikal, but otherwise the countryside outside could be from any country. The charm of the railway is in the people you meet.
Be prepared to be the dumb foreigner
Each carriage on the train is managed by a Provodnitsa. They check your ticket and documents before boarding, provide the bedding, the hot water, they make sure you don’t miss your stop, and some were scrupulous in maintaining their carriage. But on all of my trips none spoke a word of English. When one was explaining the two choices for dinner, it was obvious I couldn’t understand… until she did an impression of a chicken in the carriage.
It’s basic travel
Part of the attraction for me is how basic the trains are. There’s no technology, no Internet, hardly any mobile phone signal. It’s a chance to switch off for the hours or days your journey takes, to relax and chat with others.
The kupes are the second class accommodation, sleeping four people in two bunks. Third class is an open carriage with more beds, sociable but likely a challenge to the senses, and first class is two beds to a room. There is no shower and only a basic toilet in the carriage. A top bunk gives you a little more privacy and your own space whereas the bottom bed will be used by people as a seat during the day.
Hot water is readily available for tea, coffee or for dried noodle style snacks which are in abundance. These, along with some other snacks, can be bought on board. Alternatively, the train stops for 20-30 minutes at some stations and the platform is filled with people selling food, including the popular smoked fish that you need to hope no-one in your kupe decides to buy.
But it’s epic
In many ways the Trans-Siberian Railway really is epic. It’s the longest single train journey you can take, spanning the world’s biggest country from its capital through desolate Siberian landscape to the eastern edge. And if you decide to venture on it, it will be one of the best trips you’ll ever take.