Information About Trans-Siberian Trains
All our Trans-Siberian tours use the most optimal and practical trains to use for each section of travel as well as focusing on the best quality trains that can be used on each route. In general we will only use a train from a destination that originates in that destination as this gives the best chance of ticket availability. Consequently, from your perspective you only really need to decide on which class of carriage you wish to travel in and be aware of the various timetable restrictions in place.
Differences between first and Second class
On almost all Trans-Siberian trains it is a very simple distinction – second class cabins have 4 berths and first class 2 berths. Aside from the number of berths there is very little difference between the cabins from a space, decor and window size perspective.
Classes: Russian & Mongolian Run Trains
There are two cabins classes we use on our trips. Most people will travel by second class 4-berth cabins known as “kupés” which have 2 upper and 2 lower berths, plenty of luggage storage space and a small table. There are also 2 berth 1st class cabins called “spalny vagons” which are very similar to 4 berth cabins but just lack the upper two berths. All cabins are comfortable and clean with full bedding provided.
Classes: Chinese Run Trains
The Chinese call their cabin classes by different names with soft sleeper being a 4 berth compartment little different to a Russian 2nd class kupé and deluxe sleeper being a 2 berth cabin that usually has a basic shower / basin shared between 2 cabins, a single upper and lower berth and a small couch.
When There Is No First Class
Not all trains have first class 2 berth cabins. In this case what we can do is buy all 4 berths in a second class cabin so that, for example, a couple, have sole occupancy of that cabin with the same privacy, space and security of a 2 berth first class cabin.
Trans-Siberian Trains - Life on Board
Day after day on a train – what to do? Well the one thing we very rarely hear are complaints about being bored. In between socializing, reading, looking out of the window, visiting the dining car, stretching legs on the platform, listening to music and trying to work out exactly where you are there will be little time left except to sleep. In short, the multi-day train trips are a fantastic way to relax.
Carriage Set Up
Each carriage has two Western style toilets with basins for a brief wash. There is also boiling water on tap from a samovar. The corridor usually has fold down seats and each cabin has a lockable door, 2 or 4 berths, a table and a decent amount of luggage storage. Smoking is not allowed except in the small room at the end of each carriage.
Provodnik & Provodnitsa
Each carriage has two Provodnik (male) or Provodnitsa (female) attendants whose job it is to look after. They are charged with providing the bed linen, keeping the carriage clean, making sure samovar each carriage has keeps providing boiling water (very useful for tea, coffee, noodles etc..) They are also the last word in how long a train will be stopping at a station – something which is very important to check with them when heading off for a platform walk as the train will not wait for you!
The unsung hero of any Trans-Siberian trip is the Russian water heaters called Samovars which each carriage has and produces piping hot boiled water safe to drink. You will be using this for coffee, tea and that occasional cheeky pot noodle!
Almost all trains we use have sit down western style toilets – usually 2 – one at either end of each carriage. Standards are reasonable with the facilities being frequently cleaned – the responsibility for which is with your carriage’s Provodnik / Provodnitsa. Each toilet will also have basin and the whole set up is designed for a bit of splash around so bring a sponge or flannel and keeping washed shouldn’t be a problem.
Dining Cars & Food Onboard
Menus follow national cuisines and prices are not cheap but usually reasonable value for what you get as they do have competition from vendors on the platforms. Soft drinks and beer are available but you will find vodka has been taken off the trains in Russia by order from above!
Of course, you don’t have to eat in the dining car. You can bring what food you like on board either buying before the train trip or at station kiosks along the way. In reality most people mix it up bringing some treats on board, buying fruit and the ubiquitous noodles at stations and having one good hot mail in the dining car itself.
Tickets With Meals Included
Although some trains in Russia have the option to include meals in the ticket price we don’t recommend this. This practice is a bit of a Soviet leftover when the train was frequently used to transport state workers and managers around Russia and all meals would be included. The disadvantage is you get what you are given at fixed times. We think it is much better to combine visits to the dining cars with food brought on to the train at stopovers and food bought from the vendors and kiosks on the platforms. That way you have a far greater choice of what you eat, how much you eat and when you eat and it is quite possible to do this and not spend any more than adding in meals to the ticket price (assuming the occasional “pot noodle” from the platforms!)
Stops & Platform Life
Almost all the trains stop quite frequently but it tends to be only at the longer stops that you will find much on offer on the platform besides a photo opportunity!
Larger stations will have plenty of food and drink for sale (not vodka though which is theoretically banned on Russian railways!) It is best to make a beeline for any shops as there will usually be queues right up until the train departs. Prices at the kiosks on the platforms are reasonable and most items will have a price ticket clearly displayed so it is rare to be overcharged. Needless to say, cash in local currency is king – no card or foreign currency payments here! Some of the larger stations may have ATMs but best not to count on it or, even if they have, getting access to them in time.
Most find the stations photogenic and, even if not attractive, the hustle and bustle when a train arrives is one of the pleasures of a Trans-Siberian trip. Seasonal food fresh from the Siberian forests is often available by the bucket load (mushrooms, fruits etc…) – especially from Late Summer into Autumn.
Remember that at any stop the train’s toilets are usually locked and at large cities this lock-out can also include a good distance either side of the station. Also, you can only get back on your carriage – not others – which is a security measure.
Showers & Private Facilities
Only the better Russian trains have showers which are in a separate carriage which is usually located next to the dining car. There is a small fee to use them and you will need to bring your own soap, towel etc… Deluxe class on Chinese train 3 / 4 has a very basic shower facility shared between two cabins. Rolling stock varies and you should always assume showering and private toilet facilities are not available.
Security & Safety
Russia in particular still has a bit of an image problem with regards to personal safety. Friends and relatives who haven’t been anywhere near Russia will tell you a whole host of horror stories. However, once in Russia, and particularly on the trains, most quickly realise that a Trans-Siberian trip is no more ‘dangerous’ than any rail trip in Europe or North America.
On the trains your safety is a top priority for the Provodnik & Provodnitsas who look after your carriage and also for security staff who travel on the trains. If you keep your common sense hat on you should not have any issues with theft. Cabins can be locked from the inside by you or from the outside by the conductors on request. In addition, at train station stops you are only allowed to board the carriage you have a ticket for.
Perhaps the biggest risk is at the start or end of a train journey at the train stations – particularly arriving at stations. Do keep a good eye on your bags and pockets and this applies as much (if not more) to Ulaanbaatar station and all the big stations in China where large crowds are the norm.
Money on the Train
With regard to money on trains there are the following general rules to take into account:
★ Only count on being able to use local currency on the train and at stations – it is rare you can pay in USD or Euros these days.
★ Don’t count on finding any ATMs at the stations even if told they exist.
★ Bring enough money on to the train with you to get you to your next destination.
★ Bring a little more than you think you will need!
★ You can change money at the borders if you need to.
★ You can change or obtain Russian Roubles or Chinese Yuan in Mongolia.
★ You can get or exchange Mongolian money outside of Mongolia.
They can be long and quite boring experiences but are essentially nothing to worry about for the law abiding, visa in hand, traveller.
Different borders have different procedures but generally customs and immigration is handled on the train after which you are free (or required to) go onto the platform or into station buildings. While off the train don’t be alarmed if it moves off as new engines and dining cars are being shunted into position nearby.
At the China-Mongolia and China-Russian borders the bogey’s (wheels) are changed to fit the different gauges between the countries. At the China Russia border you must get off whilst this happens. At the China Mongolia border you have the option to stay on the train which then goes into the sheds, is lifted up with you on it and one set of bogey’s removed and another slid in. Fascinating to experience but do keep in mind it takes time, the toilets are locked and you can’t get off!
The border stops often seem unnecessarily long and we think the reason is the matching up of cross border timetables as quite often local carriages are attached to the international trains. Stay relaxed and patient and you will be on your way soon enough.
By Phil Stanley