After the travel between London and Moscow, after meeting amazing people, after taking a break in Moscow, I was ready to board the Trans Siberian Railway!
There’s something about the magic of boarding the Trans Siberian train. On this trip, I’ve been boarding some well-known trains already, such as the Eurostar between London and Paris, or the Thalys in Paris. But in my mind, the boarding of the Trans Siberian train in Moscow beats all of these, by a lot. Already just for the fact that it’s the longest railway in the world.
Exiled to Siberia
It’s hard to imagine, sitting in a warm and comfortable train, that this route was once the route of people sent to exile. I’m taking the long days on the train to research his history. Research, based on books, as the internet is one of those things that isn’t available on the train. And even a 4G connection becomes slow outside of the cities, and non-existing in the more rural areas.
Boarding the Trans Siberian Railway
It was a rainy evening, and close to midnight when I entered platform 5 of the Kursky Rail Terminal station in Moscow. Every wagon has its own small team. 2 people, mostly women, manage that 1 wagon. In Russian, they are called provdnitsas.
I had picked up my tickets days before in the office of Real Russia, the agency that helped me acquiring the tickets. It indicates the wagon and the place you have on the train. So I went on the cold and dark platform in search for my train wagon. At the entrance, I met one of the 2 provdnitsas who would take care of this wagon for the next days. She checked my ticket and passport and directed me in the dark train, looking for my spot.
Bed number 7 would be mine till Yekaterinburg. There’s a storage compartment above the hallway that (barely) holds my backpack, while I could place my smaller rucksack under the bed. Not much space however if I see what some Russian passengers brought on board. (a ladder, a washing machine, … ) I’ll have to walk on the train in the next days to see how they manage that.
The train is set in motion precisely at 15 minutes before midnight. Now it’s time to get to know the neighbors. Since I ended up by myself in a cabin, that means walking down the hallways, sticking my head into open doors and starting a conversation. The first people I meet is a Russian duo. Two sisters in their sixties on their way to meet their mother in Novosibirsk. They would be the main victims in Japanesemangate later that evening: Three cabins in my coach are occupied by Swedish couples. Their tickets show they have three cabins adjacent to each other, but in one of the cabins, an obnoxious Japanese man has installed. He refuses to move, even while his ticket puts him in a different coach and in a lower class. He bullies the provdnitsas, who now move a Swedish couple to a cabin further in the coach, and moving the Russian sisters to another wagon. None of the passengers ever managed to get the reasoning behind this strange move during the many hours we would spend on this train
After the incident with the Japanese man, and his selective incapability of understanding any language, most people return to their bed, for a night of sleep. With 26 hours ahead between Moscow and Yekaterinburg, or 74 hours for the Swedish people who’s first leg goes from Moscow to Irkutsk, a night of sleep will come in handy. And the cadence of the wheels makes falling asleep so smooth. I sleep for 6 hours straight.
Travel from Moscow to Yekaterinburg, train time: 26 hours. There are some stops in between. Sometimes the train stops at a station where passengers board and leave. Sometimes, however, the train stops for technical reasons. Switching the locomotives in the middle of nowhere is one of the main events at these stops.
At the beginning of each carriage, there is a device that produces hot, drinkable water. It’s called a Samovar. You can go there and fill your thermos bottle with boiling water to make a cup of tea, coffee, or instant soups. The Samovar is across the hall from the attendant’s location, and they keep great pride in keeping this thing operational.
Prepared travelers have their instant soups, instant coffee and instant noodles with them when they pack for the Trans Siberian railway. Spoiler alert: I will talk later how I so long for a non-instant coffer, or non-instant noodles and soup!
The trip from Moscow to Yekaterinburg has a few stops. I found, however, no occasions to buy fresh food along these.
In this day and age, we’re all so dependent on our devices. Camera’s, phones, tablets, PC’s, … we’re in ABC: Always Be Charging. There are not many plugs available. Being a responsible and friendly person to other passengers means bringing a multi-USB-charger, so others can plug in their phones with you, and a power block, so you at no point have to monopolize a power outlet. You’ll recognize the ignorant tourists in unplugging stuff to get their one device charged.
Time and timezones
At a certain point, somewhere close to Perm did I watched my phone displaying a different time from what I expected it to be. And while the clock in the car still displayed the time for Moscow, I had shifted anther 2 time zones. That’s when I realized I had no clue what time it was from Western Europe and for New York, and that was a strange feeling.
Moscow time is used all over the network in Russia. Even in Siberia, many hours different from Russia, you’ll see the train on the tickets and in the stations displayed in Moscow time. The further east I traveled, the more this became something to be vigilant about, not to miss any trains.
Inside the train, except for the feedback of my phone, there’s no easy way to tell the local time where the train is.
Stops as Highlights
At the end of the wagon, the provdnitsas displayed a list with stops. The location, the time (Moscow Time!) and how long the train will halt. The longer the stop, the bigger the chance you’ll find open stores and/or vendors on the platforms selling fresh food or instant meals and drinks. Only local currency, and only in cash.
Most people, myself included, look forward to these stops. Even while they were in the middle of the night and sometimes in the rain, it gave an opportunity to get fresh air, stretch the legs, and have a different view than what you see the whole time in the train.
Stop the train!
At the departure in Perm, the train started to make speed and all of a sudden stopped. Not slowly, but in an instance. We must have been doing 25 kilometers an hour. Not too fast, but fast enough to bring some people out of balance. We had train staff running from the front to the back of the train and back. After 20 minutes, the train went back in motion, and we’re off to the next destination. 1 victim: the Vodka bottle of my Swedish neighbors had crashed in the emergency stop.
The Bar & restaurant
There are a bar and restaurant on the train. As long as we’re on Russian territory, that will be a Russian wagon. At the border, the Mongolian Railways will change the Russian for a Mongolian Restaurant, and at the Chinese border, they’ll change again for a Chinese one.
Oh, and to add to the time confusion: the opening hours of the restaurant are in local time, not in Moscow time…
The Trans Siberian Railway, and the nephews
Between Moscow and Irkutsk, the Trans Siberian Railway is also the trajectory of the Trans Manchurian and the Trans Mongolian Trains. Both the Trans Mongolian and the Trans Manchurian end in Beijing, China, while the Trans Siberian ends in Vladivostok, Russia. So until after Irkutsk, I’ll refer to the train as the Trans Siberian Railway. Since I’m going to Beijing via Mongolia, I’ll be once past that point, on the Trans Mongolian Railway. The Trans Manchurian goes a bit further east before entering China without crossing Mongolia.
And so, after a bit more than a day, the train arrives in Yekaterinburg. 2 am in Moscow, 4 am local time. Dark and rainy when I leave the station. Yekaterinburg, here I am!
Yekaterinburg Train Station
The Yekaterinburg train station is located in the north of the city. Despite the late hour of my arrival, getting a taxi here was pretty easy on the main square in front of the station. Finding my hotel in Yekaterinburg was more of a challenge. More about that in a later post.
Koen Blanquart is a strategy consultant, journalist, and author.
Wanderlust is one of his driving factors, and he shares his travels here on Boarding Today. Koen is also the skipper of SV Bagabonda, a sailing vessel making a slow circumvention of the globe..
Koen recently published a book on how to manage a remote team: The Suitcase Office.