Many a traveler has the ambition of crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway. After devouring Paul Theroux’s railway travelogues and then falling in love with a glossy hardcover version of a TV series called Red Express, I knew that the week-long trip from Vladivostok to Moscow was the ultimate journey for me.
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Shortly before my trip it dawned on me: the equivalent of seven full days on a train, even if it is broken up into two or three segments as a result of stopovers, is a really, really long time. In fact, I ended up spending around 200 hours on the train. The good news is that I loved every one of those 12,000 minutes, and here’s how you can too.
Acquire New Friends and New Skills
The most important friend you’ll make on a Trans-Siberian crossing is the provodnitsa. She’s the boss of the carriage and will be responsible for locking the toilets at stops, keeping the carriage clean and swapping your cabin if you have a clash with your traveling companions.
You probably won’t, however, build up an email-able kind of relationship with your provodnitsa, so to make a real friend I recommend turning to your Russian cabin-mates. Chatting with a fellow traveler will help time speed by and you’ll learn intriguing facts and folklore at the same time. I learned about mining in the far north of Russia (and that I didn’t want to work there), met a man whose father had visited Sydney on a Russian naval ship and played chess with the children of a Moscow doctor.
If, like me, you don’t speak much Russian, then making new friends will tie in with making friends with your phrasebook. Make sure you get a useful one which features the kinds of questions (and answers) that make for good small talk. My terrible Russian accent didn’t seem to be a barrier to Trans-Siberian friendships when I had my trusty phrasebook handy to add to my sign language and stick-figure pictures.
Dive Into Russian Literature
When your friends sleep (or worse, get off the train), stick your nose in a book. But choose carefully, because you’ll find that reading a sci-fi thriller or a pacy chick-lit novel just doesn’t fit when you’re clickety-clacketing across the Siberian steppe. So go local.
My great Russian novelist of choice was Dostoyevsky, and I rationed out my reading of Crime and Punishment to finish the day before I reached Moscow. But you could easily choose other classics like Anna Karenina, Doctor Zhivago or the ultimate in long novels, War and Peace. Most of the Russian greats have a writing style that needs plenty of time to get into, and a week-long train trip definitely offers that.
Follow the Track, Mile by Mile
You’ll probably need to follow your route kilometer by kilometer, in fact, since the regular markings along the side of the track show the distance in kilometers from Moscow. Before you leave, find a guidebook that includes information about the stops along the route and what you’ll see from the train. I used the Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway guide and it had great diagrams showing the distances and times between every stop, plus an outline of what would be passing by our train window.
The trains also have a detailed schedule posted in each car, albeit with stopping times confusingly always listed in Moscow time, and checking this each day enables you to plan your attack for the day’s activities. Several times a day, the train makes a long stop of around twenty minutes when you can get off the train and buy food from local vendors who crowd the tracks with their homemade wares.
Go Statistics Mad
There are travelers who just float around the world, calmly observing what passes them by. And then there are travelers who are collectors: collectors of countries, passport stamps, kilometers traveled and buses taken. If you fit into the latter group, then go crazy on a Trans-Siberian trip. Just think of the fascinating emails you’ll be able to send your loved ones from the other end when you’ve kept statistics on how many times the provodnitsa vacuums your cabin (a surprisingly high number), how many cheap Russian ice creams you eat from vendors during long stops and how many beers or vodkas it takes your cabin mate before he falls asleep.
Make a Memorable Record
A week or a month later, when Russia has been crossed, you’ll want to remember it. A few photos out the window will remind you of how varied the landscape is across eight of Russia’s eleven time zones, and the snail mail or email addresses of some interesting locals will help provide an ongoing link to your trip. But for such an ultimate journey, keeping some kind of travel journal is really worthwhile.
I easily filled a notebook with my scribblings during my Trans-Siberian trip, and I still love to read over it: it’s full of tales of my failure to beat a Russian eight-year-old at chess, my bewilderment at my Russian cabin-mate’s ability to stay in his bed for a full 24 hours, and my embarrassment when the provodnitsa unlocked the toilet door to tell me we were arriving at a station and I had to get out. But if you’re not a words person, pick up a pencil and draw sketches of the Russians and other travelers you meet, or stick in souvenir wrappers from the Russian candies you buy at a stop. Ask traveling children to draw you a picture. However you choose to immortalize your trip, it will be a record far more unique than any guide book or postcard set.