The Trans-Siberian Survival Guide

Author: Dimitry Paranyushkin (on 21 Apr 2015)
The two main questions that people ask about the Trans-Siberian is if it's safe and if there's any internet. It may also help to know a little bit more about the train itself, as it will help you know which places to book, where to store your luggage and basically help you survive a few days on board.  So we prepared a section that answers all of these questions.
 

Is the Trans-Siberian Safe?

Safety is always an important concern for Trans-Siberian travelers. The thing is that Russian trains are some of the safest in the world. Not only every carriage of the train has a conductor who looks after the cleanliness and the order, but also every train has a police squad on standby in case anything goes wrong. The reason is not that there are too many problems happening on the train. Rather, Trans-Siberian is the only well-functioning route connecting Siberia to the European part of Russia. So one has to avoid any sort of problems to ensure uninterrupted flow of trains along the line (it's about money, mainly). Therefore the train security is almost as tight as in airports. Having said that, the general atmosphere is still quite relaxed: you can hang out around the train, drink vodka, have fun – as long as it doesn't cause too much inconvenience to those around you.

Russian train conductors

One thing to keep in mind is that if you travel in a compartment you might get stuck with somebody you don't like. So in case you want to avoid that, try to get a ticket in 3rd class common carriage (which has no compartments but is still relatively comfortable), book the whole compartment for yourself (which is expensive, ok), or at least get the top bunk bed: like this you can always crawl up and pretend you're asleep.

 

Trans-Siberian Safety Tips

Make friends – there's lots of great people on the train and making friends with them will ensure that your trip is both fun and safe. If you don't speak Russian, just ask them if you can take a picture and accept their offer to eat / drink with you. After half hour you'll be the best friends!

A guy from the Trans-Siberian train - photo by Paul Schoen - www.paulschoen.com

• Take a personal first aid set with you. There's only one in the train, the train-master has it (his compartment is usually in the #0 carriage just after the conductor's one). Doctors are available only at the stations.

• Do not drink too much alcohol and keep an eye on what are you drinking. I saw on some message boards people saying how much they liked to drink traditional Russian drinks - vodka, for instance - while traveling in Trans-Siberian train. Well, be careful, the vodka might be not good quality and robbers like to put a soporific (to make you sleep) in tea or vodka or something.

• Russian and Chinese dealers on the train. These trains are popular among Russian and Chinese dealers. They take all their commodities (cheap clothes, food etc.) and pack the trucks with it. So during short stops in Russian towns the stations seem more like markets. The only way not to ride with them is to take the 1st class or book a whole coupe (4 berths).

• Do not keep your money in one place and get cash. Keep most of your money, documents and your tickets always with you. It's more secure and in a case you will be left behind by the train you'll be able to do something about it. There are no ATMs at the stations (or very far from the train), so it's better to get enough rubles in cash before you board the train. Also, read money safety tips at Practicalities / Money section. 

• Keep your luggage under your bed. If it's a lower bunk bed you will always be in control who has access to the luggage. If you have a bed on top, it's better to keep luggage at the overhead storage area, and fasten it with a chain or a rope to any metal construction (there are plenty of them and 1 meter rope is enough), so robbers can not steal it fast and silently in the night.

A girl along the Trans-Siberian railway

• If there are any serious problems cry: "Pozhar!" (Fire!), so that most of the people will come to you for the sake of saving their own life.

• Always tell the truth to the customs officers about the amount of cash you have (if you have more then you are allowed, you will just give some to the officer and no problems, but if they find more then you have told, they can even take you off of the train). So again, if you have lots of money, it's better to carry them on a credit card or in travelers' cheques, that way there'll be less problems. But remember, it's hard to find ATMs in Mongolia. Usually anything up to $3000 equivalent in rubles should not be a problem.

• Be careful hopping off and on at the train stops. The trains along Trans Siberian stop only for 5 to 20 minutes. If you decide to go outside, be careful: you may hear the hiss and the train might start leaving. They say they don't wait for the passengers. In case you're late for the train, you have two options: either go to the station's master and ask him to contact the train to get your stuff off the train at the next station (and then you take another train to reach the next station yourself). Another option is to quickly run for a taxi and get them to follow the train till the next stop. The latter option is more expensive and more adventurous, but in the end it's quite a good one because taxi in Russia (especially in smaller towns) is not too expensive, and even a 1-hour chase after the train will cost you not more than 1000R-1500R ($20-$30).

 

How to Get the Best Seats on the Train

There are 3 types of trains in Russia: 1st class (a compartment for 2 people), 2nd class (kupe - a compartment for 4 people) and 3rd class common carriage (platzcart - has open compartments for 4 people and for 2 people along the side of the train). The safest and the most comfortable option is the 1st class but it's also very expensive. Another possibility is to get the whole 2nd class compartment (even if you're less people it's ok). Finally, 3rd class - platzcart – is very good if you're traveling alone and want to make sure you'll be safe and you'll have a good company. The thing about the 2nd class is that sometimes you might have a neighbor you don't like, 3rd class helps you avoid that as it's a more public space. The problem with the 3rd class, however, is that it may have a strong stench of dirty socks, especially if the train has been traveling for 2 days already, so be prepared for that.

Platzcard - 3rd class carriage - photo by Paul Schoen - www.paulschoen.com

Regarding the seats, we prefer the top shelves, because you can always get your privacy when you need it and nobody will bother you to seat on your bed or pick up their stuff when you actually want to rest. All carriages have storage space above the top shelves as well, so it's a good option also if you want to have quick access to your luggage (which you can attach with a bike lock to make sure nobody takes it at one of them stops with them). 
 

Toilets, Showers and Personal Hygiene

There is a toilet and a sink in every carriage, so you will have access to basic hygiene. They are not the cleanest possible, but not filthy either.
It makes sense to take some cleaning wipes, a personal roll of the toilet paper, and anti-bacterial soap, just in case. Only the 1st class carriages have the showers, but if you make friends with the conductor you might get access to those for a small fee. You might also want to take some light sandals.


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Russian train toilet

Wi-Fi and Internet on the Trans-Siberian Train

There is no Wi-Fi on the train, but you can get a SIM with 3G/4G fast internet, so you can check your e-mails and Facebook along the way. The 3G (fast internet) coverage is pretty good along the whole Trans-Siberian railway while 4G is available in the vicinity of the big cities. One thing to keep in mind is that Russian mobile operators have roaming even in Russia, so it's better to switch on a special data roaming tariff, which will give you 1 Gig of traffic for a lower price when you get outside of the region you bought your SIM in. Any of the 3 main operators will do well: Megafon, BeeLine or MTS. Later in Siberia Megafon and BeeLine work better at places like Baikal Lake.

Luggage on the Trans-Siberian Train

Another thing is your luggage. Stealing does not occur too often, but it's a risk. So in case you have something too valuable, always carry it with you in a small bag and leave the big bag under the lower bunk bed seat (thereís a compartment for that – you have to open the bed to get it) or above the top bunk bed in the luggage compartment (hard to get to). Also, don't be afraid to ask your fellow passengers to look after your stuff if you go away and keep an eye on your belongings during the stopovers especially when people leave off the train.

Food and Water: Eating on the Trans-Siberian Train

Food and water is not a problem at all. The train stops every few hours and there are people selling delicious home-made ready-to-eat meals at the platform ñ even during the night. Itís actually a huge part of the experience getting those stuff and trying out specialities from every region. The most common foods are boiled potatoes, meat, salted cucumbers, and cabbage salads. They also sell drinks and water as well. It makes sense, nevertheless, to have your own stash of drinking water and some basic products (especially to have breakfast) at least for the beginning of the journey. Conductors also have a few items on sale but those may be a bit expensive. 

Trans-Siberian train food - photo by Paul Schoen - www.paulschoen.com

Russian people usually bring with them some food, and buy some at the stops. What they traditionally bring is hard-boiled eggs, salted cucumbers, bread, dried cakes such as ‘Suckaris’, and sausage ‘colbasa’. On the stops they buy boiled potatoes, more eggs, cakes, beer, vodka, dried noodles, fresh or salted fish, and fresh vegetables such as home grown tomatoes, cucumbers. Many old Babushkas living in the cities where the Trans-siberian train stops prepare fresh food before each halt. It’s a nice business for them, and what they prepare is often very tasty. For example they make all kind of ‘Pirozhki’ e.g. cakes filled in with cottage cheese or meat, or vegetables, or fish.

Tea is a traditional Trans-Siberian train beverage. Every carriage has a dedicated boiler, so you can always get hot water for free and make your own tea in the traditional Russian train glasses in metal holders. There is a special cup, specific for the train: a glass slipped inside a metallic holder with a hand. One can ask a tea to the provodnik, who will fill up this special cup with hot water and drop inside a tea bag. The nice thing is to ask for the tea once and then to keep the cup and drink your own tea inside it. The hot water provided in the train is free, and as it is boiling it shouldn’t be dangerous to drink it. The food that is sold on the stations by locals is just great, delicious, and very cheap. You can buy everything: from a bottle of beer or water to home made potatoes, chicken breast, or smoked fish from Baikal lake. So, it's not necessary to stock any food with you, maybe only some things you won't find along the way, like muesli and milk. In the Trans-Siberian Route section of this website.

People buying food at a Trans-Siberian stop
 

Hop On / Hop Off the Trans-Siberian Train: Stopovers

Really, the best way to travel along the Trans-Siberian, is to hop off the train a few times. In the Introduction section we list the places (in Russia) we think it is interesting to visit.

However, there's one little problem. Standard train tickets in Russia (including the Trans-Siberian) are not open — you will have a specific date and train that you should travel. So, if you would like to hop off along the way, you will have to either plan everything beforehand, or buy tickets as you go. But there's a danger (especially during high season) that there won't be any tickets left.

There is a way around it: some agencies (including the one that proposes services on our site - Services / Train Tickets) sell a special kind of train tickets, which allow you to hop off any place along a certain route. And then, after reserving another part of the journey, hop on the next train (and so on, as many times as you wish).

To illustrate, say, you want to go from Moscow to Beijing, and you know you want to stop in Novosibirsk for sure, but then, you don't know for how long you want to stop there, or if you will stop anywhere else afterwards. Then you book the whole journey Moscow - Beijing, and also claim you will stop in Novosibirsk for sure, but then want to be free about how long you'll spend there, and about your next train, and about where you will stop next. You will buy the ticket Moscow - Beijing, with the route Moscow - Novosibirsk paid completely, the rest of the route (Novosibirsk - Beijing) will be paid half price. When you stop in Novosibirsk, and spend enough time there, you will need to come to the railway station, show them your ticket (with Novosibirsk - Beijing paid half price), and tell them you want to take a specific train going on a specific date from Novosibirsk to a certain destination (Irkutsk, for example). You will need to pay extra on top of your ticket (in this case, about $30), and will have another part of your ticket paid completely (the part Novosibirsk - Irkutsk, that is). After you arrive to Irkutsk, you enjoy there, and when you are sure about your plans, go to the railway station again, and buy the other part of the route. Finally, when you reach Beijing, you will have used your ticket. Before you reach the final destination, always keep all tickets you bought with you — don't throw them out.

Again, you can get this type of tickets through agencies only (not at a railway station), and the agency we work with can provide you these tickets (we used their services ourselves Summer 2002 and were very satisfied).
To book your ticket, you can go to Services / Train Tickets.
  

 




 

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