When you spend more than two days in the train, it becomes like your second home. You get to know all the conductors (provodnitsy), you spend a lot of time with co-passengers, and there's a special life that's happening inside the train. In this section we try to uncover what life in the Trans-Siberian train is like, and share some stories told by the people we met on the train. If you have a story to add, please, feel free to send it to us via comments.
The Trans-Siberian Train and Provodnitsy – Guiding Angels
A Trans-Siberian train wagon is kept in order by two Provodnitsy (translated as "train conductors" but literally – those who lead) working in shifts. They have their little room at the front end of the wagon, next to the toilets and the hot water boiler (some of the older ones still work on coal and fire). They walk along the corridor and make sure everything's all right, acquaint with passengers, sometimes squeeze them sensually when they encounter them on their way. They also prepare glasses of tea; they exit at every station and remind passengers not to stay too long on the platform.
How People Spend their Time on the Trans-Siberian Train
Trans-Siberian trip is a great way to meet all kinds of people as you can't really choose your neighbors and you have to spend quite some time together. In the second class, people sleep in four berth compartments, they usually spend all day eating, chatting, and playing games, sleeping, or enjoying the landscape through the window. They often look at the timetable that says at what time the next stop will be. And when the stop comes, they get out, stretch their legs, inspect the bags of the people selling products on the platform, they buy a cake, even in the middle of the night. Some people travel for the whole 6 days it takes to cross Russia, others only for a few days, people meet, talk with each other about where they come from, how life is there, it’s a rare occasion of meeting people from everywhere in Russia. They feel at home in their compartment, they bring back beers bought at a stop and invite their neighbors as guests for an evening of talk, card games, laughs. The smokers go to the end of the wagon, the little space between the carriages called "Tambur" to smoke (usually it's not allowed, but some provodnitsa allow that).
Some people play the radio very loud, while others keep turning it off. Some guests get too drunk and want to sleep where they are. The 'Provodnik' comes and brings them to their berth. Men wear slippers, and snore. Intimacy is shared with everybody, and couples sometimes find it hard to share it together. If they have the chance to be in the same compartment with friends, they send them outside in the corridor with a book and a glass of the Trans-Siberian tea while they enjoy privacy for some time.
What People You Meet on the Train
The kind of people travelling in the 2nd class (or "coupe") represent the whole country, so it's a great way to become more intimate with the Russian culture and to make sure you meet all kinds of people and not only some...
Quite wealthy families, they usually manage to get a compartment for all of them together, and they eat all day, play games in the evening, comment on the route, get bored.
Students native of eastern Russian cities, who study in Moscow and come back home for the summer.
Army guys, younger or older, who cross the Russian continent to go back to their families, or who go to fight in Chechnya or to work in South countries. They travel for free, so they usually choose to be in Second class, as it is mre comfortable than the third class communal wagons.
You might also meet Western tourists who don’t know what to answer to the invitations of Russian army guys to drink Vodka.
In the 1st class you meet businessmen, and wealthier people enjoying the privacy of two people compartments.
In the third class communal "platzcart" wagons you will meet groups of children, and middle class-not so wealthy people travel in communal wagons.
Stories about People from the Train
We've had some interesting encounters on the train and also heard about some more. So here's some of them and if you'd like to share yours, please, leave it in comments below.
"An Army Guy"
We were three of us travelling on the route Moscow to Vladivostok. We stopped in Novosibirsk for a few days and hopped on a train to continue our trip. We didn’t manage to be in the same compartments.
An army guy, 20 years old, travels from Chechnya back home in Vladivostok. It’s a six days journey. He was not supposed to travel back so soon, but he received a telegram from his mum, which made him leave. He doesn’t want to talk about what happened in Chechnya, he has a sad look on his face. His mother announced him that his 17 years old girlfriend has just given birth to a baby boy. He didn’t even know that he left her pregnant last winter. He started travelling and when he stopped after 2 days on his way, he learnt that he is the father of not only one child but of two, as the little boy was followed by a baby girl. He was travelling back to marry her.
written by Celine Smith, an artist from France/UK
"A Siberian Youngster"
I met an interesting guy on my way to Irkutsk, Summer 2002.
He was about 16-17 years old. On the first day he just glanced at me periodically, on the second day he started to say hello, and on the third day he started to tell stories. It was pretty interesting for me – his way of life seemed completely strange. I was a university student from Moscow at the time while he was a son of a military officer from a small town in the Ural Mountains, and he was going to become a factory worker.
I found out that his town is quite a safe place comparing to Ekaterinburg. "You can even walk in the streets when it is not dark". However, in Ekaterinburg everyone has a gun and is dreaming to kill you. But, it's OK if I visit the city as a tourist, nobody will harm me. He also said that they had lots of nuclear missiles in the city and that his father was actually working at one of the strategic military units (at the time the father – who was a huge man in his 40s – was sleeping and snoring very loudly).
Also, I was told that every person in his native town works for a small factory. But he is smarter than that and will go to Cherepovets to work at a huge plant – where he can earn up to $1500 a month. I asked him if it is not dangerous for his health to live near the factory. He simply agreed and listed the diseases he already had.
I was interested what he thought about the army. Most of my friends in Moscow do not want to serve and use every possibility to skip this honorable mission. However the guy told me he would go if he was asked to and there was nothing to be afraid of. I was impressed. But then he added – “my father will help me to get in the troop where I will have no problems at all”.
written by Danil Perushev, entrepreneur from Russia
We were buying our Novosibirsk-Irkutsk tickets the very last moment and didn’t manage to get the three tickets in the same carriage. So, I got the ticket in the 4-place compartment and was a bit nervous thinking about potential neighbors, potential snoring, potential boring stories and other potential dangers.
As I entered the compartment I met three aged women. They looked a bit concerned about me – I already traveled a week and looked not so neat and fancy. I put my backpack, sat in the corner and said: “Hello, my name is Danya, I’m a Moscow State University student, travelling with my friends. They felt much easier (MSU student title gives you a bit of respect everywhere in Russia). They told me that they are nurses travelling from Moscow to Irkutsk and back. We talked a little bit and it is occurred that they work in a hospital I usually use in case of health problems. We got so close immediately! One of them told I looked familiar to her and probably she’d met me in a hospital.
They started to ask me about my travel and so did I.
The hospital they work for is a property of Russian Railways. I use this hospital because my father was a professor in the Russian Railways University in Moscow.
Russian Railways is a true empire. There is a Ministry of the Railways (MPS) which manages the whole system. There are billions of dollars controlled by it. Russian Railways owns all the railways and trains in Russia, it has own University in Moscow and dozen of institutes all round the country, it has hockey, basketball and soccer stadiums and teams (“Locomotive” team is a 2003 soccer champion). Railways built the modern information network along the railways and sell the traffic. MPS has even the own military troops to secure itself. In fact the Ministry seems to be the huge corporation. Every person who works for it can travel anywhere within Russia using the railway for free once a year. Simply said, you have the prepaid round trip ticket with up to your choice destination. These nurses chose Irkutsk to go. With their tiny salary (about 200$ a month) they’d never have enough money to see the Baikal Lake. They enjoyed the train trip really much – they were chatting all the time and tried the local sorts of the beer at every station the train stopped.
I liked these kind nurses and miss them a bit.
written by Danil Perushev, entrepreneur from Russia
Have an interesting story to tell? Post it in the comments below and we'll add it to the article above!