My love affair with Russian train travel

My love affair with Russian train travelWelcome, children. Welcome one and all. Welcome to my nightmare. The nightmare of insufficient transportation infrastructure.

But for all the night-bus-related nightmares I’ve experienced, I have lived the dream. And had dreams. On exquisitely comfortable transportation. And let me tell you, my friends and loved ones: There is no greater dreamland than what exists within formerly Soviet railways.

The ex-Soviet train network which blankets half the Asian supercontinent is one of the greatest transportation systems I have ever experienced. I don’t often blather about vehicles that take me from one place to another, but after having met all sorts of backpackers who have enjoyed the Eurail circuit, let me tell you, the 50-year old clunky Russian train network is a billion times better than the modern European system.

Are there more interesting things in Russia? Yes.

Is it stupid to talk about the transportation system of a country when all any reader wants to do is hear about how hot the girls are? Certainly.

But today’s lecture will consist of nothing but a thorough discussion of why Russia’s train system makes fancy shmancy modern Europe look like an out of touch candlemaker trying to hawk his wares in a lightbulb factory. Let’s begin:

1) Everyone gets a bed

Alright, that’s it. I can stop right there and I don’t have to argue anymore. That’s all it takes. Go to Russia, get a bed. End of discussion.

But very well, I’ll elaborate. If you’ve ever looked at a map of Russia, you’ll notice that it’s rather large. So large that practically every train journey will be an overnighter. So, what do you do when every customer will be sleeping overnight on the train? Give them a bed. Each and every one of them. For no extra charge.

At least the leg room wasn't bad.
Typical European train in Slovenia. Note the lack of beds.

Yup, that’s right. The cheapest ticket is for a bed. In Europe you get a chair. And although chair-filled Russian trains do exist, they’re most often used for shorter trips during the day, when you won’t be sleeping anyway. Advantage: Russia.

Now although it’s true that on European trains you can occasionally slide the seats together to form a sort-of bed, this isn’t always the case, and if you’ve ever been on a crowded overnighter with people in every seat, you’re out of luck. Chances are you’ll wake up with someone’s drooling head on your shoulder and tell your friends how awful it was.

You know what the Russians said when I told them that overnight Europeans trains mostly have chairs?

“That’s stupid.”

Yes. Yes it fucking is.

2) The ticket lady will wake you up when it’s your stop

Yes she will. She’ll be nice about it, too. So while in Europe you’ll sleep right through your destination city and then get yelled at by ticket people who think you’re cheating the system, the nice lady in Russia will wake you up when it’s time to go. If you’re getting off the train at 4am, this is quite a big deal.

But it’s only occasionally that you’ll have to worry about that, since…

3) Most train rides are timed to be an overnight journey

Now this particular point doesn’t apply to the 4-day marathon journey that is the Trans-Siberian adventure, and plenty of exceptions exist, but when you’re traveling from one city to the next, it’s almost always timed for about 8 hours. If the ride would have been 6 or 12, they just go faster or slower to make it work out to exactly one good night’s sleep. Which means:

You always get one good night’s sleep.

Fuck you, Europe. Fuck you all night long. Which is what you do to me every time I ride one of your damn trains.

It also means you can skip the cost of a hostel for that night, since you’ll just travel overnight, show up in the morning, and be well-rested for yet another vodka-infused adventure. Tally ho!

4) Random Russian strangers will feed you

Oh, and they’ll get you drunk, too. Wanna know what happened on my very first Russian train experience? This:

On the downside, Russia doesn't know the meaning of the phrase "air conditioning."
New buddies in Russia.

“Hey, are you the American?”


“Come get drunk with us.”

And I did.

This certainly won’t happen every time, but it’ll probably happen more often than you’d expect. On that same train ride a Russian family fed me breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When I pulled out my own food and offered some back, they said “Nah, we have plenty. Have some more!”

Which brings me to my next point…

5) The cheapest ticket is the coolest and safest option

All you people suspicious of crowded overnight trains who instead travel during the day in private cabins with locked doors? This one’s for you.

The cheapest Russian train ticket class is called platzkart, and it’s the one and only option you should ever use.

At least there was beer.
This girl was going from Moscow to Vladivostok. “Three days. No shower. Sigh.” Poor girl.

Platzkart consists of 50 beds per wagon, with no cabins, and no doors. Sound weird? Sure. Here’s why it’s still great:

  • Bags are usually stored in a compartment underneath the bed. If someone wants to take your bag, he’ll have to kick you out of bed to do it.
  • If you’re worried about getting gassed, it’s practically impossible. The knockout gas thieves that put you to sleep before taking your stuff are never going to bring enough to put the entire train wagon to sleep. Plus:
  • You’re surrounded by witnesses at all times. One of them is going to be awake and do something. And then 50 other people will be awake too.
  • The ticket lady takes your ticket and checks your passport before you get on board. This means hop-on thieves need to spend money buying a ticket just to steal stuff, and then they’ll have to deal with the other problems outlined above.
  • People will feed you and get you drunk. See #4.

It’s not like cabins are bad, but what’s the point? They cost more, but they’re not really any safer. And it’s more fun being in the cheap car with the cool people anyway. Go for platzkart.

Russian train travel downsides

Okay, there had to be some. Although things are changing, “modern” and “highly efficient” are generally not terms used to describe the former Soviet bloc, and getting a ticket will be a Sisyphean ordeal the likes of which will crush your soul into shattered irreparable pieces.

By Robert Antonio, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Even with the translation it’s still somehow complicated.

Although online ticketing is becoming more common, here are just a few of the issues you shall soon deal with:

  • No one speaks English. And when I say “no one,” I literally mean no one. Zero people. Exactly zero. ZERO!
  • Different cities have different rules about which ticket window to use. Sometimes foreigners have to go to a certain window; sometimes international tickets require a certain window; sometimes people with long hair need to use a certain window. Since it’s all different in each city and all written in Russian anyway, this means the first thing you’ll need to do is go to the wrong window, then they’ll shout at you to go to the right one. You’ll need to ask them to write this number down, since they certainly won’t be saying it in English, or loudly enough to hear.
  • They go on lunch breaks and no one fills in for them. They will literally just walk away from the ticket window and the people in line have to wait for half an hour.
  • When they say “night” they mean 12am to 6am. “Evening” means 6pm to 11:59pm. So when you say you want a ticket for Saturday night, you’ll get a ticket for 1am on Saturday. Learn from my mistake!
  • Every 17th ticket buyer has to wrestle a bear.

These are just a few of the many and varied and wonderful problems you shall soon experience as a train traveler in Russia. You will cry. You will feel crushed and helpless. Your soul shall experience pain like you’ve never imagined before. Your loved ones will yearn for the days when you were happier, more full of life, and more fulfilled. They will worry for you.

But once you get on the train, you’ll have a damn bed, and it’s all going to be worth it.

And for me, that’s enough for Russia to win.

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