This summer we took the trip of a lifetime – a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Ulan-Ude near Lake Baikal, the Trans-Mongolian Express across Mongolia, and finally a Chinese train to Beijing. Twenty-one days of which 8 were spent on overnight sleeper cars (one night, four nights, two nights, one night). The trip was a true adventure (another word for “challenge”). Following are the plain truths about overnight train travel in this part of the world. Let’s call them the “train truths.”
Truth #1 – The carriage attendant will never smile.
Each train carriage has at least two carriage attendants (provodnitsa, a female attendant). Your provodnitsa, who will have artificially red hair, examines your ticket before entry and generally assumes total control over your life as long as you remain in “her” carriage. She cleans the bathroom frequently and vacuums the carpet once a day. The primary requirement to be a provodnitsa is an ever-present stern look and frequent unforgiving stares. She speaks only Russian to foreigners; the words uttered in a low, gruff voice. On occasion she will speak only with her hands, usually a wagging movement of her right index finger signaling “no-no.” If you leave her carriage at a stop, she signals the minutes before you must return by rapid finger extensions. It is essential you count her fingers; the worst possible outcome on this trip is to be left behind in the middle of Siberia. She has no personality whatsoever, which, of course, is why they hired her. She will never smile. The provodnitsa controls your life with her ” klyuch” (pronounced “kluge”). The key is more an allen wrench or hex key. With it she controls access to the bathroom. Overnight trains have a smallish, but adequate bathroom with toilet and washbowl. All the used water (including toilet flushes) is mixed with something wicked and splashed onto the tracks below as the train goes by. This doesn’t sit well with city dwellers so the bathroom is locked roughly 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after each stop. I say roughly because you must remember the truth – all life on her carriage is controlled by the provodnitsa. If at minute 35 before a stop, you look like you might really need to use the bathroom, she will lock it. She has a strategic advantage – her living quarters places her squarely between your compartment and her bathroom. One game we liked to play with our provodnitsa was a robust greeting first thing in the morning, a hearty “good morning” in our best attempted Russian, accompanied by a wide smile. The goal was to surprise her with kindness in an attempt to force a smile. It almost worked, once.
Truth #2 – You don’t get to choose your roommates.
In a second-class carriage, there are four bunks to a compartment, two up, two down. Storage for backpacks is sometimes in a bin accessed by lifting the lower bunk/seat, sometimes under a lower bunk, sometimes on the narrow floor, and sometimes on the little table by the window. The upper bunk guys have additional room for stuff above the passageway (each train carriage has about 12 individual, enclosed compartments with a three foot passageway to one side). There are also a couple of hooks and a small ledge or compartment above each bunk. The space inside one compartment could comfortably fit two people – ours had four. If you purchase your own ticket, the train people assign you roommates. Since we were on a tour (12 plus a Russian guide), the guide appoints our roommates. My girlfriend and I were joined for most of the trip by two guys, a retired military officer from Northern Ireland and a chef from Australia. Their eating and sleeping schedule could not have differed more from ours, but, you know what, it worked out. We shared the small table and the limited sitting space. We stepped to the “hallway” when clothes needed a change. The two of us ate our breakfast early in the hallway, which had small pull down seats, so as not to disturb. We didn’t fight much over the window, up or down – it never would secure properly. Turned out the arrangement was very satisfactory.
Truth # 3 – The most important device on your train is the hot water dispenser.
One travel rule is never drink tap water while abroad unless it has been boiled. Train designers solved this problem by having a huge, always active boiler at one end of each carriage. I’m not sure how it works, but the water was always hot, hot, hot. The procedure for overnight train travel goes like this: you and your passport and your ticket are accepted by the gatekeeper (the provodnitsa); you quickly find your compartment and determine if your roommates will snore; you then immediately go to the provodnitsa and (with a smile) ask for a sta-KHAN, a little glass placed within a metal holder with handle. This is your key to boiling water use and transport. I once mixed cool water with boiling water is an empty plastic coke bottle and used the warm mixture for an impromptu shower in the bathroom. Actually worked pretty well. You learn to love hot water.
Truth #4 – Food is your responsibility.
Most of our trains, but not all, had dining cars. Most dining cars, but not all, served food. Our food questions: How far is the dining car? Will it be open? How long will be the wait? Do I have a selection or will the food just come? And finally, do I want to eat that? Luckily our Russian guide took us to a grocery store to stock up before each overnight train trip. On the carriage wall she posted each stop and, once we stopped, she helped us learn how to purchase food from the babushkas (grandmothers) who met each train with pushcarts containing a wide variety of food and drink. We ate well, thank you. With us we brought instant coffee and oatmeal for breakfast. At the grocers, we bought bread and cheese and yogurt (especially good in Russia and China). And we partook of some very good meals in the dining cars. You will eat well – just plan ahead.
Truth #5 – Tracks are not the same everywhere.
“Standard Gauge” is a relative term (gauge is how far apart the two rails are). In Russia and Mongolia, the tracks are the same width, not a problem. Not so in China; the tracks are four inches or so narrower. You would think when traveling from Mongolia to China, you would get off one train, cross the platform, and board a new train. Not really. Workmen disconnect your undercarriage (the wheels), lift the whole car up in the air, and slide in new wheels. Takes about four hours. And it is hard to get photos of this transformation since you remain in your compartment the whole time. Coupled with the border crossing, never a quick experience, the transition from Mongolia to China took about six hours in the middle of the night. Remember the lock-the-bathroom rule and you will understand how this was nothing short of a “happening.”
Truth #6 – You will survive!
The journey of 8715 kilometers spanning 7 time zones was indeed an experience of the first degree. When you look at the mirror on the door of your train compartment, however, you will see the reflection of a world traveler who, using a sense of humor and a flexible attitude, survived a truly great adventure.