Thursday, September 07, 2006

Guidebook on Riding the Trans-Siberian Railway

So you've got your ticket and you're on the train. Get changed into your "train clothes". This is what you'll be wearing night and day until you get to your destination. To better blend in and be comfortable, consider purchasing the following:

1. One track suit (matching bottom and top is not necessary).

2. One pair of sandals, any variety will do as long as they are not thongs, you must be able to wear them with socks. If you are feeling especially daring then wear a pair of furry slippers (preferably in some neon shade).

3. Socks are one of the most important items. Be creative and definitely think style over substance.

4. Forget about bringing a rucksack, you're travelling by train not hiking. No self respecting Russian has one and this is the main item that'll make you stick out like the odd foreigner that you are. One medium (over filled) sports bag is key. A plastic bag is all you need for a day bag and all your food items while on the train.

5. Earplugs are absolutely essential since there is bound to be hours of snoring at unimaginable volumes and drunks attempting to sober up with more vodka after falling out of the top bunk.

Be especially nice to the train attendant(s) who work on each carriage. These are usually ladies with crazy color/shape hairdos and are late fashion bloomers. They can make your train journey pleasant or miserable since they wake you up and serve you coffee at the break of dawn before your arrival.

The restaurant car (if you're lucky enough to have one) often only stocks cucumbers and vodka so bring as much ramen as your stomach will handle since hot water is constantly available from the carriage samovar and it's free; a dozen boiled eggs; fresh tomatoes and cucumbers; loads of bread and one long sausage stinking of garlic. Bring plenty of drinking water.

While on the train, you will no doubt be forced to seriously compromise your hygiene including dental so be prepared to stay clean using creative methods or just stay dirty. There are no showers, only a small sink and a metal toilet and it's cleanliness depends on the fastidiousness of your attendant. Usually, the bathroom nearest the attendant's berth is the cleanest because that's the one she has to use. My advice is to get smelly and blend in with the locals but if you really need to get clean bring a bit of hose to attach to the tap to makeshift a shower.

When sharing a compartment, it is our recommendation to share lunch or snacks to your bunk-mates. The whole affair usually ends with a bottle of vodka and a hangover in the morning.

Since the railway is long and the view doesn’t change much, it is wise to bring some entertainment: music player, books, cards, puzzles (our newest obsession has become SU DOKO), and games.

Depending on your budget, 2nd class (4 beds with a door) and 3rd class (4 beds and 2 side beds without door - privacy is unheard of in this class), is fine for the independent traveler. For comfort and easy access to a table, buy lower bed bunks. Unless you are 5’5, you must get used to sleeping in the most unorthodox positions.

The train is a social place so don’t feel shy or inappropriate at starting conversation with a total stranger. Knowledge of the Russian language is not always necessary, in fact, the less you know the more friendly people are likely to be.

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