1. Distances in Russia are huge
An obvious fact: Russia is a large country and so are the distances between train stations. If you plan your trip on a map you will probably end up underestimating the distances between Siberian cities. The classic transsiberian railway starting in Moscow to Vladivostok is over 8.000km. Our trips were Zürich to Budapest 1.036km, Budapest to Kiev 1.116km, Kiev to Moskva 862km, Moskva to Kazan 796km, Kazan to Yekaterinburg 876km, Yekaterinburg to Novosibirsk 1.523km, Novosibirsk to Tomsk 317km, Tomsk to Irkutsk 1.883km, Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude 462km, Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar 578km, Ulaanbaatar to Peking 1.172km totaling over 10.000km
2. You spend a lot of time in the trains
Looking at the distances above of course you will spend a lot of time in the trains. Our shortest trip was around 12 hours and the longest one was 30 hours. Depending on how many stops you plan this will be different but most people do not as many stops as we did so they will probably spend up to several days in one train. Russians travelling from A to B are used to spend a whole week on the same train.
3. Train numbers matter
Every train going on the transsiberian railway has a number and we learned it the hard way: the lower the number the better the train. Better meaning newer wagons with more comfort. Trains with higher numbers often have no air conditioning, they are older and dirtier. As we never travelled first class I can’t tell if it makes a difference there as well but in the second class it did. So if you plan to stay on one train for a longer period of time you probably prefer a train in the lower numbers if you want to have a nice trip.
4. The Provodniza is your friend
Each wagon on the transsiberian railway has its dedicated staff. Mostly that means 3 or even 4 women called Provodniza work exclusively in one wagon, checking tickets, selling food, boiling water in the samovar, handing out bed sheets and keeping everything clean. Provodnizas who have been doing the job for a long time are more respected by the passengers and they keep everything in better order.
5. More stops mean more fun
On our trip we met a lot of people who did the transsiberian railway with only 2 or 3 stops e.g. Moscow, Irkutsk and Beijing. As this is the cheaper way of travelling (less train tickets to buy, less nights in hotels) and it might also be a nice experience to spend several days on the train I still would not recommend it. We really enjoyed the Siberian cities like Novosibirsk, Tomsk etc. There is not much going on there but they have a unique atmosphere and you meet a lot of great people. Don’t miss out on seeing at least a little bit of Siberia.
6. You need to be fit
Just something that I noticed: accessibility is hardly known on Russian train stations. If you are a blind person or you walk on crutches or even need a wheelchair – it will be extremely difficult for you. RZD personnel will help out wherever they can but don’t expect too many escalators or elevators in the train stations or signs for the blind.
7. Use the toilet whenever you can
Be aware that especially on the trains with higher numbers the toilets on the train wagons are very old school meaning they do not collect everything in a big pot but rather just drop it on the tracks. This means that the Provodnizas will lock the toilets as soon as the train gets close to any settlement and of course also in the trains stations. Some stops last an hour and if you add the time before and after you are close to a town you maybe can’t use the toilet for two whole hours which can become a problem.
8. Comfortable clothes make the trip easier
To make it short: take some kind of sweatpants and flip-flops with you if you travel during summertime. When you spend 20 hours in a train without air conditioning you just want to have the most comfortable clothes possible. And believe me – no one will judge you as everybody just walks through the train in their “lazy sunday afternoon” looks.
9. Entertainment of any kind is welcome on the trains
Take a book, an iPod or anything like that with you. As romantic as it might sound looking out of a train window for hours enjoying the landscape passing by – it’s not that entertaining and the Siberian landscape can be very boring.
10. Refreshment towels are great
Refreshment towels are your friend if you want to feel anything close to clean. Of course you can wash yourself in the toilets but at least in the second and third class you have no shower available and the small towels will help you stay clean.
11. Take a big cup with you
Each train wagon has a so-called samovar where you can get hot water so it is very common to make yourself some tea, coffee or a cup of instant noodles. If you have a big cup with you it will be easy and cheap to always have something to eat or to drink on the trains. You can of course also eat in the train restaurant but the food there is not great.
12. Pack your stuff to be easily accessed
Be clever how you pack your stuff as you cannot count on everything being easily accessible once you are in a train compartment. Often times we had to stow our luggage under the seats or over the door and once your big bag is there it will stay there. We always carried a backpack with the most important things with us.
13. Smoking is ambivalent
If you are a non-smoker this will not bother you at all. But as Russia’s laws against smoking are getting stricter it is crazy to see that you can buy cigarettes very cheap while smoking is not allowed anywhere in public. Parks, public buildings, on the pavement and in the trains of course. Even as a smoker I totally enjoy not having to sit in a smoky train but from time to time it is nice to enjoy a cigarette. Mostly you can get off the train in the stations and smoke there – it’s not allowed but everybody does it. On some trains I was allowed to smoke in between the wagons while the train was rolling but this depends on the Provodniza.
14. Guards everywhere
I have never seen as many security guards as in Russia. In supermarkets and malls, in the Metro, at train stations, in the museums, hotels and on the streets. You are constantly being watched by some kind of uniform, constantly your bags will be x-rayed. During the railway trip we saw that even most tunnels and train bridges have armed guards at each end, sometimes even with dogs and barbed wire installations.
15. Russians like to drink
No big surprise: Russians like to drink. Boredom on train trips is a problem and Russians like to get drunk. Russians are very nice and curious people and they will always invite you so it is very disappointing if you don’t join drinking. But be sure to be an excellent drinker if you join. I personally avoided drinking on the trains when we had Russians in the compartment as we saw on several occasions that once they open a bottle of liquor they won’t quit before that bottle is empty. So if you join them make sure you are really really good at drinking a lot of liquor – otherwise you will end up having a really bad night of sleep.
16. Learn some Russian
Before the trip I tried learning some Russian. While I could speak almost nothing I was at least able to read the cyrillic letters which is mostly needed. In most train stations you will not find much written in English and people do not speak English very commonly.
17. Don’t pack too much stuff
It’s always the same – you pack more clothes than you need. I took several shirts for the whole trip but in the end I did not wear all of them. If you stay in hotels from time to time you can wash your used clothes there easily. Some hotels even offered this service free of charge. Same goes for other stuff. E.g. I took a small digital backup camera but I only used my old film camera throughout the trip. No regrets.
18. Take some food and drinks on the train
While you can buy food at any train station and mostly in the trains as well we found that bringing some bottles of water to a longer trip and some food will make the whole trip a lot cheaper. Stuff on the trains is sometimes three times the price of the supermarkets and you have only a restricted selection available. So just pack something before you get on the train.
19. Spaghetti carbonara is a thing
In any restaurant, bar and pub we went to there was one dish on the menu: Spaghetti Carbonara. It was strange to find this Italian classic throughout Siberia but it seems to be a thing there. I once tried it and it was rather “spaghetti with cream” but I suggest you try it out.
20. Dill is even more a thing
Wherever you go to eat something, Russians will put dill on your food. Scrambled eggs? With dill. Mashed potatoes? With dill. Mushrooms? With dill. Dill is everywhere. While we really enjoyed the food in Russia we were surprised that they seem to love dill so much.
21. More women than men
For whatever reason this tip will be good for: we noticed that in Russia and especially in Mongolia there seem to be much more women than men. We could not find any scientific proof or statistical evidence so maybe our impression was plain wrong but people we asked told us that this was a fact. At least in the streets you sometimes wonder if there are any men at all.