Riding the Russian Rails

The Trans-Siberian leaves from Yaroslavl station in Moscow. Photo: Jorge Sanchez

By Jorge Sanchez
From Barcelona, Spain, Jorge Sanchez has devoted his life to traveling the most remote areas of the world, as recounted in his 20+ books.

One of the greatest train systems in the world lies largely unknown by today’s travelers. Why? Outside of its main cities, Russia is still a country of mystery, inscribed in a language that outsiders seldom understand. Although westerners know about Russian trains—where would Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina be without a train, or Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, or the famous James Bond fight scene in From Russia With Love—many travelers seem intimidated to reserve and travel on them independently.

I traveled across Russia on the Trans-Siberian for the first time in 1982. During Soviet Union times, one had to book through Intourist because independent travel was not allowed. I was controlled the entire way to Khabarovsk where I had to fly to Japan since Vladivostok was a forbidden city. Since then I have crossed Russia over forty times on the Trans-Siberian and have traveled in 84 out of 85 territorial divisions (oblasts, republics, krais, and okrugs), and always by train, unless vans, planes, or boats were the only way.

After thirty years of traveling in Russia I can advise you that traveling independently by train has never been easier, and one does not have to speak or read Russian, although any phrases you can learn will be useful.

When you are ready to travel, there are a couple of ways to buy a ticket. The cheapest way is at the train station, but here you will need to know some Russian, or bring a printout of your route. There are English-speaking services, but they will charge a commission. The best way is by Internet. Russiantrains.com is reputable and is in English. You can print out your e-ticket at home or come to the station before your departure and print it out at a special kiosk (which has an English interface). That’s it! For popular trains, like the Trans-Siberian in summer, you should book your ticket three months in advance.

If you are on a budget I advise you to buy a platskart ticket, very cheap, where you will get a bed in an open wagon together with more than forty Russians who will sing all the time and where the soldiers will play chess or will flirt with the young provodnik (stewardess) of the carriage. If you prefer intimacy, then buy a kupé ticket, a little more expensive, but you will sleep in a cabin for only four passengers. The most expensive is the spalny, a room for only two people. With this class of ticket you will be served hot meals and have access to a shower.

An idea of the prices in the year 2016, for instance from Moscow to Vladivostok, in the best, cleanest and fast trains called firmenny, (like the legendary Rossiya) are as follows:

  • Platskart: about 125 Euro
  • Kupé: about 250 Euro
  • Spalny: about 500 Euro

If you break down your journey stopping in several Siberian places along the way, then expect the total price to be increased.

Places worth stopping are Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tartanstan with its impressive Kremlin—a UNESCO World Heritage site; Yekatarinburg, where you should visit the memorial and place where Tsar Nicholas II and his family members were murdered, and the very pleasant Irkutsk next to Lake Baikal. Another option is to change trains in Novosibirsk to head down to Kazakhstan, Ulan Ude for Mongolia, and Blagoveshchensk for China.

Do you need to speak Russian to do any of this? No, but enough phrases to communicate with your fellow travelers will make an interesting trip a fascinating one, and because Russians are very sociable people but very few speak English or other foreign languages. Be ready to accept lots of invitations to drink vodka!