Riding the Train in Russia

An integral part of any truly authentic Russian experience is taking an overnight train somewhere. I’m not talking the Trans-Siberian, although, that’s definitely on my to-do list for the future, but just a typical, coach train ride that may or may not involve the eventual donning of pajamas. A couple weeks ago, I had my first (and second and third) experience with riding the train. I’ll start by saying that it’s nothing like your typical East coast Amtrak ride. No, trains here are more of a cultural experience. Tickets range from about the equivalent of twenty dollars to about one hundred or so dollars. The cheapest tickets will buy you a spot in the “sitting” section, that is, the more than often unheated, overcrowded, and impossibly uncomfortable section of the train. Pay a bit more and you’ll be able to lie down somewhere. Pay a lot more and you’ll have a more private area to lie down in. It all depends on how comfortable you are being seen in your PJs. I opted for coach. The only difference between that and first class is a door separating you from the general train population. So really, the only difference is being locked in a room with three strangers versus being locked in a compartment with a hundred or so. A coach class seat is like a small bunk bed. You have two bottom bunks which serve as benches during the day and two top bunks directly above that eventually get slept in. It definitely helps to be a small person if you plan on sleeping in the top bunk. I consider myself to be on the small side of average and even I couldn’t help but feel a bit claustrophobic up there. In between the two bottom bunks is a small table that, per Russian tradition, should be used for consuming mass amounts of food. It’s not a real Russian train ride if your babushka hasn’t provided you with at least a week’s worth of food for your trip. Mine actually gave me so much that the one of the wheels of my suitcase broke. I digress. If you’re taking an overnight train, chances are that you’ll have a lot of time to kill. The best way to deal with that is to chat with the other passengers. Unlike taking the train in America, talking with your fellow passengers is actually encouraged. The only caveat is that you’ll be stuck with them overnight so choose your new friends wisely. Once it strikes about ten o’clock, it’s time to get to sleep. This is also when the mass exodus to the toilets begins. As I quickly learned, if you don’t want to end up waiting an hour to brush your teeth, it’s best to get to the toilets before nine. People are also not at all shy about getting comfy for bed time. Oh no, not in the least. At times, you will see things that no respectable human being should ever have to see. So don’t be embarrassed about wearing your fabulous onesy or Winnie the Pooh PJs. There will always be someone outdoing you. Once you’re all ready for bed and if you’re the short person of the group, it’s time to shimmy up to the top bunk. If you’re lucky, there will be some sort of step to help you on your way. There probably won’t be though. I myself carried out some fairly impressive bouts of gymnastics to get up to my little nest. As long as you’re ok with a snug environment, it’s really not so bad. Just don’t fall. Your downstairs neighbors probably won’t appreciate you falling on them in the middle of the night. If you can overlook the snoring, the random animal noises (people bring all sorts of strange creatures with them on the train), the inevitable screaming baby, and the general noisiness of a moving train, all you have left to do is sleep out the remaining hours of the train ride. I definitely recommend earplugs. If you can handle that, then the overnight train is a pretty fun experience. It’s also probably your cheapest, comfiest bet for Russian travel. So if you’re looking for an interesting way to get to where you’re going in Russia, take the train. You definitely won’t be bored.

By: Kelsey McPherson

Program: Advanced Russian Language & Area Studies Program (RLASP)

Term: Fall 2010

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