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When you think of visiting Russia, there are three things you most likely think about: Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Trans-Siberian Railway. While Moscow and St. Petersburg are undeniably beautiful and definitely worth visiting, they both display a postcard, export face of Russia. Once you get on the Trans-Siberian Railway (especially if you choose to travel third-class, as most locals do), you are exposed to the raw, unedited image of the country; you see it as it is and thus learn a lot about it. Here are eight things you learn about Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
It is one thing to know facts, it is completely different to experience them in your own skin. Upon boarding your train in Moscow, you likely know that Russia is the biggest country on Earth, but this fact only fully starts hitting you on the third day of your journey, when your hair turns a bit grey from the amount of dry shampoo you put on it, when you cannot imagine sleeping without the regular clicking of wheels, and when you wonder what static views out the window really look like – and you’re still not even half way to Irkutsk.
Upon boarding on your long-haul train, you are equipped with a glass in a small metal basket and a teaspoon. Every carriage is equipped with a huge, industrial kettle, always full of boiling water (sometimes the kettle is heated by an actual flame!). From the very moment the wheels start rolling, every Russian on board starts their regular pilgrimage to the kettle to make more and more tea. Forget vodka, it is the tea that Russians just cannot stop drinking.
Despite food vendors touring the train at any longer stop, Russians never get on the train unprepared. They bring with them copious amounts of food, which they are more than willing to share or trade with their fellow passengers (their small, temporary family: when you spend a week with a group of people in a rather confined space, you cannot help but grow fond of each other in one way or another). Hard-boiled eggs, nuts and seeds, and biscuits (and, more recently, ramen noodles) are absolute staples on any long-haul train journey. Be prepared to have more of them than you ever thought possible.
Political correctness and small talk are concepts entirely foreign to the Russian nature. As soon as it is discovered that there’s a foreigner in the carriage, and a Russian-English speaker is found to interpret the conversation, controversial political questions are thrown around first and a political discussion begins. Right after that, you will be asked a variety of questions you would probably not ask a stranger: about your age, your family, your financial situation. None of that is done with any malintent, Russians are simply incredibly direct, incredibly curious – and very friendly in all that. They will reciprocate your honesty with theirs. Who knows, maybe you’ll get off the train with new friends for life.
The Russian landscape is incredibly diverse and beautiful. From mountains to steppes, from modern cities to villages where time has stopped many decades ago, there is always something new to watch whenever you look out the window. The views also change with the seasons: from juicy, green, hot summers, to golden autumns, to calm, monochromatic winters. The Trans-Siberian landscapes can never get boring.
Chances are that the carriage you’ll find yourself on will be significantly older than you. Nonetheless, it will provide you with a very comfortable overnight train experience. Russian trains might be old, but they are very reliable: if you’re travelling in winter, you can be more than certain that the heating will not break down. Even if delayed, the train will most certainly get you to your destination. Your bunk bed, despite not being a state-of-the-art achievement of transportation technology, is definitely comfortable enough to provide you with an enjoyable journey.
Russians are always willing to share: they will feed you whatever they happen to bring with them on the train. They will share their life stories, their time, their songs: you will most certainly leave the train much richer than when you boarded it, with plenty of stories to pass on when you get back home.
It is not only Russia’s climate that is diverse: it is Russia itself. On a journey from Moscow to Vladivostok, you cross eight time zones and the entire width of Asia. People boarding your train will be coming from all backgrounds and paths of life: the indigenous peoples of Siberia, Russians, Tatars, Russian Buddhists, speakers of various local languages…Russia spans across two continents, and the diversity this implies is best seen on the train.