The Trans-Siberian Journey
On the Trans-Siberian railroad, it is crucial to use a phrasebook, your improvisational skills and personal hygiene items (preferably in a self-made medical kit).
I had to get to Mongolia from Moscow and I wanted to experience the train instead of flying. It would be easier to purchase a ticket directly from Moscow to Irkutsk in south central Russia instead of intermittently stopping in different cities, especially when you can wait up to a day or two for
the next train in that direction.
Using the itinerary written in Russian (thanks to the hostel staff) and a phrasebook, I was able to purchase tickets at the train station for less than the price offered online. The cross-country trains have three different classes to travel in, but first class was too expensive (and sounded too fancy)
while second class is adequate for most travelers. However, I wanted to travel in the same environment as the locals, so I purchased a Platskartny (third-class) ticket. Typically, the second-class tickets are pushed onto the international travelers because the cheaper accommodations can be
challenging for some people.
I soon realized that I was the only one in the 30-passenger carriage who could not speak Russian and I was the only one who could speak English (except for two people with very basic knowledge of the language). My phrasebook was bent out of shape within a day because my bunk mates and I used it as a way to communicate.
But this isn’t a problem if you keep an open mind, use improvisational skills and remain flexible, especially on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Each stop can be hours apart from another and the isolated areas will not have mobile phone reception, so this can be a great way to hone your abilities in non-verbal communication.
My bunkmates included a young soldier who was going home to his family near Kazahkstan and two women who were seeing relatives near Irkutsk. For four days, we shared breakfast rolls and snack food; breaking bread has always been a way to connect with people and this was definite proof. I had lunch in the on-board restaurant with the soldier who told me that he just had his first child, and I played two hours of chess every day with one of the women
in the bunk while exchanging small talk. And, yes, this was all by using the phrasebook, hand signals and improvised communication!
In regards to personal hygiene, I bought two plastic bags of various groceries before boarding the train, from noodle cups to body cleansing wipes.
Many stops give you the opportunity to buy more food from the locals, but not to take a shower – and there aren’t any on the train (maybe in first class); four days without a shower can make you feel nasty. And, except for the barrel of boiling water (for tea or noodles), you are stuck with a
washcloth and ice cold water from the bathroom sink.
The baby wipes were a great way to keep refreshed, in addition to changing undergarments and the usual daily hygiene; this way, each morning had a fresh start. And this may have helped in my ability to connect with the other passengers as I pleasantly greeted them daily. That friendly attitude gave me somewhat of a œcelebrity status, where everyone recognized me as the nice foreign guy. It was reciprocated when one of the passengers talked (even
argued) with an official who was hassling me for documentation, but only spoke Russian.
With improvised ways to communicate and maintaining an adequate level of hygiene, four continuous days on the railroad was actually a pleasant experience – even in third class. The train from the Russian city of Irkutsk to the capital of Mongolia was only available in second class, but the circumstances were similar. Even though the carriage had more comfortable accommodations, the ability to connect with other passengers is what made the
experience on both trains so much better. And these connections are why we continue to backpack…
Written by Craig the author of http://backpackersguidebook.com/