Although most people have heard of the Trans Mongolian Railway, and many also have it on their bucket list, it is not all just a bliss. The ride is long, the trains are old and if you are not going with an organized tour you will be thrown together with some random people, not for a few hours like on a plane, but for days, or a whole week if you are staying on for the whole ride.
The speed of the train is slow, going at some stable 50-60 kilometers per hour through the whole of Russia, the biggest country in the World, bigger than the whole of Europe and the USA combined. Most stops along the way are short, giving people just enough time to get on and off, or just enough time to go out for a cigarette, but several breaks a day last for half an hour or longer, where people can go for a quick meal at nearby restuarants or just a trip to the supermarket to stock up on supplies.
The compartments are small, around 6 square meters, fitting four berths and a small table in between. For the two lower beds the storage are in boxes underneath the beds that are turned into benches during the daytime. Every bed also have a small shelf, big enough to hold a set of clothes while you sleep or your snacks during the day. You have to keep your things somewhat organized, as it will be the place you spend about 90 percent of the time. Your compartment will be just as comfortable as the people you are sharing it with.
For Electronics there are several outlets for charging in all hallways and in all toilets. They are all standard European 220V outlets so that no adapter is needed. The carriages have fold down seats to sit down while you charge your device, but I had bought in a three meter long micro usb cable that was hanging acrross the hallway to have power in the carriage. The compartments have reading lamps, wall speakers with a volume button for Russian music and heating turned on full at day where it gets very hot, and then they are off at night where it can get a bit cold.
Safety of the belongings in the carriages should not be of concern, as there is plenty of space to put your valuables that are hard for thievs to get to. The “provodniskas” will watch the carriage entrances at the stops and only let on passengers with tickets. They also have a general overview of who belongs to the carriage, so when we had our computer charging in the hallway and two skinheads from third class took our computer, our provodniska helped us find the thieves so that we got it back from them. Others seem to it was possible for us to go and get it back. This seems not to be a common problem as most people still use the shelves in the hallways or the fold down seats to leave their electronics in the hallway unatended. Most people were also calm and quiet onboard the train. The only big exception is the resturant turning into a bar with dancing and music in the evening, and at late night we witnessed a barfight and thats all.
Food is vailable in the restaurant carriage at a descent price and the most important stuff like snacks, alcohol and toilet paper can be bought from the carriage attendant or at the kiosks at the stops. Most people stack up on soups, oatmeal, noodles and water before they go so that they could make their own meals with the samovar, the hot water tank in the back of every carriage. My most common meal on the train was a mix of a pack of the cheapest noodles and a pack of instant vegetable soup, a meal with both nutritients and filling at a descent price.
|The restaurant turns into a bar in the evenings|
Drinking tea on the train is most common among the locals, and not vodka as most people would think. Drinking can be a way of passing time though, so we used to gather in one of the compartments in the evenings to drink, passing around big 3 liter beer bottles and what must be the worlds cheapest vodka. As long as you close the door to reduce the noise for others, and move onto the restaurant when its late and people want to sleep it is no problem having a party on the train. In the restaurant there was music and people coming for beer every evening, and it was not uncommon to see the waiter drunk and dancing with strangers. People will be really interested in talking to you as well, so it is smart to bring the phrasebook there as well, as most locals we met on the train did not speak a single word of english.
The toilets are simple with a metallic design, looking like on the picture. Every carriage has its own, and the carriage attendants cleans it several times a day and makes sure that they are stacked with toilet paper at all times. Flushing is done by stepping on a pedal to dump it all on the railway tracks, so locking the doors is simply just to keep it away from the stations. The carriage attendant also locks the bathrooms at all stops including the several hour long border stops.
The departure time schedule hangs in every hallway and will tell you when the toilet will be locked and when you will be able to go out for a walk. The schedules are in Moscow time and it can be good to have an extra watch with you to make sure you know what the time is in Moscow at all times. The trains leave on their exact scheduled minutes so the extra watch can be a good investment that can keep you from getting left behind in the Siberian no mans land.