A few reflections on my experience on the Trans-Siberian railroad. The most important and most interesting.
It’s all about the people– the scenery is secondary. You will undoubtedly see many beautiful things along the way. But sometime after birch forest #4,592,382, you will get bored of the scenery. It’s actually quite redundant. The same flat plains, tiny villages, and industrial outer cities will follow you almost the entire way, the only exceptions being Lake Baikal and the scenery the last, last day of the trip approaching the Pacific Ocean. Do not go expecting to be entertained as an outside observer. You have to interact with the place to really understand it.
Knowing the language is an incredibly important aspect of understanding the culture, but no amount of technical mastery can replace openness and sincerity when relating to human beings. I’ve spoken with several non-Russian speaking (or very poor Russian-speaking) tourists, and they all claimed to have incredibly meaningful and rich experiences despite the language barrier. With people, you’re almost guaranteed a mix of the good, the bad, and, most importantly, the memorable. Bring along books, music, and whatever else can help you cope with rough patches, but don’t lose sight of the incredible human entertainment that’s before your eyes.
You will not starve, despite the fact that every Russian person born under the Soviet regime will try to convince you otherwise. First of all, they sell food on the train. All trains have supplies of dried noodles, mashed potatoes, chocolate, cookies, tea, coffee, and bottled water that the attendants are willing to sell you at marked-up prices. Most trains (I don’t want to say all) have restaurant cars where you can also buy mediocre, overpriced food and drinks. Second of all, you can buy food at many of the longer stops. Look for the old ladies selling boxed dinners and homemade goods.
Get off the train and stay overnight in different cities. The twenty-minute view from the train station will not satisfy your wanderlust. Many of my most memorable experiences were off-the-rails, exploring the larger cities that lie along the way. This would be a claustrophobic, close-to-impossible trip to make without some stops along the way.
Platzcart (third class) is actually safer for lone travelers and, in many ways, is a more pleasant experience (at half the price). Reason being: with coupe (second class), you run the risk of being couped up (pun intended) with a bunch of shady characters that you can’t escape from. You’ll have the same amount of space to use and essentially the same amenities, but it’s a closed arrangement instead of the more open, and slightly more crowded platzcart one. I felt quite safe on the train, largely because I knew that everyone would be able to see if someone was bothering me. The same goes for possessions– it’s unlikely someone would try to steal your things if there are other strangers watching.
And final thought–
For some reason, all the sunsets after Lake Baikal were red– bright, primary color, Elmo red. Watch out for them. I don’t know if this is a rare phenomenon or a common occurrence, but it does look beautiful. Photographs didn’t do it justice. And neither will words.