What do I need to know when traveling by Russian train?

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Answered by: Darcy, An Expert in the Traveling in Russia Category
I was sitting in day-old sweaty pajamas, clutching a hot glass of tea, and surrounded by approximately fifteen eager Russian middle schoolers. They were looking at me expectantly, perched on all available bunks and clogging the corridor. It was hour twelve of a 29-hour train trip south from Moscow, and word was out: there were Americans on the train, and they were answering questions. One girl was sure I must have been in some movie. Another boy wanted to know my opinion of the theory that America had created the wildfires in Moscow last year by using huge magnifying lenses in space. By the time we exited the train the next day, thoroughly tired of instant ramen, I had a card signed by "the Stavropol region kids" and an offer from a school teacher to take me on a tour of a nearby city.

Traveling by Russian train isn't pretty, but it is effective--and extensive. Over a billion passengers took Russian railways last year, compared to only 30.2 million passengers in the U.S. on Amtrak. If you want to travel any distance at all, they may be your only real option. The mystique of the Trans-Siberian railroad, which extends from Moscow to the eastern city of Vladivostok or even China, has made a trip by rail a rite of passage. With the right spirit, it can be a russified version of a Jack Keroauc adventure, and it's a great way to experience life side-by-side with real Russians. But it also has its difficulties, with mysterious, bureaucracy-full procedures, unhelpful attendants, and extremely cramped space. Here's what you need to know to survive.

-Taking a short trip? If you're starting in a large city and aren't traveling more than 3 or 4 hours away, you can get to most destinations by elektrichka. Elektrichkas are Russian commuter trains. They aren't luxurious--the seating is just a glorified bench--but they are cheap: often no more than three or four dollars even for long trips. Expect entrepreneurial capitalists walking down the aisles selling everything from ice cream to mops, and Russian grandmothers, or "babushkas", claiming whole benches to sleep on with a head of cabbage as a pillow. No, really.

-Going farther? If you're traveling by Russian train overnight, your first choice is whether to buy a "kupe" or a "plaskartniy" ticket. Kupe is the more expensive choice, getting you a private compartment of four beds with a door. If a bit of comfort and quietness is worth it to you, get kupe. But you never know who you'll end up sharing the compartment with, so if you're a woman travelling alone or sharing a small intimate space with strangers just sounds awkward to you, go for plaskartniy. Plaskartniy wagons are like dorms on wheels: one long corridor lined with 50-some beds, divided into subdivisions of six beds each. Two bunks run lengthwise along the corridor, top and bottom, and the other four are perpendicular. If you have the bottom bunk, expect to share them as sitting space with top bunkers; if you have top bunk, expect limited movement but the ability to go to sleep whenever you want.

On long-distance trains, there is an attendant in every wagon who will give you blankets and towels, plus silverware and glasses if you ask for it. There's also as much hot water as you can drink in a tap near the bathroom, so you can drink tea with your bunkmates, who are surely going to be drinking it non-stop with sweets. Common courtesy requires that you not use the toilets whenever the train is stopped, since the advanced technology just dumps waste straight onto the tracks. Bring your own toilet paper to be on the safe side. And to be comfortable, bring slippers. Just like no one wears shoes inside their homes in Russia, shoes are generally off on the train. But if you go around in your socks, strangers will look at you in horror and scold you till you correct your ways.

Your fellow passengers may seem stand-offish at first, but Russian culture is simply private. Say hello, and they'll be more than happy to make the long trip go by faster by getting to know you and sharing food and drinks!

-Buying tickets --Ticket counters at Russian train stations are usually divided into two sections, one where you buy elektrichka tickets and one for long-distance tickets. Make sure you bring your passport or other documents with you. English timetables are available at http://www.poezda.net/en/index, or if you speak a little Russian, go straight to the Russian railways website at http://ticket.rzd.ru/, where you can also buy tickets online if speaking Russian through muffled windows with impatient women is stressful for you. Also check out this helpful explanation of your ticket here: http://eng.rzd.ru/statice/public/rzdeng?STRUCTURE_ID=53. It's a good idea to buy tickets for long trips ahead of time, but you sometimes can't buy elektrichka tickets ahead.

Most of all, remember to enjoy your authentically Russian experience! Safe travels!

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