A running series of obtuse observations and snarky thoughts from that time I unexpectedly rode a Trans-Siberian train across Russia for four days straight.
I don’t do plans.
No plans means more spontaneity, saying yes to any opportunities coming my way, and adventures that always exceed (nonexistent) expectations.
Not planning is usually not an issue. But last summer, my poor planning led to the longest train journey of my life.
Somewhere in Siberia
The realization set in on a muggy summer evening, in a cabin on the banks of the Volga River in Russia.
“Ilya, is this right?” My eyes widen disbelievingly as I frantically scroll through schedules on the Russian Railways app. “Most of these trains are for four days. Look, this one’s for five!”
“You are going to Siberia! What did you expect? It is very far away,” my Couchsurfing host responds distractedly as he plots moves on a chess board. His competitor—a friend whom I mentally refer to as Pirate since he wears the same striped tank top and black bandana every day—nods in agreement as he makes his own calculations.
Ilya is right: Siberia is far, far away, and I should’ve realized that sooner.
Admittedly, my only (loose) plan for my entire six weeks in Russia was “Go somewhere in Siberia.” A Russian professor I studied with seven years before had high praise for the region; vague notions of beauty are the only motivations I need to buy a one-way ticket to Russia.
I had no idea where to go in Siberia—hell, I could barely tell you where Siberia started and ended—and though I’d meant to consult a map of Russia, I hadn’t yet gotten around to it. Ahem.
Ironically, I’d recently scoffed at travelers I met in Moscow who bragged about Trans-Siberian plans. The train journey seemed cliche; I didn’t see the appeal of spending the majority of your holiday peering out a window.
Clearly I was paying the karmic price for being a jaded, judgmental traveler. Duly noted, travel gods.
Mentally chiding myself for making a rookie miscalculation despite traveling full-time for years, I book my train. Kazan to Lake Baikal. Platzkart class. One transfer. Three days, twenty hours.
Siberia, I’m coming for you. I think.
Here’s what it’s like to spend four straight days on a Trans-Siberian train
Two days later, Kazan’s palatial railway station rises before me. VOKZAL signs glow red against a pastel twilight sky. Despite sweatily sagging under the weight of two backpacks and my attempts to pack four days of food, I stop to admire the sight.
I have no idea what to expect—nor do I yet know what to do with myself for four days—but, if nothing else, I’m off to an auspicious start.
Train 125Г | Kazan – Samara | 10 h, 20 min
Night 1: Embarkation, experimentation
21:08 – Two bulbous women in uniform check train tickets for car 6.
An old man in front of me says something loudly in Russian, pointing to my phone. From his tone, I can’t tell if he’s angry or making conversation. A strange ambiguity.
The redhead of the portly pair impatiently takes my phone, helping the clueless elektronik devushka, electronic girl, with the American passport.
21:11 – The train is a morass of bodies, bags, and bed sheets as everyone simultaneously tries to find their berths in the open six-bed platzkart compartments. Two bunks along the narrow aisle, four bunks on the other side.
Stereotypes of Russia being in a perpetual state of deep freeze quickly melt; you could slice the humidity with a knife.
21:20 – With a lurch, we’re off. So begins my four-day Trans-Siberian trip. Railway gods, help us all.
21:36 – Redhead returns to check tickets once more. Pozhalsta, I stammer, handing her my phone. She hardly glances at the barcode on my phone, returning it to me with a brusque “thank you” in accented English. We nod tersely at each other, an unspoken acknowledgement that we both suck at the other’s language. At least we tried.
Passengers’ eyes find me as murmurs of angliski reach my ears. English.
22:00 – In honor of dinner time, I decide to break out my rations: instant mashed potatoes. I’ve never had cup mash before, but given the extensive selection in the supermarket, I figured I’d try them for science. When in Rome.
Neon green packaging advertises kuritsa, chicken. Even the label looks unappealing: apparent bacon and an unidentifiable carcass on a bed of mass processed mystery.
I study the instructions. Hot water, stir, let sit for five minutes. Consume, presumably.
Conductor Redhead is again impatient with me as I stare blankly at the industrial water heater, trying to decipher which of its levers I must pull to release the final ingredient for my mashed potato magic.
22:05 – The experiment is ready for testing.
22:20 – I have already deduced the recipe for said cup mash.
Instant mashed potatoes, neon green chicken style:
- Mix chicken flavor ramen seasoning, MSG, and enough sunflower seed oil to drown an adult chicken.
- Add the idea of potato. Not too much, else it might actually become potato.
- Dehydrate, package, and sell to ignorant backpackers questing for cheap, transportable sustenance.
Protip: self-loathing accentuates the oily flavor.
22:43 – I try to erase the oil flavor from my mouth with water and chocolate. No success.
As I lounge on my top bunk, a surly middle aged man in a navy blue windbreaker is staring up at me from a seat across the aisle. His meaty frame, balding hairline, and face reddened by sun and/or alcohol comprise an intimidating facade reminiscent of Russian mafia stereotypes. I close my eyes to listen to music and drown out my imagination, which is currently drafting the first edition of Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express.
00:43 – Every time I stretch my legs in my sleep, my feet dangle over the edge until I’m awoken by the hair of passersby tickling my toes.
Day 1: Disappointment, despair, and death by cookies
07:07 – Woke up from my first night of sleep. What time zone am I in? Where am I? Did I miss my connection? I have no idea.
My right hip aches from trying to curl around my backpack filled with food in my sleep. I must not melt my chocolate supply. Nutrition is important.
07:28 – In an overambitious bid to not die from malnutrition, I brought one supermarket brand pickled cabbage and carrot salad in my food pack. Wrapped in a plastic shopping bag, for extra security. Sorry environment.
Chekhov’s principle applies to both guns and salads. If a gun is introduced in a story, it must be fired; if a dangerously fluid salad is packed, it must leak. In the night, my nutrition leaked oily vinegar not only all over my backpack, but also onto my sheets, mattress, and the seat of the woman below me when I confusedly put down my backpack to examine the growing wet patch.
I am not entirely sure how such a small container produced such a large puddle. Regardless of the suspicious science, our whole compartment now reeks of vinegar and spoiled cabbage. Surly mafia man is again staring at me, this time knowingly.
Luckily, it is time to depart the train.
07:40 – I flee my vinegar puddle to transfer to a new train, surreptitiously disposing of my leaking salad bag in a bakery.
Train 205С | Samara – Severobaikalsk | 3 d, 10 h, 5 min
08:37 – On my next train, a bald man in a yellow shirt named Juri sits across from me at our aisle-side table.
A married man with three children on his lone way to Novosibirsk for a two-month job, Juri is highly intrigued by my presence—partially because he is exceedingly bored—but he doesn’t speak English. Time for me to flex my very rusty Russian.
He fires questions at me in Russian, but he speaks too fast with too much slang. I am baffled, much to the amusement of everyone else in our train car compartment. Google Translate it is.
08:48 – My neighbor’s eyes bulge from his bald head as he questions me about my lifestyle in thick colloquial Russian which proved to be too much even for the omniscient Google Translate.
Zamuzh nyetu?! Detei nyetu?! Svoyei dom netu?! Not married?! No children?! No home?!
28 years, no home, no husband, and no children are too much for him to process, especially at this early hour. As I respond in the negative, he finds a variety of ways to ask me if I want these things; as though he hopes I might suddenly pull them out of my backpack them if he asks correctly.
I don’t know how to say “I’m currently having an existential crisis as I’m gradually realizing these things are essential to happiness later in life and my current situation is not conducive to building the necessary foundations for these these core life tenets” in Russian, so I simply respond I don’t want them, why do I need them?
Juri brings his hands to his head, shaking it in despair.
10:52 – Rivulets worm down windowpanes as I type away on my laptop, lounging on the spacious opposite side of the compartment currently free of other passengers. Juri pulls out a crinkling bag of what looks like brown biscuits, gesturing to offer me some. Ever the sugar addict, I return to our shared table.
Upon closer inspection, I see the biscuits are actually… chicken wings.
Russian cuisine has not impressed me thus far in my trip, but these are another kind of disturbing to me. Clearly processed to sit on shelves unrefrigerated for a good while, they have the taste, smell, and texture of processed salami. But they’re… chicken? The bag offers no further insight into the mystery at hand; only Premium Chicken Wings.
We munch them with stale bread rounds. Juri insists I need to fatten up; my arms are too thin and men like big women. I have to resist very hard to avoid overdosing on salami wings.
11:35 – I mention am involved with someone to alleviate Juri’s insistence that I get married. The conversation turns to the concept of open relationships. Others in the compartment casually but pointedly lean in to hear more about the strange American girl and her flexible perspectives on sexual encounters.
Juri’s eyeballs are once again popping out of his bald head as I explain open relationships. The comedic mixture of confusion, disbelief, and horror on his face can only be compared to a child learning Santa Claus doesn’t actually exist.
16:30 pm – I take a nap. My brain cannot handle hours of intense Russian interrogation. I can no longer understand anything my neighbors are saying, to their dismay.
19:13 pm – How Russians manage to make their bedsheets so perfect is truly beyond me.
22:16 – Finally I feel like a competent traveler; I have both instant noodles and sriracha sauce as garnish. Not sure if I should be proud of my hack train “cooking”, or disturbed by my low standards for success.
23:34 – To accompany my millionth boredom tea of the day, Juri feeds me small cookies called pechenie like I’m a pet; one by one until I was fit to burst. In his defense, death by cookies on a Trans-Siberian train would be a fitting demise for me.
Day 2: Full bladders and fish cakes
13:29 – I wake up at… 1:29 PM?! In… Kazakhstan?!
Studying Google Maps and world clocks on my mobile, I’m not sure if my late waking hour is attributable to valium (cough) or changing time zones. Except wait… I don’t have mobile signal in Kazakhstan. Bugger.
14:00 to 15:00 – Our compartment boils in the sun as we sit, unmoving, in a Kazakh border town.
A few passengers of Russian origins board, checked by stone-faced Kazakh border guards armed with devices that look like military-grade typewriters. Shoebox-sized and hanging from the guards’ necks on leather straps, the black machines scan passports, take photos, and who knows what else.
They would be fascinating, but I and many others are in a state of crisis: toilets are locked while the train is in Kazakhstan. I know my bladder is not alone in its pressure: other passengers are squirming in their seats. I try to distract myself by admiring the cute bomb-sniffing dogs.
15:12 – A rough woman with a dyed black ponytail shouts at me in a raspy smoker voice for taking too long in the toilet. Selfish heathen that I am, I dared to both use the toilet and brush my teeth once we moved out of Kazakhstan.
15:42 – Sweat rolls down my nose. My current travel read, A Year in Provence, tortures – Mayle’s lovingly detailed descriptions of multi-course French meals overflowing with wine make my stomach cry tears of acid as I reminisce about foods that taste like something.
Pushing my Kindle away from me in pain, I glue my eyes to the window, praying we’ll stop at a station where I can buy any kind of food that is not instant noodles, instant potatoes, or tea.
19:03 – I have a late lunch of yet another mediocre instant mashed potatoes. This time, with sriracha.
Juri offers me stale bread to eat with it. Bread with mashed potatoes is normal? I ask in Russian.
Yes of course! Juri insists. A waifish, quiet girl now sitting next to us nods sagely.
I offer my sriracha to Juri as he works on his box of instant noodles. Declining politely at first, he takes the bottle upon seeing my offer is genuine, squirting a healthy tablespoon’s worth on onto his corn- and bacon-flavored (???) noodles.
Within minutes he’s gasping, shoveling stale bread into his mouth to cut the spice.
Laughing, I get up to make another cup of tea. He beckons me to him, then mock strangles me. I am going to kill you!
19:39 – The train arrives in Omsk. 17 minute stop.
Every. single. body. floods out of the train to swarm small white snack kiosks along the platform. Squat, angry Russian mothers and grandmothers push and shove in a desperate, sweaty bid to get ice creams before each other.
The quiet girl appears at my elbow, tapping it and suggesting we try the next kiosk to avoid crowds. She follows me like a protective mother dog, gently touching me on the back to guide me periodically. We successfully acquire ice creams without having to fight for them.
I’ve been dreaming this moment for several sweltering hours, and devour my ice cream before the girl reaches the cone of hers. God does exist, I think as I sigh in cool satisfaction.
23:30 – The train smells like feet. The pirozhok I bought at the kiosk is foul and stale. Why do the clocks in the train show Moscow time despite having crossing 3 time zones? I am grumpy.
01:21 – The train stops at Barabinsk in the short summer night.
I float off the train in a Valium-induced haze, greeted by the stench of dried fish and cigarette smoke. Ah, Russia.
Riba! Riba! Riba! Weathered women wander up and down the platform, hawking dried fish carcasses of all sizes and other mystery delectables hidden behind layers of bulbous plastic shopping bags and a language I barely have a grasp of.
One woman with a frazzled blond cleaning lady bun and aggressively unruly eyeliner procures stacks of what look like either pancakes or cookies. I inquire as to their cost; 100 rubles ($1.40) for a packet of 3! She insists they’re delicious when my brow furrows.
I sniff the packet gingerly to determine why they’re so costly just as she reveals the answer: these delicious blini pancakes contain the same pungent fish she’s hawking.
Ne nada, I respond, don’t need. As I return the packet, she gives me a stare almost as salty as the dried fish.
04:35 – I watching blue light begin to light the sky outside the windows. Sleep evades me, despite substance. Quickly crossing so many time zones by land is strange; my body doesn’t understand what time it is.
Day 3: Battles with Toad
11:32 – Sleep is abandoned after I awake from vivid dreams involving glistening burgundy tennis ball-sized boils sprouting up all over my body. No one in my dream seemed sufficiently concerned, so I return to reality in the hopes of finding superior professional opinions. After groggily patting my sides to check for boils—none, excellent—I realize we are very much stopped and the train is empty.
My phone has data signal, so it must be a long station stop. Ah yes: Marinsk. 42 minutes.
11:53 – Blearily I emerge to scavenge for food. One must not miss an opportunity to restock in this sparse landscape.
Two small white kiosks down from my train car, a wide woman with close-cropped sandy blonde hair sells cooked Russian delectables from an open window. I approach the food display curiously, phone camera out. Are those… pine cones?! Click, click.
NYET! the saleswoman bellows. She swats at me and my phone with a newspaper like one would a fly. I leap back, then again inch closer after pocketing my phone. I don’t need photos, but I do need food.
NYET! she swats again. I retreat to go find food elsewhere.
15:20 – While I enjoy tasteful writing in a newly-acquired Way To Russia travel guide—I’ve decided to try and plan something to prove I can—and tasteless vareniki dumplings from the previous station, the toad-like Russian woman who recently replaced Juri in the bunk below mine says something to me. I don’t understand, and stare blankly at her.
She repeats herself, raising her voice. All I catch is mne hochetsya, I would like. I feebly reply I don’t understand. She starts shouting. This time, I understand more, including otdihat, to relax, and YA HOCHU LOZHIT!!! Contextually, her statement translated to something along the lines of “Look, you stupid angliski twit, haul ass so I can lie down.”
I move my belongings to the bunk of the quiet girl. Her deep, doleful eyes are sympathetic.
Toad grumpily flips down our table, makes her bed, then proceeds to disappear to the toilet for twenty minutes, leaving her relaxation space vacant and me feeling bitter.
15:34 – I go to wash my spork, oily from vareniki, in the restroom.
For the third time on this train ride, I am beaten to the toilet by a middle aged man with a buzz cut. I say buzz cut because this is clearly a Russian train trope – balding middle aged man, surreptitiously slinking into the toilet, takes far too long, doesn’t exit until you try the door, at which point the toilet flushes but no hands are washed. Upon entering the toilet after said man, it always reeks of cigarette smoke despite stickers proclaiming smoking is absolutely prohibited. Punishment is a 1,500 ruble fine.
Fire extinguishers hanging outside the toilets suggest this is an empty threat.
16:44 – A wave of nausea hits me, possibly from expired vareniki. Perfect timing: the train car, for some reason, has started to smell like feces.
18:25 – The shirt of the boy across from me: pizza of your dreams it is makes “me” happy perfect.
19:00 – I’ve thought multiple times over the last two days that head conductor of this car looks like an SS officer in his crisp gray uniform, brimmed military hat, and stoic pale face.
To my delight, he’s just changed into off-duty clothing: bright plaid fisherman’s pants and a mesh Hawaiian print t-shirt. Fabulous.
19:34 – My toady neighbor nemesis froths at the mouth when she sleeps. Bubbles form in the foam when she snores.
I’ve also noticed she’s one of the stealth toilet smokers: she has half-sized cigarettes she sneakily pockets before going to the toilet.
20:00 – We are finally fully in Siberia, and it is stunning.
An hour or two outside of Krasnoyarsk, gentle mountains slope around us, wooden houses in varying states of decay cling to their edges. Faint puffs of white smoke floating from chimneys hint at life inside.
White birch, purple and yellow wildflowers, tall green grasses; all whiz past my eyes in a beautiful bucolic blur.
This is exactly what I was waiting for.
23:42 – Lying in bed and staring at the ceiling while the train is stopped at a station; I can’t be bothered to get up. A moist, crinkly object touches my arm in the darkness.
The man from the bunk next to mine is putting something onto my bed. In the dim light it looks like my packet of tea biscuits. Assuming it fell off my messy bed, I thank him for picking it up despite it being wet from the floor.
Wait, it’s not biscuits—it’s a bar of ice cream! A fancy one, too: white chocolate-coated ice cream with caramel filling and chunks. I smile broadly and turn to say thank you but he’s already wandered off somewhere.
03:44 – Can’t sleep. The nap I took to avoid puking up expired train station dumplings messed up my already messed up circadian rhythms. Sun is up. Toad snores too much.
Day 4: A drunken arrival
11:40 – I am sternly reprimanded by the SS officer for dumping coffee grinds into the toilet trash can (the most convenient location; I use the sink to wash my Aeropress coffee maker).
He marches me to the trash bin at the other end of the car, ceremoniously raising the lid and waiting for me to obey his orders.
I do. He is much more intimidating without his see-through Hawaiian print shirt.
12:56 – White mist rolls over low mountaintops. A fitting vista as we head deeper into mysterious Siberia.
The train is beginning to empty. Bed mats are rolled up, sheets are folded and returned to the SS officer.
A Russian Daniel Craig-lookalike with a head of white hair wearing Keens sandals and Adidas sport shorts has taken a seat across from my toad nemesis to share her sunflower seeds. Her voice, previously rough and aggressive, is now simpering and soft. She even giggles from time to time.
13:31 – Toad moved her bed roll so Russki Daniel Craig can sit. Never mind that I’ve been trying to sit there for the last two days and she didn’t so much as lift a finger. I hope they catch you smoking in the toilet you passive aggressive amphibian.
19:04 – I am so bored. We are so close, but so far. I am dying. I have read all my good books, I have written all my blog posts. I cannot drink any more tea or I will explode.
19:08 – Toad moved out to smoke in the bathroom. Time to break out the vodka—I was avoiding it because drinking on Russian trains is now illegal, but desperate times call for desperate measures. And the first season of Avatar: the Last Airbender.
19:09 – Dear god, this vodka is toxic.
23:12 – I am drunk, but we are almost there. Half an hour to go. I wish I had a sky bison.
12:00 – Clumsily exiting the train, I move through scattered groups of family and friends joyfully reuniting on the platform to exit into the midnight darkness. As much as I love solo travel, arriving to new places without anyone to greet me always stings. Bitter loneliness replaces my relief at finally escaping the train.
Stupid people. Stupid love. Stupid vodka.
Soulless concrete apartments loom over me as I trudge alone through the darkness to the center of Severobaikalsk, a town on the north shore of Lake Baikal. My intoxicated mind slowly assesses which would be more welcome at this very moment: love or a shower?
Probably a shower.
07:42 – I made it to a hostel. After finishing the remainder of the vodka bottle—no point in leaving it 2/3 empty—I am alone at dawn in the hostel kitchen, stuffing my face with my last biscuits and crackers, unable to sleep because my body is hours behind the current time zone.
But I am no longer melancholy; quite the opposite. Not only is train conductor/SS officer Alexei Soleyenkov also staying in this hostel, he is now padding down the hallway, once again clad in his mesh Hawaiian shirt. It is hard to stay sad when you can see a surly Aryan officer’s nipples through a bright canvas of color and palm trees.
Seems my accidental Trans-Siberian train journey wasn’t so bad after all.
Want more transportation fail tales?
- That time I slept on the floor of an overcrowded overnight passenger ferry in Bangladesh
- That time I was escorted by armed guards for days while crossing the Iran-Pakistan border
- That time I hitchhiked down one of the highest roads in the world in India