Riding the Trans-Siberian Railway is one of those classic adventure dreams, like climbing Mt. Everest or driving cross-country. I blame my obsession with railroad travel on too many Hitchcock movies and Agatha Christie mysteries as a kid -- several were set on trains stacked with exotic locales, glamorously dressed passengers, restaurant cars with real tablecloths, and of course, intrigue and murder.
During my own journey, alas, no platinum blonde in a beaded evening gown fell through the doorway to warn about impending doom. Instead, I got a glimpse at the birch forests of Siberia, colorful Russian towns, the flat expanse of the Gobi Desert and stunning rivers and lakes all along the way. If you do it in one go, the trip spans 4,740 miles, and takes five days and six nights. Most tourists get off at least once; I disembarked twice, in Siberia and in Mongolia.
There are 1st, 2nd and 3rd class accommodations. I booked tickets the whole way through in 2nd-class 4-berth (or bed) compartments called kupé. The other options are 1st class 2-berth compartments, called spalny wagon, and 3rd-class bunks called platskartny (essentially open-floor cars stacked with two rows of bunks. It's important to keep in mind that if you buy a 3rd-class ticket for an upper berth, you will be unable to fully set up in bed, unless you are a child or have an extremely short torso).
Also, only 1st- and 2nd-class have compartments that come with locking doors, which is reflected in the price. I booked through Real Russia, a reputable travel agency, and paid $735 for all three legs.
Below is an account of the first leg of the journey from Moscow to Irkutsk in Siberia.
Train 4, which leaves from Moscow every Tuesday close to midnight, departs from Yaroslavskiy Railway Station. It's fairly easy to reach by metro, although leave plenty of room for error because Yaroslavkiy is located right next to Leningradskiy Railway Station and across the square from Kazanskiy Railway Station. I spent a good 20 minutes wandering around trying to figure out which station was which. Once there, you can stock up on water or snacks.
Eventually, the right train popped up on the electronic boards, listed with its number and corresponding track. Passengers hustled along with luggage in the dark of night. We stood in line as the attendant for each car checked everyone's ticket and passport.
Both 1st and 2nd class cars have sliding doors that open into private compartments. There is a bathroom on either ends of the car, which come equipped with a toilet and a sink. Depending on the train, the hallways may have a few power outlets to charge up phones and tablets.
Each bed comes with a mattress pad, a sheet, a pillow, a pillowcase, a comforter and a duvet cover. If possible, book a lower berth so you can use the table (comes with a tablecloth!). I didn't know, but the travel agency thankfully nabbed lower-berth tickets for me for the entire way. The lower bed opens up to reveal a storage space underneath that's perfect for luggage.
The swaying of the train has an almost hypnotic effect on people, akin to a rocking cradle. Many travelers whiled away the time napping, reading or watching movies. I was sick with a cold when I first got on, and within two days all that enforced rest had cured what ailed me.
The first leg comes with a restaurant car serving Russian cuisine (which is switched out in Mongolia for one offering Mongolian food, and again in China for a Chinese restaurant car). The restaurant wasn't quite what I had in mind -- granted, I probably would have been disappointed with nothing less than white linen, candles and diners in full evening wear.
But the menu was extensive, serving soups, appetizers, entrees and drinks. Think standard Russian fare, heavy on the meat and potatoes. Prices ranged from about $10 (for appetizers) to $30.
Most passengers, however, will only go to the dining car for a snack or a drink. Each car is equipped with a hot water samovar that the attendant keeps full. So many people bring aboard their own food, such as instant noodles, bread, sausage, apples, coffee and tea. (This is what I brought as well, without consulting any guides. They just seemed like the most logical foods).
The train made stops once every few hours, to reload on coal and pick up and drop off travelers. Many of the stops last for only 10 to 20 minutes, although we have stopped for nearly an hour sometimes. And all bets are off at the border -- it took many hours to cross from Russia to Mongolia, and again from Mongolia into China.
It's a chance to get out, stretch your legs, and buy more food and drink from the local stands or inside the station itself. The stations are also good people-watching, as passengers from all over the world disembark to get a break from the rocking train.
The three days and four nights it takes to get to Irkutsk are spent passing through Siberia, full of birch forests and little towns full of wooden homes painted vibrant shades of purple, blue and red. (I did have trouble capturing the scenery outside through the smudged windows!). It was a beautiful sight, but became a bit monotonous after the first day.
On Saturday morning, four days after coming aboard in Moscow, I disembarked in Irkutsk, just a few hours away from Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. More to come on that!