Jessica, the ‘country collector’ of travel blog How Dare She
has set herself the goal of travelling to every country, and Real Russia were lucky to work with her to help achieve that goal!
How did Real Russia help? By offering Trans-Siberian expertise of course. After all, one cannot simply travel the world and not hop on-board the Trans-Siberian railways.
So, what did Jessica think of the most famous rail journey of them all? Let’s find out!
An American abroad
An American traveling by train is a bit like a fish out of water. Unfortunately, and a bit embarrassingly, the United States severely lacks a sophisticated rail network. So, while I’d heard of the iconic Trans-Siberian railway, I couldn’t quite relate to the notion of traveling an entire country by rail. Thankfully that changed, all starting in Beijing.
Since I didn’t know what to expect, I decided that I would be sure to experience each seating travel class throughout the journey, splitting it into several legs, so I’d have a true understanding of the different ways to travel by train. Would third class be so bad? Would first be that good? Time would have to tell.
I got my visa, started studying Russian, and booked the tickets. Though that wasn’t as easy as you might think. Especially starting in Beijing. I was glad to be working with a third party to purchase the tickets, because while I tried to buy them in person, I spent hours going from place to place in the city to end the day still without a ticket. China tends to be difficult for English speakers, and leaving is no exception.
I loaded up on snacks and drinks for the ride, not knowing what would be available on the train. In the US, everything is more expensive on planes and trains, so to avoid extra costs, I was stocked up. But I gave the dining car a chance and was pleasantly surprised. Appropriately from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the car served Chinese food, which switched at the border to a Mongolian car, and at the Russian border, to Russian food. All reasonably priced, and more importantly, a great representation of the local cuisine.
While I had a hard time shaking the urge to bring my own provisions for the ride, I can’t say it’s necessary.
Staying charged and staying connected
Wi-Fi isn’t an option, but most countries have sim cards for great prices. In each country, I picked up a low-price tourist sim
so I could stay connected on the long journeys. Power management is key – I charged up everything before each leg, including a back-up plan (power bank). Each train had power outlets
, but often I found myself fighting for a charge. So, you’ll be able to charge, but be sure to share.
Pro-tip: even with a sim card, you will struggle to get connection when the train is far from cities, which drains batteries. If you do have a sim card, make sure to put it in airplane mode when you aren’t actively trying to use the connection to save the battery. If in doubt, bring a book.
With the train journeys being as long as some of them are, and my travel experience being limited to ever-shrinking plane and bus seats, I was worried about the space and getting proper rest. The cabins ranged from 2 beds to 36+,
but the bunks themselves all seemed the same, regardless of which class of train. Upon boarding each leg, you receive fresh linens and make your own bed.
The beds surely aren’t 5-star resort quality, but certainly comfortable enough. If you don’t do well with climbing up and down, be sure to request a lower bunk. Bonus, the motion of the train is like being rocked to sleep.
The most important, and probably easiest, part of the journey was making friends. The beauty of the train is that you’re in it with a whole cabin, car and train full of people. On the trains from Beijing to Mongolia, and Mongolia into Russia, I found that most passengers were other travellers. In Russia, I met mostly commuters. The biggest difference between the two groups was the language barrier. But otherwise, everyone seemed up for a chat.
The restaurant car is of course a great place to meet other travelers over a coffee or a beer. Our car from Beijing
to Ulan Bator had so much fun that we ran them out of beer! But on another leg, I was in third class with all commuters and no English. After a few hours and trying to speak to my bunkmate in French (it was certainly better than my Russian) and sharing chocolates and snacks, half of the car came over and we chatted in broken English and broken Russian. They even taught me their ‘national’ card game (a frustrating endeavor without full use of a language).
Bring something to share, bring cards and bring a good attitude and you’re going to have fun with new friends.
The verdict is in
I am officially a fan of rail travel. I write this while on a train. Way less security, train stations are closer to everything than airports, no mucking around with bags, people are friendly, food is good and you can sleep. I’m not sure what more one could want in their mode of transportation.
Thanks, Jessica for sharing your experiences onboard the world famous Trans-Siberian railway.