Assessing the risks
The key to staying safe in almost any environment is to be aware of your surroundings. It probably sounds obvious, and regular travellers do it without thinking nearly all the time. As they move to new places they have a sense of what is going on around them, what looks ‘normal’ and to spot anything that looks unusual or even threatening. For most of us after some time in a place we become familiar and adjust our perception of the risks. The trouble with being on the rails is that you may not be in one place long enough to make this risk assessment. Assuming the worst and being cautious at first can be the safest thing to do as you arrive in a new place or train environment.
Train stations are probably the single most risky place you will encounter on your trip. Generally this risk is a small one, but one you will want to minimize. Whilst modern stations in Russia and China often now have airport type security, they still attract petty crime, normally in the form of tourist scams or theft. On arrival at a station you should always have your bags secured and valuables packed away. All you will need before you get on the train is your ticket and sometimes your passport. Ignore anyone offering cheap tickets, visa or transportation services. They are always unofficial and will result in you paying far too much or worse. Instead follow the locals and use official ticket counters and taxi ranks. Alternatively, you can book transfers before you arrive. If you sit down in a waiting area, keep a close eye on your bags and keep your bag with valuables attached to yourself at all times. If you feel uncomfortable as a result of someone near you, just move away.
Once you get on to the train it is tempting to think that you are much safer and let your guard down. Whilst this is normally the case, there are still some specific security considerations, both inside and outside your compartment.
Where are your valuables?
I have a few rules which I follow, but one that overrides all others. I always carry my day bag with my documents and valuables with me at all times – that includes when I go to the restaurant, when I go to the toilet, and when I hop off at a stop. Apart from the risk of theft, can you imagine what would happen if you missed your train and were left behind without them? Try and find a bag with pockets in hidden places that you can keep things safe, but still get hold of items without having to unpack it. My messenger bag has several well-concealed pockets and has easy access to the main section.
Once on board, the train the environment is normally pretty trouble free. Passengers are generally genuine and lovely people, with whom you will make good friendships, but unfortunately you cannot assume this at first. If you are sharing your compartment with other people, try not to openly display your valuables and keep them close to you, especially when you sleep. For example, can you make your valuables bag into a makeshift pillow? On shorter journeys (crossing Europe, for example) people get on and off the train more often, so you need to keep an eye on your bags and realise that there is a small risk of someone taking something and you not spotting it until they are long gone. Sometimes at borders locals can get on the train to sell food and drink or change money. Be aware that these people may not always be what they seem. Don't let them inside your compartment - keep them in the corridor.
When to lock your door
Life in the restaurant carriage can be fun and there are few dangers here. Just be sure to have your valuables with you rather than left behind in your compartment. Ask your provodnitsa (carriage attendant) to lock your compartment door if you are the only occupant. Be careful with your alcohol consumption, and when paying the bill avoid flashing a lot of money about.
During the daytime most people keep their compartment doors open – it provides a relaxed feeling and allows interaction with others. It is safe to do this, and is what the locals mainly do.
At night-time however, you must close and lock your door to be safe. The door on most sleeper trains has at least two locking devices, and you need to use both. One lock will be the sort that can be locked and opened from the outside (for example by the provodnitsa). Unfortunately this key is easy to copy, and it does not guarantee your safety. Usually higher up on the door there is a second latch type lock. This one is the sort that can only be locked from the inside, so offers more security. Using both of these locks is all that you need to do, but if you really want to take further precautions, you can wedge a rubber door stop under the door (also a useful backup if the lock is broken). It is also theoretically possible to open the inside lock with a knife. Using a cork from a bottle of wine to hold it in the locked position eliminates this possibility.
If in any doubt, get help
On board the train you should always trust the officials that you meet and if you do not feel safe you should tell them straight away. For example, if there is a problem with someone in your compartment, the officials might be able to move you to another one if you tell them. In the unlikely event that an official asks for a payment for something that you are not expecting, then always ask for a receipt before paying. If you can’t find an official, you will be amazed how helpful other passengers can be in the unlikely event that you find yourself in almost any sort of difficulty.
I hope these thoughts do not make you think that travel on the Trans-Siberian is unsafe. Sadly anywhere in the world travellers tend to fall foul of petty crime, usually because they are not familiar with their new environment. These tips will hopefully give you the confidence to understand where the problems might come from. Stay safe and have an amazing journey.
Matthew Woodward is a rail adventurer, and the author a number of books about travelling from Europe to Asia along the Trans-Siberian railway. His books are available now in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.
Next: What happens at the border
Previous: Keeping well on the Trans-Siberian
Home: Trans-Siberian guides