Matthew Woodward shares his experiences of how to enjoy meal times on the rails.
Dining on board the Tran-Siberian railway can be very much part of the adventure. Depending on your tastes and your budget, there are a number of ways to eat well. Essentially you can bring your own food on board, buy food from station platforms or use the restaurant carriage on the train. I like to blend these together.
It’s good to set off with a few basic provisions, as you may not be able to plan too well when the train will stop long enough to go shopping, and there are times when the restaurant will be closed. Major cities such as Moscow and Beijing have good supermarkets, where you can get pretty much everything you will need.
Consider if there is anything essential to your diet and if it might be good to bring this with you from home. For example, I never set out without a small box of sauce sachets and condiments to add some spice to my food.
Good things to stock up on at the local supermarket might include things you can make by adding hot water – porridge and instant noodles are a staple diet for many. Add to this maybe some fruit, crackers and cheese, smoked sausage and chocolate and you have a ready to go picnic whenever you need it. There is no problem bringing food on board, as long as you can carry it all. Alcohol is not generally sold at stations, so you need to buy this in the supermarket outside or from the restaurant on the train. Hot drinks such as tea and coffee are best purchased in advance so you have something you like with you on board. There is of course a limitless supply of boiling water from the samovar in each carriage.
For those on a tight budget, and also those that want to sample local food on the journey, station platforms can be a real culinary adventure. What is available will often vary widely at each station. Your choice is either to buy from one of the tiny platform kiosks, or from someone standing by your train selling directly to passengers.
The kiosks are generally sell a selection of cigarettes, dried food, drinks and cheap souvenirs. There is not too much opportunity to browse, as they have just a tiny hole in a window to do business through. You can sometimes see a small notice translating the items and prices into English. If not just point in the window and use sign language.
At larger stations traders carry a vast range of food onto the platform and line up by the train, creating almost a small outdoor market. In the winter they often transport their ‘shop’ to your platform on a sledge! If you see something you like, buy it there and then rather than expecting to see it at another station, as you may not find it again. You can often buy ‘cooked’ meals, alongside other local produce including fruit, pastries, coffee, honey and dried fish (a delicacy from Lake Baikal). Non-food traders also sell an eclectic range of souvenirs to the locals including stuffed toys and furry slippers!
My advice would be to watch and follow the locals. It can sometimes be hard to know if what you are buying is really fresh. Whilst I have yet to meet a traveller who has had problems with this food, one person did explain to me that the cooked (hot) meals might be prepared in the station toilets – the only nearby source of water and shelter to prepare such a meal.
The restaurant car provides a unique social base for your train adventure. Day or night it is a place you can relax with a drink or a coffee and try to communicate with other travellers. The way it works is that the country you are travelling in provides the carriage, so depending on your route, you might get to sample Russian, Mongolian and Chinese food whilst on your journey.
In Russia there will often be an extensive menu (usually translated into English), but many dishes will not be available. The food is simple but perfectly good as long as you are not expecting fine dining. My favourites are the pancakes (sometimes with jam, or even caviar), the borscht (a rich Ukrainian soup), and the pork schnitzel. There is often a choice of beer, and sometimes the chance to try a bottle of ‘Champanski’ (Russian sparkling wine). If you want to do as the locals, try a small carafe of vodka with some savory snacks. The price of a meal is perhaps in line with a big city tourist restaurant, and as a result many local passengers don’t eat there very often. Payment is strictly in Rubles only.
The Mongolian restaurant carriage has to be one of the most amazingly decorated restaurants on the rails in the world. It has ornate wood carvings and musical instruments and traditional weapons hanging on the walls. The food here is very authentic. There are some amazing dishes on the menu including my favourites, the beef dumpling soup and ‘Traveller’s Beef’. You can also enjoy a bottle of the ‘Golden Gobi’ local beer. All highly recommended, but don’t leave your dinner until too late, as the best dishes tend to run out before you reach the next border. You can pay in most currencies and prices are similar to those in Russia.
Once you cross into China things change quite drastically in the kitchen department. Whilst Chinese train cooking is generally very good, on international trains there will often be a set meal with limited choice. Expect lots of rice, soy sauce, stir fried vegetables and meatballs. The Chinese service operates to more limited times for each meal, so check carefully when these are. The prices here are very cheap compared to Russia, and as a result are often very busy. Do try a bottle of ‘Great Wall’ wine if you are feeling adventurous, but my advice would be to stay away from Chinese spirits at all costs. Payment will be by meal voucher (depending on your ticket) or local RMB currency.
Communication in the restaurant is very much part of the fun. Whilst the menu will often be translated into English, it is worth having a picture book or a dictionary to assist. Another useful technique can be to use your phone to take a picture of a dish you like the look of and then show that to the person taking your order.
Don’t forget to bring a good insulated mug, a penknife, knife, fork, spoon and maybe a plate if you plan on any serious self-catering.
Finally, one of the great traditions on the train is to share some of your food with your fellow travellers. So don’t forget to plan for this and maybe also buy a little something for your carriage attendants, who will very much appreciate the gesture. Last year I presented my Russian chef with a small present on Christmas Day and found myself with a number of small ‘added extras’ at mealtimes throughout my journey.
A Mongolian dining car on the Trans-Mongolian railway, Mongolia
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.