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Everything you need to know about train travel in Russia

Tatiana Klimova

Today’s post is written by our friend and Russian Podcast creator Tatiana Klimova. Today Tatiana will tell you about trains in Russian and what you need to know before your rail adventures.

A year ago I took a Russian train from Paris to Karelia and back. I spent more than 150 hours on the train in two weeks. Let me share this experience with you.

Don’t be surprised

In Russia, when you buy a train ticket, you always have to give your passport number. Don’t be surprised when you are asked to show your passport when entering your carriage.

In every long-distance train, each carriage has its own provodnik, a special railway worker. This provodnik has their own separate compartment and can be contacted for any question. Soviet provodniks used to be legendary figures, but today’s Russian provodniks are almost all very nice people. They sell tea and food, they can provide information about your arrival time.

Particularities of train conversations

Russian trains are places full of unexpected meetings and discussions, but, as a friend of mine once said: what happens on the train stays on the train. You can spend all night long talking to your neighbor in your compartment, but you will rarely exchange your phone numbers or keep in touch. The train is a very special place, where time seems to stop.

Having heard lots of interesting things about Russian trains, foreigners often try to get to know their fellow travelers straight after the train’s departure. Be careful! Russian trains are subject to what we call “20 tacit minutes of silence”. The train is leaving, passengers stare out the window melancholically, thinking of life and of what awaits them during their trip. And only after a certain amount of time, when the train really gets moving, will they begin talking and drinking tea.

How to make your trip more comfortable

If you have listened to my podcast N°31 about trains, you’ll know what kinds of carriages are available in Russia. Today, as plane tickets are often cheaper than “kupe” tickets (separate compartments), people generally prefer the cheap “platzcart” (shared compartments). Night trains are also very practical. Sometimes travelling by train is considered part of the holiday, and an unusual experience.

In every carriage, you will find a big samovar always filled with hot water. If you ask the provodnik to give you a cup, you’ll probably get the famous Russian cup with an iron cup holder. This cup is one of the symbols of Russian Railways. Russian trains usually have dining cars. Except for the very modern high-speed Sapsan trains, food in Russian dining cars tends to be quite average. It’s much better to buy your food in advance and share it with your fellow travelers.

Another delicate question about Russian trains concerns the upper and lower bunk beds. A passenger sleeping on an upper bunk, of course, can go down and sit on a lower bunk for a little bit; for example, during his meal or for a discussion with the others. But it is considered inappropriate to stay on somebody else’s bunk for too long. If the passenger occupying the lowers bunk is sitting and reading a book, then you can sit next to them. But if they are laying down, it’s better to go up to your own upper bunk bed.

I highly recommend taking a Russian train at least once in your life, preferably a long-distance one, at least 1000 kilometers. Russian trains contain their own very special, magical world.

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