Russia is a vast country. This vastness remains incomprehensible until you actually endeavour to travel within the country itself. Distances become entirely relative of course, and I would think nothing of taking a 16-hour journey for a weekend trip to another city. But whilst the train is still a fairly inexpensive mode of transport, airlines like Pobeda are offering great low-cost domestic flights that take a fraction of the time. So why is train travel still so popular in Russia, for natives and tourists alike?
The adventurer’s dream of the Trans Siberian is not to be taken so lightly. In my experience, long distance train rides in Russia are not these relaxing journeys during which friendly Russians will ply you with vodka and discuss world issues that you may imagine. Long train journeys are boring! If you are travelling in плацкарт [platzkart – 3rd class], you will be rooming with around 100 other passengers in a cabin that, for some reason unbeknownst to myself, they decide to keep at a balmy 30 degrees.
On my first long train journey, from Moscow to Ekaterinburg near the Ural mountains, my friend and I were full of hope that we would meet interesting people and fully experience the mythical Russian train journey. Our voyage went something like this. 5 hours in, we were getting bored of our card game. 10 hours in, I struggled to get any sleep in the unbearably hot carriage. 15 hours in, none of our fellow passengers had cracked open the vodka for a campfire-style story swap – everyone pretty much kept themselves to themselves and spent the journey sleeping or reading. 20 hours in, we concluded that the only views we were going to get were of forests and villages. 27 hours later, we arrived at our destination. My friend’s purse had been stolen, and I just couldn’t wait to have a shower.
I would say that shorter train journeys (and relative to Russia, a short train journey for me now qualifies as a 12-hour overnighter) are far more bearable, and even quite enjoyable, since you get the excitement of travelling and sleeping in a moving vehicle, without having to wile away the rest of your time trying to keep cool and occupy yourself. I think people imagine that train journeys in Russia are overtly sociable events, but, since travelling long distances on the regular to visit friends and family is a normal part of Russian life, you will find that not many people are in the same bubble of adventurous excitement as you may be.
Recently, even though my two previous trips have been by plane, I have been longing to take a train journey again. Even though it’s not the most comfortable method of travel, even though it takes so much longer, I cannot deny that there is something so unequivocally Russian about travelling platzkart across the vast swathes of land. Getting on a train and waking up somewhere new, taking the time to consider your journey, to consider the places you pass en route to your destination. Perhaps it is because you miss the finer details of the Russian landscape when you pass above it at 30,000 feet. Or you miss the experience of settling in and bunking down for a night in your moving home. Or you miss the togetherness of waiting for your stop with the other passengers. There is still very much a sense of camaraderie on the train, a sense of being more aware of your fellow passengers, that doesn’t really happen on flights.
Travelling by train in Russia is a must. It’s something that is connected with the culture, with the people, and makes you really feel closer to the country. Having said that, ask me to go to Vladivostok, and I’ll meet you at the airport.