I picked my next stop along the Trans-Siberian to be Novosibirsk, a relatively large city in the centre of Russia, just above eastern Kazakhstan. I didn’t pick Novosibirsk for any real reason other than to break up the journey; spending several days on a train without stopping is something I’d rather avoid, especially when I don’t have too much of a time constraint.
I wasn’t feeling too flash when I set about this leg of the journey so I opted to buy a bed in the second class, which would get me a comfortable spot in a cabin with 3 other people. A little clarification on the classes you can select when buying a ticket for the trains here:
1st Class: Twin share cabins with your own en-suite. The most expensive option, obviously. I don’t have a photo of these as I haven’t travelled in first class, ha!
2nd Class: Usually around 60% of the cost of 1st class. Four beds in a cabin with a door, two on top of the other two. The bottom two beds serve as seats during the day. It’s advisable to try and book a top bed if possible as you then have your own space if you want to chill out or go to sleep. You also don’t have to put up with 110kg Russians standing on you during the night when they’re trying to get up in to their bed.
These cabins are comfortable; I’m 6’5″ and I can fully stretch out on the bed (only just though!). They get cleaned every day and the bedding is always fresh when you get on the train. The newer trains or the direct services usually have a power plug in the cabin. If they don’t, there are always a few in the hallway.
3rd Class: The backpacker’s hang-out. This is usually around 40% of the cost of 1st class. There are around 40 beds per carriage in an open-style layout. It’s not as bad as it sounds; they’re kept very clean by the officials and in contrast to the Chinese, the majority of Russians are very considerate of others around them. However, if you’re riding in 3rd class, you don’t want to forget your ear plugs.
The dining car menu. In Russia it’s law to provide the weight in grams of all food for sale.
All the trains have dining cars with decent food and drink for reasonable prices. A lady will periodically bring a food cart through the carriages also. You can also buy souvenirs, either from the rail company or from random people selling them out of their bags (the weirdest thing I’ve been offered is a bag of bear’s teeth).
An official trying his hardest to sell me a glow in the dark toy…
Technically you’re not allowed to drink vodka on the train (On the second class carriages, at least.. I know, what the fuck?), but keep it somewhat discreet and people won’t notice. If an official does throw a tanty then buy a souvenir for a couple of dollars and he or she will usually be overcome by a sudden case of amnesia. The same goes for smoking; it’s probably best to make a small investment with the attendant if you want to be able to smoke freely in the connecting bridge area between carriages.
On the train, as well as coming across dozens of bare-chested Russian soldiers (quite common, apparently going shirtless on the ride is the thing to do) who were playing a game which looked to involve playfully trying to slash each other with knives, I met several Australians and a couple of Kiwis. They were on a Trans-Siberian tour from Beijing to Moscow. The tour included a guide which could interpret for them and also give them some background info on the places they stopped. They were gone for a month or so, and were staying with home-stay hosts in the cities they stopped at. I can understand wanting to sign up with something like that, but when they told me it set them back $10,000 each I found it hard to justify that sort of cost. To date I’ve spent around $500 on tickets and only have around $150 worth left to buy until I get to Moscow, which is where they were going. Based on the cost of a decent hostel in central / western Siberia ($6 a night) I would most definitely recommend just doing it by yourself. I’ve gotten along fine with only knowing a handful of Russian words, and with the help of people I’ve met on CouchSurfing.com.
We arrived at 7am after 30-something hours of travelling. A small benefit of travelling west on the Trans-Siberian is that you get extra hours of sleep because you’re crossing time zones, so it didn’t feel that early. I took the metro to my hostel when I got there, which cost around 30c. I forgot to take a photo but the trains and stations look Soviet as hell. The train reminded me of the one I rode in North Korea.
Novosibirsk doesn’t really have any huge tourist attractions unless you’re super keen on checking out anything and everything to do with Lenin. I Visited Lenin square and the opera theatre, the biggest one in Russia. I tried to catch a show but unfortunately nothing was on when I was there.
I came across some sort of demonstration when I was visiting the Opera Theatre.
It’s possible to find good coffee here, too. Actually the food and drink here is pretty good. There’s a lot of western influence and you can find most types or international cuisine if you look for it.
Due to the price of the Ruble being rather low at the moment, things are pretty cheap in Russia at the moment, if you’re visiting. This hot dog with vegetables and sauce was $1 NZD.
The Russians like to eat sour cream on bread for any meal of the day.
They do dumplings well here, too.
I viewed this stop as an opportunity to do some much needed shopping for supplies, and also for clothing as I could finally buy things that fit me!
Rather than walking around being a tourist I spent some time talking to locals and observaing the Russian culture and public etiquette. People are friendly but this is covered with a public persona that could be interpreted as rude. Smiling isn’t something that people do automatically but once I smile at people and say a friendly greeting most people tend to open up and are very friendly.
The Russians remind me of a lot of Europeans and I flash back to my visit to Norway where it took a slight adjustment to the culture. Often nothing is said that doesn’t need to be; but on the flipside, people will also just start a conversation with you on the street.
There’s also something with surfaces and respect to where you eat and sit. Don’t put your feet on chairs. I got sternly reprimanded by a senior chap in Lake Baikal national park for sitting on top of the back part of a chair with my feet on the butt section. Also, don’t leave bags and clutter on tables; that’s the eating area and it’s rude to take up a potential space for someone else with something of yours.
After completing a good amount of supply gathering in Novosibirsk, I headed on west to a city called Yekaterinburg. I’d been recommended this place by several people I’d met who were travelling along a similar route to me but in the opposite direction. The ticket to Yekaterinburg cost around 3,000 Rubles $68 NZD) for a third class spot. Another thing I’d recommend is trying to not get one of the beds up against the wall if you’re tall.
Due to the time of the year and how far north Russia is, the sun only really goes down at around 10.30-11 around here, re-appearing at 4am or so. I keep waking up on the train to the sun coming up and shining through the window. I wonder why I can’t get back to sleep and realise it’s because I’ve crossed a time zone and gained 2 hours.
Before I left Novosibirsk, I set up another ‘public trip’ on CouchSurfing.com. A friendly chap named Ivan agreed to host me for the night, and take me to a couple of places of interest during the day.
Once I arrived, Ivan was there to meet me at the platform. He introduced me to his wife and child (who only has one thing he likes more than MineCraft, and that’s pizza). We all headed off to a military museum just outside of town to have a look at the vast array of tanks, helicopters, planes, submarines and everything else they had on display.
Ivan suggested we also go and have a look at a Monastery hidden inside a forest not far from the museum. I’m usually not big on monasteries and the likes, but this one was worth a visit. All the buildings were built from huge tree trunks.
After Ivan helped me purchase my ticket online to Moscow for the next day (thanks again for everything Ivan!), we all went for a walk around the city, making our way to a regular CouchSurfing meet-up that was being organised in a restaurant around half an hour away. Most decent sized cities have a meeting like this which happens on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis. It’s a good opportunity to meet some open minded locals and other travellers.
At this meeting, amongst others I met a couple of girls, Polina and Vera. When I left Ivan’s the next morning I actually ended up meeting with Polina and walked around the city some more before catching up with Vera also; these two, as well as Ivan, are another classic example of how friendly some of the people are that you meet when travelling.
We made our way to the 51st floor of one of the town’s tallest buildings to grab a drink and check out the view.
I really like some of the buildings in Russia. The churches especially are a sight to behold.
Yekaterinburg is actually right on the border of Asia and Europe. The city itself is still classified as Asia but over those hills in the photo above is European land.
You can see the Soviet influence in parts of the city. This place has a good vibe to it. I could tell I’m getting closer to Europe; there’s no stark contrast but things like the cars being driven around, the buildings, the food on offer and the way things are laid out shows I was definitely headed westward on this trip.
The trains used in the subway are rad. Much cooler than the newer electric ones you see elsewhere.
Concluding my visit to Yekaterinburg, Vera kindly escorted me to the train station on the metro to see me off on what would technically my final leg of the Trans-Siberian line to Moscow. I’m heading to St Petersburg also and I can’t wait to visit these two famous cities in person.
Thanks for reading! Check out the points below for a few tips on travelling along Russia on these trains.
– Bring hand sanitiser and toilet wipes. They have toilet paper but it’s good to be prepared.
– You can buy food at the bigger stops. The kiosks technically aren’t allowed to sell booze but if you ask for it they’ll suddenly locate some for you.
– If you want to smoke you need to bribe the officials by buying a souvenir, then you can smoke in the little bridge area between the carriages.
– Ear plugs and sleeping masks are your friends.
– All the timetables are in Moscow time. Get a world clock app on your phone; it makes life easier
– Brendan, if you want to play tickle-tickle dash-dash, run quickly
– It’s a good idea to bring along something that can be shared. It doesn’t have to be alcohol. Chips, cheese, fruits, whatever. The Russians seem to be quite big on anti-pasto type snacks. Having something to share goes a long way in making friends and you can be sure that the locals, being very hospitable by nature but even more so if you’re foreign, will offer you some of whatever they have so it’s nice to be able to return the gesture.
– The toilets, although well maintained, are the type that evacuate everything on to the tracks. Because of this they are locked five minutes before arriving at a station and unlocked five minutes after leaving so as to not leave piles of shit next to the platforms
– Using the ‘local’ trains which make loads of stops is the cheapest way to go and gives you the most options. Book accordingly to when they arrive in your destination city so that you get a full day. Don’t forget that unless you select it, the default times are shown in Moscow time so factor that in when compiling your itinerary