Advice for Americans and other foreigners traveling long-distance on Russian trains.

As I mentioned, I was recently in Siberia, specifically in Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic. But before I can tell you about Kyzyl, I have to tell you how I got there. I took the train! This (obviously) makes me an expert on Russian long-distance trains, so I will share my wisdom with the rest of the world.


Russian trains have three “classes”: In platskart, there are no doors and something like 60 people sleep on bunks together and share one bathroom. Kupe has separate compartments with four bunks each and a lockable door. And Luxe is fancier, but I’ve never been in it, so I can’t tell you what it’s like.

For my trip, I was in platskart for one day from Arkhangelsk to Moscow, and then kupe from Moscow to Abakan, for three days. There are pros and cons to kupe. There’s slightly more privacy, and if you find three friends to travel with you, you have a lot of security, because you can lock yourselves in. But, when it comes to being a young woman traveling alone, some say it’s better to go platskart, because that way there are more people around. You never know who might get locked into that kupe with you.

I was traveling alone half the way, until my colleague Anita joined up and occupied the other lower bunk of the kupe for the last two days. I had no problems in either platskart or kupe.

With all options, you get bed linens and a towel with which to create a tiny little domestic cubby on your bunk for however long the train will be home.


My first train experience, a short 24-hour jaunt to Moscow back in May, was not very pleasant, mostly because I was unprepared in the food department. The Siberian Adventure was much better.

Apart from my suitcase, I had a backpack stuffed with provisions, and never had to visit the restaurant car. I took with me: several liters of water, three apples, dried apricots, a package of smoked braided cheese, three baked pastry thingies, half a loaf of bread, sliced gouda cheese and salami (which was still okay, if a little greasy, after three days unrefrigerated), two packages instant mashed potatoes, two packages instant soup, cookies, crackers, a carton of juice, and a bunch of tea bags. Perhaps someday I’ll be skilled enough to bring pickles, packages of smoked salmon, jars of mayonnaise, and whole baked chickens, like real Russians.

I brought my own mug, utensils, an extra towel, and a package of paper napkins, after observing the super-prepared people in the bunks across from me in platskart on my way to Moscow last time.

The most important thing to know is that there is an unlimited supply of free hot water, which you get from a large, industrial-looking samovar tank at the head of the car, near the conductor’s compartment. So, you can make tea, instant coffee, and any other instant food to your heart’s content. You can also buy tea or coffee from the conductor for 15 rubles, and it comes in the wonderful, classic Russian train cups.


Two words: Baby Wipes.

The biggest difference between Russian and American trains (apart from the fact that Russian trains are always on time) is that on Russian trains there are no showers. Russians carry moist towelettes around the way Americans might carry hand sanitizer, and I had taken to carrying them myself—but I am so glad I had a whole package of proper baby wipes with me on the train. It’s amazing how one or two of those, appropriately applied, can make you feel fresh and clean in the morning.

Also, while hot water is limitless, toilet paper might not be, so I suggest you bring your own. Basically, spend as little time in the bathroom as possible.

Finally, someone suggested a headscarf, and it was quite effective at helping me forget how unwashed my hair was after three days.


Four days is a long time to sit in a confined space alone. I recommend enjoying the scenery, but there’s only so many hours of scenery one can handle in a day.

I brought more than I ended up using in terms of diversions, but that’s better than the alternative. I read A Clockwork Orange, which I’d been meaning to read since my first year of college, and which I enjoyed a lot less than I was expecting to. I also brought a Russian magazine and a book, and my dictionary, with the noble idea of working on my language on the train, but that didn’t pan out.

And of course I made sure to have my iPod fully charged before I left. There are a few electrical outlets in each train car, but it’s probably better to plan not to have to use them. My best decision was the suggestion from Randi (of course) to splurge on downloading the audiobook of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. It turned out to be really interesting and helped get me in the mood for my adventure.

The only thing I wish I’d brought is a map of Russia with the train route on it. The train stops pretty frequently, especially before actually getting to Siberia, and I kept wondering, How far have we gone? Have we crossed the Urals? Are we actually in Siberia yet? Where the hell are we?

After a while, though, I got used to it, and just enjoyed the rocking of the train and standing at the window in the corridor to catch an afternoon breeze in the heat of midday.

Things I Don’t Talk About

There are certain traps I’ve fallen into when I lived abroad before, certain cycles and topics of conversation that took hold and controlled the way I communicated with my friends and family back home. I’ve made a concerted effort this time around not to let that happen.

We all knew graduating from college would mean changes for our friendships. But, being the farthest away in geography, time, and culture of my group of friends puts me in a unique position. I get enough of being unique here, though, as (usually) the only American in Arkhangelsk. In order to keep the conversations as normal as possible, here is a brief enumeration of the things I don’t talk about with my friends:

What time is it there? The conversation about how late it is in Russia already, and how weird it is that we’re communicating across time and how awkward it is to find a time to talk is only interesting once. As soon as I got to Russia, I installed a panel of clocks across the top of my computer desktop, one for each time zone that contains someone I love, and I refer to them regularly when I start chatting with someone, to orient myself to what part of the day my friend is at, and how long I might expect them to be able to stick around. I don’t mind if they ask me what time it is, but I try to keep that line of questioning to a minimum.

How’s the weather? This is not an interesting conversation in person, and it’s not interesting online either. Unless the cold is having a dramatic impact on my mood or my life today, I don’t want to spend 20 minutes talking about it. Yes, -22°F is cold, and yes, there’s still snow on the ground in mid April, but, look, I didn’t expect it to be in the 70s and sunny in the Arcitc. It also gives me neither pleasure nor jealousy to hear about how unseasonably warm it is in Pennsylvania. I would rather hear about the heat with your new boyfriend ;)

нуфр ерфе ыщ екгу Woops, I left my keyboard in Russian! This happens a lot. Sometimes I’ll google a Russian article or look up a word in the online dictionary, and then switch back to facebook to chat with someone, and initially type some Cyrillic gibberish when was supposed to say “hahaha.” It’s amusing the first time, but after that it only looks like me showing off how multicultural I am. I try to pay attention when I’m chatting, and correct my keyboard before I hit enter.

I miss you. This is a tough one. Because, yes, a lot of my time is spent missing my friends. But if all we talk about it how much we miss each other, the friendship stagnates. I think this is going to be the biggest challenge for friendship as our generation gets older. We became close when we were physically close, living across the street from each other, taking classes and eating meals and going out together every single day. And now we’re all far apart, and I’m far from everyone.

Even if I had stayed in the States, though, my socialization efforts would be flung far and wide across the Internet. Instead of mass texts to my college friends about where we’ll meet for dinner, I’m having individual conversations in slow-motion across multiple platforms and multiple time zones and states. While several friends have stayed in or gone back to Northampton, I have friends now in New Orleans,  New York, and Copenhagen.

The way we’re keeping in touch and communicating is changing rapidly. All communication is long-distance these days, and long-distance communication is faster and closer and easier than it ever was before. Even when I’m home, I text with my friends in town multiple times a day, to check in, to clarify when we’re meeting up next, to share a funny story. We’re geographically close, but our communication happens in the ether. And here, in Russia, it’s not uncommon to find myself switching between different platforms to talk to different people at the same time. I’ll chat with Shanna and Wei on gchat while they’re at work, and Andrew and Kait on facebook between their classes. Mom and Esther on skype once a month or so, and Dad via email maybe once a week. It’s all so easy, so simple, so close — everyone is just a click away. But maintaining all those relationships to the extent that they existed when we were all together is simply impossible, and the big social challenge of our generation will be learning how to be friends with spaces in between.