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.

Accommodations.

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.

Food.

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.

Hygiene.

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.

Entertainment.

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.

Russian Jabberwocky

Yesterday, fumbling for a last-minute lesson plan for my night class, I decided to have students (all two of them) read Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky.” If you haven’t read it or don’t remember it, here’s the text.

They were horrified at how many words they didn’t know, until I told them that a lot of the words were made up. Then they were just confused. We went line by line through the poem, and I asked them to tell me what they thought each made up word might mean. They finally got into it a little, and came up with some fun interpretations.

In the first stanza, they decided the “slithy toves” were happy animals of some sort, since “gyre” and “gimble” sounded carefree and positive to them. The “borogoves” were large, bull-like animals of a dark color, and they were also happy. The “mome raths” were the mothers of the borogoves, making some sort of loud noise.

Some of the other definitions they decided on:

  • frumious: furious and dangerous
  • whiffling: moving so quickly that it makes the trees whistle
  • tulgey: dark and somber
  • galumphing: running very fast

Then, we watched two clips of different readings of “Jabberwocky,” this one of an adorable little girl reciting the poem:

And this one, a classical reading by an enthusiastic British man:

They liked the first one better (for obvious reasons), but found the second one easier to understand. They also brought up the difference between the readings of “one, two! one, two!” and argued that the girl’s reading was better, because “snicker-snack” seemed like a fast sound, rather than a slow one.

Overall, I was impressed by what they came up with, considering the fact that they were obviously skeptical about the purpose of the exercise. But I think it helped to get them thinking about figuring out what words mean based on context, breaking their dependency on their phone translators a little bit.