I realized recently that I have not been diligent enough in continuing my posts now that I am home in the United States. I was hoping to have some new blog material, as my husband and I had an extensive trip planned, which was to take us back to Saint Petersburg, and then onto Kiev (Chernobyl), Prague, Warsaw and Bryansk, Russia. Unfortunately, I had a minor medical complication arise and was told that I should not travel outside the bounds of Western medicine at this time, and so I am learning the importance of spending those extra few dollars on travel insurance! While we hope to rebook everything in the coming months, for now, I would like to take a moment to reflect on an important aspect of living and getting around in the post Soviet space – train travel.
In my personal opinion, anyone who wants to plan a trip to Russia, or perhaps some of the neighboring post-Soviet countries, would enjoy a stellar cultural experience by opting to take an overnight train somewhere (preferably, not just the mid-night train to Moscow). Unlike our Amtrak system here in the United States, the Russian railway network is not only extensive, but affordable for most people. That being said, from my understanding, it seemed that the average Russian would travel by train and not via plane to get from point A to point B – even if it is a three day journey to do so, as one young man we met on our way to Murmansk.
There are usually three, and on some trains, four or five classes that one can choose to travel in. The standard classes are Плац (platz), Купе (Kypé), Люкс (Lux), and sometimes you will also see an option for Общ (Obshe) or Мягк (Myagk). If you want to learn a little Russian while contemplating which class to choose, try looking at their literal translations into English on Google translate! Platz translates as “parade” or “parade ground,” Kypé as “compartment,” and “Lux” is, of course, Luxury. Общ translates as “society,” “common,” or “general,” and is usually the least expensive ticket, when available (I’ve been told it’s just a seat). Мягк translates as “soft” and is usually the most expensive ticket of them all – I do not know as to the accommodations Мягк provides, but I’m sure they’re grand!
Personally, I’ve traveled only in Platz and once in, Kypé. I would say that the majority of budget Russian travelers will travel in Platz, as it is usually very inexpensive in comparison to the other classes, and yet one is still provided with a bed and linens. In Platz, you travel in an open car filled with bed platforms (hence the funny nature of the translation “parade ground”!). The configuration along one side of the train car is composed of semi-divided compartments accommodating four beds, two on each side of the dividing walls. The other side of the train car has two beds alongside the car wall, within the semi-divided compartments. All beds are coordinated верхнее and нижнее (upper and lower bunks) and on the side-car beds, the bottom bunk is a convertible table/bed. The difference between Platz and Kypé is the level of privacy and “head” space on the upper bunk. In Platz, if you are lucky enough to be stuck in an upper bunk, you WILL feel STUCK for the duration of the train ride (unless one is willing to let you sit on their lower bunk). You literally cannot sit up in the bed space without bumping your head on the storage area above. Kypé is a train car made up of private compartments with four beds in each one and ample side storage space, allowing people in the upper bunks to enjoy sitting up in bed – no bumping heads! The beds are usually nicer and the ticket price higher. The disadvantage to Kypé depends on who you get stuck riding with, as you are in an enclosed compartment for much of the ride. You can either make the best of it and get to know your fellow travelers, or sit quietly to yourself (in my experience, this would never happen – I always got to play “20 questions,” in Russian). I’ve never ridden the train in Lux, so I cannot tell you much about it, but I’ve heard it’s nice (and pricey!)
As for my experience in the other two classes, I will always opt for Platz when available, as I am a budget traveler and I enjoy the open nature of the train car. Additionally, the bathroom situation does not change much from Platz to Kypé, making the higher ticket cost not very worthwhile to me. Which reminds me, when choosing a bed, it is best to opt for a bunk that’s not next to the toilet, if the option is available! Honestly, the bathroom (which is just called “туалет” – toilet – in Russian) is the worst part of the Russian train experience. While I will not go into much detail regarding the bathrooms on board, I will say that I was told that people sometimes stand on the toilet seats in public restrooms in Russia, and in the train bathrooms, the toilets are equipped with footpads underneath the lid!
Some things to keep in mind before choosing to travel the Russian rail: first of all, from my personal experience, most train workers, including those whom you must purchase the tickets from, do not speak English, but you may find some Russians on board who do speak little or fluent English, as I regularly did. If your train will be crossing country borders, this is very important to keep in mind. In Eastern Europe, Belarus can be problematic for Western travelers on certain routes because the country requires an additional visa to pass through for citizens of non-CIS countries (I learned this one the hard way once!) On the website www.tutu.ru, you can not only reserve train tickets (unless you are using an American bank card), but you can check a train route underneath the train number where it reads “Маршрут.” Additionally, not all trains have a cafe car on board, so pack food, beverages and snacks as necessary for the duration of the ride. In each car, there is always a Samavar (a large hot water boiler/dispenser), which can be used for making oneself prepackaged soups, mashed potatoes, tea, coffee, etc. If you are lucky enough to be on a train with a cafe on board, there are often meals available for purchase, as well as beverages and snacks; I always found the cafe car to be a nice place to retreat, sit and enjoy the scenery passing by outside.
That being said, I’ve compiled a series of train photos I took while in transit on the Russian rail. Please enjoy this tiny glimpse of life as seen from the windows while traveling via train in Russia and beyond.