For many foreigners, riding the Trans-Siberian rail across the vast Russian countryside is a once-in-a-lifetime travel adventure. Most of us have romanticized visions of sitting in a cozy and comfortable train car while idly staring at the passing scenery. If you’re really a dreamer you might even have fantasies of meeting a kindly Russian who speaks accented but perfect English and she’ll be an absolutely perfect cabin mate for the next seven days. She’ll be easy on the eyes, smell nice and even share her black caviar, homemade blinis, and vodka with you. And, of course, she’ll have an advanced degree in Russian history and enlighten you with her vast knowledge of her country. Before you know it, you’re at the end of your 7-day, 9,289km trip and you and Tatiana exchange emails and promise to keep in touch.
Keep dreaming, silly foreigner.
On the second leg of our Trans-Siberian train trip we decided to save some money and take the third class carriage, platzkart, for our “short” 8-hour ride from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk. On the morning of our departure our AirBnB host dropped us off at the station and even stayed to make sure that we knew which platform to go to. The train pulled in and we headed to our carriage in the front. We climbed up onto the train and were a bit intimidated, to say the least, by what we saw. The smell of Russian man-stink smacked us in the face as we approached our berths, but we stayed calm and carried on.
Unlike the kupé (the second-class carriages), the platzkart had absolutely no privacy since there are no curtains or doors and you’re sharing the space with 53 other people. There are four berths along the left side of the carriage — two on top and two on the bottom — and along the right hand side of the carriage there are another two berths positioned lengthwise. These two lengthwise berths are the least desirable options for this carriage as they run along the aisle and are narrower than the other berths. The entire carriage is basically a mobile dormitory.
The platzkart was full of Russians and it just so happened that we were diagonally across from a group of young men who looked like they were going to or coming from a military outpost. Most of them were topless and wearing shorts and at least a couple of them hadn’t showered in a week. They eyed us for a bit, but eventually went back to their drinking and singing. Directly across from us was a cute 5 year old girl who innocently chattered away in Russian to us for a good five minutes even though we clearly didn’t understand. Her mother tried to explain that to her, but the little girl didn’t seem to care and continued to babble at us. She became much less cute when she sat in the top bunk and rattled the safety bar for the next 10 minutes of the ride. I generally make it a rule not to beat other people’s children because the parents get all pissy about it, but this girl was begging for a beatdown. Luckily for her, her mother came back and told her to knock it off.
Since we had another 7 hours and 49 minutes on this joy ride, I occupied myself with my Kindle while KS listened to her music and fantasized about being somewhere far, far away. After another hour we finally settled in like real Russians, sorta. We opened up our lower berth, took off our shoes and tried our best to breathe through our mouths. Unlike foreign tourists, most Russians don’t take the Trans-Siberian rail for the pure joy of it. For them it’s just another form of transportation and for people in the smaller towns, it’s the only way to get from one place to another. And unlike the first- or second-class carriages, the platzkart is almost always full because it’s the cheapest option (this ride cost us less than $30 each).
It was definitely eye-opening for us and even though I wouldn’t recommend riding platzkart for a trip over 8 hours, it was still a good adventure and certainly enriched our Russian experience. If you’re a hearty traveler and you want to meet and talk with Russians, then the platzkart is a very economical option and probably your best bet for making new friends. Although we didn’t make any friends on this ride, I think if we had been on the train for more than 8 hours some of our neighbors would’ve let their curiosity get the best of them and they’d probably start chatting us up like the little girl did. Who knows, we could’ve met a nice Russian girl with caviar, blinis and vodka to share.
Note from KS concerning the bathroom situation: Although N managed to hold in her bodily functions for the duration of our ride, I had to go. This must’ve been one of the older trains, because the bathroom consisted of a stainless steel toilet with a lever, which you push with your foot after you’ve done your business, and water streams out of the sides of the bowl to push the contents of the bowl directly onto the tracks below. I saw the tracks rushing past below as I involuntarily marked my territory somewhere in the Siberian wilderness. With 50+ people sharing one toilet, it gets pretty nasty very quickly.