It was just getting bright outside as we stepped off our overnight train from Moscow and onto the deserted platforms of Nizhny Novgorod Railway Station at 4:30am. In about an hour’s time, our long-haul journey along the Trans-Siberian Railway was about to properly begin.
The length of track between Russia’s capital and its Pacific coastline plays host to dozens of scheduled train services, but for now, we were about to jump on THE Trans-Siberian Railway, at least for the next 41 hours on our way to Novosibirsk.
That’s because we were booked on the famed Rossiya train for this part of the journey – the weekly service between Moscow and Vladivostok that makes the full seven-day journey across the entire span of the world’s largest country.
To sample the full breadth of the Trans-Siberian experience, we had chosen to split our journey across the three classes of travel – spalny vagon, kupé, and plaskartny, otherwise known as First, second, and third class. And since the 41-hour journey to Novosibirsk would be the longest time we’d spend on the train, we had decided to treat ourselves to First Class on this segment.
We had an hour to kill before our train would arrive at 5:38am. We passed the time by making conversation with a Russian guy who was clearly inebriated, but also steadfastly curious as to what we were doing in this part of the world.
Using Google Translate to overcome the language barrier, we managed to establish that he was on his way back to Semyonov, the nearby town from which he hails, whereas we were embarking on a much longer journey all the way to Beijing. Our conversation eventually ended in an exchange of thumbs-ups as the Rossiya began entering the station.
Thus commences my comprehensive review of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the world-renowned train adventure that’s been capturing the hearts and minds of travellers around the world ever since its construction over a century ago.
Before we jump in, I’ve also made a YouTube video documenting the journey in First Class between Nizhny Novgorod and Novosibirsk, which you can watch below.
If you enjoyed the video, don’t forget to give it a “Like” or a comment, share it in your circles, and subscribe to the channel!
You can also read my first impressions of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which I had written shortly after the trip.
Trans-Siberian Railway | Russian Railways Train No.2 (Rossiya)
Cabin: First Class
Route: Nizhny Novgorod to Novosibirsk
Date: Sunday, July 8, 2018
Time: Departing 5:50am and arriving 1:21am two days later
Duration: 41 hours 31 minutes
The Rossiya train, emblazoned with the red RZD (Russian Railways) lettering, pulled into the station in all its glory. We had been assigned two berths in the First Class coach, Coach 15, which was towards the end of the train, so we walked along the platform to meet it as the train slowed to a stop.
The train doors opened and the provodnitsa – the carriage attendant who would be taking care of us during the train ride – stepped out to inspect our documents. After checking our passports against the train tickets, she waved us onboard.
We had been assigned Berths 15 and 16, which together comprised Compartment 8 in this train carriage. Sliding open the compartment door, we cast our eyes upon the place we’d call home for the next 40 hours or so.
Our first impression? Eh, could be worse!
First Class on the Russian trains consists of two berths within one compartment, and so it’s ideal if you’re travelling in a pair and want maximum privacy. The two berths are folded down into the “bed” position when you first arrive in your compartment, with the bed fully made and the pillows fluffed to a tee.
As you’ll see later, the beds can also be folded upwards so that they’re flush against the wall, leaving you with a separate cushioned bench that you can sit on during the day.
I stepped off the train briefly to capture some more platform footage, but hurried back on as the 5:50am departure time approached.
As the train began moving, we began to get settled in and take stock of our surroundings.
There’s a table at the far end of the compartment, beneath the window. The curtains can be drawn, and there’s also a blackout shade that you can pull down for absolute darkness.
Under the table there are electrical outlets, meaning that you can keep all your devices fully charged no matter how long you’re on the train. That was one of my concerns when I had been planning the trip, so I was relieved to see that electrical plugs were commonplace on virtually all Trans-Siberian trains.
Along the back wall of the compartment, there’s a small television screen mounted on top of the door. Meanwhile, quite usefully, the compartment door itself acts as a full-length mirror when closed.
There’s also a pair of coat hooks above each berth, as well as handlebars to help you reach the luggage storage space at the very top of the compartment, near the ceiling. This little alcove is positioned above the train corridor, and can be useful for storing very large suitcases.
Since we were only travelling with medium-sized luggage, we were able to store our belongings under the berths themselves, which was much more convenient.
The cushions along each side of the compartment can be lifted upwards to reveal small storage nooks and a towel rack.
Then you have these tiny little entertainment consoles embedded into the cushions. We never quite figured out how this one works, since there was never anything playing when we plugged in our headphones. Who knows, maybe it was just broken on this particular train.
Not long after we had departed from Nizhny Novgorod, the provodnitsa came by to validate our tickets once more. She also brought with her a complimentary snack box for us and two bottles of water, presumably because this was the First Class train service (we never got any complimentary snacks on any of our other train rides).
There wasn’t much to the snack box, though – a chocolate bar, a piece of candy, and a few tea packets.
The attendant also offered us coffee, which at this early hour we were desperately craving. The only problem was that we weren’t sure if it was free or if we’d have to pay for it. After a moment’s hesitation, I nodded, and she went to prepare two cups of coffee for us…
…only to return and say that it’d be 150 rubles each ($3). Oh well!
That would become a recurring theme throughout the journey to Beijing – a difficult language barrier with the Russian-speaking train attendants, for which my elementary Russian progress on Duolingo had sadly left me very much unequipped.
Lastly, the provodnitsa handed us two mugs that we could use throughout our time on the train. These distinctive Russian Railways-themed mugs possess a steel handle and frame, together with a cylindrical glass that you can remove for washing. They would’ve been awesome souvenirs to keep, but alas we surmised that we’d have to return them upon disembarking.
Having chugged our coffee, we made ourselves some tea to sip on. There’s a hot water boiler located at the end of each carriage, and you simply go up to it and help yourself to as much as you need.
One of the perks of travelling in First Class along the railways is that your bedding is already prepared for you – if you’re travelling in any other class of service, you’d be given a plastic package consisting of all your bedding, and you’d have to make the bed yourself.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a small amenity kit in one of the storage nooks, which briefly reminded me of the other “First Class” adventures I’ve been on recently. But not really 😉
The amenity kit consisted of slippers, a dental kit, a sewing kit, a shoe horn, and some shoe polish. Besides the slippers, which I donned immediately, I didn’t end up making much use of the contents.
I checked the time – not even one hour had passed. I had known it was going to be a long journey from the start, but now that I was sitting here, the fact that I’d be spending the next day and a half cooped-up within these four walls was just starting to sink in.
Temporary relief – in many senses of the word – took the form of a trip to the bathroom.
Now, back when I was first fleshing out this trip, the bathrooms on the train were by far what I had been dreading the most. I’ve travelled on plenty of trains back in China, and let me tell you, they are not pretty…
I was fearing the worst, and so I was pleasantly surprised to see that the facilities weren’t too bad at all!
There’s a small sink, a little bit of counter space for you to put your toiletries, and a toilet bowl that flushes very loudly. If any excess water spills onto the ground, it simply flows through a small drainage hole in the floor and onto the tracks below.
The First Class bathrooms aren’t being shared among too many passengers and are also routinely being maintained by the provodnitsa, so they’re actually pretty clean most of the time, and they don’t smell bad at all.
In terms of other interesting things in the train corridor, there’s a dot-matrix display on both ends of the carriage, showing you the outside temperature as well as the current time in Moscow. All Russian Railways stations and vehicles use Moscow time, which can vary from the local time by quite a bit – after all, Russia spans more of Earth’s time zones than any other country.
Indeed, whereas Nizhny Novgorod lies in the same time zone as Moscow (UTC+3), Novosibirsk is four hours ahead (UTC+7). We’d therefore be traversing four time zones over the course of this single train journey, which just further highlights the sheer scale of this Trans-Siberian undertaking.
There’s also a large garbage bin at either end of the train for you to dispose of your waste.
A few minutes later, we were greeted in our compartment by a different train attendant – we’d later discover that she was the attendant in charge of the restaurant car.
She asked us what we’d like to have for dinner. I didn’t really know how to ask what options there were, so I just shrugged my shoulders and she began rattling off the menu items.
Sausage? We nodded OK. Made of chicken? OK. Potatoes? OK. She seemed satisfied with that.
That left the small matter of deciding when we were going to eat. The attendant wrote “18:00” on a piece of paper, and I nodded, but she also emphasized that it was Moscow time, not local time.
“Moscow time, no local!” I nodded da, da, da to show that I understood.
Since we had only gotten about four hours of sleep on our overnight train, we were feeling pretty tired at this point. The coffee had done nothing for us, and as soon as Jessica pulled down the blackout shades, that was that – we fell asleep for the next eight hours or so.
By the time we woke up, we were astonished that ten hours of the journey had already gone by in the blink of an eye. As we had just discovered, the rocking motion of the train – ba-dum ba-dum, ba-dum ba-dum – has a certain way of putting you to sleep at odd hours.
It was pretty soon that we arrived at our first pit-stop – Balezino, a rural town in the Republic of Udmurtia of about 16,000 inhabitants. There wasn’t much to do here besides get some fresh air, stretch your legs a bit, and pick up some snacks and drinks and perhaps a few trinkets.
Back on the train, we pushed our beds up against the wall, converting them into proper cushioned seats for the rest of the day.
We tried watching the TV mounted at the top of our compartment, but somehow, none of the three grainy Russian-language channels that were available truly captured our attention.
After breaking open a few packs of instant noodles, we spent the rest of the afternoon playing Battleship and watching pre-downloaded shows on Netflix on Jessica’s tiny iPhone screen.
By now, we had already moved ahead by one time zone, and were getting close to the second “time jump” in our journey. As such, we ran the calculation on our dinnertime of 18:00 Moscow Time, heading towards the restaurant car at 19:00 local time sharp.
The restaurant car is Coach 11 on the Rossiya, meaning we had to walk through quite a few second- and third-class compartments on our way there. We were certainly feeling very grateful for our First Class bunks indeed!
Arriving at the restaurant car, we saw the same attendant who had taken our order earlier, but for some reason she angrily told us we couldn’t take photos – “no, no, no!” she repeated while waving her hands.
I really didn’t want to be denied food, and so complied with the request, but I was able to snap a few photos when the attendant left for another carriage sometime later. As you can see, it’s a real old-school feel, with semi-circular booths to one side, high-top seating to the other, and a small bar setup in the back.
The other end of the restaurant car consists of regular booth-style seating, and that’s where Jessica and I took our spots.
As First Class passengers, we were entitled to a free meal for the duration of our journey, although I’m not certain whether that’s one free meal for the whole ride or one free meal per day. Surely if you were taking the train all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok, you’d get a few more meals thrown in?
Meanwhile, I saw other passengers ordering food from the menu, so presumably they were travelling in other classes of service and were here to buy something to eat.
Dinner began with some packaged bread and bottled water.
That was followed by a light vegetable soup with some sour cream, which was pretty tasty.
The main course was exactly what had been described to us – a chicken sausage with mashed potatoes, plus a small salad on the side. Not a gourmet dish by any means, and it wasn’t exactly the most generous portion size either – but given that we weren’t expending much energy by sitting on the train, it was enough to fill us up.
Funnily enough, one of the waiters accidentally served us someone else’s portion of stir-fried mushrooms and potatoes. We had a few bites before the attendant noticed and hastily moved the plate to the other passenger’s table.
We made our next pit-stop that evening in the city of Perm. Our 20-minute stop wasn’t quite enough for me to go visit the local barber – instead, we just hung out on the platform and made conversation with other travellers.
We spoke to the two guys who were sharing the compartment beside us – Chinese travellers who were taking the long way back to Beijing after seeing a World Cup match in Russia – as well as a young Turkish guy who was spending seven days on this one train, all the way to Vladivostok, and in third class as well! Definitely wouldn’t want to be sharing bunks with him near the end…
Once we got back moving, it was about time to go to bed. I was originally under the impression that there were no showers onboard the Trans-Siberian Railway; however, it turns out that there are shower rooms on select trains, including the Rossiya, which you could use for 150 RUB ($3). However, Jessica and I both decided we didn’t really need to shower, since we weren’t doing much besides sitting around, and it somehow felt more authentic to take the train without the luxury of a shower anyway.
It seems fitting to engage in long, deep, thoughtful conversations with your travel companion when you’re hurtling across a vast continent by train, and that’s exactly what Jessica and I did. As we drifted off to sleep, we talked about our lives, our memories, our hopes and dreams.
And at one point, I realized that taking the Trans-Siberian Railway would’ve been one of my long-standing dreams, but that I was in fact fulfilling that dream right now.
We slept extremely soundly that night, waking up at around 1pm local time, with only 10 hours of the train ride to go. That was partly because it’s absolutely pitch-black in the compartment when you pull down the shades, but also, like I mentioned, the rocking motion of the train makes it very easy to just… sleep.
During our slumber, we had passed by Yekaterinburg, the traditional demarcation point between European Russia and Asian Russia, and also crossed into yet another time zone. Next stop was Omsk, where we’d be stationed for about 40 minutes.
We got off the train to stretch our feet and get some exercise along the footbridge leading towards Omsk’s distinctive baby-blue station building. We were definitely feeling a little uncomfortable by this point, having sat on the train for well over a day.
Only six more hours to go. There’s not much to do on the train, so you have to keep yourself entertained. I finished reading one of my books before challenging Jessica to another game of Battleship.
Later on, I bought some snacks to munch on while we watched more Narcos to pass the time. There’s a small snack tray set up next to the provodnitsa’s quarters, so you simply pick out whatever you like and give her the money. For some reason, she was equally as adamant as the other train attendant that no photos were allowed; as soon as I took a picture of the snack tray, she quickly rushed over and snatched it away.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that the outside scenery never really changed during this leg of the journey. From Nizhny Novgorod all the way to Novosibirsk, you’d see the occasional animal, house, or body of water, but otherwise it was just lush green terrain all the way.
Last pit-stop before the end – Barabinsk. By this point we were very eager to get off the train and experience some semblance of normal life once again. We had a decently long 30-minute break here, so I did wandered around the station building a little bit before doing 100 jumping jacks on the platform to get the circulation going.
Back on the train again, and the British couple who we’d been chatting with on the platform graciously invited us to their carriage for some liquor and snacks.
It felt like a quintessential Trans-Siberian Railway experience to spend some time chatting and laughing with complete strangers, and we indulged in quite a few pepperoni sticks and vodka shots – in fact, I probably had too much of the latter, since I had worked up quite a mean headache as our train approached Novosibirsk.
With about 20 minutes to go, we said goodbye to our new friends and went back to our carriage to pack things up. It was well into the night now, and our arrival in Novosibirsk was beckoning.
As we pulled into the station, we were so excited to check-in to our nice hotel for the evening, but we did not leave Compartment 8 of Coach 15 of the Rossiya without a tinge of wistfulness – after all, it had been our home for the past day and a half.
Walking down the platform and through the Novosibirsk Railway Station, I took in my surroundings, marvelling at just how unfamiliar they were. While I’ve certainly gazed at Siberia on a world map with curiosity before (who hasn’t?), I can safely say that I had never expected to actually find myself here one day. I was excited to spend the next few days exploring this new part of the world before resuming the eastbound journey.
First Class on the Trans-Siberian Railway isn’t exactly a hallmark of luxury, but it’s probably the best you’re going to get along this particular route. Private two-person compartments and complimentary dining in the restaurant car make this a decently comfortable way to travel.
I do wish I had gotten a better grasp of basic Russian so that I could communicate with the train attendants better, but besides that, I think the journey itself went very well. Jessica and I kept ourselves well-fed, occupied, and entertained, and we managed to get some very good rest along the way as well. This would be our longest train ride in duration, so upon disembarking, we were feeling happy to have conquered it and confident for the onward journey.