Things to Do on a Russian Train12/28/2021
Russia’s sheer size and diversity of its many regions, from the western forests to the Siberian Taiga, from the frozen north to the warm steppes of Buryatia, make it challenging in to experience in full. The country’s expansive rail network lets travelers experience a broad swath of the country in a short time, but that does involve a lot of downtime riding the rails between destinations, especially on some of the longer journeys like the Beijing Moscow train. So how best to occupy yourself during this travel time? Well, here are some suggestions of things to do (and bring) to keep even the transit portion of your journey entertaining and memorable.
Read a Book
The quiet, lulling downtime of the Beijing to Moscow train is a perfect time to catch up on your reading – and not just a guidebook to plan your next stop. Since you’re immersing yourself in Russian culture on your trip, why not pick some literature to enhance the experience?
Heading to Moscow? Read The Master and the Margarita, a magnificent satire by Mikhail Bulgakov (and you can check out his museum when you arrive). If you’re planning to see the GULAG museum, Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales will deepen your understanding before your visit. And Pushkin’s controversial play Boris Godunov is a window on the brief reign of a medieval Tsar.
For St Petersburg, try Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for a glimpse into the city in the 19th Century. Or for a more street-level view, try Nikolai Gogol’s Petersburg Tales. For more recent (and darker) history, try Lidiya Ginzburg’s gripping story of life under the Nazi Siege of Leningrad in Zapiski Blokadnogo Cheloveka (Blockade Diary).
And a perfect accompaniment to a trip on the Trans-Siberian is Daniel Beevor’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars or Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead for a view of Siberia’s dark history. Try Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago If your trip takes you through Perm, where the mansions used for inspiration still stand.
Trains are a mainstay of transportation in Russia, and not just for tourists. Russians love riding by train, and any trip on the Russian rails will introduce you to a range of locals. The Trans-Siberian, in particular, is heavily used as its one of the best ways to cross Russia. So why not take the opportunity to make a few new friends? A phrase book or translation app (an offline version – mobile service can be spotty, particularly on the Trans-Siberian) can help you get acquainted with your neighbors. Also, remember that it’s a common feature of Russian hospitality to offer food and drink, so be prepared to reciprocate in kind. Bring along some snacks to share – especially something from home your new friends may not have had the chance to sample before – or pick up something from station venders on the route. And it’s also a good idea to bring some games – chess, cards, and the like – as a way of passing the time with your new companions.
Take a Stroll
Since Russian trains don’t offer hop-on, hop-off tickets, spending longer than the few minutes the train waits in the station would require separate bookings. Otherwise, you may have only enough time for a quick stroll around the station, or sometimes just beyond it – though be aware many stops are literally just a few minutes and the famously prompt Russian trains don’t wait for stragglers! So, if you need to stretch your legs, why not do so on the train? Walking the train’s corridors lets you take in the beautiful passing landscape – especially on picturesque routes like the Trans-Siberian – and can be a great way to shake off the cloistered feeling of your seat or compartment for a bit. And you can always stop in the restaurant car for coffee, tea, a quick meal or just a little social time.
Pass the Time with Video
Of course, you can also wile away the time with videos to enhance your Russian experience. Try the BBC’s 2016 adaptation of War and Peace or the film Brat (1997) for glorious and gritty views of St Petersburg, respectively. Experience Moscow through the films Ya Shagayu po Moskve (Walking the Streets of Moscow) from 1964 or Moskva Slezam ne Verit (Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears) from 1980. Or if you visit around the New Year, savor some Russian classics from the season – Karnivalnaya Noch (Carnival Night, 1956), Ivan Vasilyevich Menyayet Professiyu (Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession, 1973) or Ironiya Sudby (The Irony of Fate, 1975).
Remember that internet or mobile service may be unavailable, some come prepared with pre-downloaded videos for your trip.
Russia is a vast and varied country, with so much to do and see even the most tireless traveler will need a break. Just take a look at the Trans Siberian Railway map to see the sheer scope of travel on the Trans-Siberian railroad! So perhaps the best use of your time on the train is simply to recoup and recharge so you’re ready to chase your Russian adventure full speed once again at your next stop!