Trains in the former Soviet Union

Travel on trains in the former Soviet Union is a slightly different experience, compared with travelling in the UK. In my travels over the years I’ve taken quite a few trains across the region, from short hops between neighbouring capitals to long overnight journeys through the wildernesses that made up much of the USSR. I’ve also travelled on the Trans-Mongolian Express, but that was back in 2006 so I’m sure things have changed quite somewhat.

The majority of this information is slightly more recent, coming mainly from my adventures in 2014.

Trains are often slower than buses doing the same routes, and more expensive. However as the trains are longer and often have a bed rather than a seat, it means you’re more likely to be able to get some sleep than on a bus.

What do the trains look like?

A train strolling around a sweeping curve as it passes through the dry plains of Uzbekistan. The photo is taken from near the rear of the train and you get a sense of just how long the train is. It's also an ugly shade of green.
The train I took through Uzbekistan. You can get a feel for its length; I’m not even at the back of it.

The trains in the former Soviet Union tend to be a bit longer than you might be used to elsewhere in the world. Not much longer in the case of the train I went from Bucharest to Chisinau on, but the long-distance services in Russia and Central Asia are huge – to the extent if you stand in the middle, on the platform, you can’t see either end. The ‘Amu Darya’ service I took across Uzbekistan (Tashkent to Urgench) was around 18 carriages, while the Trans-Mongolian trains were … uncountable. The carriages are a bit higher than UK ones, and you have to climb up a couple of iron steps to get in. They’re generally not garishly decorated, and to be honest most of the ones I’ve been on have been showing their age. In fact they’re quite ugly, let’s be honest.

What facilities do the trains have?

The layout of the trains in the former Soviet Union is similar to other parts of the world. There’s a long corridor along one side of the carriage, off which there are several compartments, which in second class contain generally four ‘sofas’ arranged like bunks, in a 2×2 pattern. When I travelled 1st class on the Trans-Mongolian back in 2006 (Beijing – Ulaanbaatar, then Ulaanbaatar – Moscow), there were only two ‘sofas’, arranged either both on either side of the compartment, or one on top of the other like two bunks, depending on the train. Bedding is provided (generally a thick ‘base’ to sleep on, a couple of blankets, a large pillow and a pillowcase). Each bed has a small light, there’s a small table by the window, and small curtains that oft don’t cover the whole window. On some trains there is a sliding door between the compartment and the corridor; on many there are not and it’s open-access.

At first glance there isn’t much space to store stuff, but the bottom bunks ‘lift up’ to reveal storage space below. Some of the more wily passengers on some routes – especially the ones in/out of the EU – use all manner of interesting storage spaces for smuggling stuff – it’s amazing where you can hide a pack of cigarettes.

There’s a toilet at one end of each carriage, and often an urn for hot water at the other. On the longer distance routes in Russia, the train stops at major stations for maybe 20-30 minutes so you have time to go shopping for things like pots of dried noodles which you then use the urn to make. Note that apart from maybe an announcement of the station name, there’s no further information given, and the trains don’t wait for you so woe betide if you don’t re-board in time. Timetables are noted in the carriages, and include arrival and departure times.

It’s possible, and indeed quite common, to stand either in the corridor and look out the windows, or to stay by the external doors at the ends of the carriage and get some proper air – just don’t fall out! The disadvantage is this is above the wheels and the axles between the carriages, so it’s quite a bumpy journey here.

On the train I took through Uzbekistan, every so often some children would wander through the train selling water and snack foods. On a couple of the other trains there’s a dining car, at least in the upper classes, though there’s no guarantee the food will be available; I had the same experience on a very similar train in Zimbabwe.

Not long after the train departs, the conductor comes around and takes your tickets. They return them to you at the end of the journey (on my trip into Moldova they returned the ticket but not the conformation of the seat reservation). I have no idea why they do this.

In addition, on one of the trains I took, as I was walking down the platform past coach 8, the guard there checked my ticket and said ‘you want coach 14 but it’s a bit rubbish. If you pay a bit extra you can go in this one, it’s much better’.

What happens when you cross an International Border on the trains?

Crossing the international border from outside the ex-Soviet Union to inside requires changing the bogies – the wheel base that the train runs on. This is because Soviet railways have a different gauge/size to non-Soviet railways, apparently because it made it harder for countries to use the rail network to invade them. The process of changing the bogies involves moving the train to a specialist piece of line with both gauges on it, lifting each carriage separately, rolling the old bogies out, sliding new ones underneath, and reattaching the carriage. They’re only attached by a couple of nuts and bolts. It took around an hour for the train into Moldova to be changed.

Crossing borders previously within the Soviet Union depend largely on which border is being crossed, but generally it’s exactly how you’d expect – the train stops before the border to allow border guards to come inside and check passports, to stamp people out. This can take up to an hour. The train then moves very slowly across the border and stops just beyond it. The new country;s border guards board the train, to check passports/visas and do other admin. Customs checks are also more thorough exiting than entering, and the process can take a couple of hours in total. In most cases you stay on the train (and are not allowed to get off, even), and there’s generally no announcements as to how long the process will take.

Some border crossings are quite quick. On the way into Moldova from Romania the conversation between us and the customs official went: ‘Have you anything to declare?’ / ‘No’ / ‘Okay then’. In addition, a doctor came round and asked if we were all feeling okay – this was an even quicker conversation.

Many of the journeys are long, which means overnight trains are common – this often means borders are reached around 3-4am. Since the process of crossing the border may take a couple of hours if the train’s quite long, this often means disturbed sleep.

How do the locals react to a foreigner on board?

In general the people are friendly, but more out of curiosity than openly welcoming. Obviously there’s often a language barrier to get through first, but as with most other settings, perseverance eventually works to an extent. It helps to be sleeping in the same cabins as the locals. On my Trans-Mongolian adventure me and my friend were in a cabin on our own, in a carriage only half-full, and even that with other foreigners, so had limited opportunity to meet the locals.

On my journey through Uzbekistan, I ended up chatting to four local Uzbeks, one of whom was acting as an interpreter – after a fashion, anyway. They genuinely didn’t seem to understand why I was there, yet were still impressed that I was seeing as much of Uzbekistan as I was. They were also most interested in my personal life – was I married, did I have children – and were confused when I said I wasn’t, and wanted to know why. I’m not sure there is an answer to that question really; obviously the culture is different so most people would be expected to be married with children by the time they reach 30. I generally carry with me a photo of a female friend I can easily access on my camera or phone at all times though, partly for just this very situation.

How easy is it to sleep on board the trains?

It’s easier to sleep on trains in the former Soviet Union if you’re not 1m90 tall.

I actually quite like sleeping on trains. It’s pretty much the only form of transport I can get a decent doze on. I think it’s because I’m lying down. There are just two problems I personally find. Firstly the bunks aren’t quite long enough for me to lie down in, which is fine normally as I tend to sleep on my side with my knees bent, but it means if I want to stretch out, I can’t. Secondly, if you’re in a compartment with bunk beds, there’s a lack of space above your head. It’s quite difficult to sit up in bed.

Inside a train in the former Soviet Union; showing the luggage rack and the lack of space on the bunk. Warning, contains bare feet.
View from the bunk on the train in Uzbekistan – you can see how little room there is above me.

The journeys themselves are comfortable and the bedding isn’t too bad. It doesn’t feel much like you’re on a train; you can barely hear or feel the movements of the carriage, so it’s easy to lie back and rest without being jostled about like you might be on a bus.

Are shorter journeys different?

I took a train from Minsk to Vilnius. This is quite a short hop as trains in the former Soviet Union go, at only three hours including the border crossing. Unlike all the information I said above, this was a two-carriage effort that looked for all the world like something you’d find plying the regional railways in the UK. Except much nicer, obviously, though I felt just as squashed-in – much less room for luggage and people sitting far closer to you.

The recorded announcement at the start of the journey was in three languages (Belorussian, Lithuanian, and American) and for some reason accompanied by the sound of panpipes. In addition, the digital display in the carriages told us useful things like current speed (80km/h in Belarus, rising to 114km/h in Lithuania) and the temperature (13°C at the start of the journey outside, 22°C inside).

The driver sounded like he had a very shrill hand-held whistle that he blows on entering a station. This was different to the train’s horn that he blew at every level crossing. It felt much more like I was on a train, rather than a long moving container.

Leaving Belarus was very quick. It consisted of a gaggle of guards coming on en masse and processing everyone like ticket inspectors would. Unlike any other border crossing I traversed on trains in the former Soviet Union, they had laptops to process things with, complete with barcode-reading slot so they can scan in things like the passport and printed tickets (bear in mind this was 2014). Conversely, passport control and customs for entering Lithuania were in Vilnius Railway Station itself, like Eurostar, in a quite compact and crowded room.

How do you buy a ticket for the trains?

For the train between Kyiv and Minsk, I went to the main railway station in Kyiv and bought it in person. At most of the main stations there’s usually one ticket counter that handles foreign journeys, and often (though not always) identifiable in several different languages and scripts. There’s no guarantee the person behind the counter speaks anything other than the local language and Russian however, so make sure you brush up on some simple phrases and/or have things written down before you get there.

I bought my ticket across Uzbekistan through my accommodation. They sent someone to the station to buy the ticket on my behalf. It was a service I had to pay a bit extra for, but it saved a lot of hassle, especially for someone like me who has a kind of social anxiety, when having to deal in foreign languages.

For the Trans-Mongolian Express, we bought them at specialist ticket offices near the main railway stations in Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. They served as travel agents, but were effectively official ticket handlers for foreigners.

For some countries you can buy tickets online – this is how I bought my ticket out of Belarus. By now this is probably more common than it was when I was taking these journeys.

One other point to note – in Uzbekistan there was quite a lot of security at the main station in Tashkent. I had to show my ticket and passport before I could even enter the building, and again at the airport-style x-ray machine/metal detectors. It wasn’t quite Israel-standard security, but it was certainly more than I’m used to in most of the world.

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