Russian Trains

In all their glory and chaos

Every direction, left, right, up, and down, there are people. Over fifty of us in one train car alone. Some are old, others young. There are families, solo travelers, groups of friends, a squad of soldiers, and an old man with his dog. Along the walls can be seen two levels of small, fold-out beds, the lower close to the floor while the upper, just below the ceiling. Through the middle of the wagon runs a narrow walkway, just big enough for one at a time. At either end is a bathroom. Windows line the sides, but only a few of them open, making it a bit difficult to air out the various scents of humanity. Adjusting my pillow, I laid down flat on my back, just able to fit without falling out, and gazed out the window. All around me, some people chatted among one another, others snacked, while several had already gone to sleep. We were headed south, going from the Russian cities Kazan to Samara, and there were sixteen hours left to go.

It was my second such ride within a week, the first being from Moscow to Kazan, and like the first time, it seemed as if I was the only foreigner in the 3rd class, open compartment. It was no place of luxury, as comfort and space were minimal. I knew, by the next morning, I would probably be a bit sleep deprived and my back was going to be sore. That was exactly what happened previously, and this time the conditions were exactly the same. I knew this going into it, and still willingly made the choice to travel by train without any hesitation.

It's hard to explain why, but despite the discomforts, there's something wonderful about going across the world's largest country by train. Even before I began, I was drawn to this romanticized idea of riding the rails through overgrown birch forests and along wild untamed rivers. Just roughing it with a few dozen other random people, from a culture on the other side of the world for this one brief moment gave be a certain sense of excitement that was unique in unto itself. And the fact that this was just something routine for the rest of my fellow travelers only added to the feeling. It added to the whole humanity aspect of it and served as a stark reminder of just how unbelievably big the country is.

I wondered (maybe just because I'm weird), who these people were and where they were heading to. Could they be moving to start a new life? Maybe visiting relatives or close friends? Whatever the reason, I just found it so interesting how each person seemed to have their own routine and method. Some sat together and drank tea, others liquor, while about half just kept to themselves and settled into a book or movie on their phone/laptop. And somehow it all worked. The atmosphere was uniformly relaxed and no one seemed (at least visibly) to be bothered by the many hours ahead. Likewise, no one complained whenever the train stopped for a while. It was just all part of the journey that all of them had done before and will do again.

 Train in the rain!

Train in the rain!

 More train and more rain!

More train and more rain!

I would be lying if I didn't say this whole thing was an ordeal. It absolutely was. 30 hours in the span of a few days in a small space surrounded by tons of others is by no means a luxury. But, that said, I cannot stress enough how it's all worth it. I got to see so much of the earth I, in no other way, could have, and I got to do it by myself as a foreigner (tourists don't seem to go to Samara). And yes, there are many people who have done this for the whole seven day Trans-Siberian route (maybe even some of you reading this have). I can only imagine that you too had a unique, yet incredibly substantial experience, probably even far greater than mine. It was not the easiest thing in the world, nor was all of it pleasurable, but given the opportunity, I'd travel this way every time.