The trains are one of the great Russian experiences, especially the night trains. Obviously the trans-Siberian week-long adventure is the ultimate, but you can get a lot of the experience on shorter journeys as well. This weekend I got the train to Kazan, 13 hours away, with three friends, and it encapsulated a lot of what's unique and special about Russia
Arriving at the station (eventually), we stepped out into a huge brick and steel building, filled with steam from the trains - all made of metal and with uniformed attendants checking your ticket and passport at each door. There was a roof, but it wasn't enclosed, so it was as cold inside as outside, so we hurried to our train with our breath on the air in front of us. The combination of the cold, such a huge building, the smoke, and the guards looked like what a Russian station *should* look like, and set us up right for the trip.
Once you get used to the trains, they're all basically the same. Three classes- super expensive, second class, where you have four people per cabin, and third class, where there are about 50 beds in a dormitory carriage. When you get into your cabin, you get a mattress roll, a blanket, a pillow and a plastic package containing sheets and a tea towel. Each carriage has a samovar (hot water boiler) so you can make tea and cuppa soups or noodles, because the Russians can't live for more than about an hour without a cup of tea. They all have loos and sinks that have hot and cold taps and a drinking water fountain but no running water (actually, to be fair, the super modern train we got on the way to Kazan did have water). And they have an attendent, who checks your tickets and sells you tea and coffee and snacks and shouts at you if you get out of line. Allegedly, if you ask nicely, they will occasionally open the windows in the corridor for you, but I have yet to see evidence of this.
The practicalities of train life still have a lot of novelty for me, which makes it fun, and this one was particularly magical. Getting on the train, we were quickly out into the snow - it was dark, so we could only see a little way out of the train, passing occasional lights and settlements, miles and miles of silver birches reflecting the light from the train, and perfect, untouched snow beside the train. Then, of course, Russian weirdness kicked in. We stopped for half an hour, and everyone got off and walked around a bit - and there were a load of random traders selling not what I would expect - chocolate, crisps, pies, etc, but glow-in-the-dark Christmas trees, chandeliers, and, best of all, one guy with a selection of taxidermy - two squirrels and a ferret. Perfect for all those occasions when I've been on a long journey and thought 'you know what I need now... a stuffed squirrel'. So we got off, and wandered round a bit, and laughed and jumped in the snow, and back on the train we got.
Back on the train, we got through a couple of bottles of soviet champagne and a whole load of food. On Russian trains, you normally see babushki getting on with lots of huge bags, then opening them up to reveal enormous quantities of food which they share around with younger people. As we were in a cabin on our own (second class has four people per carriage), we weren't in a position to find a babushka, so we'd each channelled our inner babushka to bring as much food as we can manage. The Russian trains are less of a drink-fest than the Georgian ones, as well - there seem to be more families getting them and, generally, fewer large groups of rowdy men, though we did get one group banging on our door aggressively for a while on the way to Kazan before our sole Russian speaker scared them off.
After that though, things go downhill. I've blogged before about the Russian insistence on heating all buildings to about 26 degrees, and the trains are even worse, because they don't have little windows to let air in, so they start in the low 20s and build up steadily through the night. By the time we went to bed, our train was 28 degrees in the corridor, and hotter in the carriage - the only way I could make it bearable was by pressing my feet against the window so that at least part of me would be cool. In a way it was funny - snow outside and sweltering inside - but quite looking forward to someone telling me they're thinking about the Trans-Siberian, and being able to say in all seriousness that they need to be sure they're ready for the heat!
So: when travelling on a Russian train, be sure to bring skimpy clothing, ideally a fan, cuppa soups, booze and teabags. Don't bring your stuffed squirrel, because you'll be able to buy that along the way.