► The Actual Train Experience
The first person you will meet on your will be the conductor, called a Provodnik in Russian. This person can be a woman or a man, younger or older - you never know. The Provodnik is not only there to check your tickets and show you to your seat, but will also accompany you throughout your journey. If you travel in the cheaper class you'll get your linens from the Provodnik for a small additional cost, usually not more then 50 roubles (about $2). On the more expensive trains, the beds are already made up for you with clean linen. Also you can order a glass of tea or coffee and the Provodnik will bring it to you. In the past, tea was served in special glasses which consisted of a type of thin metal holder with a regular glass cup inserted into it. If you weren't careful, the hot glass would burn you. The tea itself wasn't the best, but this nice tradition of drinking a special glass of tea on the train was treasured. Unfortunately, the tea tradition is not kept everywhere today. Sometimes the Provodnik will invite you to make tea by yourself; sometimes he will serve tea in plastic cups and not in those special traditional glasses. The Provodnik is also responsible for cleaning the wagon and toilets. Along with this he is there to solve any problem that arises in his wagon and will help you avoid too enthusiastic or rude and drunk passengers. So do not hesitate to ask any question or for help from the Provodnik. (Don't let this scare you, traveling on Russian trains is usually nice and quite safe). Also you can be assured that the Provodnik will wake you up before your stop, so you don't have to worry about falling asleep. When you arrive at your stop, the Provodnik will say good-bye - you might be surprised he/she will remain in your memory after your journey.
Another interesting fact about riding trains is that you can get boiled water, which also has something to do with the Provodnik (who'd have guesse?). The compartment where the Provodnik remains during the journey is always located at the very beginning of the wagon. Opposite this compartment you will see a big samovar conveniently located for all to use. It has a special spout and a key which actually opens the water flow. This is convenient, but you have to be careful since the water is very hot and the wagon tends to rock back and forth.
One more really good thing about long distance trains is that they have their own diesel generator-carriage that means you'll still have electricity during the journey, even in a blackout!
Once again if you travel on a train for long distances, there are few more interesting things you can encounter. First, and above all else, is friendship! Russian people are very friendly and sociable, but when they get on a train they become even more sociable. They like to talk and eat all the time and share their life stories with complete strangers.. And of course they will be extremely interested in your life story after you lend your ear to theirs. Trains bring many diverse people together. If you are traveling alone or just with another person, probably the best way to meet people is probably by buying tickets for a coupe - it is also a lot more comfortable.
Usually people are very outgoing and nice, and who knows, maybe you can really hit it off with someone and exchange contact information and become friends. But it's not always so rosy. Lots of people drink alcohol on the train. You may have to deal with some rowdy drunk passengers, who can be annoying, but at the same time they might provide for some very entertaining conversation. Often Russian people like to debate politics or the economy, conversation can get heated and not so friendly, but is almost always interesting, especially for foreigners.
Not only do they like tea, alcohol, and talking, but Russians also enjoy a good and filling meal…all the time. However they order food rarely and hardly ever go to the restaurant wagon. Most of the time they bring food from home. The most popular items are boiled eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers, sandwiches, cookies and cooked cold chicken. Moreover, it is a tradition for old ladies to sell food outside on the platform at the train stops. This food is usually prepared by locals, is homemade and very good. Sometimes you can buy a baked potato with butter and garnish or oriental dumplings if you travel through Central Asia. Other times it is possible to purchase pastries with cabbage or mushrooms, apples or potatoes. Also, depending on the region you pass through, you'll be offered some traditional food and drinks. For example, corn if traveling through or to the Ukraine. And if you travel during the summer months, you will definitely be offered fresh fruit. In addition to food, you will be able to buy some souvenirs right on the platform. People will sell different handicrafts: socks, sweaters knit from camel hair, sheepskins (in Central Asia) and hand-made wooden artwork. If passing Belorussia, in particular the city Gomel, you will be offered a great variety of stuffed animal toys (there is a factory there) for extremely low prices.
Visiting the restaurant car is also a very interesting experience. The restaurant car occupies one wagon and has tables and seats as well as a bar counter. Here you can order food and drinks and kill some time while having fun with old friends, or strike up a conversation with some new ones. The prices in the restaurant cars are usually quite high, so you have to think twice before heading there. Also it's almost guaranteed that you will encounter a large crowd there with many boisterous and loud individuals smoking, drinking and eating.
For the most part, people behave themselves while traveling on a train. As soon as passengers board the wagon and find their seats, they usually change into comfortable clothing for the long journey. This often includes robes, work-out clothes or sweat suits - "sportivny costume" in Russian - and everyone takes off their shoes and puts on slippers. If you travel in the more expensive class you can change in your compartment, if not you can change in the bathroom. Of course you can remain in your street clothes, but long journeys these tend to get uncomfortable and many people opt for their pajamas. Can you imagine traveling 9 hours in a business suit? It would be tough, so don't be shy and bring comfortable clothes. Everyone else will be doing the same thing.
As for luggage, there are a few things you should keep in mind: there are some special places where you can store it. First, under the lower berths. Even if you have the upper berth you still have a right to put your bag underneath the lower one. Sometimes there are people traveling with too many items of luggage and there might not be enough storage space for your bags. The first thing is to tell the Provodnik that you don't have anywhere to store your luggage - he/she will probably arrange to have it stored on a special wide self above the seats (towards the top of the wagon). If you store your things below the lower berths you don't have much to worry about it, but if you store it on the shelf it might be a good idea to tie it or to place it far back in the storage area. This is so you will be sure that no one can easily take your things while passing through the car if you are not at your place. And above DO NOT keep your money or documents in your luggage. On trains, carry them with you at all times, even when you get up to go to the bathroom. We are not kidding!
The experience you will gain by traveling in a Russian train is unique. In fact, the longer your journey is the more fun will have. An overnight journey is an experience, but not quite the same as a week long trip on the trans-Siberian train from Russia to Beijing for example. But of course, not everyone has fun on train rides. You have to be a certain type of person, one that likes to travel and someone who is open to meeting new people and doesn't mind minor discomforts. If you fit into this criteria or want to find out if you do, then traveling on a Russian train will be a very gratifying experience.
A few final words on security. If you are traveling alone, then you are better off spending more money and traveling in a coupe. If you want to make your train ride romantic, then an SV is your best option because you can have the most privacy here. These options are of course, much more expensive, but at the same time a lot more comfortable and safer in some cases. All in all you definitely should try traveling via Russian trains. The wagons tend to rock nicely and the views from the windows are awesome. You will be able to relax and day-dream while looking out the window, or lie down and read a good book, or simply take a refreshing nap.