I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
– Oscar Wilde
As I sit here, approximately 39 hours into a 54 hour train ride, I reflect upon the people that surround me. All that we read beforehand said that 3rd class on the Trans-Siberian is rough. But when we booked, we reasoned that the bunk arrangements are no different to overnight trains we have traveled on in India and Thailand, and ultimately, the price difference between 3rd and 2nd class made the decision for us. After all, we have given up our jobs to travel, it is not a holiday: this is life for us now. Third class is not rough. The toilets are a little to be desired, but 2nd and even 1st class have the exact same facilities, they are just shared between fewer people. So what actually makes these long train rides rough? What makes them difficult? What makes or breaks your journey?
The people that surround you.
In 3rd class, there are generally more people. You are in a carriage with around 55 others, whereas in 2nd class your carriage only contains 44 and you are separated into compartments of 4. But I quite like the openness of the lower class, you become part of a community. A community of train dwellers. If only for a moment.
Generally, each person within your small train community fits into one of 8 categories:
They get on the train, make up their beds and snooze. They wake occasionally, but never for long, then they return to sleep; whatever the time of day. Sleepers tend to be male and have booked a top bunk. They keep themselves to themselves and are always very tidy, often only carrying outer layers of clothing and at most one small carrier bag.
They tend to be older gentlemen, with large pot bellies and small wives in tow. The wives also have a propensity to snore. The couple seem to have nightly competitions to be the loudest. Snorers tend to sleep for one long period over the night, and rarely wake once they are sleeping. They also rarely break from their chorus regardless of the sleeping position. There are no ear plugs able to block this noise.
The Germ Spreaders
They have a cough or a cold when they get on the train and they proceed to splutter and sniff their way through the journey. Further, they tend to be the people that do not wash their hands after going to the toilet or before eating food, and like to touch as many surfaces as possible as they pass up and down the carriage. They will make you sick, it cannot be avoided.
The Space Takers
They always have multiple bags. They don’t seem to take any notice of the general bunking rules (each bunk has its own storage space – top bunk has storage above their bunk, bottom bunk has storage below their bunk- bottom bunk gets priority over the shared table, both people are expected to sit on the bottom bunk of their two, but when the lower bunk wishes to lie down, the upper bunk must head for their bed even if they do not intend to sleep) instead they like to spread their things. Bags above the bunks, even if they are a bottom bunker, coats on someone else’s bed, or in someone else’s storage zones. They sit where they please, even taking the beds of others for their seats. They are ultimately harmless, but don’t understand when someone calls them out on their actions, and then act innocent like they are being wronged.
They fall into four sub-categories. a) The ‘I want to practise my English with you’s – pretty self explanatory, they realise that we speak English pretty early on and make a bee line. They like to ask you about everything and by the end of the journey, you will know their entire life history. But I like to find out about people, so this makes me happy. b) The ‘Talk, Talk, Talkers’: They do not speak a word of of your language, but they will keep talking to you anyway. They often use actions to get their point across, and you find yourself doing the same in return. It makes for adorably sweet and funny exchanges. c) The ‘Talking About You’s: They clock that you do not speak the language and act pretty amicable whilst other native speakers are about. But once the others have headed to bed, these people begin the ultimate hushed-but-loud-enough-to-overhear conversation that you are pretty certain is about you; purely based on body language, tone and eye glances. This will unsettle you. d) The ‘Noisy Talkers’: They literally do not care what time of day it is or what anyone around them is doing: they will talk. At a slightly louder than normal volume. For far too much of the journey. You will feel sleep deprived due to this type of talker.
The Phone Chargers
The phone chargers are usually teens/early 20s and seem utterly unimpressed to be on a train. They use the plug sockets constantly – there are only two per carriage. They seem to have a system where by there is never a word spoken between them, but there is never a moment where the socket is left free. You will not be able to charge anything, so battery packs are a must!
The Little Old ladies
They always travel alone, and they always carry copious amounts of food. They will share all they have and worry about everyone around them constantly. Often, they will be found tucking in grown adults, adding blankets to those sleeping under just a sheet, and they will drink insane amounts of sweet tea. They are the best people to be on a train with.
Quite simply, at this time of the year, this category only contains us. We are an oddity, and many of the English Practisers have told us that many of rest of the carriage are watching us secretly, purely because it is so unusual to see non-Russians on these trains during the Winter. Especially in 3rd.
Train travel is great. And overnight train travel is an experience that cannot be explained. Other classes may have fewer people, but the people in 3rd have soul. They are the lifeblood of the country; they are individuals and they all have a story.
You just have to find the right way to listen.