The journey from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk took three and half days. Very manageable, but not without short periods of despair and tiredness. I took a direct train No. 10 “Baikal” from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk, skipping Moscow altogether. This is the only train from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk that does not pass through Moscow and this route has existed only since last spring (previously it went from Moscow to Irkutsk, as all the other trains). The fare is slightly higher, as this is a “branded” (firmennyi) train providing a better service than a regular one. The journey was rather uneventful, providing a lot of free time for reading, meditating, doing geeky stuff (thankfully the power socket in my cabin worked), writing this blog and socializing with car attendants, who were very friendly and helpful. Contrary to a popular myth, I saw no signs of binge drinking on the train. In fact, it is strictly forbidden and apparently the rule is even enforced. Who would have thought such a thing was possible in Russia. Strange days, indeed. One time a jolly old sea-man asked me to join to a vodka session with him and got very disappointed then I declined. I almost felt bad for turning down the offer. Anyways, a lot can be said about the train life, but I will concentrate on two eternal subjects: time and space.
Time runs quite differently on such a long journey. First of all, the official time of Russian Railways is always
Hammer Moscow time, no matter if you are in St. Petersburg, Irkutsk or Vladivostok. It is always GMT+3. Moscow Time is almost like the Eye of Sauron – all-seeing and all-powerful. A subtle way to remind citizens who is running the show in the entire country. Eye Of Sauron Time also leads to an interesting phenomenon, when the train clock shows something like 1AM and sun is shining in full force outside. A bit like Lapland’s polar day, only in Siberia. Secondly, I experienced a “train-lag” for the first time. It is similar to a jet-lag, only more subtle. You just do not notice anything unusual, until you realize that the sun sets at 2PM and your sleep pattern is badly screwed. As for ways to pass time, I had no problems – meditation, laptop and books were more then enough. Comparing to a vipassana retreat, such a trip is actually a luxury in terms of entertainment.
As for space, officially each cabin car has got 36 beds, spread over 9 cabins with 4 beds each. Additionally there is an extra cabin next to the personnel cabin with only two beds (number 37 and 38), but these seats are not advertised anywhere. In fact, this cabin is not even marked on some car plans. Go figure. The cabin does not cost anything extra, so if you value your privacy go for it. Another benefit of such a cabin is that it has its own power sockets. I am not sure about the rest of the train, but the majority of people charged their phones in the hall (a protip: bring a cord extension with you). The downside is that this cabin is smaller and has a more claustrophobic feeling in it. Additionally the beds are a tad shorter, although I did not experience any discomfort. You can reserve this cabin on the official site of Russian railways at tickets.rzd.ru, by stating that you prefer seats 37-38. On the other hand, if you want to get a feeling of real Russian travelling and save some money, go for a Ð¿Ð»Ð°Ñ†ÐºÐ°Ñ€Ñ‚Ð½Ñ‹Ð¹ (platskartnyi) car (open plan compartment with no doors or no privacy whatsoever). I ventured into such a car once and the general vibe was a tad too much for me. Maybe one day, but not on such a long journey.
That is quite a wall of text (with the major part written on the train of course). More could be said about Russian Railways, but it would be better to stop here, as I am not even sure anyone made it this far.