I never thought of myself as a train person, but through a combination of working at YPT and also because I work at YPT, I have had to reluctantly embrace the fine field of ferroequinology (pretentious twat-talk for ‘liking trains’).
It’s largely in China that I mount the rails, whether taking the 48-hour train from Lhasa to Beijing or simply engaging in a leisurely 12-hour jaunt from China’s capital to the border city of Dandong. When I realised that I would be taking a sleeper train from Moscow to Minsk, then, I found myself way more interested than I would have ever thought possible. Would they be six-berthers like Chinese compartments? Would the lower bunk be invaded en masse by sesame-seed-obliterating babushkas? Would the inter-carriage space be a smoky hellhole of loudly hawking middle-aged men? I was more excited than the most hardened of train-spotters.
Straight away the Bear came tearing out of the gate and soundly trounced the Dragon – Russian sleepers are four-berthers rather than six, and upholstered in sexy (if sticky) red leather.
The discomfort of sleeping on leather is neatly circumvented, however, by your complimentary welcome pack. Mother Russia thoughtfully provides you with several accessories to make your journey more comfortable – a blanket, an undersheet, a pillow plus pillowcase and even a TOWEL (sit up and take note, China) for each passenger. I mean this is some luxury shit. It makes Chinese soft sleepers looks like cattle trains.
For the more gregarious passengers, upper bunks can be slung back and fun and games can be had on the lower ones. The compartments are open, however, so don’t expect to get away with making too much noise after 9-10PM.
Now, it’s possible that I’m being less than truthful with the ‘four-berth’ claim, because Russian sleeper carriages are laid out in a slightly strange way. Directly opposite the four-berth layout I’ve described, and on the other side of the corridor, are two more berths. Anyone wishing to sue me for libel is welcome to initiate proceedings at Lee@youngpioneertours.com (people just sending nice uplifting messages also welcome).
The good news: Russia is a disharmonious society that hasn’t discovered the ergonomic benefits of the squatter, so you’ll get to sit down for your business. The bad news: smokers are shit out of luck and will just have to hold their cravings for the ~12-hour journey to Minsk. In a particular blow to hipsters and neckbeards everywhere, even the noble art of vaping is forbidden.
Tap water is, it should go without saying, non-potable, but will do for the purposes of brushing your teeth. Russian trains also seem to lack power outlets (though I could be wrong on this), so ensure your devices are charged well ahead of the journey. In a slap in the face to your Chinese mother-in-law, there are no sources of hot water; bucket noodles/miracle panaceas will just have to wait until Minsk.
Fun fact: Russia and Belarus are separate countries. Funner fact: the two share open borders, which ought to make life easier, but in fact makes it more difficult from a visa perspective. If you want to take a train from Moscow to Minsk, you’re gonna need a full single-entry visa and NOT a transit visa. If you want a transit visa, you’re gonna have to employ some hoodoo international-flight shenanigans whereby you fly out of Russia to, for instance, Istanbul, and then into Minsk. This is a total pain in the arse, and I’d recommend simply getting a proper visa at your nearest Belarusian Embassy.
All of this actually makes zero difference when entering the country, however; there is no border control and you won’t get checked on your way in. This means you can sleep the night away without getting woken up by border guards.
In conclusion, then, who wins the sleeper train battle – China or Russia? As a China Old Hand and inveterate smoker I have to admit a slight bias towards the smoke-addled, seed-spattered carriages of the Middle Kingdom. But even despite being forced to stave off my nicotine addiction for 12 hours, I have to say Mother Russia takes the cake. Clean, comfortable bunks and bedding options that put China to shame (and a fucking TOWEL, people, I mean c’mon) make for a thoroughly cosy night’s sleep and a surprisingly luxurious experience for budget travel.
Undergo the Moscow-Minsk sleeper experience yourself on Young Pioneer Tours’ Eurasian Adventure tour (assuming you can be arsed getting your visa sorted)!