Conditions on local trains in Siberia

This item appears on page 28 of the October 2010 issue.

From the editor — ITN subscribers Darrell Booth and his wife, Debra, of Houston, Texas, got a little more adventure than they bargained for.

The Booths wanted to take a train across Mongolia and Siberia and contacted a US tour company that offered group tours through an operator based in another country.

For the tours, private railway carriages owned by the operator are attached to regular trains. For the dates the couple wanted to travel, however, Aug. 12-Sept. 3, 2009, the group tours were full, so the couple had the company arrange for them to take the trip on regularly scheduled local trains. The trip started in St. Petersburg and ended in Hong Kong, but they preferred to take only part of that route, staying at hotels along the way on some nights.

Before each leg of the journey, the couple would meet a company rep to pick up their train tickets and get a ride to the station. They were told that tickets could be purchased only on the day of travel.

Mr. Booth wrote to ITN, “When we left Moscow for Ekaterinburg, we were pleasantly surprised. Our compartment had a bathroom en suite, nice bunks with clean sheets, TV, sound suppression and food service. It was truly first class.

“But you can’t begin to imagine our horror when we left Ekaterinburg for Irkutsk, Russia. We had a four-berth compartment to ourselves, but it was at the end of the railcar, over the trucks (wheels) and next to the public restroom.

“The smell from the restroom was tremendous. Also, we found that the bathrooms on these trains are usually ‘squat type’ (bombsight), and with my wife having a disability and at my age, we found them almost impossible to use.

“Our bedding may have been washed at some time but, it seemed, not lately. The bunks were severely stained. There was no TV and no food service.

“For three days we endured these conditions. When the train would stop briefly, I would go out to find something to eat from vendors (always dried noodles, cookies, soft drinks and candy bars).”

Now, had the Booths been on one of the group tours, they would have been in a private carriage with either a shower and toilet in their own compartment or shared facilities at the end of the carriage. In either case, there would have been a standard porcelain toilet, and toilet paper and other amenities would have been provided.

Mr. Booth continued: “The leg from Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, and from Ulaan Bataar to Beijing, China, was as bad, except we weren’t over the wheels and we brought some food aboard in case we were back in the second-class compartment, which we were.

“On the final leg, from Beijing to Shanghai, we were back in first class. Oh, it was wonderful, if only for 14 hours.”

Darrell and Debra had paid a supplement for “two-berth rail.” As referred to on their personal itinerary sheet, this “upgrade” guaranteed them a private compartment on each leg of the journey. However, they wrongly assumed that that “upgrade” meant they would always be in a first-class compartment.

I wrote to the companies involved and, referring to regularly scheduled trains, the US firm replied, “The two-berth compartments are not ‘first class’ in the way we understand ‘first class.’ Often these are less desirable. They are often smaller and closest to the shared toilet facilities, which is definitely not a plus… Since no one knows which train configuration is going to be used until closer to departure… the first-class option is not offered to our travelers (except on a private-carriage tour) because it’s impossible to guarantee.”

I also spoke with reps from the company, who confirmed that when traveling on local trains and sharing basic facilities, the toilet may be just a hole in the floor or a seat over a hole. It is advised that passengers take their own toilet paper, hand-sterilizer liquid and hand wipes. There are no showers.

Mr. Booth later wrote, “There was toilet paper on occasion but not always. I don’t remember whether or not there were towels and soap in the bathrooms, but we always carry those essentials.

Regarding dining, the Booths’ itinerary carried this statement: “Meals are not included; however, they can be purchased from the restaurant car on most trains.”

That may sound reassuring, but it cannot be assumed that any train, even one with a private carriage, will have a restaurant car, and meal choices are few in the stations, so passengers should plan to purchase food from a supermarket, their hotel or a restaurant in town before boarding each day.

I felt this story was worth telling to point out the extreme differences there can be between a private carriage versus any of the regular local trains traveling across Siberia and Mongolia. I withheld the name of the tour companies because, in our investigation, ITN editors became convinced that it had been fully explained to the couple, verbally and in writing, that they would be riding in carriages of regularly scheduled trains and had paid extra only for private compartments. In addition, out of goodwill, the company refunded the couple the amount of the supplement and then some.

To sum up, travelers should not assume that all conveniences will be available on any trip. If certain amenities are important to someone, he or she should verify, before booking, what will and will not be available. Pay attention to qualifying statements (such as “on most trains”), and be prepared. — DT