For those who can still find the time to appreciate the enormous size of our world, traveling the Silk Road by train is a delight. The beds are comfortable, your fellow passengers are sociable and the samovar at the end of the wagon keeps the hot water flowing so you can refill your cup of tea endlessly.
Historically, this has not been a fast way to travel, but, things are changing. A lot of money is flowing into new infrastructure, high-speed trains and glitzy train stations. It all detracts from the charm and romance, but train travel on the Silk Road is still more comfortable and only slightly more expensive than the bus.
It is definitely cheaper, more ecological and more fun than an airplane. Also, trains are less likely to be disrupted by extreme weather conditions in winter than airplanes or buses.
The rail network of Central Asia and the Caucasus has been largely built up by the Soviets (since independence by the Chinese) and still operates on the same time-tested formula (trains in Iran are a different story). For long-distance routes, there are 4 options, although not all may be available on your chosen route.
- Lyux/SV: A separate, lockable compartment with only 2 berths.
- Kupe: A separate, lockable compartment with 4 berths: 2 bottom bunks and 2 top bunks.
- Platzkart: An open wagon divided in compartments of 6 beds: 3 bottom and 3 top bunks.
- Obshye: No sleeping space, only a seat.
Obviously, lyux will be the most expensive, with obshye being the cheapest.
Usually you will also be presented the option to choose whether you want the top bunk or the bottom bunk. Older people find crawling up the top bunk difficult. I personally prefer the top bunk, since you have the place to yourself; with the bottom berth, you will have to share the space with the person at the top when they are not sleeping.
Oh, and always ask for a seat in the middle of the wagon. Near the exits there is more traffic to the toilet, accompanied by door-slamming.
Platzkart, kupe or lyux?
Difficult question. Platzkart is cheap and there are lots of people to talk to, but there is more chance for noisy neighbours. You might also be without air conditioning in summer. In a kupe, you have less chance of getting stuck with babies or heavy snorers, but women might feel less comfortable – you don’t know who you might get stuck with.
If you don’t mind spending a bit more money and you are traveling as a couple, lyux is an enjoyable option; it’s like your little private (Soviet) hotel room. If you are traveling solo but would still like to enjoy some privacy, you can book out 2 beds in a lyux compartment.
Air conditioning and heating?
Extreme summer heat is a part of life on the Silk Road. Fast trains all have air conditioning. With the slow trains, it’s a mixed bag, and you can never be sure what you will get. Upgrading from platzkart to kupe or SV will definitely increase your chances.
In winter, it’s never cold on the train. Toasty is a good word to describe conditions.
The train experience
Bed linen is provided for you, the price of which is already included in your ticket. It gets quiet around 11pm in platzkart wagons. Beds are big enough to hold someone of 1m80 comfortably. If you are taller than that, your legs will stick out.
Drunken passengers on trains used to be a problem, but less these days: drunks can even get kicked off the train in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, making Russia the last remaining place you will be offered to drink on the train. If you have a problem refusing vodka toasts, try explaining that you are on medication, or in extreme cases, that you are an alcoholic. Works wonders.
Bring plenty of food – it’s usually a long ride – but be prepared not to eat it, as your fellow passengers will offer you theirs, and they are adamant. In Uzbekistan, you may or may not be able to order food from the carriage attendant. Fast trains usually have a bar and a restaurant wagon; most trains in Iran have one as well.
Hawkers are no longer allowed on trains, but you can still buy food during stops: local ladies sell homemade food on the platform.
Toilets are not necessarily clean or dirty. You should always have toilet paper with you anywhere on the Silk Road, and that maxim counts double on the train. Be aware that toilets only open about half an hour after departure, and close again half an hour before entering the final destination.
You can buy tickets online for most countries these days; see the country pages for all the details. There is usually a local start-up selling tickets, alongside a very difficult to use website operated by the national railways.
Tutu.ru is a Russian booking website that also sells train tickets in most post-Soviet countries. It’s the most user-friendly of the bunch, has an English version and comes with lots of payment options.
It’s definitely your best option for Russian train tickets. For other former Soviet countries, there is sometimes a mark-up. In this case, the price-conscious will have to struggle with the local websites.
You can often get discounts for booking early, if you already know your plans.
If online is not an option: every mid-sized post-Soviet city has “kassas” in the town centre where you can buy the ticket, so you do not have to go to the train station, which is often located in the outskirts of the city.
Kids under 5 do not need a separate bed/seat in post-Soviet countries.
It is now almost possible to travel the whole Silk Road by train, barring mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and cross-border trains with Turkmenistan. The Ankara – Tbilisi – Baku line is still not running, but the Ankara – Tehran is running once again.
What to bring
- Your passport (you need to show it when you want to buy a ticket in the station, and again when you board the train)
- A cup and some tea/coffee
- Tasty food (don’t forget your cutlery!)
- Comfortable clothes to relax while staring out the window
- Some easy-to-use personal hygiene items (there’s generally no shower, but a little washing basin is available)
- Toilet paper