Each 4-berth carriage has about 9 compartments and sleeping arrangements for 2 attendants. Your carriage attendants (conductors) are there to provide information, make sure the hot water is available, keep communal areas clean and tidy and shepherd passengers back on the train when it’s ready to leave. Although they rarely speak English, they are adept at sign language and great fun! Without doubt, they are one of the most important elements of your rail adventure. The bathrooms are small but adequate, containing a sink with running water and a toilet (western-style mostly or squat-style on some Chinese trains). In our experience, the bathrooms are spacious enough to have a strip-wash and also to wash your hair if you wish. Most trains do not have shower facilities and you should expect to go without showers on all train sectors.
Compartments contain 4 comfortable berths, with ample room to stretch out or sit up. There is a small table in the middle under the window, individual reading lights for each berth and on Chinese trains there are often thermos flasks of hot water also. In each compartment there can be a mix of group members and local travellers (mixed sex), the perfect opportunity to experience daily life aboard a transcontinental train.
Off the train:
A mixture of hotels, hostels, local guesthouses and traditional gers (Trans Mongolian) or Yurts (Silk Road) are used. The emphasis is on good value, cleanliness and friendly hosts. Your accommodation for every night of the itinerary is included in the price. We've chosen them for their character and with your costs in mind. Sometimes you will be in multi share but mostly twin share, with a mixture of private and shared bathroom facilities. We cannot guarantee that you will have private facilities.
Trains along the Trans Siberian, Trans Mongolian, Silk Road and within India are a destination in themselves. Along with ideas, religions and an enormous variety of goods, these trains ferry families, traders, students, soldiers, business people, travellers, monks & acrobats... You name it, they're on it and there is a good chance you'll be sharing with them at some stage of the journey.
Let's get something straight from the start: These are not chartered trains but scheduled services. Overnight accommodation is in four-share sleeping compartments - two upper and two lower bunks. Depending on group size, you may be sharing with other group members, or with local travellers. Don't be afraid to say hello!
Compartments have bedding, reading lights, a big window, a small table, room for a rucksack or two and if you're REALLY lucky - a vase with a plastic flower. Carriages have two washrooms (no showers), boiling water and a couple of friendly attendants... Each train has its own personality and regulars, so check out the dossier for specifics.
In keeping with the "no-inclusions-keeping-the-cost-down" policy and keeping your journey flexible - there are no meals included in your Vodkatrain journey (you might get lucky with a hotel breakfast - but once you've tried one, you'll see why we don't include them). Here you will find usefull advice how not to go hungry!
Eating on the train:
Most trains have a restaurant car located in the middle of the train. These cars are open from breakfast till dinner most days and operate on local time. Chinese and Mongolian trains serve standard local fare, including rice, vegetables, chicken and mutton (Mongolian specialty). Russian and Uzbek trains serve soup, salad and meat mains. The restaurant is waited and restaurant staff will point out which menu items are available. Prices in China and Uzbekistan are reasonable, but can reach US$10 for a meal in Russia. There is usually a vegetarian option.
A great way to feed yourself (and anyone sharing your compartment) is to buy home cooked food from the "Babushkas" (grandmothers) selling home grown and cooked food, out of date processed food and everything from stuffed toys to chandeliers on train platforms across Russia. Seasonal fruit and berries are also a big hit with commuters. Chinese platforms have food carts offering everything from pickled pig snout and chicken feet to noodles and more recognisable dishes. Just make sure you check the hygiene situation before handing over the cash. Follow the simple travellers food rule - peel it, cook it or wash it and avoid nasty tummy bugs. Watch out for delicious fish that may have been re-smoked, products that are way out of date and Babushka hygiene when buying platform food… is that FRESH horse milk?
The train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk (and vice versa) and many of the trains in Central Asia do not have restaurant cars. There are also few opportunities to buy food on the platforms and you will need to buy enough food for the journey before you board.
A constant supply of hot water means noodles, instant mash, tea and coffee are all great options for those playing it safe. There is a good selection of fruit, vegetables, bread, noodles and deli food in all cities so self catering on the trains is no problem. Most locals self-cater and will often insist you eat with them!
Trains are generally not designed for travellers taking photos! While the compartment windows are great to watch the Gobi desert, the Tien Shan mountain range of Kazakstan or Siberia pass by - if you are really keen on photos from the train, take a squeegee and window cleaner to avoid disappointment. Attendants are more concerned with cleaning the hand rails and signs at stations, but you could try slipping them a couple of bucks to clean the windows as well - it has worked in the past.
What are "Honchos"?
Young, fun and energetic - your local Honcho is a friend in a distant city ready to share their life with you for a couple of days. A regular tour operator might call them tour guides or city guides, but they’re not, they’re Honchos. Honchos have grown up in their city and love showing you around, not just the tourist sites (they are important too!) but the real heartbeat of the city, its people and those underground places you normally need weeks to find. They're not libraries of local history, but can definitely show you where to find one. They can show you how to use local transportation, where to change money, their favourite cafes, bars and restaurants, can translate all the latest gossip and if there is something they don't know they have the language skills to find out. Your Honcho probably has some ideas about what you should see in their city - but there is no pressure to do any suggested activities. If you want to do your own thing they will help you with directions, a few local sayings or maybe scrawl a basic map on a napkin, and then leave you to it!