Trans-Siberian railway: our experience as a gay couple

Stefan Arestis

Travelling on the Trans Siberian train through Russia and Mongolia was always a life long ambition of mine. Since reading about Genghis Khan and his military successes across the region, I've always wanted to explore it.

Big tip for fellow travellers also inspired by the region, check out the historical trilogy about Genghis Khan by Conn Iggulden called “Wolf of the Plains” – it's unputdownable, but also a fascinating insight into this era.

Once I persuaded Seby to begin our big trip in Asia on this magnificent journey, we were off…let's just say of the two of us, he appreciates luxury travel far more and avoids the more impulsive travel choices I make for us, so living in a train for a few weeks was a big step for him!

What is the Trans Siberian?

The Trans Siberian, in short, is the long train journey that goes from Moscow all the way to Vladivostok. It takes 8 days and covers a whopping 5,772 miles. There is also an offshoot of the train that goes towards Mongolia from Irkutsk, which is called the Trans Mongolian Railway. We focused on the latter as we were more interested to explore Mongolia over the eastern extremities of Russia.

You can, of course, break up this gigantic long journey by stopping over at the different cities along the way. We chose to do a layover in Yekaterinburg and then in Irkutsk to explore Lake Baikal.

Seb waiting patiently at Moscow's platform to board the train
Seb waiting patiently at Moscow's platform to board the train

Is the Trans Siberian safe for gay travellers?

The obvious elephant in the room…gay couple travelling through Russia…are you crazy?

Short answer. Yes – but with common sense precautions!

To be honest, Russia is no different than travelling in any other Eastern European country or Arabic country where homosexuality is either illegal or a huge taboo. This is a personal choice for you to make as an LGBTQ traveller. Travelling in such places, you need to go back in the closet, avoid all public displays of affection, get a VPN for anonymous browsing online and consider setting your social media accounts to “private”. Some gay travellers criticise us for this and refuse to even entertain the idea of spending pink dollars in such countries.

Whilst we understand this perspective, we also strongly believe it's important to get out there to such countries and be a supportive beacon to the local LGBTQ community who needs your support and encouragement more than ever! We would much rather use our pink dollars to support local LGBTQ businesses and help them thrive rather than choosing to “boycott” them. For more, be sure to check out our article exploring what gay travel in Russia is like and also our article about what it's like travelling as a gay couple in Asia.

Our selfie at Omsk platform
This dishevelled looking gay couple's Trans Siberian selfie at Omsk station platform

Our fabulous Trans Siberian adventure!

Our Trans Siberian adventure started at Moscow's Kazanskaia train station on 17th June 2014 at 13:10. Timing is important because this mammoth journey spans 7 time zones, so to avoid any confusion, all train times are calculated from Moscow's time.

The first leg of our Trans Siberian adventure was from Moscow to Yekaterinburg (26 hours). After two nights stopover in Yekaterinburg, we took the train to Irkutsk (57 hours).

Our longest stretch on the train was from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, totalling: 56 hours. Time spent on the train can be tough. There isn't much to do besides chat with your fellow passengers. Often, we found it difficult to talk with other people on the train due to language barriers – so when that happened, a game of UNO was whipped out and it was game on!

The stillness of the Russian countryside is utterly surreal, with blanket white skies and flat green fields that go on for miles. It's one of the sneaky highlights of the whole trip despite nothing eventful actually happening!

View of Siberia for most of the journey
View of Siberia for most of the journey

While we often managed to keep in high spirits, we did begin to crave our privacy. It was tiring having to always be aware of our actions and not display any affection. This was one of the major disadvantages of travelling in platzkart as a gay couple on the Trans Siberian.

Other shorter stops made for fun quick walkabouts around the train platforms, in particular at Omsk station. Often, the train would stop next to a field and passengers would disembark to admire the surroundings. Children would dance on the train tracks, and it would almost feel like we were the only people left on Earth.

Seb posing at Omsk platform
Seb posing at Omsk platform

The Provodnitsas! 

Each carriage has its own assigned Provodnitsa who is responsible for everyone in their assigned carriage. Dressed up in a classy, blue suit jacket and matching pencil skirt, the provodnitsas are responsible for the smooth operations on board. They check tickets, make sure the carriage is kept clean and serve as your morning wake up call. They're essentially your stern mother figure for when you're travelling on the Trans Siberian!

These ladies are fierce and not to be messed with! Although, they do have a soft spot…if you can manage to find it. They've been known to cheekily sell you vodka (drinking on board is not allowed) if you manage to get on their good side!

The Provodnitsa
The Provodnitsa

Travelling in platzkart

We travelled in third class (called “platzkart”), which felt like a moving 50-bed dorm room!

Second class carriages (called “kupe”) consist of around eight 4-berth compartments. The far more expensive first-class compartments are similar except each compartment is made for just two people.

We found the third class platzkart to be the more sociable option as well as better for our budgets. Third class also meant we were travelling with locals. However, our fellow Russian travellers spoke little or no English and our Russian is extremely limited. So communicating with our fellow travellers was always limited to charades.

Third class "platzcart" - like being in a 54 bed dorm
Third class “platzcart” – like being in a 50 bed dorm

Tips for gay travellers for the Trans Siberian

A few practical tips for us for fellow LGBTQ travellers looking to do the Trans Siberian:

Fork out for first class

Especially if you're a gay couple. It's more expensive, but you get your own private cabin. 2nd class comes with with 4 beds and 3rd class is a huge row of bunk beds with your everyday Russians who are not the most gay friendly.

Bear this in mind if you choose to travel in 3rd class platzkart, and obviously avoid any public displays of affection! However, whilst we wouldn't repeat our experience in plaatzkart, we didn't regret it. We made many friends along the way, both local Russian students as well as fellow backpackers from all around the world.

Socialising in 3rd class with this group of fellow French and Finnish travellers
Socialising in 3rd class with this group of fellow French and Finnish travellers

Bring your stash of food

At each end of the carriage, there is a samovar of endless hot water. Therefore, we highly advise bringing onboard your own sachets of porridge, soups, coffee and teas to make the journey a whole lot smoother. There is a restaurant carriage on board, which even sells Russian Champagne, which confused our Frenchman!

We avoided the instant noodles (very popular onboard) and instead pre-bought lots of fruits, nuts and bread, and for salads: tomatoes, cucumbers, salt, pepper, olive oil, and prepared around x12 boiled eggs for a protein source. As tempting as it was to bring stashes of chocolate and jellies, we tried to stick to healthy options.

Onboard you are immobile for a few days so your body's food requirement is less than it would normally be, so we were conscious to keep our meals as healthy as possible.

Dinner (or is it lunch?) time!
Dinner (or is it lunch?) time!

Consider a few stopovers

We stopped at Yekaterinburg and then Irkutsk, mainly to explore Lake Baikal. The lake is the largest in the world, and you'd swear you were staring out at an ocean rather than a lake.

Another popular stopover to consider (which we didn't get the chance to visit on our trip) is Kazan. With sights like the Kazan Kremlin and Soyembika Tower, this stop is considered one of the more popular ones on the Trans Siberian.

Change in scenery as train journeyed along Lake Baikal
Change in the scenery as our train travelled along the pretty Lake Baikal

Avoid travelling in the peak summer months!

Russia gets VERY hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter! There is no air con on board in a carriage where people had not washed for days and refused to open the windows (despite it being 30 degrees Celsius outside).

In short, it STANK!

Seb and our fellow travellers
Travelling in the summer months on the Trans Siberian can get quite smelly on board!

Stretch your legs

Even if you don't want to do any stopovers, get off the train at some point to stretch your legs! The entire journey without breaks lasts 6 days – that's a lot of time to be cooked up inside a vehicle.

Each stop has plenty of little stalls to have a look at. Old babushkas (Russian grandmothers) selling scarves and hats, as well as homemade waffles. Either way, it's a great experience to have a look and see what Russian marketers have to offer.

Babushkas selling home made produce at most stops
Babushkas selling homemade produce at most stops

For more inspiration:

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The Trans-Siberian railway: our experience as a gay couple

Happy travels are safe travels

We recommend you always take out travel insurance before your next vacation. What happens if you suffer from illness, injury, theft or a cancellation? With travel insurance, you can have peace of mind and not worry. We love World Nomads travel insurance and have been using it for years. Their comprehensive coverage is second to none and their online claims process is very user friendly.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, an activity or your insurance, we’ll earn a small commission. There is never an extra cost to you for using these links and it helps us keep the site going.

Stefan Arestis

Stefan is the co-founder, editor and author the gay travel blog nomadicboys.com. As a travel nerd, he has explored more than 80 countries across 5 continents. What he loves the most about travelling is discovering the local gay scene, making new friends and learning new cultures. His advice about LGBTQ travel has been featured in Gay Times, Gaycities, Pink News, Gay Star News, Attitude and Towleroad. He has also written about gay travel for other non-gay specific publications including Lonely Planet, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Stefan is also a qualified lawyer, having practised as a commercial property litigator in London for over 10 years. He left his lawyer days behind to work full time on Nomadic Boys with his husband Sebastien. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

15 thoughts on “Trans-Siberian railway: our experience as a gay couple”

  1. Wow !!
    The Trans-Siberian Railway journey of the gay couple was interesting reading.
    When can I go on a foreign trip with a gay partner – yearning to go.
    Keep on sending new reading materials.

  2. Nice advice!

    I’m assuming now, you would only take first class….

    There is also a tourist version, with many more stops, and even overnighters….

    I’m very psyched to do this trip, but I don’t think my partner would…..he won’t step foot in Russia, while I did in St. Petersburg and loved it!!!

  3. As a kid I’ve travelled several times with the Transsiberian train with my parents towards my grandma. To me it was evey time exciting because I’ve seen places someone would never get there. But of course, to travel in this train is an aventure 🙂

  4. I will be doing this August – September 2016 but it’s the other way around. China-Mongolia- to Moscow.
    Will it be any different? Thanks for the info here!

    • Nope- will be same same but only advice I would give is to try to be in Mongolia in July time if possible for their annual Nadaam festival.

  5. Great post!
    I was actually on the Trans-Siberian on June 2014 as well. I was in 2nd class and didn’t meet another English speaker for nearly 5 days.

    Quite an experience!!

    • Ha ha ha our exact same experience. Interestingly though, if ever we did meet a non Russian, they were almost always French!

      • My train through Russia seemed to be much more local than travellers. I met an American guy on my leg from Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar, and from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing met a group of travellers who were a lot of fun, and I continued to travel with them for a while in China.

  6. The scenery looks amazing and you definitely can’t make up some of those crazy characters, but I don’t know how well I’d do for three days in what’s essentially a 50-dorm room! Do you have to sit on your bed all day or are there other places to ‘hang out’?!

    • You can book 2nd or 1st class for more privacy but more expensive.

      We went to the restaurant cart for a respite from the cattle herd class where we enjoyed Russian champagne 🙂

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