The Mongolian dining car

I knew food would not be the highlight of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  What I didn’t know was exactly how bad it would be, and, more than that, how difficult it would be to get at all.  With the combination of poor and unhealthy options, and difficulty getting access to the three currencies needed to buy food on the train and at station stops, feeding our family on the railroad turned out to be one of our biggest challenges so far.

Dining Options on the Railroad

In Beijing we picked up our train which would, over the course of six days, bring us through parts of China, Mongolia and Russia.  At each change in country, the dining car detached and a new one attached; each car is operated by an independent contractor (i.e., not affiliated with the railroad) from each of the three countries.

Each dining car vendor wanted his own country’s currency.  The vendors seemed to charge the most they thought a given customer would pay.  By way of example, in the Mongolian car, I overheard a young American guy discussing with our waiter the price for two pieces of bread brought to his table in a plastic basket.  “Fifteen dollars,” the waiter said. “Dollars!?!? There must be a mistake.”  We learned to drive a hard bargain, and also to avoid the dining car at all costs, which we were pretty much able to do.

Before we left, we had heard from friends who had taken the train that it would be fairly easy to get food at railroad stops, and that little old ladies would be selling nice food along the way.  This turned to be incorrect, with only one or two exceptions.  Mostly, the only places to buy food at the stops were at kiosks built in to the sides of stations, which ripped off tourists by selling groceries at a severe mark up.  The only consistently available options were: ramen; potato chips; candy/packaged sweets; beer (warm); vodka; and cigarettes.  Getting anything fresh was usually not possible.

Challenges Faced On Board

One problem we anticipated was getting enough milk.  Jude is a milk fanatic, and we had no luck finding UHT milk or formula in Beijing, let alone any fresh milk.  We boarded the train in Beijing with just a little formula purchased back home.  Everyone we asked who had done the Trans-Siberian Railroad thought milk would be available, but no one could definitively remember.  If tea and coffee were available, surely milk must be too, their thinking went.

On our first day on the train in China, Patrick went to the cafe car.  No milk.  The Chinese car’s coffee was instant coffee with powdered milk and sugar already mixed into the packet.  The train offered free unlimited boiling water, so you add it to the powdered coffee mix and voila!   We began to worry.

Lunch from the Chinese dining car

On our first day, we also ate lunch at the Chinese dining car, for which we had been given complimentary vouchers.  It was an interesting meal: meatballs of indeterminate meat, a gelatinous brown sauce, potato, lightly blanched (?) celery and carrots, and rice.

The décor inside the dining car was strangely formal: white tablecloths and a rose at each table.  The walls were plain and the carpeting neutral.  Eating our first meal there provided a good opportunity to meet other passengers; but beyond the rice, the food was not very pleasing.

In the late evening we crossed into Mongolia, and woke up the next morning to a Mongolian dining car where the Chinese one had been before.  It was like a new world.  There were ornate wooden carvings covering the walls and ceiling, candle-shaped brass pieces attached to the walls, a framed sketch of horses over the entry door, and animal fur covering all the benches.  Breakfast was expensive and I only ate a little (good eggs but limp coleslaw), but the waiter agreed to take Chinese yuan.  This was a life saver because we had not had the opportunity to get out Mongolian currency (“tögrögs”).

In Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, we exchanged $20 for some tögrögs (not being conversant on current exchange rates, and without access to the Internet, we put our trust in the Mongolian banker not to rip us off and hoped for the best).  We were able to stock up on ramen, water, every juice box-sized UHT milk container in the store, all four, and a bar of soap.  This bought us a little time, but once we hit Russia, we knew we were in trouble.  We had read that in Russia it is illegal to use US dollars.  On top of that, currency changes outside of Mongolia are of course loathe to accept tögrögs, and most don’t (even in bordering countries).

We had no Russian rubles and very little milk.  Gabor had brought rubles from Canada, and exchanged $40 US with us so we could eat.  Patrick went to the dining hall, now Russian, and ate a borsch lunch with Gabor.  Although Patrick liked his, Gabor said he had had better in his Siberian prison.  Ha.  Patrick brought me back some, and I agreed with Gabor’s assessment rather than Patrick’s; but it was hot and contained vegetables (now sorely lacking in my diet), so I was glad to eat it.

Later in the day, the Russian cook was walking down our hallway with his assistant.  The assistant was so drunk that he crashed into Jude in the hallway and sent Jude into a flood of tears.  (Jude was not actually hurt, but frightened by the shock of being tottered into by a grown man smelling like vodka.)  This did not heighten our confidence about the ability of the cooks in the Russian train car.

At the next stop, Patrick bought bread, which provided a welcome relief from the ramen bowls we had been eating at least twice per day.  We were desperate for anything fresh and some protein.

Smoked omul fish from Lake Baikal, Siberia

Then, an unexpected culinary delight: the train hugged Lake Baikal, and pulled into Slyudyanka Station.  Alex stuck his hand out the window, and pulled in two whole smoked fish, no bag – just fish exchanged through the train window – purchased from a woman standing on the platform.  He gave us one – the regional specialty umol fish.  It is a white fish, and was absolutely delicious.  It had a perfect fish/salt/smoky balance and we split it open and devoured every bite.

On Saturday, I felt the train come to a complete stop early in the morning, and was told by the conductors that we would be at the station for 20 minutes (a relatively long stop by Trans-Siberian train standards).  Patrick was sleeping, but I woke him to buy groceries.  He sprinted in his pajamas and running shoes down the street to a supermarket.  This provided much amusement to the locals.   Patrick was also able to buy bread and big boxes of UHT milk, and for a 1,000-tögrög tip, one of the train crew agreed to refrigerate it for us once open.

On Saturday, around dinner time, we stopped for 15 minutes in Novosibirsk.  There was a place to buy a few staples, and Patrick waited in line, to buy a few staples, including four bottles of water that I selected, since we were running very low.  The total?: equivalent of $30 US.  We did not have enough money.  Some kind New Zealanders covered us in exchange for US dollars.  We walked back toward the train, and Jude spotted ice cream popsicles.  We agreed to buy him one at the equivalent of $2 US. Oh no – we only had $1.   After saying we wanted it, the woman selling it was highly annoyed that we weren’t buying it.

The train was getting ready to leave.  We got on, and Jude began crying.  “Jude’s ice cream,” he said, pointing out the train window to the little freezer with an umbrella over it.  If you ever promise a two-year-old ice cream and then do not deliver while the goods are still in sight – watch out!  Patrick got the equivalent of a dollar from Gabor, and checked with the train crew to see if he could get on the platform briefly to buy something right there.  They agreed.  Bad news: the ice cream woman had left for the day, explained the woman who sold us the groceries.  She was selling a Mars bar which Patrick got out of desperation and gave to Jude, who did not second-guess the Mars bar, and seemed to forget all about the ice cream he had wanted.

Back on the train, we were fretting.  We had no rubles (and no good way to get it, since none of the stops were for long enough for us to make it to an ATM), and relatively little food – certainly not enough to hold us until Moscow.  As we strategized, I cracked open a water. More bad news: I had selected four big bottles of sparking water.  We only had half a bottle of regular water left, the one Patrick thought tasted so bad he saved it for brushing our teeth.

We saved the loaf of bread for breakfast.   After Jude went to bed, we reviewed our guide book to find our next big stop: The next morning, Sunday morning, we had a 20-minute stop in Tyumen, according to the schedule posted in our cabin.  We agreed that, in case he did not make the train, Patrick would bring his passport and sprint to the station (often, at these large stations, this means climbing foot bridges to cross multiple train tracks, so people generally stay on the platform) to search for an ATM.  Once we had money, we would wait for the following stop to buy food.

When Tyumen rolled around, the whole family was ready to put the plan into action.  Patrick had his running shoes and watch.  Jude and I would walk along the platform to get exercise and make sure the train didn’t leave.

The doors opened and Patrick was running up the stairs like the track gun had just gone off.  In 20 minutes, he should be able to hit an ATM and come back.  Jude and I walked around.  And then suddenly, after five or so minutes, the train crew was waving me and Jude back on.  I walked very slowly. They waved for me to walk faster.  I sped up.  Panic began to set in.  I looked at them, held up three fingers, pointed to me and Jude, then to the stairs to motion that was where Patrick had gone.

They looked agitated.  I looked down the track.  Every train employee was back on the train except those in our car who were on the platform with me.  (Train employees, all male, stand outside their car on the platform in front of their door until the train leaves, usually smoking cigarettes.)  An announcement was made over the station loudspeaker (to signal the train is leaving).   One of the employees standing next to me started waving a red flag up and down.   Then another began speaking very firmly to me in Chinese.  A few painful minutes went by as we all stared at the stairs.  Eventually Patrick appeared, still running.  He sprinted down the stairs to the train and we all boarded.  He had been gone less than 10 minutes.

I breathed a sigh of relief that Patrick made the train.  Patrick had found an ATM, but it was out of money.

We were stuck.  We had tried to get rubles at the airport currency exchange in Beijing but they didn’t have any.  We entered Russia by train, so we were relying on currency exchanges or ATMs at some stations, and ATMs at stations being accessible and being stocked.  Others on the train were also running low on cash.  Food outside the train was even getting scarce – the New Zealand couple had left the train on an evening stop, and the only store on the train platform sold solely vodka, cigarettes and ice cream.

Meanwhile, the Chinese male train employees were eating well.  As we passed them in the hallway they were rolling dough for dumplings, slicing spring onions, and eating ginger beef.  As time went on, the train population dwindled, and their meals turned into a raucous party.  We watched as they carried crates of ornate red and gold bottles of alcohol and Chinese beers down the hallway.

Jude with our groceries from Yekaterinburg

A couple from Hong Kong exchanged the equivalent of $40 at Yekaterinburg, just before the European border.  Patrick spent it all, on the bag of groceries at left.  I’m pretty sure you could double that bounty in Manhattan for the same price!   Again, we were paying the tourist mark up.

What Jude Ate and How We’d Do it Next Time

As discussed, we got through some close shaves, but made it out OK in the end.  Jude may have even developed a more diverse palate from the experience.  When we first got on the train, Jude woke up every morning screaming for milk.  This lasted for the first few days.  There came a point, though (maybe somewhere in Eastern Siberia), where Jude realized that he did not like UHT milk, and started refusing to drink it.  He started asking for other things instead.  He developed a love for oatmeal, and went quickly though all of our instant packets.  In a typical day, he would also eat squeezable fruit and vegetable packets that we brought on board; any bread that we could get; and acceptable options from the dining car, like hash browns from the Russian car.

He also asked for other things we couldn’t get, like strawberries.  Each time we got something fresh, like a banana or a cucumber, he ate it ravenously.  His good habits have continued off the train, and he now seems willing to try more new things.  He also is back to milk (so long as it’s of the standard, non-UHT, variety).  What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger…

If we rode the Trans-Siberian train again, this is how we’d do it:

-Bring plenty of rubles! Get all local currencies ahead of time because getting local currency is very difficult.
-Bring jam, like the kind given away at hotel buffets + butter
-Bring eggs to crack over hot ramen noodles to boost protein intake
-Bring bananas & other fruit & veg that keep well – apples, cucumbers, carrots, etc.
-Bring multi-vitamins
-Bring plenty of juice box-sized milks
-Drip coffee (we did this – good move)
-Instant oatmeal worked well – wish we brought more
-A mug
-We used our travel fork/spoon/knife combo every day
-A surge protector for our computer – the train electric blew our computer charger (note a 220 voltage with continental Europe-sized electric plug are in each cabin)
-A wine cork for locking the door (see below)
-We bought soap en route which was a must
-We brought toilet paper – good idea
-Laundry salts would have been helpful because a fan in the cabin is sufficient to dry clothes
-The train supplies sheets, blankets, and towels, but the towels are hand-towel size. Given the length of our travels, we can’t carry around a towel, but if you can, do!

Recognize that depending on where you’re coming from, not all these things can be easily done.  We only had a day in Beijing before we left, and with more time we may have done better.  The Trans-Siberian Railroad was a phenomenal experience, just not a phenomenal culinary one.  The food in Moscow sure tasted great after a week of instant ramen and stale bread!

We used this cork to strengthen our compartment’s door lock. Even with a key, someone would not be able to enter without our permission. We picked up this tip before we left and would highly recommend it to anyone else planning on taking the railroad.

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  6 Responses to “Culinary Misadventures on the Trans-Siberian Railroad”

  1. Wonderful post! Glad the train waited. You were very lucky — and of course very determined, which is probably why you were lucky.

  2. Oh nooooo…. what happened to all the nice babushki at the station platforms selling piroshki, hot potatoes, and more?! I’m sorry that tip didn’t hold true. Hope you’re enjoying some good Russian food in Moscow & Petersburg! If you’re still in Moscow, try to find Gurya’s. Amazing Georgian food– a big mafia hangout, but yummy yummy food. But then again, maybe everything has changed like the train platforms.

  3. times is rough and tough like leather!

  4. You can never trust a posted schedule. After all of that running and just making the train – NO $! There was a strong element of black humour running in this post – though I am sure that Jude was only able to concentrate on getting “his” milk! May he keep his appreciation of fresh veggies and fruit. I guess it would have been easier to handle if you liked vodka, warm beer and ciggies and were able to forego protein and any fresh food! I truly hope that the five of you (as now Martin and Leslie have joined you) are able to eat delicious, nutritious dinners from now on!

  5. I have to say, that smoked omul fish looks delicious!

  6. I finally caught up with this blog. Exciting reading! And to think all of this happened before we met. I’m glad our time together was a bit less adventurous!

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