There are three major Trans-Siberian routes, all of which follow the same course for the first 3,300 miles: Moscow-Vladivostock (also called the Trans-Siberian), Moscow-Harbin-Beijing (the Trans-Manchurian line), or Moscow-Ulaanbaatar-Beijing (the Trans-Mongolian line). We took the Trans-Mongolian spur, a 7-day trip through taiga, steppe, and mountains.
The only option for heating food on the train is hot water, so half of everyone’s luggage seems to be ready-to-eat groceries. While there’s a serviceable supermarket across the street from Yaroslavsky Station (the point of origin for eastbound Trans-Siberian trains), you can get grandeur along with your potted noodles by stocking up for your trip at Eliseevsky Gastronom. Surprisingly enough for a grocery store with chandeliers and gold filigree, the prices aren’t much higher than elsewhere in Moscow.
At the end of every carriage there is a coal-fired boiler (commonly but not quite accurately called a samovar), keeping travelers in a steady supply of hot water. Each carriage has an attendant who maintains the boiler.
Unless you brought bottled water or bought some on a platform, the only way to get drinking water is to let boiler water cool. It's easier just to drink tea, which everyone does in titanic amounts.
At random intervals, the carriage attendants would show up with motley assortments of tea bags, ensuring that we rarely drank the same kind twice.
Along train platforms throughout Siberia, local women gather to sell both homemade and packaged goods. Don't worry if you don't speak Russian: they all carry calculators to show you what you owe, and your fellow passengers can help you identify what's for sale or what you just bought. Usually the train stopped between five and twenty minutes, then would leave with no warning or whistle. Reports of hapless folks being left behind are legend among seasoned Trans-Siberian travelers.
Some platforms had little kiosks selling soda, beer, cigarettes, bread, pastries, nuts, cheese, cookies, and chips. Lines tend to be short in temperatures averaging −25°C (−13°F).
Seemingly every platform vendor sold bags of syshki, crunchy o-shaped crackers dusted with oregano. They travel well, as they are nearly indestructible.
Brown bread and cherry jam
Good brown bread can be had throughout Russia. This version, labeled “fitness bread,” boasted caraway seeds and a sourdough tang. It was even better when topped with cherry jam, laden with real fruit.
As one of the few dishes you can easily make using only boiling water, packaged noodles are a staple of Trans-Siberian eats. Shown here, Doshirak brand, kimchi flavor.
Pre-sliced sausage is another Trans-Siberian Railway travelers’ favorite. Platform vendors sell a wide variety, some factory-produced-and-packaged, others clearly cut at home. Either way, it's a salty, satisfying snack.
Eating on the train was a little like being back in a college dorm, minus the mini-fridge and cans of Natural Light. While we ate some prepared meals, we mostly subsisted on junk food and the platform equivalent of care packages. These carb bombs had a light dusting of sugar and doughy interiors.
These little numbers consisted of a variety of nuts held together with a marshmallow-like paste.
At smaller stations, where the platforms are covered in snow and ice from October to April, women drag their goods from carriage to carriage on a sled.
Sled shop selection
Among the sled’s offerings: potatoes, pelmeni (dumplings), roast chicken, pirozhki (stuffed buns), and salted omul, a whitefish indigenous to Lake Baikal. Each item cost about 30 roubles (a little more than a dollar).
Once upon a time, passengers along the Trans-Siberian might have eaten a bear killed by their conductor. We were satisfied with our fatty, smoky kolbasa.
We bought homemade syrniki, sweet quark fritters. (Quark is similar to cottage cheese or cheese curds, but firmer, like paneer.) We couldn’t get enough of these, which are perfect dipped in cherry sauce or jam.
Commonly stuffed with meat, mushrooms, onions, or potatoes, pirozhki get their typical golden color from being brushed with egg before baking or frying. Ours had cabbage.
A perfectly folded, expertly pan-fried blini filled with farmer’s cheese. Frozen on its way from a Siberian kitchen to the train platform, it quickly defrosted in our carriage.
The Russians on the train couldn’t agree on what this was called, but everyone wanted a piece of the crunchy wafer tube filled with sticky caramel.
"Cedar" nuts come from Siberian pine trees, of which there are many in the taiga. After roasting, they have a nice meatiness, more subtle than pistachios.
Russian dining car
The Trans-Siberian dining cars are independently owned and operated, serving the food of whatever country the train is in. Notice the clock: in Russia, all trains keep Moscow time, regardless of which country’s nine times zones the train is actually in, so in central Siberia, you sit down for lunch around 8:30am.
The owner/host/server/cook/dish washer brought us a laminated 10-page menu, then pointed to the three things that were actually available. (Even the vodka was sold out.) The borsch came with dill and sour cream.
Dill potatoes with chicken
Next to the fried chicken cutlet was a syrupy, sweet sauce and fried potatoes topped with feathery dill.
Mongolian dining car
The train drops the Russian dining car at the border and picks up a Mongolian one in Ulaanbaatar. It was immediately taken over by teenagers playing cards, smoking, drinking beer, and listening to iPods.
The set menu began with a slaw salad lightly dressed with vinegar and pepper.
The second course, a cream soup with dill and croutons, reminded us of a milder version of Mongolian suutei tsai (milk tea), in which water, milk, tea, and salt are boiled, almost like drinking a cup of butter.
Mutton and potatoes
After we finished the main course of (pretty tough) mutton, potatoes, red cabbage, and rice, the proprietor came over and rubbed our bellies. He also gave us two sticks of Wrigley’s gum.
Seed and nut bars
Aside from cherry juice boxes, we made one sustained attempt at eating healthily as we rolled from snowy forest to steppe to craggy mountains. We bought these peanut, sesame, and sunflower bars in Mongolia, then worried we might break a tooth.
Eating this DiDo chocolate bar taught us an important lesson: a Kit Kat in German packaging sold in Mongolia still tastes like a Kit Kat.
Chinese dining car
Of the three dining cars we tried over the course of seven days, the Chinese one had the best food. It was also the cleanest.
Our search for China’s spiciest, crunchiest, greatest Chongqing chicken began when we crossed the border at Erlian. The dining car’s crispy chicken wasn't bad but also wasn't the greatest.
Chicken and peppers
Moist and crunchy where it counted, this dish of chicken and peppers wound up being the most satisfying thing we ate in any dining car.
And to drink? More tea, naturally.