Missing a train can really mess up your travels. But with multiple time zones and inflexible train timetables, travelling on the Trans Siberian can get very, very confusing
Today in the Russian Federation there are no fewer than 11 time zones, taking into account some daylight saving zones. No other country in the world has this expanse of longitude set to just a single train time, in this case GMT +3 hours.
This creates a problem that every Trans-Siberian traveller must face. If you think, for example, that your train is going to arrive into Vladivostok at 13.10 on a sunny Tuesday afternoon (after all, that is what it says in the timetable) you are in for a surprise, as it will in fact not arrive until 20.10 in the evening local time (Vladivostok is GMT +10).
So how do you cope with this? Unless your brain can manage instantaneous time zone re-calculation, you need a good watch with a second time zone, or maybe just a second watch.
You can be assured of one thing, and that is that the train will always operate to Moscow time – and the train will not wait for you on the platform if you happen to be in the wrong time zone. So Moscow time needs to always be your first point of reference.
I now have a small table clock in my compartment, so I can quickly decode the RZD timetable – really useful when planning stops that might only last a few minutes and you need to get off straight away to search for provisions. (It also has a thermometer, but I wonder if this is a good idea, as there are times when I would perhaps rather not know the real temperature!)
Almost as important on the train is the operation of the restaurant carriage. There seem to be no firm laws here, but they will generally work the hours of the local time zone. It is worth checking this each time you visit, to see what time they have on their own watches. Late evenings enjoying a beer with fellow travellers can fast become someone else's breakfast, depending on your outlook on time.
Train staff also tend to work on Moscow time, although I have found that on the Chinese Trans-Mongolian train (003/004) there tend to be two guards, always one on duty and one off duty, possibly working around Chinese time.
On Russian trains there may only be one person, and they may share duties at stops with the person on duty in the next carriage. This means that they may want to inspect your compartment at a strange time of the day, or be getting some well earned rest when you are up and about and wanting someone to help you fix the samovar.
My suggested technique for coping with all this is to create a "third time zone", as it is not possible to automatically detect and set the correct local time along the way (even if you had a GPS, there is no signal much of the time). Instead of the concept of local time, simply add an extra hour a day from leaving Moscow. I do this first thing in the morning every day, or at least until I am up to my destination time zone. It will be close to, if not exactly, local time.
This is perfect for the route from Moscow to Vladivostok, as it takes seven days and you arrive seven time zones later. It gets even more confusing though if you are headed for Mongolia or China.
When you look at the timetable and see a border crossing that looks unusually long, this will often be as the train is switching from Moscow time as it leaves Russia, and switching to local time. Both Mongolia and China operate at GMT +8, although the reintroduction of daylight saving time for some months of the year in Mongolia can now make this more confusing at some times of the year..
In terms of the best watch to use, I favour a conventional watch with big easy to read hands (one that glows well in the dark) and I also carry a lucky Russian Railways (RZD) pocket watch to show "train time". I enjoy manually advancing my watch to the new time zone each day. It's a sign of progress.
I also like to think that my watch looks professional, but not too flashy. I have noticed that in some countries (especially in parts of Asia) your watch can be an unwritten and important indicator of your status. Amazingly it can actually have an influence on the way you are treated – not in isolation, but in conjunction with your appearance and behaviour.
Once you have the concept of "time travel" sorted, you can focus on other aspects of the adventure without the panic that you might get stranded on an icy platform in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
Matthew Woodward has completed several amazing long distance rail adventures using the Trans-Siberian railway and onward across Asia. From from his home in Edinburgh he has reached Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo and is now headed for Tibet. His blog can be found at Toad's Travel Adventures.