Nothing is quite as romanticised as the idea of travelling by train across Russia. But there is a marked difference between tucking yourself into a bunk on a trundling sleeper train, and the exuberant and breathless rides captured by photographer Artem Puchkov. He joined a crew of six young and restless train hoppers as they zigzagged the country on Russia’s extensive network of cargo trains, exploring an intoxicating counterculture, and documenting its more complex reality.
For some, train hopping is a form of survivalism. “Imagine yourself on the road. You have no money, no phone, no number to call. How are you going to go back home?” one train hopper, Artem, told Puchkov.
Train hopping, however, is incredibly dangerous — it is common for travellers to break their heels when they jump up and down from the carriage, and only too easy to fall under the tracks. It is also too difficult to justify merely on the basis of saving money, and train hopping culture is not motivated by cash. Train hoppers will pay for their journey by running away from the police, riding atop a coal-filled wagon, washing in a public bathroom, spending the night in a cemetery while waiting for the right train, or dumpster-diving for food. “On my first longer train hopping trip, I couldn’t help feeling fooled,” says Puchkov. “I’d spent as much money on food, supplies, and emergency gear as I would paying for a ticket and a carefree ride.”
While working on his photo story, Puchkov went on seven train hopping trips, travelling some 3,500 kilometres across central and northwest Russia between May and July 2021. He first heard about train hopping four years ago from a Russian blogger Ilya Bondarev, who had hopped on cargo trains in the United States. He started to find his own path into the community in Russia, seeking both connections and experience. He practised on the cargo trains which travelled through suburban Moscow at night before setting out in May. “The most difficult thing in train hopping is kicking off and keeping your heels safe as you jump off the train with a heavy backpack,” he laughs.
It also took Puchkov some time to understand the logistics of Russia’s railroad cargo lines. Train hoppers usually jump off every 200 or 300 kilometres as carriages and rolling stock are reshuffled. Often, coaches are dropped off halfway to their final destination due to the locomotive being changed. These layovers between trains are hard to predict: the right train might be waiting just across the track, but sometimes hoppers need to wait for hours. “When you hop on a train, you enter chaos,” Puсhkov says. “Here, plans and schedules don’t exist. You zone out from the neat and logical world.” The photographer often found it difficult to explain to his friends in Moscow that he didn’t know when he’d be back from his adventures. If a hopper is spotted by a police officer, their only option is to leave the train as soon as possible. Often, they can find themselves in the middle of nowhere, with no information on when the next train might be passing through.
Many of Puchkov’s fellow travellers started train surfing as teenagers. Some started by hopping onto suburban trains, while others were looking for a way into the wilderness to watch thunderstorms or escape Russia’s light pollution. Ultimately, train hopping is the art of disappearing. It is about alienation, non-belonging, and the slow surge of adrenaline that comes with hiding on train carriages. “People travelling on board of passenger trains find the world to be limited by a window frame, which is technically just a variation of a TV screen. When you’re sitting on top of a cargo train, there are no limits. You can really feel the road,” says Danya, who travelled alongside Puсhkov. He started riding cargo trains aged just 14, taking the 1,400 kilometre trip between Moscow and Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. “Once we hop on a train, we cease to exist for the next few days.”
On a lucky day, there are small luxuries for train hoppers to enjoy. If they find a semi-empty coach, they can hang a hammock to chill and sleep. But the best finds are unexpected — like finding a carriage carrying giant coils of industrial wire. “Inside a coil of wire, there is a hole, almost a tunnel, that is just perfect,” says Puchkov. “You hide inside, start up your travel stove, eat your instant noodles, roll out the sleeping mat and fall asleep, protected from the cameras.”