On the road with Russia’s train hoppers

5 November 2021

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.

Artem riding the open wagon filled with clay on the way to St Petersburg.
Artem riding the open wagon filled with clay on the way to St Petersburg.
Danya and Roma crossing the ways to board the train heading to Petrozavodsk.
Danya and Roma crossing the ways to board the train heading to Petrozavodsk.
Edik, Roma, and Pasha leaving the station in an empty open wagon.
Edik, Roma, and Pasha leaving the station in an empty open wagon.
Vanya sharing the food with Vlad. It is very hard to boil the water or heat up the food on the road because of the strong shaking of the wagon.
Vanya sharing the food with Vlad. It is very hard to boil the water or heat up the food on the road because of the strong shaking of the wagon.
Artem climbing up the watchtower to join Vanya. The guys often climb out of the wagons to wander around during the stops.
Artem climbing up the watchtower to join Vanya. The guys often climb out of the wagons to wander around during the stops.
The guys resting on the abandoned tracks waiting for the train to come. Sometimes the waiting takes up to 12 hours.
The guys resting on the abandoned tracks waiting for the train to come. Sometimes the waiting takes up to 12 hours.
Vanya in the space between wagons. The ladders inside the wagons are usually broken, so to admire the view, the guys go in between the wagons.
Vanya in the space between wagons. The ladders inside the wagons are usually broken, so to admire the view, the guys go in between the wagons.
Danya chilling in the graveyard near the station while waiting for the right train to come.
Danya chilling in the graveyard near the station while waiting for the right train to come.

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.”

Valya, Vlad and Artem. The loops inside the wagon are often used to hang hammocks.

Vova helping Artem to climb out of the swamp. The guys often pick unusual routes to avoid staff and security on the way to the rail yard.

Danya holding the tent in the blowing wind.

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.

Vlad admiring the road from the space between wagons.
Vlad admiring the road from the space between wagons.
Danya trying to catch the branches growing along the tracks.
Danya trying to catch the branches growing along the tracks.
Ilya getting off the moving train platform. To mitigate the risk of getting caught, train hoppers often get off the slowly moving trains just before the station.
Ilya getting off the moving train platform. To mitigate the risk of getting caught, train hoppers often get off the slowly moving trains just before the station.
Senya sleeping on a pile of crushed stone while waiting for the train that will go in the right direction.
Senya sleeping on a pile of crushed stone while waiting for the train that will go in the right direction.
Vlad and Artem on the way to St Petersburg. Train hoppers value the railways without the electrification system above. These are safer, and give them a chance to see the clear sky and smell the diesel exhaust.
Vlad and Artem on the way to St Petersburg. Train hoppers value the railways without the electrification system above. These are safer, and give them a chance to see the clear sky and smell the diesel exhaust.
Vlad and Vanya in the open wagon with crushed stone on their way to Moscow.
Vlad and Vanya in the open wagon with crushed stone on their way to Moscow.
Zhenya's (not their real name) right foot toes were smashed by the wheels of the Sapsan high-speed train. During an unsuccessful attempt to hop the train, he fell on the tracks and couldn't crawl away fast enough.
Zhenya's (not their real name) right foot toes were smashed by the wheels of the Sapsan high-speed train. During an unsuccessful attempt to hop the train, he fell on the tracks and couldn't crawl away fast enough.
Artem and Maxim watching an unidentified person between the tracks in the rail yard. If a staff member sees them, they might report to the head of the station, and the guys will be detained by security.
Artem and Maxim watching an unidentified person between the tracks in the rail yard. If a staff member sees them, they might report to the head of the station, and the guys will be detained by security.

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.

The guys chilling beside the train which stopped on the track because of the overcrowded arrival station.
The guys chilling beside the train which stopped on the track because of the overcrowded arrival station.
Morning after a sleepover in the abandoned sawmill beside the railway.
Morning after a sleepover in the abandoned sawmill beside the railway.
Edik washing the dishes after a breakfast in an abandoned fire department's station.
Edik washing the dishes after a breakfast in an abandoned fire department's station.
Artem going to his improvised bed inside some coiled wire.
Artem going to his improvised bed inside some coiled wire.
Ilya heating up the water for instant noodles in the wire ‘tunnel’.
Ilya heating up the water for instant noodles in the wire ‘tunnel’.
Roma washing himself in the Lake Onega.
Roma washing himself in the Lake Onega.

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.”

Roma after a long trip in the coal wagon. Coal is the most common cargo and the most despised one. It soils the clothes and irritates the eyes.

Edik, Roma, and Danya hiding from the locomotive standing just beside their wagon. If the driver sees them, they might get reported and detained.

Danya, Roma, and Edik getting ready to sleep on the service floor of an apartment building.

Vlad is busy with his phone while Vanya is admiring the landscape from in between the wagons.

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.”

Edik sleeping on his backpack in an empty open wagon on the way to Murmansk.
Edik sleeping on his backpack in an empty open wagon on the way to Murmansk.
Danya and Vanya in an open wagon with clay. Danya is watching out for the railway workers and security.
Danya and Vanya in an open wagon with clay. Danya is watching out for the railway workers and security.
Vanya sleeping on a concrete slab until the suitable train arrives.
Vanya sleeping on a concrete slab until the suitable train arrives.
The guys greeting Danya, who is standing on the footbridge above. He is going to join them on the trip to St Petersburg.
The guys greeting Danya, who is standing on the footbridge above. He is going to join them on the trip to St Petersburg.
Vlad and Vanya sleeping in a suburban train heading to Moscow. There is a freight train from an unknown marshalling yard outside the window.
Vlad and Vanya sleeping in a suburban train heading to Moscow. There is a freight train from an unknown marshalling yard outside the window.
Danya climbing up the wagon wall to warn his friends that they have to leave the train at the upcoming stop.
Danya climbing up the wagon wall to warn his friends that they have to leave the train at the upcoming stop.
The guys are setting up a tent to hide from the rain that is about to start.
The guys are setting up a tent to hide from the rain that is about to start.
Danya putting on some warm clothes, Artem observing the vicinity, and Senya watching out for a guarded level crossing on the way.
Danya putting on some warm clothes, Artem observing the vicinity, and Senya watching out for a guarded level crossing on the way.
Edik drawing with a stone on the dirty open wagon wall.
Edik drawing with a stone on the dirty open wagon wall.
Edik, Roma, and Danya posing in front of the abandoned house they have just spent the night in.
Edik, Roma, and Danya posing in front of the abandoned house they have just spent the night in.
Roma and Danya staring at the Barents Sea from the WWII artillery positions.
Roma and Danya staring at the Barents Sea from the WWII artillery positions.