I travelled on the Trans-Siberian in 2002 so much of this information will be out-of-date especially as these are countries that change quickly. However, I have been asked about my trip by people thinking of doing the journey themselves on several occasions so wrote up these notes.
The two places I definitely recommend you stop are Lake Baikal and Mongolia. At Lake Baikal, stay by the Lake Baikal rather than just visit Irkutsk and in Mongolia you need to get out of Ulan Baatur. I think it would be a shame to do the journey non-stop if you haven’t done it before as part of the interest of the journey is visiting the places on en route. I enjoyed the other places I visited (Ekaterinburg, Ulan Ude) for the taste that they gave me of Russia too.
If you do do it non-stop I’d check the policy of whether foreigners are put together and decide if this is what you want or not. Stopping more places means that you break the journey more which may or may not be what you want. Having more train journeys does mean you meet a greater variety of people on the train and also that if you do turn out not to be too keen on the people you are sharing a compartment with, you don't risk being stuck with them too long.
I have travelled around most of Europe and parts of Asia independently and would say that Russia is not an easy place to travel independently in comparison. Pretty much nobody speaks any English and everything is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. For example, in my five train journeys I never encountered a provodnista (train attendant) who spoke a word of English and even the person at the ticket office of the Kremlin, did not speak any English. Also Russian isn’t a particularly easy language to pick up in the way that say some Spanish or Italian is.
In terms of booking train tickets, the Trans-Siberian Handbook has an English-Russian train booking form that you could try using. Otherwise Marlis Travel in Moscow can book just Russian train tickets (they can also provide visa support if you stay in one of their homestays in Moscow). I think China Travel Service (or a company with a similar name) can book train tickets all the way through too. I know people had problems finding places that would book tickets in advance for them before they arrived in Russia. I get the impression that high season (in the summer) then it can be quite hard to get tickets, especially from Ekaterinburg (where it can also be quite hard to find somewhere to stay). Getting from UB to Beijing is the other big bottleneck as there’s only one train a week.
I would recommend organising accomodation in advance as it can be in short supply. I think Ekaterinburg only had one hotel when I was there. Finding accommodation in Listvyanka is the other problem I’m aware of. There is a place mentioned in the Trans-Siberian Handbook but in the appendix, but otherwise you need to stay with a family which means going through an agency. This is worth doing though. AquaEcho does this for instance. Family stays are really worth doing. Mongolia is a fairly easy country for backpackers. Lots of people spoke English there. Make sure you leave enough time here.
Getting visas valid for the trip shouldn’t be a problem but you might need to stay with your visa sponsor for one night in Moscow. Mongolian and Chinese visas are fairly straightforward I think but you may find it cheaper to pay an agency to organise visas rather than pay for lots of tube or train fares to get the embassies in London, especially as you may need to get to them early in the morning.
There are only two guidebooks in English that I’m aware of. The Trans-Siberian Handbook published by Trailblazers and the Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian guide. I think the former was a bit better on the whole (it’s worth knowing that there’s useful stuff in the appendix) , but if you’re travelling independently it’s probably worth having a look at both as you probably want all the information you can get your hands on. If you meet other foreigners somebody will have whichever one you don’t if you want to have a look.
I used The Russia Experience and although they weren't perfect, I was happy with my decision to use them. It saved me a lot of stress and hassle without making me feel like I was on a group tour and I got to see and do lots of things that would have been difficult without their organisation. The family stays were great but tiring, and I might have chosen a hotel in Irkutsk instead if I were deciding again. One thing to ask about is whether you are the only person staying at the family stays.
If you use a company such as The Russia Experience then work out how much the train fares and accommodation costs add up to first before you make a decision. I think a lot of people were quite surprised how cheap it was. For me it was worth it, but it wouldn't be for everything. My general feeling is that the more complicated the journey you’re making the more it’s worth using an agency. If you’re going from Moscow to Beijing non-stop it’d be a bit silly.
The houses in Listvyanka have outside non-flush toilet (though one house does have a flush loo- make friends with whoever is in that house!) The one in my house wasn’t a squat toilet though and had a toilet seat so wasn’t too bad. There is also the banya, a building outside the house where you have your sauna in the evening. It’s private (though lots of couple chose to go in together) and you sit and steam for a bit. There’s a big bucket of hot water and a big bucket of cold water and you use a saucepan like thing to ladle the right quantities of each into a bowl which you can then pour over yourself or use to wash your hair or whatever. It’ll all be explained to you and it’s very pleasant.
Take a pocket Russian-English dictionary. It’s much better than a phrase book for ‘chatting’ to Russians you’re staying with or sharing a compartment with.
Learn the Cyrillic alphabet. You can do it when you get there more easily than before you leave, but do make the effort as it makes life easier and isn’t that hard.
Take as many photos and picture of things as you can of stuff back home. A lot of the Russians you’ll meet and want to chat to (say if you’re staying with families) won’t speak much English and it’s a very good way of making conversation.
Most people bought flowers for their hosts, although I also saw a lot of fridge magnets and the like from around the world in the places I stayed!
Be aware that it might take over two hours to drive from where you’re staying in Moscow to the train station- the traffic is that bad!
Only place there wasn’t hot water was Moscow. Only place with squat toilet was on a trip I did to a Siberian village in the countryside.
I didn’t feel unsafe at any stage though I didn’t go out by myself anywhere after dark. There were also a few mildly lecherous Russian men on the trains but they weren’t at all difficult to fend off! Nobody I met had had any problems, although I heard that you need to be careful in UB which is definitely a ‘don’t go out after dark’ place even for men and our guides told us lots of times to beware of pickpockets there. (Of course just because I felt safe doesn’t mean it was safe).
I and quite a few other people suffered from sometimes quite nasty stomach aches at various points, but I didn't hear of anybody suffering from anything worth than that.
Take US dollars cash for Russia and Mongolia and travellers’ cheques (any sensible sort) for China. Take pristine notes (order mint condition notes from your bank) and take some one dollar bills as these can be useful just after border crossing before you get a chance to change money. In a lot of places in Mongolia you can pay in dollars rather than the local currency you want too. Things are cheap once you get out of Moscow so you shouldn’t need to be carrying too much cash. Needless to say take (and wear) a moneybelt.
When you get change in Russia make sure the notes aren’t ripped. They are really fussy about the condition of notes. I didn’t find this a problem in Mongolia or China.
One thing you should definitely know is that when you enter Russia you must go through the Red Channel and declare all you money even if it is under the limit where you have to do this. Make sure the form is stamped properly. If you don’t than your US dollars will be confiscated by Russian customs when you leave. You can get around this by changing all your US dollars to travellers cheques just before you leave Russia. Everybody I met was aware of this and either had stamped forms or got someone who had such a form to carry money over the border for them. Nobody had any problems. I think a lot of people hid a tiny amount of their cash and didn’t declare it ‘just in case’ but don’t declare nothing as I heard of someone doing this the previous month and getting thrown off the train by customs.
I feel like I know the trains inside out and back to front after having spent so much time in them.
Compartments have four beds. The door can be locked from the inside or from the outside by the provodnista (or by you if you bring a British gas meter key). There’s also a bolt type thing on the inside that stops the door being opened more than an inch or two. There’s space for luggage under the two bottom beds and up above the door. Each bed has a light and a net thing for keeping stuff in. There’s a volume control for the radio (which doesn’t turn the volume totally off unfortunately) near the window. Most trains you can’t open the windows in. There’s a table which has a bottle opener under it.
At one end of the corridor is a rubbish bin and toilet and at the other end is the provodnista’s den, another toilet and the samovar.
A few things it’s worth knowing: there’s a timetable on the wall in the corridor (remember times are Moscow time), the basins in the loos work by pushing the bit under the tap upwards, and the loo flushes using a floor pedal.
The provodnista takes your tickets when you get on and returns them just before you leave the train. If you got a set of different tickets for different journeys stapled together you might want to tear off just the one for that journey before you give the ticket to her. She might want to check your passport too (your ticket has your passport number on it). Soon after you get on the train the provodnista will come round with sheets, pillowcase and a small towel (the pillows and blanket will already be in the compartment) which sometimes you have to pay for and sometimes you don’t. It’s normally the equivalent of a dollar or two.
Take some slip-on shoes of some type for the train (most people had flip-flops) and a mug for soup, tea or whatever. It’s very difficult to get still mineral water once on the train I found so take however much you want (and the boiled water tasted horrible if left to cool down!)
You can buy food at quite a lot of the stops in Russia (though only stuff like chocolate bars in Mongolia and nothing at the stops in China). It’s a bit unpredictable what will be on sale where though and check how long the stop is for on the timetable or try out your Russian and ask the provodnista. The restaurant cars varied a lot. Most people took food on the train with them (pot noodles were the favourite of most people) but that might have been partly because I stopped quite a lot so the journeys weren’t so long.
The toilets were ok in general, though you needed to take your own loo roll more often than not. They get locked at stations though so you need to anticipate that. Some people managed to wash their hair but I was never on the train for more than a couple of days at a time so that sort of thing didn’t become a problem.
The time on the train went really quickly. I took two books to read and only read a couple of chapters.
There are two border stops for each crossing, one for each country. So for instance crossing the border from Russia to Mongolia, you stop at the Russian border stop where Russian passport control and customs come round. Then the train moves to the border where it stops briefly, and then to the Mongolian border crossing where you go through Mongolian passport control and customs. You stay in the train the whole time (you might be able to get out once you’ve been ‘done’ though). Nobody I met had any problems though the officials often liked to exert their authority in small ways and tended to be a bit abrupt (surprisingly though the Chinese passport control people were really really friendly!).
The border crossings seemed to take forever (they were maybe about six hours) and the most important thing to note it that they lock the loos so be prepared! They might even do this half an hour before they get to the first border stop so check the timetable (the Trans-Siberian handbook tells you the names of the border stops) and be prepared. We did persuade the provodnista to unlock the loos very briefly between the two border stops but this was very brief and I wouldn’t count on this.
At the Chinese border station they also have to change the ‘bogies’ (the wheels) which take a couple of hours. Contrary to what all the guides said, everyone had to stay on the train during this and you couldn’t get off at the border station. Chinese passport control were actually in my compartment as our carriage was lifted up and we had to lend them a torch!