To ride the Trans-Siberian rails, you first have to get yourself to Russia. That means encountering the standard headaches of international travel such as passports and visas. Unfortuately, Russia still insists on making the always unpleasant process more difficult than normal. Advice of this sort is subject to rapid change, so get the latest information. Here are my thoughts on Russian Visas along with helpful links.
The set of tracks stretching across Russia spans almost a quarter of the globe. So to suggest that there is only one, or even a dozen, ways to conquer them is at least misguided.Decide what you want out of the trip, how much time, effort and money you want to put into it, look at a map, and go from there.
Most Westerners start from one of three locations; Moscow, Beijing, or Japan. That will probably change as more Russian cities become acessible through direct air links. But for now, there is comfort in numbers.
Sticking to the theme of three, there are three possible ways to go about organizing your trip. You can go on a group tour, semi-independently, or, for the really adventurous, on your own. If a group tour appeals to you, consider instead staying at home and watching a video of the excursion with friends. You'll get about as much contact with the locals, you can choose your travel companions, and it's much cheaper. There's also the benefit of pause and fast forward for those portions of the trip that become tiresome or inconvienent. Semi-independent is currently the most popular option. In this mode you have advance tickets, reservations, and hotel bookings arranged through a travel agency. During the trip you are your own guide. For those who want to avoid the confinement of a group but don't have extensive travel experience or have time constraints, this is the option I would recommend.
There are barriers to truly independent travel in Russia. You will first have to have a visa that allows it. Then you will have to confront a system that is not setup to support you. Although the total cost will be less than for any of the other options, there will be times when you will have to pay considerably more. It's possible that you will become stranded somewhere for a few days. You will have to conduct complicated transactions in a language you probably don't understand.You will have to depend on both yourself and strangers you meet.
On the other hand; if you want to travel free from prior restraints, if you want to follow your mood and change your itenerary at a moment's notice, if you want a truly rich, open ended experience, this is the way to go. If you can't detect my bias, I'll tell you that it's for independent travel. However, I wouldn't recommend it unless you are sure that's it's for you. There are plenty of drawbacks and even hazzards to this type of travel. There's no shame, and maybe a bit a prudence, in letting others do some of the work for you. Independent travel can be risky. But as with most any endeavour, return is proportionate to risk.
Train life is what you want to make of it. If you want to sit and do nothing, there will be up to seven days of as doing as little as you want. You also have the option of reading yourself blind, writing, conversing with any number of people, eating all you want, watching the scenery slip by, or the Russian favorite, drinking youself to a stupor on undiluted vodka.
Leave the tux and party dress at home, this isn't the Orient Express. Attire on the Trans-Siberian is definitely informal. The Russian garment of choice is a jogging suit with slippers. Almost everyone is wearing one. You will want to be similarly comfortable. Temperature is not a problem, the cars are air-conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter.
To dine exquisitely on the Trans-Siberian, you must bring your own food. The dining car serves a few basic, mostly greasy dishes based on chicken or beef. Some of the soup is OK. Eat there, but have other options. The Russian favorite is a styrofoam bowl of dehydrated soup. A hot water dispenser in each car turns it into a quick meal. There're available at kiosks in stations along the way, although it is cheaper to lay in your stock ahead of time.
Other culinary possibilies include bread, meats of many descriptions, dried fish, and anything else that can be wrapped in brown paper. Many stations have groups of peasant women selling various foods, all inexpensive and usually good. Whatever your food choice, bring enough for others. Eating is a primary diversion and it's fun to make a social event of it.
You need to carry clean, crisp and recent ('80's or newer) notes of U. S. currency. Russians will not take bills that show signs of wear. Only a few places in Moscow and St. Petersburg take credit cards. Traveler's checks don't even make good toilet paper. Understand this now and save youself some trouble.
It is illegal to pay for goods or services in foreign currency. However, there are plenty of places to exchange dollars. Officially you must be able to account for the money you exchanged through exchange reciepts. (They weren't checking when I was there.) That means no blackmarket trades. And, since the blackmarket and offical rates aren't that much different, unless you're in a bind, stick to official exchanges.
Sanitation. This is the part some people get squeamish about. There are no showers on the trains. With no stops, that would mean about seven days without shower. If nothing else, it is a motivation for getting off and exploring a city or two. The problem isn't as bad as you might think. For one thing, it's unlikely you will be engaged in sweaty, physical activity (that doesn't count). For another, there's hot and cold running water in the toilets that, with a little care, allow for a sponge bath. About the toilets, as time between daily cleanings increase, they become remarkably less pleasant. Just think about all the motion involved and you can get an idea of the problem.
Apart from the toilets, no one should have any cleanliness complaints. Attendants clean the car regularly. Sheets, rented for less than $2.00, are fresh pressed and the beds are very comfortable.
There are two classes of travel on the long distance trains. The only difference is that first class has two people to a compartment, second, four. Second class provides more opportunity for interaction with other travelers. It's hard to be in a compartment for a couple of days without some type of communication taking place.
Common sense is your best protection. Keep anything you don't want to loose on your person at all times. There are lockers under the seats and you can have the attendent lock your compartment when it is unoccupied. You can also lock the door at two points from the inside. Some people even add a belt for extra protection.There are theives on the train just like anywhere else. Don't look like a target and you are less likely to be one. More than anything the atmosphere is family-like. The trains are a primary means of transportation for common Russian people. There will be all types of people aboard from whole families to scientists to older children going to visit relatives. Be careful, but don't live in fear.
Please, get off the train. For one thing, it will make the journey more enjoyable by breaking it up. I enjoyed all of my time on the train, but then I didn't spend seven straight days on it either. Secondly, you will get so much more out of your trip by seeing some of Russia closer than through a train window. After all, the purpose of the train is to get people from one place to another. Use it's potential, the train is much more than an excursion ride.
The major drawback in stopovers is that it complicates planning. A transit visa won't work. A tourist visa requires advance bookings which means more planning. Only business visas give you freedom to improvise.
Another complication is the ticket. Most tourists have a single ticket for their entire journey. I didn't, and despite dire warnings from ticket vendors, I had no problem buying point to point tickets on the spot.There are two parts to a Russian train ticket, the ticket and the reservation; each no good without the other. Just because you have a ticket from Moscow to Valdivostok doesn't mean you have to do the entire trip in one sitting. You should be able to step off the train, get another reservation, and continue your journey on another train. However, you will discover that outside of the Kremlin walls, rules can be a matter of opinion as much as anything. Before you leap off the train in a pituresque Siberian villiage, ask someone about the current practice and nature of your ticket. Otherwise you might become a part of the scenery for longer than you wish.
It is also important to think of the Trans-Siberian not as a train, but as a set of tracks, some of the busiest tracks in the world. There are many trains plying the route, from the Rossia that travels the entire distance from Vladivostok to Moscow, to locals that go from one city to the next. The major portion of my trip was on the Baikal, a distinctive blue train that runs between Irkutsk and Moscow and is favored by many Russians. Once you are aware of the number of trains, it opens up many more travel possibilities. The only caveat is to make sure that, for overnight trips, you travel coupetas opposed to platz carte. That will give you the compartmented cars as described in my journal.
There are two excellent guidebooks to the Trans-Siberian. The one I used was the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas. Trailblazer Publications, The Old Marse, Tower Road, Hindhead, Surrey, GU26 6 SU, England. Fax (+44)0428-607571. 1994. It may be out of print. The other, newer guide is The Trans-Siberian Rail Guide by Robert Strauss. It's very informative. You can order these books online at our Trans-Siberian Bookstore It's how I ordered Robert Strauss's book!
Online references are becoming more common. (They were non-existent when I was planning.) Go to the map in the Route section for individual cities. Also, you must check out the excellent Russian Chronicles. It was an online journalism project that will give you a good feel about what you will experience and some ideas about what you might do. For practical information, check out Athol Yate's Russian Rail Travel. Athol writes a dead tree guide to Russian Rail travel and has recently put up this site. Among the most helpful sections is one which has relatively current schedules for the train. He also has a travel agency that can help you with visas and tickets.