Accommodation and Life on the Train
Aboard the train, you "live" in numbered, lockable 2- or 4-bed compartments (cupe), the former even includes a shower. Some trains, especially the "short" ones with a trip duration of only 2 or 3 days, also include the category platzkartny with bed couches (always 3 above each other and one row per aisle) without real compartment doors or a "wooden class" (obshe) only with seats.
In the cupe (the 4-bed compartment has turned out to be the most entertaining and interesting), life is very comfortable; the beds are good, and you can get sheets and linen from the Provodnitsa for 30 Rouble. Per train, there are two of these provodnitsas (on Chinese trains, they can also be male) during the whole ride.
The furnishing of the trains is robust and functional, the available space for your luggage above the aisle and under the beds is usually sufficient, and regularly, the carpet in the aisle is vacuumed(!) and the toilets are cleaned.
In case you booked a 4-bed compartment, you won't have your own shower, but that is no problem. You can take a provisional shower in the bathrooms (e.g. with the help of a cup) and there's a toilet at the end of each car. Smoking is prohibited in the car, which is why smokers can usually be found in the area between two cars.
In the aisle, a coke-heated samovar will always provide hot freshwater, which can be used to cook tea or to heat ready-made soups. There is also a dining car, but it is more interesting to buy fresh groceries as well as beverages, fruits, fish, sausages, cheese, honey, cucumbers, vodka, and much more, from grandmothers at the platforms during the stops every 3 to 6 hours. No one has ever died of hunger or thirst during a ride on the Transsib.
You should develop an especially good relationship with the Provodnitsas by buying some tea or candy for little money because they will always be friendly and helpful then. For the whole trip (8 days to Vladivostok and 8 days back!), they are responsible for security as well as for cleanliness, the heating, hot water, and everything belonging to it. They will also be happy about little presents such as some candy or postcards from the traveller's home country.
Usually, the trains are completely booked up. However, according to our knowledge, the system made up in a way that every train station receives a contingent of cars that can be booked. There can be spontaneous changes organized by the Provodnitsas within a train though. The system can barely be understood but it's working very efficiently.
The travellers aboard are randomly thrown together. If you book together, chances are you'll get a compartment together but empty beds will usually be booked later on, so you will never be alone. Many travellers are European, American, or Asian tourists. A train with 15 cars accommodates about 550 passengers, who - if they're no tourists - go for a visit (it is cheaper going by rail than going by plane but still very expensive for Russians) or go to work to the oil fields of Siberia. Rarely, you will meet a Russian who goes on holiday to or from Siberia.
Contacts with the locals can easily be made as long as you're open-minded and friendly towards them and provided you don't accept their invitation to an obligatory meal and vodka-drinking.
Knowing some phrases in Russian is helpful, but in case of need you learn them during conversations with your hands and feet. Should you happen to visit someone for a second time, it is common that the guest contributes something to food and beverages.