© K.Shirtcliffe Trans Siberian Railway train outside Irkutsk.
Speaking fluent Russian isn’t required but learning the Cyrillic alphabet will allow you to read train timetables, street signs and write down instructions for ticket kiosk workers. It contains only thirty two letters and can be learned in a couple of hours. Use a guidebook to research where you want to stop off before applying for visas.
The Russian authorities have developed significantly since the days of the Soviet Union, but the visa application process has not. Depending on your exact route you may need to apply for a visa for Russia, Mongolia and China. It is still necessary to obtain a visa invitation so unless you know someone in Russia who can sign paperwork at their local registration office, it is best to organise these visas through an agency. A quick internet search will yield lots of suitable agencies.
By travelling independently you will not have your food and accommodation booked. Through the internet it is possible to take care of most of this. RZD.ru gives the latest train times but you will need Google translate to help you use the site. Simply copying down the train information and showing it to the ticket kiosk will allow you to arrange your travel. Bring money for the journey, at most stations local babushkas will be selling home-made cakes, pastries and freshly smoked fish for only a few Rubles.
For accommodation, use an online hostel booking service. Not only will this take the stress out of finding accommodation on your arrival but it will also allow you to use the local knowledge of the hostel guides who can even book your onward travel at a fraction of the price of a European tour agency.
Finally, remember you are not alone! You will meet lots of other like-minded English speaking travellers along the way, all of whom are having the same adventure as you. Together you’ll overcome any problems you might face and you’ll have the trip of a lifetime.