In Mongolia on the fifth morning, we had a new dining car, on the other side of several unfamiliar cars. Laquered wooden carvings of antelopes, rams, goats, pelicans, mountains, clouds and flowers covered the walls. Wooden dragons with dog faces held up each table; bronze dragons stared down at us from the walls. A 'horse head violin' with three strings hung on the wall. "It's beautiful," I said to the waiter. He shrugged. "It's Mongolia." Even nicer was how clean the windows were: I spent the day eating dumplings and watching the Gobi desert go by. Peter came in and we counted camels, antelope, yak, bison, and giant vultures. Round yurts spotted the desert sand, under the sun; only when you looked closer did you see the snow and realize how cold it must be.
We reached the Chinese border that night, our last. Huge red lanterns swung from the station's entrance in an icy wind, and “Fur Elise'”played from the station's loudspeakers. In the border town for a restaurant meal while they changed the trains, it felt strange to be on solid ground.
The final morning of the trip, I woke up to a brown hillscape, from which brown brick villages emerged, almost organically. The red banners and lanterns of Lunar New Year added the only color. This landscape gave way to industrial towns and huge coal plants, where trucks kicked up dark gray dust. Red lanterns marked the landscape everywhere, swaying in the wind.
After a delicious lunch in the unadorned new Chinese restaurant car, it was finally time to pack up. I stripped the sheets, returned the mug to the attendant, and got some final last minute advice about navigating China without speaking the language . Then I sat back and watched the dilapidated factories go by outside my window. Beijing—and thus the end of the trip—was approaching. But I had one thing to comfort me: I would have to take the train again, because I slept through Lake Baikal.
The Man in Seat Sixty-One is a fantastic source of information about this trip. http://www.seat61.com/Trans-Siberian.htm
Tickets can be purchased directly from any Moscow train station; at 9,100 rubles for a bed in a 2nd class cabin with four berths or 13,074 rubles for 1st class berth in a cabin with 2 beds, this is the cheapest option.
Bring a towel as you can take sponge baths if you add hot water from the samovar to the ice cold water in the bathroom sink. The 1st class cabins have shared showers.
Tea bags and instant soup are good to have; however you can buy these at the stations during stops.