Trans Mongolian railway
vacations guide

The Trans Mongolian railway between Moscow and Beijing via Mongolia and the Gobi Desert is no ordinary train ride. It is 7,600km of adventure, romance and cultural revelations, a constantly evolving cast of characters each with their own stories to tell, set against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of ancient cities, nomadic settlements and vast empty spaces just beyond the carriage windows.
You may have heard the old travelers’ saying that ‘it’s the journey, not the destination.’ On Trans Mongolian railway vacations, it’s both.
After the onion-shaped domes of Moscow, the deep and mysterious pine forests of Siberia give way to the barren Gobi Desert, dotted with traditional ger encampments, then finally the mountains of China as you approach Beijing, and the chance to catch your first glimpse of the Great Wall. All vacations should be this moving. Find out more in our Trans Mongolian railway vacations guide.

What do Trans Mongolian railway vacations entail?

The Trans Mongolian railway is a branch route off the main Trans Siberian network, the longest railway in the world running from Moscow to Vladivostok, which was built at the direction of Russian Tsars. It leaves the Trans Siberian at Irkutsk on the western tip of Lake Baikal, and cuts through a swathe of Mongolia and the Gobi Desert on its way to Beijing. It’s all subjective of course, but we’d say the Trans Mongolian is definitely the most interesting and atmospheric of the various Trans Siberian routes.

Trans Mongolian itineraries

Traveling nonstop, either eastbound or westbound, the Trans Mongolian would take around seven days, but our trips typically last anywhere between two weeks and over a month. Itineraries usually involve leaving and rejoining the train at least every couple of days, staying in locally run hotels and guesthouses, or even family homes, so that you actually only sleep on the train around one in every three nights. Local guides will meet you and you’ll be accompanied by a professional tour leader throughout the trip. An iconic train journey that’s an ambition for many travelers, almost no one undertakes a hop-on, hop-off Trans Mongolian trip single-handed; the level of organisation involved with acquiring visas, excursions, transfers and suitable accommodations makes it essential to use a specialist operator.

Planning needs to begin at least several months before you intend to travel. Visas will need to be arranged, and the itinerary is hung around train timings. It’s also worth noting that, as tickets can only be booked 45 days in advance, schedules are subject to change. There are more daily departures between destinations in spring and summer than in winter.
Almost every trip is a small group tour, with maximum numbers of around 15 people. Some offer monthly departures throughout the year while others operate more frequently. Popular excursions range from Lake Baikal in Siberia, reckoned to be the deepest in the world; the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar; and Terelj National Park. The train crosses from Europe into Asia in the Urals, and at the border with China the train pauses for around four hours while the bogies are changed – something that many travelers find interesting to watch. However, keep in mind you can’t leave the train during this process, and the toilets are locked, so make sure you use the loo before you reach the border.

Itineraries can be bookended with further exploration too; for instance in China you might carry on beyond Beijing to Xian, Hong Kong, even to Japan, while at the other end many people choose to continue from Moscow to St. Petersburg. While most trips are one way, involving a flight home, there’s nothing to stop you returning overland again if you prefer.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Trans Mongolian Railway or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Train life

While on the train, you’ll probably spend most of your time in your own compartments. Expect a reasonable level of comfort and space, but be prepared for it to be quite chilly in winter, and a little on the stuffy side in summer. A restaurant car is attached to the train but you can also get by on your own supplies.
It is worth exploring the train now and again, if only because having a wander down the carriage increases your chances of meeting fellow passengers – a wide variety of people from many different nationalities. Most will probably speak very little English, but a pack of cards, an offer of chocolate or a flask of vodka, and a friendly smile, are often the only form of communication you need.

Your tour leader will be there not to act as a guide, but to ensure the trip itinerary runs smoothly, such as with transfers, border crossings and meeting up with local guides at each stop. These are brief but fascinating encounters with varied places and cultures, and the undisputed highlight of any Trans Mongolian trip. No two days are ever the same.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Marko Mikkonen] [Trans Mongolian itineraries: Boccaccio1] [Train life: John Pannell]