How to choose a Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian tour

The Trans Siberian is arguably the world’s greatest train journey. It’s certainly the most epic – non-stop it takes an entire week – but most tourists prefer to break it up with various overnight stops along the way, extending it to three weeks and longer. So, given the time it takes, and the costs involved, it’s vital to choose the right rail trip for you. Because there are dozens of different tours billed as Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian, and the experience can vary widely from one to the next. Here’s a few of the main aspects you need to consider.

Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian?

The first thing to make clear is that the Trans Siberian is not a single route. It’s a vast network of lines that sprawls across many thousands of miles. As such, while traveling on it you will brush shoulders with people of many different nationalities and backgrounds, perhaps on vacation themselves, or headed to work or to visit relatives.
The Trans Siberian, the oldest and best known route, runs over 9,000km from Moscow to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, home to the country’s Pacific fleet. The Trans Mongolian, on the other hand, takes you through Russia, Mongolia and China, crossing the Gobi Desert. Many people consider it the more interesting of the two routes because of the variety in landscapes and cultures. There is also a third, lesser-taken route, the Trans Manchurian, which travels between Moscow and Beijing without dipping into Mongolia. Most of the trips that we offer run between Moscow and Vladivostok, or Moscow and Beijing, but not all. Some finish in Irkutsk for instance, while others carry on further.

Which direction?

You can choose your direction of travel, with some itineraries being effectively mirror images of one another. So with the Trans Mongolian for instance you can go east from Moscow to Beijing, or west from Beijing to Moscow, with the same activities en route, just in reverse order. Traveling westbound can help with the time difference (train-lag?) but most people choose to journey eastbound, leaving the long flight until the end.

Small group or tailor made tours?

Almost all Trans Siberian vacations are small group tours, during which you’ll be accompanied by around 15 or so other travelers, plus a tour leader, following a structured itinerary on set dates. There are a handful of tailor made tours available too, which give you greater flexibility on your travel dates, excursions and the option to spend a few extra days here and there, as well as independent tours where your basic structure is provided but you are left to your own devices at each stop. On tailor made tours you will also be able to upgrade your accommodation, on the train and in cities such as Moscow and Beijing.

It is possible to organise the trip yourself, but it would be very time-consuming and complicated unless you plan to just stay on the train for the duration of the journey. For that reason the vast majority of people prefer to put it in the hands of a specialist company. That means all of the ticket booking arrangements, accommodations and transfers are taken care of – so you can enjoy the ride with nothing to worry about. You can also get significant help with the convoluted process of organising visas.
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Taking as an example a standard, three-week vacation on the Trans Siberian, you will spend around six nights on the train, with the rest at various stops, staying in hotels, guesthouses, and often a Mongolian ger in Ulaanbaatar. On each route, there are several classes of accommodation. It’s important to understand the differences between, so you know what to expect.

The Trans Siberian uses Russian trains. Second class cabins mean four berths, while first class cabins have two lower bunks only. You’ll have a small table, enough space for luggage, power sockets and lockable door. Clean bedding is provided, and the bunks convert to seats for use in the daytime. There are washrooms and toilets (but not showers) at opposite ends of the carriage corridor, and each train has a restaurant car serving Russian cuisine.
On the Trans Mongolian you will be traveling on Chinese trains, which are broadly similar to Russian trains with a few key differences. The second class hard sleeper is equivalent to a second class cabin on the Trans Siberian. There is also a second class soft sleeper which again has four berths, but offers a little extra space – whether it’s worth the supplement is debatable. Then there is the first class cabin, also known as the deluxe soft sleeper. These are quite roomy, and may even have an armchair. The first class cabins share a private sink and shower with the adjacent cabin, and as with the Trans Siberian there are toilets at the end of the corridor.
As with the Trans Siberian, all Trans Mongolian trains have a restaurant car; however, it is changed at each border, so that you can dine on Russian, Mongolian, then Chinese meals. The food is decent enough, though choices tend to be limited and it’s not cheap. Many travelers prefer instead to get by on snacks either brought with them (instant noodles can be made easily with the samovar of hot water in each carriage) or buying them from the babushkas that sell their wares at most stations. Read more about life aboard the train.


After the route, probably the most important aspect to consider is when to travel, and every season has its own advantages. Summer is the busiest time of year but destinations such as Lake Baikal are sublime in the sunshine. The frozen landscapes of Siberia, beautiful to start with, can grow bland, but winter in Mongolia or Moscow: stunning. Spring and autumn naturally offer gorgeous scenery through your large window too, but the weather is not so predictable and cabins can get a little stuffy. You might also want to think about tying your trip in with a particular event – Mongolia’s exciting Naadam Festival in early July for instance, or seeing in Christmas in Red Square.

Where to get off

Almost all vacations on the Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian feature the same stop-offs. On the Trans Mongolian specifically, these are typically Yekaterinburg, Lake Baikal, Ulaanbaatar and Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. But there are some itineraries that cover more ground. The Silk Road route, for instance, takes a diversion into the ‘Stans, passing through great historic cities including Almaty, Tashkent and Samarkand.
And don’t think that you need to finish your adventure in Beijing or Moscow. The Trans Mongolian conveniently connects with trains leading to other parts of China and Southeast Asia, while in Russia you can venture beyond Moscow to St. Petersburg and any other part of Europe. The Imperial Route, meanwhile, takes you over the Sea of Japan by ferry all the way to Tokyo via Kyoto and Nara.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Marko Mikkonen] [View out of window: Andrew and Annemarie] [West of Kultuk: Public domain] [Mongolian gers: Yang Shuo] [Lake Baikal: Victoria Abrosimova]