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Our Atypical Trans-Mongolian Railway Route


As you all know, a big part of the Silk Roadistan tour was the big bad Trans-Mongolian railway journey. Before you ask: Yes, it was awesome.

Trans-Mongolian Train: Beijing, Ulaan Baator, Moscow

Trans-Mongolian Train: Beijing, Ulaan Baator, Moscow

It took us a long time to decide our travel path on the Trans-Mongolian train, but it didn’t have to. The standard Trans-Mongolian train takes you from Moscow to Beijing (or vice versa) DIRECT. Yep, that’s over 6 days on a train without getting off, and while the adventure would have still been awesome, we would have missed out on so, so, so much wonderful Russia.

So, we chose our stops along the way carefully, and since there are a list of standard stops on the line, even this shouldn’t have taken us that long. It took us that long because we decided to go off the track to some other interesting destinations, like Tomsk and Kazan, which also meant we got to experience some of the more local trains in the process (both good and bad). Thank goodness Real Russia was there to help us out every step of the way!

>> Read the reasonings behind why we chose to work with Real Russia in this post.

I plan to blog thoroughly about the trip in detail, but just to get you caught up, here is the atypical Trans-Mongolian railway route:

Beijing – Starting Point

the beginning - from Beijing

From Beijing in the beginning – after a stressful ride trying to make it to the station on time!

Usually the end of the line, we made it our starting point. After a few days of trying to explore gigantic, concrete-covered Beijing (and seeing little kids unfortunately exposed), we hopped on a train in first class, Mongolia bound! It was such a treat to be in first class as Pat and I had our own private cabin together, which made it that much more enjoyable. Surprisingly, the free food vouchers that also came with our tickets got us some grub that was overall pleasing.

chinese sign at the Beijing Station

Because I can totally read this sign.

It wasn’t until the midnight border crossing and train track changing that my head decided to get a migraine, and let me tell you — every whack of the train carriages as they pushed the new wheels on was like torture! Besides that, overall pleasurable experience.

brooke on train

Brooke enjoying the ride.

Ulaan Bator, Mongolia

excited to be in Ulaan Bator

Excited to be in Ulaan Bator!

After an overnight train ride, we finally arrived in Ulaan Bator, the capital city of Mongolia. It was here that we got off the train and headed out into the Mongolian countryside for a 4 day tour (where Pat was belittled as a man). If you have more time, do take it to wander around this country. The barren beauty makes you appreciate the finer things in life… like toilets. Oh yes, toilets are niiiiiice.

This Mongolian man wanted a photo with some pretty ladies.

This Mongolian man wanted a photo with some pretty ladies.

Irkutsk, Russia

train to Irkutsk

Our train to Irkutsk – 2nd class.

When we were planning this train trip, it was as a group, so trying to nail down our exact Lake Baikal itinerary was looking to be a chore. Instead, we just decided to book our tickets in and out of Irkutsk and make our way to the lake when wanted.

Journey to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal

Journey to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal

Turns out that might not be such a great plan since a short journey from there to the Lake is actually a few hours. In our last minute planning in Ulaan Bator, we actually decided to head straight to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal, a trip which took us 6 hours by car from Irkutsk — a really big trek and portion of the day after already spending a day on a train.


Nikita’s Homestead

Nikita’s on Olkhon Island ended up being so cosy, we stayed for 3 nights before heading back for a night in Irkutsk.

Tomsk, Russia

train to Tomsk

Train to Tomsk

After our cold, cold stay at Lake Baikal, hitting up Tomsk and getting a taste of 30 degree (Celsius) and humid temperatures was quite the shock to the system. Luckily, Tomsk was a lovely find — such a fun little university town that possesses some of the best wood lace architecture in the region. It was here that our 8th Floor Hostel workers cooked us up some of that delicious borscht soup I blogged about last week!

Matryoshka dolls at the local museum

Matryoshka dolls at the local museum

On the way to Tomsk, we had a lovely few hour stopover in Tayga, which is where we randomly ran into two Russians who owned a little matryoshka doll museum.

Kazan, Russia

enjoying the late sunset of the white nights

Enjoying the midnight sunsets on the train to Kazan.

Next on our route was Kazan, also known as the capital city of Tatarstan — and therefore a perfect fit into the Silk Roadistan tour. Kazan is actually one of the wealthiest cities in Russia, and it is laden with super nice and almost gothic looking buildings, not to mention dozens of gated communities that happened to look desolate. The food, however, along with a worthwhile stop at the Soviet Lifestyle Museum (post coming soon!) made the trip a memorable stop in our book.

soviet lifestyle museum

The Soviet Lifestyle Museum – of course there are guns on a desk. Of course.

On the way to Kazan, we had to take a long, long route from Tomsk with an evening stopover in Yekatinerinberg. We were only there for a few hours and didn’t see much, but if the rest of the city is anything like the area near the train station then I would not recommend stopping off on your future journey.

Moscow, Russia

train to Moscow

On the train to Moscow.

Moscow! What a pleasant surprise! I knew at that moment that I had been traveling too long in the former Soviet countries because Moscow was everything but gray and concrete. That city is absolutely grand and beautiful in every way. Even the Metro was a place I could hang out in for hours! I was extremely sad to only have a day in the big city, and I hope I can return some day to finish out the stay.

moscow icon

Basking in the beauty of St Basil’s.

Normally, the Trans-Mongolian (or Trans-Siberian) line would end in Moscow, but many lucky individuals extend the journey by heading north to St. Petersburg. We did so on a Sapsan train — one that took us there at speeds of up to 250km/hr.

St. Petersburg, Russia

Brooke solo on the Sapsan train.

Brooke solo on the Sapsan train.

To be quite honest, St. Petersburg blew me away. Not only did we get to stay in the best planned hostel in the world there, we also got to enjoy the European beauty that is this Russian city. That, combined with the white nights, good food, a great pub crawl, and an apartment stay with Roomorama, and St. Pete’s was just so hard to leave!

Only we had to. We had a flight booked back to Bishkek, and more of Kyrgyzstan to explore. I must say I was highly impressed with Russia and would highly recommend Russia to anyone. If that exploration can be done by rail — even better!

_ _ _ _ _
*Real Russia offered my group a discount on our rail tickets, but all thoughts expressed on the company’s helpful nature are my own.


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29 Responses to Our Atypical Trans-Mongolian Railway Route

  1. Rosie July 30, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    So glad you made it to Tomsk and Kazan – my two favourite places when I took the Trans-Mongolian. And Nikita’s, of course!

    • Brooke July 30, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

      So happy we made the decision to visit both of those cities. Tomsk especially was where we got to hang out with some awesome locals and they made our stay that much more memorable 🙂

      I think everyone gets to Nikita’s these days! We heard people talking about it in UB and that’s what got us there.

  2. Alex July 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    We also broke up our trip on the train. One day it would be cool to do it as one big run. We started from Moscow. The biggest reason we jumped off was because we didn’t want to miss all of western Mongolia. We hopped off the train at Barnaul and got a bus to Gorno-Altaisk. From there we hitch-hiked to western Mongolia and then proceeded to find shared vans or hitch-hike across Mongolia. Got back on the train at UB. Such an amazing trip. Siberia is BEAUTIFUL.

    • Brooke July 30, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

      Wow, hitch-hiking Mongolia would be quite the experience! Were you ever stuck out in the middle of nowhere waiting for a vehicle?

      • Alex July 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm #

        We got stuck at the border between Tashanta/Tsaggannur for a night without money or food. It worked for us in the end as we found a guy who found us a shack/room for us to sleep in and a little food who would bring us to Olgii in Mongolia the next day where we could pay him. Also got stuck at a place called Tsosentsengal while trying to get to Khovsgol Nuur. Ended up finding a ride further east to Tsetserleg instead.

  3. Antoinette | love.antoinette July 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    One of these days, I’d love to make it up to Russia and do the whole Trans-Siberian rail journey that you two did! Sounds like you guys had so much fun!!

    • Brooke July 30, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

      Highly recommend! Who knows, maybe Russia will someday lessen their visa restrictions and make it all easier for us 🙂

  4. Amanda @ Farsickness July 30, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

    This looks wonderful! I’m hoping to do a similar journey someday. I can’t wait to read about the journey in detail 🙂

    • Brooke August 2, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

      Seems to be a popular route these days, but rightfully so! Good luck with making your journey a reality, and don’t hesitate to drop me a line 🙂

  5. Paul July 31, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Giving us some great ideas as we’re looking to do this maybe next year and we have St Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk and Ulaan Bator on the list.

    May need to add a few more!

    • Brooke August 2, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

      All great stops – be sure to give yourself plenty of time! It’s a big place and I felt like I wanted to explore so much more 🙂

  6. Franca July 31, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

    Very interesting post, especially considering we are planning to get on the Trans Siberian Train soon, even if for going in the opposite direction you did to get to Beijing.
    Thanks for the tips, we heard already about Kazan that is really worth stopping by.

    Your experience will help us in planning our journey!

    Thanks! 🙂

    • Brooke August 2, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

      You’re welcome! It’s a trip of a lifetime! Good luck with your planning and making it a reality 🙂

  7. JoAnna July 31, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    I would really like to take the ride on this railroad someday. It’s been on my Life List for a long time. Thanks for the insight and information.

    • Brooke August 2, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

      Yeah its definitely one of those trips you don’t just head off on next month. Took us months of planning from an idea that started back in 2010! I hope you can make it happen! I highly recommend Real Russia as they helped us with everything from tickets to visas.

  8. Ryan at Travel and Graphs July 31, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    I love train trips.Can’t wait to try one in Asia one day, especially a stop in Moscow. You make it sound so vibrant!

    • Brooke August 2, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

      Moscow was glorious, but I think I loved St. Pete’s more. Just cool places!

  9. Our Dear Lady Expatriate August 1, 2012 at 11:56 pm #

    Love this article! This region had never really been on my list, I don’t know why exactly – just maybe less exposure in mainstream travel media? But reading about your journey, along with a couple of other posts about this path that have popped up on sites like matador, it sounds like it could really be something I’d go for.

    Thanks for planting a beautiful travel seed!

    • Brooke August 2, 2012 at 10:07 pm #

      My pleasure! Always love planting travel seeds 🙂

  10. Audrey August 5, 2012 at 2:32 am #

    Looks like you chose a really good route! When I get around to doing that train journey I also want to make plenty of stops along the way. I wouldn’t want the adventure to end too soon!

  11. Ali August 6, 2012 at 5:49 am #

    Andy really wants to do this someday. It sounds like fun as long as you make stops like you did. Sitting on the train for 6 days straight does not sound like fun. We just have to figure out when we have enough time to do the whole thing the way we want to. Great summary of where you went!

  12. Rebecca August 28, 2012 at 3:15 am #

    What an amazing journey! Very high on my bucket list, can’t wait to read more about your adventures.


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