Trans Mongolian Railways
Since its inception over a century ago, the Trans-Siberian Railway has become one of the world’s most iconic train journeys traversing the entire length of Russia, from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east. This extensive railway network was built at the direction of the Russian Tsars and was designed to connect Russia with neighbouring Asia, resulting in the longest direct rail route in the world. The shortest of the three rail routes on the Trans-Siberian railroad is the Trans-Mongolian, spanning 7,621km; the other two being the Trans-Siberian (9,258km) and Trans Manchurian (8,986km), neither of which pass through Mongolia. The Trans-Mongolian follows the same track as the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Ulan Ude where it branches off, heading south towards Ulaanbaatar, the Gobi Desert and finally, Beijing. Without stops it takes seven days to travel from Moscow to Beijing (or vice versa) on the Trans-Mongolian and from Moscow to Vladivostok (or vice versa) on the Trans-Siberian. It takes just over six days travelling from Moscow to Beijing (or vice versa) on the Trans-Manchurian.
Of the three routes, the Trans-Mongolian arguably offers the most varied scenery and a chance to experience the real connection between the continents, allowing you to explore three of the great cultures of the world as you journey through Europe, Mongolia and Asia. You can travel non-stop from Moscow to Beijing or stop along the way in cities like Irkutsk to visit the impressive Lake Baikal, and Ulaanbaatar, where you can experience the nomadic lifestyle in the unspoiled wilderness of Mongolia.
After leaving Moscow the route heads out past Sergei Posad arriving in Ekaterinburg, where in 1918 Russia’s last Tsar and his family were famously slain by the Bolsheviks. Ekaterinburg marks the beginning of Siberia and is the gateway to the Ural Mountains, the border between European and Asian Russia. The route then travels through vast Siberian pine forests and plains, passing through cities such as Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, and continuing on to Irkutsk with its fine 19th century architecture. From Irkutsk the track coils down to the shores of Lake Baikal, skirting its south-western edge for several hours before stopping at Ulan Ude with its mixture of Tibetan Buddhism and shamanic tribes. The route then leaves Russia for the vast steppes of Mongolia dotted with traditional gers, and then makes it way towards the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Passing through the rugged East Gobi Desert, with its wild horses and wind swept sandy landscapes, it then traverses across the mountains of China providing glimpses of remote parts of the Great Wall, before finally arriving in Beijing.
An experience for travellers who recognise that it’s the journey, and not always the destination, that counts, the Trans-Mongolian is 7,621km of cultural revelations, magnificent vistas, secluded towns, great lakes, ancient cities, nomadic settlements and vast empty spaces. Inside the train, many spend their time in the restaurant cart which serves a local menu (with the cart physically changing at the border crossing of each country), socialising with an interesting mix of commuters (it is after all a commuter train) or just watching the ever-changing landscape pass by from their cabin. The bogies are changed at the Mongolian-Chinese border owing to the two track gauges being different and the train often waits in the station platforms before leaving each stop, allowing passengers to meet locals selling homemade snacks and delicacies for the journey.
One of the largest cities in Siberia, Irkutsk began life as a remote Cossack outpost and is now perhaps best known as the gateway to the magnificent Lake Baikal, 70km to the south. Sitting on the Angara River, it lies at the crossroads of centuries old silk, fur and tea trade routes between Western Russia and China. Conveniently located approximately half way along the Trans-Mongolian route, Irkutsk is a relaxed, remote yet welcoming city that possesses a unique heritage in the region. Gold was discovered in the early 19th century and following the arrival of numerous artistic and intellectual elite who were exiled here after the Decembrist revolt of 1825, Irkutsk earned a reputation as the cultural capital of Siberia. Ornate Decembrist wooden cabins with beautifully carved exteriors that are typical of Siberian style architecture are dotted on the streets alongside grand classical Russian buildings, cathedrals, churches and museums.
Lake Baikal, located near the Mongolian border, is a breathtaking area of natural beauty and one of the planet’s most impressive natural wonders. Surrounded by idyllic country side, mountains, taiga forests and wild rivers, it is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume, the deepest at 1,700m, and among the oldest at 25 million years old. Due to low levels of mineral salts it is also one of the clearest lakes, and its shoreline is dotted with small Siberian villages offering numerous outdoor activities from swimming, diving, hiking, camping, cycling, horse riding to kayaking. The lake also provides habitat for thousands of plant and animal species, including Eurasian brown bears, wild boar, red foxes, sea seals and wolves. Although its climate is mild compared to the rest of Siberia, Lake Baikal usually freezes over in winter until late spring, with ice so thick that cars can drive across it.
Sandwiched between China and Russia, Mongolia was once the world’s greatest empire under Genghis Khan. With less than 3 million people occupying an area larger than Alaska, it is now one of the world’s most remote, vast and sparsely populated countries. Like the Trans-Mongolian train itself, travel through Mongolia is as much about the journey itself as the destination, with its open steppes, forest mountains, pristine wilderness, vast desert and nomadic traditions.
The capital, Ulaanbaatar is located in the Tuul River valley and is surrounded by picturesque mountains. The city has experienced a mining boom in the past 10 years and is home to around a third of the entire population. Largely constructed with Russian assistance, Soviet relics, chaotic modern shopping streets and skyscrapers are juxtaposed against the serenity of its monasteries and palaces. Notable sights include Gandan Khiid, the largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, Bogd Khaan’s Winter Palace and the national museum; in July the city hosts the colourful Naadam Festival.
A short distance north-east of Ulaanbaatar is Terelj National Park, showcasing magnificent landscapes of pine covered cliffs, grassy steppes, unusual rock formations, glacial lakes and hot springs where visitors can camp out in a ger and go hiking, climbing and horseback riding. Further afield, the Khentii province, the birth place of Genghis Khan, is a lush landscape with nomadic herders and gers set amid rolling hills, grasslands, rivers and woodland. West of Ulaanbaatar, Khustai National Park is a mountainous region where nomads graze livestock on rugged hills and valleys. High up in the north-west corner of Mongolia near the border with Russia, lies Lake Khuvsgul, one of the world’s ancient lakes and considered the second most pristine after Lake Baikal, unsurprisingly as they are linked to each other by a river. The 136km long, 262m deep lake holds 70% of Mongolia’s fresh water and is surrounded by mountain ranges inhabited by reindeer herders practicing shamanic rituals.
Mongolia is also home to the largest desert in Asia, the Gobi Desert which covers vast areas of Northern China and Southern Mongolia. The rockier, less sandy Mongolian Gobi is home to wind sculpted rock formations, unique wildlife, isolated pockets of nomads and one of the world’s largest collections of prehistoric fossils.
Fast Facts on countries the CENTUM+ team have explored so far ...