The journey is often more exciting than the destination - and never is that more apparent than on a railway holiday. Whether you're being rocked to sleep on Vietnam's Reunification Express, watching the Highlands whizz past the window in Scotland, or cracking open the vodka and a pack of cards on the iconic Trans Siberian Railway, there are few better ways to travel the world.
Trans Mongolian plus
The Trans Mongolian railway runs between Moscow and Beijing via Mongolia, a total distance of just over 7,500km. But given that most holiday itineraries do not include transport to or from your start and finish points, there’s nothing to stop you from extending your trip at either end, or exploring a little of the ‘Stans on the Silk Road route, diverting in Siberia. There are plenty of options for those who would like to begin or finish their trip amid the glamour of St. Petersburg, just a short distance from Moscow, or indeed to continue on from Beijing deeper into China, to admire the Terracotta Warriors of Xian for instance, and the ancient city of Guangzhou. These extended trips may include a handful of excursions, such as a trip to the theatre in St. Petersburg to bid your fellow travellers farewell in style, or a tour of the 7th century Little Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian. With so much more to see, if you’re travelling all this way, it makes perfect sense to keep going just a little while longer.
Our Trans Mongolian Railway Holidays
Travelling south by high speed train between Beijing and Xian takes around half a day. Xian was once an important city on the Silk Road, and provides a link to China’s imperial heritage, but today it is best known as the finding place of the Terracotta Army. Thousands of statues depicting soldiers, horses and chariots, sculpted to defend the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, in the afterlife, were unearthed in a farmer’s field, one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. The Little Wild Goose Pagoda, one of two notable Buddhist pagodas in Xian, is another highlight, with panoramic views of the ancient city on clear days from the summit, if you can manage the steep ascent.
GuangzhouFurther south still, Guangzhou is isolated from the rest of China by its mountainous topography, which has allowed it to develop a unique cultural identity and cuisine. The third largest city in China is the birthplace of Cantonese food, the type of Chinese food most familiar to westerners, with dishes such as dim sum a familiar specialty. Dining here can be very adventurous; expect to see all manner of creatures from land, sea and air on the menu, and few body parts wasted. If you order the well known white cut chicken, chances are it will be served with head and feet still attached. The historic hutongs of Guangzhou are a hive of activity just as they are in Beijing, and the Qing Ping market is an excellent place to dip your toe into traditional Chinese culture.
Hong Kong, where several extended Trans Mongolian holidays culminate, is an intriguing blend of the ancient and modern, a forest of skyscrapers threaded with seams of imperial and colonial architecture. The harbour city is a hotbed of world cuisine with broad influences from the ubiquitous Cantonese to Japanese, French and Indian, and a distinctive cultural identity shaped as much by indigenous Hongkongese as by Cantonese and British.
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A few hours northwest by train from Moscow, with its many canals St. Petersburg is often called the ‘Venice of the North’ though some might claim its architectural splendour rivals all the cities of Europe combined. Here you’ll find the majestic St. Isaac’s Cathedral, one of the largest in the world, the Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace, where works by the likes of Botticelli, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Da Vinci are on display, and the stunning rococo Catherine Palace, once the summer home of the tsars.
The ‘Stans‘Increasing the journey length to 12,000km, to be covered in just over a month, you can divert from the Trans Mongolian at Irkutsk and travel into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. You travel via the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk across the Kazakh steppe, through the fabled mountain pass the Dzungarian Gate to Almaty. From there it’s west to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, gateway to Central Asia. This option sees you explore perhaps the most venerated Silk Road city, Samarkand, at the crossroads of routes to China, India and Persia. Samarkand was repeatedly conquered, including by Alexander the Great, each time adding another cultural layer. You’ll see the Registan and the Shah-i-Zinda then continue through Bukhara and the Chigman Mountains before a final stretch, almost 4,000km, to Moscow.
More about Trans Mongolian Railway
Our Trans Mongolian railway holidays guide explores one of the world’s great train journeys, taking you from Moscow to Beijing, or vice versa, through Mongolia - land of Genghis Khan.
The best time to go on a Trans Mongolian railway holiday will for the most part depend on what kind of scenery you want to see and what you’d like to do on each excursion.
Life onboard the Trans Mongolian railway is a movable feast of culture, with plenty of opportunities to get to know your fellow passengers a little as you travel between stations.
Travelling east or west, there are a few unmissable stops on any Trans Mongolian itinerary - our Trans Mongolian map and highlights page takes a closer look at the places you’ll be visiting.
Fancy Nadaam in Mongolia, or Christmas in Siberia - we run through a handful of the different types of Trans Mongolian railway holidays available to you, and what each has to recommend it.
Planning a journey on either the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian is significantly more complex than booking your average train trip - here’s how to choose the right trip for you.
Vast Lake Baikal, ‘Pearl of Siberia’, is virtually an inland ocean - frozen through winter and spring, and in summer a beloved destination among Russians for boating, fishing and picnicking.
A trip on the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian is the adventure of a lifetime but it’s not cheap, and deciding whether you should save or splurge on it is should be part of your decision-making process.
Read our guide to what to expect from a stay in a Mongolian ger so that on arrival in Ulaanbaatar you'll be up to speed on the practicalities, the traditions, and what you need to bring.
We take a look at responsible tourism on the Trans Mongolian railway, with tips for respecting traditional Mongolian culture, and why cheap cashmere has unseen environmental costs.