Where to Stop on the Trans-Siberian
There are scores of stations along the various Trans-Siberian railway routes. One of the first questions to ask yourself when planning your rail tour is where to stop off as few have time for them all! Firstly there are a few obvious stops that can be made. Then if you have the time and budget there are some less visited but equally worthy possibilities to add in to your trip. We start below with the most popular options.
For a full range of destinations visit our Trans-Siberian destinations guide covering all possible destinations in Russia, Mongolia and China.
THE MOST POPULAR STOP OFFS ALONG THE TRANS-SIBERIAN
Beijing: China's Capital & Top Attraction
Beijing stands at the start or end of any Trans Mongolian trip and is one of the route’s main highlights. A world away from Moscow, Beijing is home to world class sights such as the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square as well as a host of other temples, palaces and hidden treats such as the traditional Hutongs. It has so much more to it than it’s history with a vibrant contemporary art scene, excellent dining and a varied nightlife. This mix of ancient and modern makes at least three nights here a must on any Trans-Mongolian itinerary.
Ulaanbaatar: Gateway to Mongolian Grasslands
The capital, Ulaanbaatar, is home to around a third of the population of Mongolia. It has experienced somewhat of a financial boom over the past decade mainly due to the mining industry. What was once a quiet old Soviet influenced relic has become a thriving city complete with traffic jams, skyscrapers and pollution. Despite this it has some points of interest but it’s not the city that most Trans-Siberian travellers are here for. You don’t have to drive out of Ulaanbaatar far for some stunning countryside where life has changed little over the last few centuries.
Irkutsk & Lake Baikal
One of the most popular stops on the Trans-Siberian route, Irkutsk is the cultural capital of Siberia and the best place to exit the train to see the breathtaking Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. It is not only deep but incredibly clear making it a perfect spot for diving as well as being a great place to hike. Siberian villages are scattered along the shoreline offering home stays and traditional Siberian hospitality. Irkutsk itself is a buzzing place well worth seeing in your time there and a handily placed stop roughly half way along the train route.
Ekaterinburg: History on the Europe Asia Border
Formally known as Sverdlovsk, Ekaterinburg is found near the border of Europe and Asia in the mineral rich Ural mountains. The city itself is unassuming and is much closer to the real Russia than Moscow and St. Petersburg. A short trip out of the city is the site were the Romanov’s rule of Russia came to an abrupt end at the hand of the Bolsheviks as well as the dividing point of the two continents of Asia and Europe. A host of winter sports are available to those travelling through the colder months such as dog-sledging and cross country skiing.
Moscow: Russian Capital & Trans-Sib Terminus
At the start of the Trans Siberian lies Moscow, the capital of Russia and a certain stop on most people’s Trans-Siberian journey. Red Square and St. Basil’s are two of the numerous sights to be seen over this vast city of more than 13 million. There is so much more to see than that though with over 800 years history. The architecture and monuments are world class, not least the Metro system which must be the most impressive in the world and is well worth a tour.
St Petersburg: Northern Cultural Gem
Arguably one of the world’s most beautiful cities, St. Petersburg is the cultural centre of Russia. Moscow may have more political and economic prowess but the architecturally magnificent St. Petersburg more than earns it’s nickname of the “Venice of the North”. With world famous museums such as the Hermitage as well as several palaces within easy reach, St. Petersburg is well worth a visit despite not strictly being on the actual Trans-Siberian route. A good starting or finishing point for your overland journey.
LESS VISITED YET HIGHLY WORTHWHILE DESTINATIONS
Ulan Ude: Russian & Mongolian Cultural Crossover
One of Russia’s few cities that feels a bit Asian, Ulan Ude is capital of the Republic of Buryatia and has long been an important trading post between Russia, Mongolia and China as well as having the world’s largest Lenin head. The best sights here are out of the city including the wonderful Buddhist monastery, Ivolginsky Datsan. A good stop for those who are not in too much of a hurry between Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar in either direction with friendly people and a unique insight into the Buryat people.
Vladivostok: End of the Trans-Siberian Line
Vladivostok lies at the far East of the true Trans-Siberian line. It is further East than Beijing and is the home base of the Russian Pacific Fleet, the reason that the city stayed closed to foreigners for longer than other Russian cities. It has been renovated in recent years, restoring the ornate boulevards to their former glory and giving the city a feeling of prosperity that is more reminiscent of the West of Russia. A great place to explore some of Russia’s military past and present.
Kazan: Culturally Diverse Tatarstan
The wealthy city of Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan and a place that manages to blend Muslim and Christian culture successfully, so much so that it has both Russian Orthodox Cathedrals and a Mosque in its Kremlin. Kazan itself is an attractive city and despite being referred to as the “Third Capital of Russia” it is commonly overlooked on many an itinerary. Add to all this the colourful past this religious mix brought and you have a destination well worth looking further into.
Krasnoyarsk: Classic Siberian City
Home to the stunning Stolby Nature Reserve, the wealthy city of Krasnoyarsk is found between Ekaterinburg and Irkutsk. It is one of the more beautiful settings on the Trans-Siberian route but it is famous in Russia for more than the scenery of Stolby, a short distance outside of the city, it is also has a strong cultural identity and is the starting point for river trips up the Yenisey River towards the Arctic. Put all this together and you have a destination that is well worth considering as a stopover.
Harbin: Ice Festival Extravaganza
Only an overnight train journey away from Beijing, Harbin can be found deep at the heart of Manchuria. It is one of the main stops in China on the Trans-Manchurian. The city itself has plenty of Russian influence, noticeably in its architecture around the downtown area. There’s even a Russian Orthodox church here as well as a Siberian Tiger Park. Despite this it isn’t a common stop, except for 6 weeks a year in deep winter when the city comes alive with the jaw dropping spectacular that is the Ice and Snow Festival. One of the top sights in China, make sure you don’t miss it if travelling through winter.
BEYOND THE TRANS-SIBERIAN IN TO CHINA
Xian: Terra Cotta Warriors & City Walls
Once thought to be the greatest city on Earth, Xian, then know as Chang An, was the city of art, culture, emperors and was the capital of the prosperous Tang Dynasty. It was the beginning or end of the fabled Silk Road, the original great trade route of the world, something that still can seen in the city’s Muslim Quarter and Great Mosque. However it is the guardians of the first Emperor of China’s journey to the otherworld that draws crowds from all around the world – The Terra Cotta Warriors.
Lhasa: Gateway to the Splendours of Tibet
The spiritual land of Tibet lies to the west of China and can be a trip in itself but also complements the Trans Mongolian route with Mongolia and Tibet sharing many traditions. High up in the clouds this vast land covers nearly 13% of China but only has 0.2% of it’s population. It’s capital of Lhasa is certainly a must see city and for the more adventurous there is the overland journey to Kathmandu from the capital via Everest Base Camp, one of the world’s greats and right up there with the Trans Siberian. All in all any journey to Tibet is one well worth considering.
Shanghai: Buzzing, Neon-lit Mega City
Nowhere in China can the breakneck speed of change be more easily noticed than in it’s financial capital of Shanghai. The skyscrapers of Pudong and New China line up along one side of the Huangpu River making it easy to forget that these were rice paddies and the like about 20 years ago. On the other side of the river are the Western buildings that stretch along the Bund reminding you of Shanghai’s not too distant colonial past. All these things come together to give you a city whose energy more than makes up for it’s lack of historical sites.
Hong Kong: Extraordinary Skyline, Shopping & Nightlife
Despite returning to Chinese control in 1997, Hong Kong remains significantly different to the rest of the mainland and still attracts tourists in their droves who come for the fine dining, shopping and vibrant nightlife as well as to see Hong Kong’s incredible skyscraper strewn skyline and dramatic location. There’s more than this to Hong Kong though with small, templed islands with fishing harbours surrounding that could easily help you forget just how close to Asia’s leading Central Business area you actually are. A great place to end (or begin) any trip to China.
Chengdu: Giant Pandas in Sichuan
Chengdu is one of Western China’s most important cities and is the capital of Sichuan province, known worldwide for it’s spicy cuisine. It is, however, that icon of China, the Giant Panda that keeps people coming here. The Panda Research and Breeding Centre is the best place in the world to observe and learn about this ever popular endangered species. The Centre also runs volunteer programs where you can work as an assistant Panda keeper for the day. For those who want to get up really close and don’t mind spending the substantial amount it costs, you can have the unique opportunity to hold a baby panda by appointment. Mount Emei and the Giant Buddha at Leshan are also available as trips from Chengdu and are worth considering.
Yangshuo: Stunning Scenery, Relaxed Town
Due to it’s semi-tropical location in the South of China, Yangshuo has year round good weather, although it is clearest in the Spring and Autumn. This former fishing village, a short distance from the provincial capital of Guilin, is a popular stop due to it’s beautiful location on the Li River, surrounded by distinctive karst mountain scenery. It’s friendly people and relaxed, laid-back nature make this a must stop for both those who want to get active and those who want to spend a couple of days watching the world go by. It serves as a great break from the cities of China and everything here is easily booked through your hotel, including the impressive Liu Sanjie Impressions light show.
By Phil Stanley