Landscapes and Cultures of Mongolia, Siberia, and Western Russia
“Adventure” is the keyword on this trip. It takes an adventurous spirit to explore Russia and Mongolia by public rail. It’s not luxurious, but it’s also not arduous or uncomfortable; and approached with flexibility and an open mind, it can be enormously rewarding. This is the most immersive way to experience the Trans-Siberian line. On board, you’ll spend hours with local Mongols, Buryats, and Russians (and a multilingual MIR Tour Manager to help with communication). On days spent off the train, enjoy meeting people as well as seeing sights. Your journey will include personal and cultural discoveries, whether that means forging a bond with nomads on the steppe of Mongolia or feeling the buzz of energy on the streets of Moscow. The July departure of this trip includes the Naadam Festival, Mongolia’s summer celebration of traditional culture and sport.
Photos and details: Discover what life is like aboard the regularly scheduled Russian trains.
Days 1-5: Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Gorkhi-Terelj
The trip begins in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar. Travelers on the July itinerary spend a significant part of their time here attending the Naadam Festival, a traditional sporting competition that’s carried out with a level of enthusiasm, pageantry, and gravitas reminiscent of the Olympics. The September itinerary is more contemplative, with time spent at the mountainside Aryapala Meditation Temple, a center for Buddhist retreat and meditation that’s graced with majestic views and profound quiet.
Both itineraries include visits to two of Ulaanbaatar’s most significant sights, the Gandan Monastery and the National Mongolian History Museum, and a trip to nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, where you meet a nomadic family and overnight in a ger (a traditional yurt). At the end of the final day, board the overnight Trans-Siberian train heading for Russia.
- The National Mongolian History Museum’s extensive collection, including petroglyphs, traditional costumes, correspondence between the pope and Genghis Khan, and more
- The main temple of the Gandan Monastery, which houses an 85-foot-tall, 20-ton, gold-gilded statue of Migjid Janraisig, a Buddhist bodhisattva
- A performance of traditional song and dance, including distinctive throat-singing
- Meeting nomads and spending the night at Gorkhi-Terelj National Park on the high steppe, with the option of an afternoon horseback ride
- July departure: The Naadam Festival’s colorful, exuberant opening ceremony and its intense archery, wrestling, and horse-racing competitions
- September departure: Time spent at the beautiful mountainside Aryapala Meditation Temple
Days 6-7: Ulan Ude (Russia)
Cross the Mongolian-Russian border and arrive in Ulan Ude, capital of the Buryat Republic and the cultural center of the Buryats, a Mongolic people who make up Siberia’s largest indigenous group. Make a day trip to Hargana, a lovely little Buryat village, to visit the flourishing local school and meet the teachers and students. Back in Ulan Ude, tour the main sights including the Ivolginsk Datsan, the center of Buddhism in Russia, where young llamas from all over the country come to live and study. Pay a visit to a village of Old Believers – a religious group that rebelled against changes to the Orthodox liturgy in 1652 and were exiled to Siberia. In their isolated enclaves, they’ve preserved 17th century styles of clothing, architecture, and music. UNESCO includes this unique community on its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- The cheerful Hargana village school
- The main temple of Ivolginsk Datsan, filled with decorative silks, painted woodwork, and precious stones
- A home-cooked meal with a group of Old Believers
Days 8-11: Irkutsk, Lake Baikal
Take the day train from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk, a surprisingly sophisticated little city that’s Siberia’s cultural capital. Tour the open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture, visit the local market, hear a concert of church chimes, lunch with a local family, and attend a classical music concert at the Decembrist House Museum. A visit to UNESCO-listed Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and oldest freshwater lake, includes a private boat cruise, a tour of the Baikal Museum to learn about the lake’s unique ecosystem, an optional banya (a traditional steam bath), and an overnight in the fishing village of Listvyanka.
- The 166-acre Wooden Architecture Museum, a collection of authentic Russian and indigenous community buildings dating from the 17th to 20th century
- A classical concert at the Decembrist House Museum, once the home of Prince Sergei Volkonsky, a member of a group of 19th century democratic revolutionaries exiled to Siberia
- A boat ride on placid, clear, UNESCO-listed Lake Baikal
- Little Listvyanka village and its Baikal Museum, which includes aquariums displaying the lake’s unique marine life
Days 12-14: Aboard Train, Ekaterinburg
Spend the better part of two days riding the Trans-Siberian Railway as it passes through vast forest. Short stops at cities and villages provide the opportunity to buy souvenirs and baked goods from babushkas (grandmothers) who set up shop on the platforms. Your multilingual MIR Tour Manager is on hand to facilitate interactions with locals, whether your sharing stories or choosing what to order in the dining car. Disembark at Ekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, for a night in a hotel and a day of touring. Visit to the Church on the Blood, built on the spot where the last czar, Nicholas II, and his family met their demise in July of 1918.
- Time aboard the train, interacting with fellow travelers or just watching the vastness of Siberia roll by your window
- Ekaterinburg’s Church on the Blood, consecrated in 2003 on the site where Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II and his family
Days 15-17: Aboard Train, Moscow
A final overnight train ride brings you to your last stop, Moscow. Spend two nights in a centrally located hotel and see the city’s classic sights including Red Square, home to iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral and the massive Kremlin, where you’ll tour the Armory Museum. Descend into the Moscow Metro to experience one of its opulent stations. Then celebrate the completion of your Trans-Siberian adventure with a farewell dinner.
- Red Square, the heart of Moscow and a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- The treasures of the Kremlin’s Armory Museum, from Faberge eggs to the ivory throne of Ivan the Terrible
- The extravagantly decorated Moscow Metro stations, known as “underground palaces”
Dates & Prices
Small group tour – max 16 travelers
Land tour price, per person. Based on double occupancy and minimum group size of 4 travelers.
- Accommodations, as noted in the itinerary.
- Most meals, as noted in the itinerary.
- A daily supply of bottled water.
- Arrival/departure airport transfers on the tour start/end date. MIR will arrange for all travelers to be met upon arrival and seen off upon departure whether or not we make your flight arrangements.
- Ground transportation throughout tour by private van or coach. (Type of vehicle depends on group size.)
- Services of experienced, English-speaking local guides, drivers, and other staff, including a MIR Tour Manager.
- Guided sightseeing tours and entrance fees, as outlined in the itinerary.
- Special events, excursions, and cultural performances, as outlined in the itinerary.
- Gratuities to local guides, drivers, and other service personnel, including servers at group meals.
- Complete pre-departure information, including detailed packing list, reading list, and Touring with MIR handbook with country-specific information, maps, and travel tips.
- Assistance booking your custom flight arrangements, on request. (Please note, international airfare is not included in the land tour cost.)
- International airfare and taxes/fuel surcharges.
- Meals and drinks not specified as included in the itinerary.
- Single supplement (difference between double rate and single occupancy rate) if requested or required.
- Gratuities to Tour Manager.
- Expenses incurred as a result of delay, modification, or extension of a tour due to causes beyond MIR’s control.
- Travel insurance, including cancellation, medical, and evacuation insurance.
- Visa fees, excess baggage charges, airport departure taxes, vaccination and other medical costs.
- Optional pre- or post-tour extensions.
- Items of a personal nature, such as phone calls, email, laundry, and alcohol.
Level 4: Rigorous
This intentionally adventuresome small group tour features the challenges of riding public overnight trains in second-class cabins, some rustic accommodations without reliably constant electricity, and some long overland drives in off-road conditions. There are also long days walking and standing while touring; navigation of rail stations which can include steep steps/footbridges to cross tracks, or steep steps and dark tunnels to cross under to/from the train station; plus unpaved sidewalks and streets, uneven surfaces and steps, absent handrails, significant stair-climbing, and absence of elevators. Only those very fit to travel and who are willing to accept local standards of amenities and services, and the physical challenges of the program, should consider joining. We strongly encourage you to speak with us about any questions you may have regarding the rigors of this trip or destination when considering this tour.
Four nights total are spent on overnight trains (four-berth compartments) with shared WC and no bath facilities. The train configuration will be one berth per traveler in four-berth train compartments on overnight sleeper trains between Ulaanbaatar and Ulan Ude, Irkutsk and Ekaterinburg, and between Ekaterinburg and Moscow. Each traveler will share the compartment with three other travelers. Compartments may be mixed sex. Single compartments are not available. Solo travelers upgrading to two travelers per cabin accommodations may be matched with a roommate of the opposite sex. Four-berth compartments used for train overnights have two upper berths which require a climb up a narrow ladder/foothold. One night is spent in a ger camp in Mongolia (with shared shower and WC facilities). Since electricity is not a reliable constant throughout the itinerary, if you rely on electricity for CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), or for any other reason, you must have your own battery or other back-up, or please reconsider participation. Air conditioning is not generally available.
Travelers must be able to walk two to three miles a day while keeping up with fellow travelers on a variety of terrain including off road, dirt paths, grass, and the like. Mongolian terrain is often rocky, with loose rocks and scrub growth; Siberian terrain can be muddy or slick with rain, and is occasionally rocky in the Lake Baikal area. Trains have steep steps to enter and exit, and narrow hallways with multiple heavy doors once on board. Boats may have steep, uneven and slippery gangplanks, with or without handrails.
In Mongolia, the highway infrastructure is severely limited outside of Ulaanbaatar; excursions outside the city both to Gorkhi-Terelj and to the Naadam horse-racing (July departure only) will involve driving over rough, dusty and unpaved roads in basic vans, Russian jeeps, or other vehicles. Seating at the Naadam stadium in Ulaanbaatar (July departure only) is on hard, unbacked benches, and a significant amount of time (three or more hours) will be spent there. The sun can be intense in the stadium as well. Naadam time also brings out large crowds and pickpockets, so it is important to be extra vigilant of your personal items at that time.
Some attractions are only accessible via steep staircases with tall, uneven steps, and some of the sites may involve steep steps inside narrow passageways with limited light. Elevators are not available at touring sites, nor at a few of the hotels.
Other challenges include overall shortcomings in the tourism infrastructure of these developing destinations. Accommodations vary from three-star hotels to simple and basic accommodations in lodges and ger camps, and overnights on board public trains. Past travelers have also encountered challenges with plumbing, bureaucratic service, variety of locally available foods, and availability and quality of public restrooms.