Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar – Trans Mongolian Railway

A visit to the points of interest of Irkutsk and also to the UNESCO world heritage site of Lake Baikal and the CircumBaikal railway before taking the Trans-Mongolian to Ulaanbaatar

Irkutsk is a city in Siberia, Eastern Russia.  Irkutsk offers the following points of interest for tourists and photographers;

  • Day trips to Lake Baikal (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
  • Day trips to Port Baikal / Listvyanka and the Circum-Baikal Railway
  • Kirov Square and the surrounding buildings churches
  • Moskovskie Vorota
  • Yunosti Island (beach and park)
  • Central Market area and shopping
  • A train station on the Trans-Siberian / Trans-Mongolian

Irkutsk is a very walkable city, you can get to most points of interest on foot.  The hotels are decent value in Irkutsk but airbnb is the best option.

Central Irkutsk, Siberia

Central Irkutsk, Siberia

Irkutsk is often referred to as the Paris of Siberia but I found it to be much more colorful than Paris.  Whilst walking around the center ‘Tsentralnny’ you’ll come across lots of restaurants, shops, shopping malls, markets and also beautiful buildings.  Photographers will spend hours walking around photographing all the beautiful buildings.  Ordering food in restaurants is fun too as most menus are in Russian language and you’ll be lucky to find an English speaker.

Kirov Square, Irkutsk

Kirov Square, Irkutsk

Kirov Square is a beautiful square, when I visited there was an outdoor art gallery on.  Kirov square is well looked after and the garden was immaculate too, I’d love to visit in winter when it’s covered in snow.  Around Kirov Square there are many points of interest including churches, museums and many picturesque Russian buildings like the one photographed above.

Lake Baikal, Russia

Lake Baikal, Russia

Lake Baikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site a short drive from Irkutsk. Here are some Lake Baikal facts

  • Largest freshwater lake in the world (by the volume of water)
  • Lake Baikal holds 20 % of the earths unfrozen fresh water supply
  • Deepest point is 1,642 meters making it the worlds deepest lake
  • Lake Baikal is larger than the great lakes of North America combined
  • By surface area it is the worlds 7th largest lake
  • At 25 million years old it is the worlds oldest lake

There are Baikal Seals in the water, if you see a black dot in the distance it will likely be one.  Baikal Seals are unique to Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal, Siberia

Lake Baikal, Siberia

The reason I have included a picture of Lake Baikal with a small white cliff edge is because nowadays tourists are looking to visit Instagrammable places.  What could be more suitable for an Instagram pose than this location on Lake Baikal.  With all the incredible stats about Lake Baikal mentioned above, there would be plenty to boast about in the Instagram caption!

Listvyanka, Siberia

Listvyanka, Siberia

Listvyanka is a small town on the shores of Lake Baikal which offers cheaper hotels than Irkutsk, in fact I stayed 1 night in Listvyanka and another in Irkutsk.  One reason to stay in Listvyanka at Lake Baikal would be to watch the sunset, another to view the stars.  A famous thing to do in Listvyanka is visit a sauna.  I took a sauna there in Summer when it was quite warm outside, it was a worthwhile sauna but I’d imagine a hot sauna in the freezing cold winter would be a lot more rewarding.  Listvyanka is a small village but you’ll find a few restaurants and supermarkets.

Port Baikal, Circumbaikal railway, Siberia

Port Baikal, Circumbaikal railway, Siberia

You must take the ferry over from Listvyanka to Port Baikal as this gives you bragging rights to having sailed on largest freshwater lake in the world.  Once in Port Baikal you can walk on the old Trans Siberian railway route, called the Circumbaikal railway.  The Circumbaikal railway is impressive because of it’s tunnels and the amount of hard work gone into constructing it.

In the early 1900’s the Trans Siberian stopped at this side of Lake Baikal in Port Baikal.  The passengers had to take an ice breaker ship to the other side of the lake before continuing the journey east.  Today in Port Baikal you’ll find an abandoned railway station and lots of abandoned and rusty train parts as no-one passes through there anymore.

Trans-Mongolian Railway

Trans-Mongolian Railway

The good news for those who did not get off the train in Irkutsk is that the train tracks pass right beside Lake Baikal so you can still appreciate the southern part of the lake for about an hour as you pass it.

From Irkutsk I took a second class Trans Mongolia train to Ulaanbaatar which was an overnight train. There are 4 berths in the second class cabins, I was sharing with a 60 year old male Austrian tourist who had dreamed of taking the Trans Mongolian all his life, you’ll find a lot of tourists on the train fulfilling their dreams of traveling this route.  The other 2 berths in my 2nd class cabin were empty.

There were lots of Mongolian traders on this train, returning from Irkutsk with merchandise to sell back home. They were hiding their merchandise in the roof of the train and in other cabins ready for going over the border and passing through customs. It was clear to me that the merchandise they were hiding was clothing but other tourists were worrying about going through customs with all these bags of clothing hidden everywhere in the train. When Mongolian customs came on the train it seemed they knew exactly where to look for the clothing and found it straight away, I don’t know if they confiscated it or took a bribe but the Mongolian traders were quiet for the rest of the journey to Ulaanbaatar.

You need to have your Mongolian visa organised and in your passport before entering Mongolia, you cannot buy it on the border.

Ulaanbaatar to Beijing

2017-05-18T02:34:56+00:00May 10th, 2017|Eastern Europe, Russia|48 Comments


  1. Aina May 10, 2017 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    Would love to see those places with my own eyes! Thanks for inspiring 😉

  2. Suzanne May 10, 2017 at 12:59 pm - Reply

    To be honest, I never ever dreamed of traveling to Russia but this post certainly gives food for thought. I like how you highlighted an Instagrammable location for today’s travelers. Also, thanks for suggesting another way to travel overland to Mongolia.

  3. Natasha May 10, 2017 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    I would love to try something like this. I think it would be hard with a two year old but fun all the same!

  4. Henry May 10, 2017 at 1:15 pm - Reply

    Nice detail about the Mongolian smugglers and the customs agents. Did the customs agents even bother to examine any of the tourists, or did they just ignore them and focus on the locals?

    • James Smith May 10, 2017 at 1:19 pm - Reply

      They ignored the tourists completely, I could have had a bag full of anything and it would have been OK!

  5. Candy Rachelle May 10, 2017 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    You have some really great photos of Irkutsk, Siberia here! And I love that you’re such a traveler who’s been on the Trans Siberian Railway. I absolutely love travel blogs. Thank you!

  6. kasturi May 10, 2017 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    Lovely pictures of Irkutsk, Siberia. Keep travelling and keep spreading the joy!
    Cheers Kasturi.

  7. Michelle May 10, 2017 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    For some strange reason I have always wanted to go to Russia. So foreign it’s like venturing into the unknown, but I’ve never been lucky enough to get there. Love your photos James. What a wonderful trip. I’m quite jealous

  8. amer May 10, 2017 at 7:45 pm - Reply

    You know what, this is probably the very first post I read about Siberia, and I love to travel. Something to add on my bucket list.

  9. Siddhartha Joshi May 11, 2017 at 1:34 am - Reply

    I had no idea about Irkutsk and the place is so beautiful. Bonus that it’s completely walkable. Travelling in the Trans Mongolian Railway is a dream for me…maybe some day! Till then I can enjoy your pictures and stories 🙂

  10. Kristina May 11, 2017 at 6:14 am - Reply

    Oh how gorgeous!! I had heard of Irkutsk, but had never gotten there. It looks so colorful, not at all like I had imagined.

  11. Emily May 11, 2017 at 8:45 am - Reply

    Sounds like an epic journey! I especially liked learning about Lake Baikal; I’d love to see the seals there. The train journey sounds great too – this is a route I’d like to take one day, perhaps when my kids are a bit bigger! Love your photos too.

  12. Missy May 11, 2017 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    Lovely photos of Siberia! Thanks for sharing your journeys with us.

  13. Soumya Nambiar May 11, 2017 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    I love how colorful all the photos are in Irkutsk. There are so many places you have mentioned here that I have not even heard of. I didn’t know Lake Baikal was the largest freshwater lake in the world. I liked the tidbit about the Mongolian traders and it is kind of sad that they may have had to bribe the officials to make a livelihood back home.

  14. Abhinav Singh May 11, 2017 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    I prefer the cities which are pedestrian friendly. Walking is the best way to see a place as one absorbs and observes more. Irkutsk seem like so much fun. Though I think I will chicken out ordering food in the restaurants here. I am a vegetarian and speak only Hindi and English.

  15. Iza c/o Fill My Passport May 12, 2017 at 12:36 am - Reply

    How do you pronounce ‘Irkutsk’? I like the photo of Kirov Square. It looks lovely and charming. It has a Paris vibe.
    I have been curious about traveling via the Trans-Mongolian railway. I am sure that the passengers will see a lot of beautiful landscapes. However, I wonder about the process of obtaining a ticket. It must be difficult if you are not from Europe.

    • James Smith May 12, 2017 at 3:22 am - Reply

      Irkutsk is pronounced exactly as it’s written, just add the Russian accent!

  16. Annalise May 12, 2017 at 3:01 am - Reply

    It’s quite challenging to read your blog because there are so many place names I’ve never heard of! So interesting to read about somewhere completely new though – I look forward to reading more of you me adventures!

  17. Cat May 12, 2017 at 4:18 am - Reply

    Great pictures and the information you give is great! Cool that Irkutsk is very walkable–perfect for easy wandering.

  18. Global Girl Travels May 12, 2017 at 4:45 am - Reply

    This is the best part about traveling via train. You will be able to see the views of the countryside and capture great photos like you did on the train. Lake Baikal definitely sounds like an instagram-worthy place to shoot your travel photos in! And what a beautifully serene lake that is!

  19. Paul and Carole May 12, 2017 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    Fantastic photos and looks a colourful place to visit! Fascinating facts about Lake Baikal too!

  20. Carmen Baguio May 12, 2017 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    What a gorgeous lake! I could spend days just enjoying it. I’ve always wanted to travel by train. I’ve only done it a couple of time with the longest being a night train in Europe. My dream train ride would be crossing the USA from one coast to the other.

  21. Yeu Doi May 12, 2017 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    Love your colorful photos and awesome adventures! Wonderful lifestyle!

  22. Tiara Wilson May 13, 2017 at 2:31 am - Reply

    Wow. It looks like you had an absolutely amazing trip. I am staring at these images and hoping one day to go. I love how beautiful it looks! I hope you enjoyed yourself! Thank you for sharing!

  23. Emmy May 13, 2017 at 2:35 am - Reply

    Lake Baikal looks so beautiful! Amazing captures and great information. Looks like I have another place to add to my travel list. I swear there are so many places to see and not enough time! Looking forward to more posts 🙂

  24. Nati May 13, 2017 at 4:27 am - Reply

    It sounds like a wonderful trip, I love travilling by train. But destinations where I can’t manage to speak or understand the language, do stress me a little.

  25. Travel Lexx May 13, 2017 at 9:42 am - Reply

    I would love to see Baikal and explore Siberia. I haven’t seen many pictures of Irkutsk so it was definitely good to read a little bit more about it. The train journey just looks incredible!

  26. bel May 13, 2017 at 10:47 am - Reply

    Omg this is such a beautiful and colorful city I love places like this. It’s like everywhere you go something brightens your day.

  27. Shona @ May 13, 2017 at 11:28 am - Reply

    All of those stats about Lake Baikal are amazing considering I had never heard of it. A beautiful place to get IG bragging rights too. Good to know about the visa before boarding and the story of the traders brought a smile to my face. Looking forward to UB.

  28. Riely May 13, 2017 at 9:52 pm - Reply

    Irkutsk is so picturesque definitely a more colourful version of Paris, but seems elegant all the same. Lake Baikal is a great detour day trip from Irkutsk. Yes, and of course highly instagrammable!

  29. Pete May 13, 2017 at 10:54 pm - Reply

    Your average tourist, I guess, is unlikely to repeat the trip. So they won’t have anything that would concern customs.

  30. Nisha May 14, 2017 at 10:33 am - Reply

    I have bookmarked this. I had never heard of Irkutsk and after seeing your pictures and reading your article I would like to go there definitely. I am amazed at the facts relating to Baikal lake. I remember studying about this in school but never paid much attention then 😉

  31. Suma May 14, 2017 at 11:02 am - Reply

    Oh wow, so much prettiness!! To be honest I never considered Mongolia as a must visit destination but after reading your post I’m definitely adding this to my bucketlist. Both the train journey takes you through such stunning locales. Lake Baikal looks gorgeous as well

  32. Rob May 14, 2017 at 10:29 pm - Reply

    It’s a shame that the old railway is deserted, but I guess that’s the price of progress. Sounds like a great part of your trip.

  33. Lyndsay May 16, 2017 at 1:07 am - Reply

    Wow, I had never heard of some of these places! How wonderfully interesting this all sounds though–especially Lake Baikal 🙂


  34. Aaron May 16, 2017 at 4:30 am - Reply

    I just bookmarked your blog because I really wanted to do the Trans-Mongolian train!! Great post you have there!

  35. Firdaus Ysf May 16, 2017 at 10:49 am - Reply

    The Trans-Mongolian train is really awesome. It reminds of my journey to Norway and India. This is certainly one of my bucket list in the future. Thank you for sharing with us!

  36. Stephanie May 17, 2017 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    I enjoy the journey you take me on with your blogs. This time I am fascinated by the Trans Mongolian Railway. Mentioned were some interesting places to visit. Pinned for later use. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  37. Barry May 18, 2017 at 7:35 am - Reply

    Always fancied doing the Trans Mongolian Railway and stopping at Irkutsk – so it’s great to read about it. Will have to start looking into the trip more.

  38. Tracy May 18, 2017 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    Yep this is one of my top 10 trips to take – one day! I have actually planned to do it and never got there – I quite fancy doing it in winter when it is freezing cold in Siberia! And lake Baikal I can’t wait to see – it must be amazing!

    • James Smith May 19, 2017 at 7:20 am - Reply

      It would be cool to see Lake Baikal frozen over too!

  39. David May 18, 2017 at 7:19 pm - Reply

    Definitely a corner of the world that I’m curious about and would love to see one day. Lake Baikal in particular sounds like quite the sight. Will definitely keep your blog in mind if I do.

  40. Chris May 19, 2017 at 4:42 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this – looks really interesting and a more unusual destination. The railway is on our ever increasing list of places to go. We are going to be busy. looking forward to your next post.

  41. Natalie May 20, 2017 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    What an incredible off the beaten path adventure. We have seen Mongolia in one of our favorite films about a motorcycle trip. Such unexplored territory for so many. We travel with the kids and they would be blown away by this. I’ve heard the Mongolian people are warm and friendly, too, which is always such a wonderful treat on holiday.

  42. Bella August 2, 2018 at 7:00 am - Reply

    As it was overnight, interested to know if you managed to see if any scenery on your train journey to Mongolia? Or would a train that leaves during the day be better for this?

    • James Smith August 2, 2018 at 8:44 am - Reply

      Hi Bella. It was sill light when the train set off so the views of Lake Baikal were good. There was also quite a long time at the border and then Ulaanbaatar is quite far north so I don’t think you miss much on the night train. When I took the train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, it set off during the day so I saw a lot of the Mongolian countryside and Gobi Desert.

  43. Bella August 4, 2018 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    Thanks James, appreciate the reply! That’s very helpful. We don’t have time for the entire Trans Mongolian train journey so we’re just picking one leg. Currently debating whether to go Irkutsk to Ulan Bator by train, or Ulan Bator to Beijing. If you don’t mind me asking one more question, which one would you pick, both in terms of scenery and the overall experience? Thank you! 🙂

    • James Smith August 7, 2018 at 1:26 am - Reply

      Hi Bella, I would choose the Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar. On this route the train passes Lake Baikal which is spectacular. You should also try spend a night or 2 by the lake. It’s the deepest freshwater lake in the world. Alternatively if you visited Beijing, you’d be in a huge polluted city! You would get to see the Forbidden City, Great Wall and Birds Nest stadium though.

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