Beijing to Mongolia (UlaanBataar) overland
The journey to UlaanBataar from Beijing can be done in many ways. The local way”, is much more cost efficient but takes a longer time. But judging that you actually save quite a lot of money, i highly recommend you to take this journey instead if you are not in a rush. The total travel time would be approximately 36 hours (around 2 days) and may be considered tedious for some. But for the other avid land border crossing travellers out there, this one’s for you.
- The classic route (Trains k3/k4) is a direct journey from Beijing’s railway station all the way to Ulaan Bataar, saving you all the trouble of getting off and on to cross borders at Erlian/Zamyn Ud, where the conductors collect your passport to get you stamped in and out properly.
- Sleeper bus to Erlian, private car across the border to Zamyn Ud, local train (t25/26) to Ulaan Bataar.
- Half sleeper bus to Zamyn Ud, local train to Ulaan Bataar.
The option we took (option 3) was easier since the bus took us directly across to Zamyn Ud, while the bus drops off and picks up on the other side of the border, then sending us all the way to the train station in Zamyn Ud where we transferred to a local train to UB.
Leaving Beijing & buying bus tickets
Take the overnight bus from Muxiyuan Long Distance Bus Terminal. Now, there are no signs or proper directions to this bus station, and it took a long while to find it. Once there, you can purchase a ticket to Zamyn Ud on the same day of departure. A safe time to get the tickets would be roughly 3 hours before departure time. If time or distance is a problem, call directly to make a reservation and pay when you arrive. This does not guarantee a ticket, and you CANNOT buy a ticket the day before you decide to depart.
The bus journey
The bus claims to leave at 5pm, but really, it didn’t move until 7pm. Fortunately, this does not affect the arrival time at all because it’s meant to drop off all the passengers just in time to catch the connecting train to Ulaan Bataar. (Yes, everyone is going the same way. Did I also mention this entire bus is filled with Mongolians?). It’s also an overnight bus, meaning it stops a couple of times for toilet breaks, a dinner stop, and then one more stop in the middle of nowhere during the wee hours of the morning, probably for the drivers to take a nap. It isn’t too uncomfortable at all, since there is a bottom cabin for luggage/big backpacks, and they provide thick blankets and heating on the bus when it gets cold. The seats can also be reclined halfway so it’s not so bad for the back after many hours of being on the road.
The unexpected wait
When you wake up in the morning you’d have arrived in Erlian. While the border is JUST THERE, you can’t get across either because crossing by foot is unallowed. This is where it gets stupid. The bus would drop everyone off, and pick us up at the same spot again at 1pm. I suppose this is where most of the locals go shopping, but Erlian is a desolate city. There’s not much at all, but thankfully the bus dropped us off where there were a few hotels, and we practically sat around in the lobby and leeched on the free wifi. You can also walk around to the nearby mall to get some supplies or have lunch. 3 wasted hours later, the bus comes to pick up people at 1pm and take us across the border to Zamyn Ud.
The border crossing was as easy as getting off on China’s side, filling in departure cards, getting stamped out, then hopping on the bus again to get stamped in on the Mongolian side. Queue cutting is very prominent, it pays to be patient but in this case the connecting bus may not wait for you on the other side, so I suggest you hurry as much as you can, or follow the familiar faces on your bus. Once you cross immigration, there are ATMs and a small bank where you can change money. Change just enough to get you a train ticket and some food; the rates aren’t the best around here. Also keep all your valuables with you, speak no Chinese, and stay cautious. There are plenty of hostile and curious stares, and it can be intimidating.
*Note that coming back from UB to Beijing, an exit tax is required before you get stamped out. That costs approx _____ so make sure to keep some extra tugrik. I just about spent all of my monies on Haribo dummies, thankfully my travel buddy had some extra money on him or I’d be in big trouble!
Zamyn Ud to Ulaan Bataar
Once on the Mongolian side, the train station isn’t too far off and the bus drops you directly there. Thankfully, the locals seem to lug boxes and boxes of imported goods so people who travel light like us have a headstart. We rush right to the ticket counter (2nd level of a glass building) and ordered 2 hard sleeper tickets without any struggle. It cost 22350 tugrik ≈ SG$22 (Dec 2016) and was scheduled to depart around 5pm We found that multiple sites stating the train departure time varied, but that’s not a big worry because the bus from Beijing to Zamyn Ud is meant for the Mongolian locals to catch that exact train.
The train to Ulaan Bataar
The trains really weren’t too shabby, in fact it was comfortable with linen, duvet and a pillow provided. Free hot water was provided and the lady comes around to give everyone a free instant packet of tea/coffee. (This was free when we went to Mongolia, but on the way back, we were asked to pay — not sure what was going on there). There’s also a restaurant car (PECTOPAH) in these trains for when you feel like having a beer or some very overpriced and meh food. The trains pull up into the city just as dawn breaks, and the view is magnificent as you wake up to white everywhere. Kind of felt like the Polar Express, seeing the train bend and push on ahead!
T23 is the train leaving Beijing, bound for Zamyn Ud
T24 is the train leaving Zamyn Ud, bound for Beijing
*Some guesthouses offer free pick up service. It’s better to book ahead and arrange for a pick up as it’s quite a mess once you exit the train station.