I spent some time researching budget-friendly methods to cross to Mongolia by land. The easiest but most expensive method is by taking the direct train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia). The train ride takes about 30 hours and costs around $300 for a one way ticket. Besides flying, this is the route that most tourists go with. But $600 to get to Mongolia and back seems exorbitant.
I decided to break the trip in parts. First, I need to get to the border towns: Erenhot (also known as Erlian) on the China side, and Zamyn Uud in Mongolia. Then, from Zamyn Uud one can take a train to Ulaanbaatar for cheap.
I took an overnight bus to Erenhot, the border town in China (ticket costs 180 Yuan or $28). This bus leaves from the Yongdingmen long-distance bus station in Beijing. (Information on the internet list Muxiyuan station but this is currently close for renovation.) This bus ride was an adventure in itself. There were about 36 very narrow beds in the bus arranged in 3 rows and 2 levels. The departure time was 1730. We drove for about 5 minutes then the bus pulled into an empty lot (which looks to be the new Muxiyuan station in the early stages of being built.) There were boxes and luggage piled along one side of the lot next to a mound of garbage. Some time later people started showing up. I found out that this was the “station” that most Mongolians are familiar with. Much standing and speculating. Besides me there were 4 other backpackers who had no clue what was happening. I met a friendly guy who speaks Mongolian, Mandarin, and English, and who ended up being very helpful to us during our border crossing. This “bus stop” doesn’t happen all the time, it depends on the bus driver and whatever deals he made to transport cargo to the border. Slowly and in no apparent systematic method, a couple of guys started loading the boxes and luggage in the bus cargo hold. Finally, around 2000, 2 1/2 hours after our actual departure time, we all boarded the bus and went on our way. There was a pit stop around 2300 in Zhangjiakou for those who needed to grab a quick bite in the restaurant and use the dirtiest toilet I have ever encountered in my entire traveling life. I hope that memory fades sooner than later. Other than that, the bus ride was uneventful, I even dozed off a little bit, and we arrived in Erenhot at 0700.
Erenhot surprised me. I pictured in my head a small border town with maybe a few one-story buildings but, as everywhere in China, Erenhot has tall buildings, newly paved roads, dozens of lodgings and stores to stock up on supplies. If for some reason you cannot catch the train for Ulaanbaatar on the same day, it is better to spend the night in Erenhot than in Zamyn Uud. Zamyn Uud is a desolate town compared to Erenhot.
One cannot cross the border all the way on foot, you need a vehicle to drive you to the immigration buildings. There are 2 popular options to do this. The first one is to take a bus from Erenhot to Zamyn Uud. The bus costs 50 Yuan (~$8) and leaves 2x a day at 11:30 and 1530. The second option is to go to the Dinosaur Square, walk to one of the Mongolian jeeps crossing the border and negotiate a ride with them. Depending on your bargaining skills this can cost anywhere from 60-150 Yuan. You can also bargain for them to take you past the border and all the way to Ulaanbaatar. I and the other foreigners (since we had all banded by this point) opted for the first choice and bought our bus tickets for the 1130 crossing. To kill time we went to KFC for breakfast (the only place open this early in the morning) and then we went to the Black Market to get some Mongolian money (Tugrik). The Black Market is not obvious to find as the building is unmarked. But once you find it, nice ladies with fanny packs containing loads of money will automatically approach you correctly assuming that you went into this building with the sole purpose of exchanging money. Their rate is decent and we exchanged enough money to cover our train tickets and snacks.
The border crossing itself wasn’t too complicated. The bus stops, you get off with your luggage, walk into the Erenhot immigration building (passing through the rainbow arch) and get in line to get your passport stamped. There will be some elbowing and cutting in line by the people with big boxes. Afterwards, everyone boards the bus again. The bus will drive for 5 seconds then it will stop and someone in uniform will board the bus to check everyone’s passport. Then you cross to the Mongolian side and you do the whole thing all over again. The Mongolian side was more efficient. Cutting in line was not allowed here. We were done by 1300. Right away we went to the Zamyn Uud train station to buy our train tickets for Ulaanbaatar for that night. There is only one train each day and it leaves at 1800 and arrives in Ulaanbaatar at 0900 the next day. A ticket for a soft sleeper only costs 39,250 Tugrik (about $16).
This train is the cutest train. It is an old Russian train, painted bright green, with a small charcoal oven in each carriage for heating up water for hot drinks. But there is no air conditioner and the tiny window in each compartment afforded very little fresh air. It was uncomfortably hot, though it did become cooler later in the night. The landscape was spectacular. We passed through open land, steppes, the East Gobi desert, and little villages (and I mean little with maybe 5 buildings at the most complete with a school and an obvious playground). In the train each passenger gets a plastic bag containing bedsheets and a face towel, and we also got a paper cup with hot water and some tea and coffee packs. And if you are curious, the toilet is a “drop toilet” (it opens up to the tracks below), and probably because of this, it remained clean throughout the trip.
And just 36 hours after leaving Beijing, here I am in Mongolia. And it only cost me $52 and a lot of fun and adventure to get here.