There are some destinations that every single person should visit in their life. Mongolia is one of them. Many people dream about riding horses across the steppe, trekking on camels through the Gobi Desert or camping underneath the eternal blue sky that Mongolia is famous for. We were the same, and after three months in China we were more than ready to head off from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar.
The most famous option of making the overland journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar is the wonderful Trans-Mongolian train. However if you are like us and don’t like to plan things to far ahead, chances are you won’t get a seat. To book the Trans-Mongolian you must either do it online or go directly to the train station in Beijing (not from one of the hundreds of train ticket booths around the city). Either way you have to do this very far in advance. We missed this opportunity, and because flying isn’t an option, we decided to figure out our own way to Ulaanbaatar.
We found that to get from China to Mongolia, catching a sleeper bus from Beijing to Erlian on the border, grabbing a ride over the border to Zamiin Uud and then buying onward transport on the train to Ulaanbaatar was relatively simple and cheap. There are a few things you need to know to do this though, so here is our complete guide to catching overland transport from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar.
Sleeper Bus From Beijing To Erlian
The first step is to get out of Beijing and towards the Mongolian border. Erlian ( 二连 ) is also known as Erenhot ( 二连浩特 ), and is the port of entry you need to head to. Officially a bus runs every day from the Muxiyuan Long-Distance Bus Station ( 木樨园客运站 ), leaving at about 1600 and taking 10 to 12 hours. However this isn’t always the case, so be prepared to do some running around and expect delays. You can only purchase your bus tickets to Erlian on the day of departure, so we recommend getting to the bus station around 10am.
NOTE – Just wanted to send a friendly traveler update as of June 2018. The Muxiyuan bus station is no longer the correct station to buy tickets; it’s the nearby Yongdingmen bus station (you can get there from Yongdingmenwai metro station, or Beijing South Railway station). There’s an old shut down bus station right next to the new one, so don’t be fooled. There was a 5:30 PM bus, which then stopped for an hour or so right outside town to pick up more passengers. Thank you to Ryan one of our readers for the updated information.
To get to Muxiyuan, take the subway to Dahongmen Station on Line 10, and walk east until you get to Dahongmen Road. Turn north and follow it for a few hundred metres. You will see the big station on your left.
Alternatively you can walk north along Nanyuan Road and cut through an alleyway to get there. Just ask the locals where Muxiyuan is, or show them the name in Chinese characters – 木樨园客运站
Muxiyuan Long Distance Bus Station
At the terminal, walk up to the ticket counter and say you want the bus to Erlian. Strangely, when we asked we were told that there was no bus that day, and the lady said for us to come back the next day. This supposedly happens when they don’t have enough people to catch the bus.
(Note – we met a person in Erlian the next day who showed up at the station about two hours after us, and the bus was then running. )
If the bus is full or not leaving, never fear! You have a second option. There will be touts around the station who can put you on other ‘black market’ sleeper buses leaving from Beijing to Erlian. We opted for this instead of hanging out another day, and the guy walked us to a car park at the back of a mall where buses were waiting.
You can get there yourself and avoid paying the guy commission by walking to the corner of Jingwen and Nanyuan Roads, walking west past a hotel with a golden lion and then around the back. You will see a big car park with lots of buses. Find one that has Erlian or Erenhot on a sheet of paper in the windscreen.
- Official – 180-200RMB
- Black Market Price – 240-260RMB (Could change. We paid 240, some other foreigners and a Chinese man on the same bus paid 260.)
Sleeper Bus Tips
- The bus is meant to leave at around 4pm, but can leave as late as 8pm. Don’t expect it to be on time.
- We drove through the night until about 3am. Then the driver stopped about an hour outside of town and slept until around 7am. After that we continued on.
- Bring warm clothes with you, as they love the cold air conditioning.
- Having some food and snacks is also a good idea. There are a lot of places around the bus station to buy fruit, potato chips and drinks.
Crossing The Border From China To Mongolia
Once you arrive in Erlian, you need to make your way to the border. To do this you need to find a car, Jeep or minivan, as it is not permitted to walk across the border region between China and Mongolia.
When you get off the bus there will be plenty of taxi drivers offering to take you to Zamiin Uud. Negotiate a price and then jump in for the ride.
If there is no one at the bus station, or you are planning on spending some time in Erlian, the best place to get a ride is from the market in town. These will likely be shared taxis or Jeeps and are packed with people. However we ended up hopping in a brand new Land Cruiser with a couple who were going to Zamiin Uud for whatever reason. We still had to pay, but it was a comfortable ride.
We paid 60RMB per person, but we’ve heard mixed reports of it being anywhere from 40 up to 100RMB a person. Again, negotiate.
Crossing the border from China to Mongolia and dealing with immigration is actually pretty straightforward.
Your driver will drop you off at the Chinese immigration office and drive through. Take your valuables with you, but it is fine to leave your larger packs in the car. Go through the standard procedures with the border officers, and then jump back in your vehicle.
It is a short drive to the Mongolian immigration checkpoint in Zamiin Uud, where you go through the same steps. You will need to have your Mongolian visa pre-organised if you aren’t from one of the nations that are now visa-free.
Once you finish checking into Mongolia, you can exchange your currency (Chinese Yuan, US Dollars, Euros, etc) in the small bank before the exit inside the building. We got an excellent rate for exchanging RMB into Mongolian Tugrik.
Jump back in with your driver and ask them to drop you off at the train station, which is only a short distance further. Sometimes you will then be offered a ride all the way from Zamiin Uud to Ulaanbaatar, which takes only 8 hours instead of the 16 on the train. We were quoted 50’000 MNT per person for this, but declined to take them up on their offer.
Welcome to Mongolia!
Catching The Train From Zamiin Uud To Ulaanbaatar
The hard part is over, and now you get to enjoy the best section of the whole journey – the train ride from Zamiin Uud to Ulaanbaatar! This is actually the famous Trans-Mongolian train, and it is surprisingly cheap.
Once you are at the main square in Zamiin Uud, walk towards the platform and turn left at the big silver building, just past the Mongolia Immigration building. Walk inside, go upstairs and you will see the ticket counters. The staff there don’t speak English, but they are helpful and are aware that as a tourist, you are more than likely heading to Ulaanbaatar. The journey takes 16 hours, and the train leaves at 5.35pm.
DON’T FORGET TO MOVE YOUR CLOCK ONE HOUR AHEAD.
A hard sleeper costs about 21’000 MNT, and soft sleeper is around 50’000 MNT. We took hard sleeper and it was fine. Six beds to a berth. Bring snacks such as instant noodles and drinks from one of the shops near the Zamiin Uud train station. There is also some restaurants where you can get basic Mongolian food.
The train ride is simple, and you will arrive in Ulaanbaatar at about 10am. Drivers from different guest houses will likely be there and you can get a ride to their hotel if you haven’t already pre-arranged anything.