Consider the following: you have a double entry visa for China and your first itenary through China will be from Hong Kong to Shanghai and finally Beijing. But where are you going now? I had already been to South Korea and Japan. Maybe North Korea? The other option is Mongolia! After a long discussion with myself I chose Mongolia. A sparsely populated country with a beautiful nature. And compared to North Korea, I have much more freedom to go wherever I want. Mongolia it will be!
But how do I go to Mongolia? A single flight from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar turned out to be very expensive (more than 300 euros). So it will be the train! And the next question: will I go by local transport or will I take the international train? I finally made a decision. I take the International train to Ulaanbaatar and go back to China by local transport. Here is my story how both plans worked out…
The International train – The options…
The international train, or Trans-Mongolia Express, departs a few times a week from Beijing to Moscow and vice versa. Non-stop this ride would take about 7 days. But my ride on the K23 from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar would only take 32 hours…
How do I buy a ticket for this train? You can arrange it yourself, but I heard from some people I met that it seems not that easy filling in the Chinese papers. But most of all I was wondering if there would be a ticket left at all. It was the beginning of July and then it’s time for the Chinese to go on holiday. And they all go at the same time, I can tell you!
That’s why I decided to go for the “lazy option”. I sent an email to a Chinese travel agency with some questions about how to arrange a ticket. My email went to Cits (China International Travel Service), mainly because I read that this agency has a good reputation. All you have to do is fill in your details online, complete the payment and pick up the tickets yourself at the Cits office in Beijing. It’s as simple as that!
Of course there is a price to pay for using a Travel Agency. The difference? For my Cits ticket I paid 255 dollars, about 65 dollars more than arranging it myself. Another option is to take a bus from Beijing to Erlian, the bordertown of China. This will cost around 30 dollars for a 14 hour night bus and you’ll already halfway the trip. A big difference! As far as I know there is no local train from Beijing to Erlian.
All aboard! The Trans-Mongolia Express to Ulaanbaatar is leaving!
Every Tuesday K23 departs at 7.27 am from Beijing Central Station to Moscow. You need to be present at least an hour in advance. Furthermore, it’s just waiting till they check your tickets and you can start looking for your coupe. I share my coupe with a Spanish lady. So there were still tickets available!
Tip: I decided to buy a lot of food in advance. Biscuits, noodles, sandwiches, plastic cups, tea and coffee. Of course there is also a dinner compartment, but that might be a little bit more expensive. My Spanish coupe companion didn’t bring any food and she refused everything I offered. Still, we had a nice trip together!
In China, the train only stops at Jining South Station for 15 minutes. It is finally 20.18 (punctual!) when we arrive at the border town of Erlian. And then it is 5 hours of waiting before we continue. Why? They checked the passports and the whole undercarriage had to be changed. At Erlian station everything was extinct, so my Spanish coupe-mate couldn’t buy any food.
A short night, but finally I’m in Mongolia…
Around 12 o’clock everyone got their passports back and at 1 o’clock the train went to Mongolia, to the border town of Zamyn Uud. After 1.5 hours at this station the train started to run again and it is time to go asleep! Good night then!
How wonderful it is to wake up around 10 o’clock, look outside and see the beautiful landscape of Mongolia? Wonderful! Lots of sand and few people, but it’s sure to be enjoyable! It finally took until 14.30 hours before the train arrived at the station of Ulaanbaatar. Mission accomplished! This was the easy and expensive way to travel between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar.
Tip: My accommodation in Ulaanbaatar was Sunpath Guesthouse. At the time of booking, you can ask for a pickup from the station free of charge. They also organize tours, just like many other guesthouses. At the station I was asked several times if I still needed accommodation, so don’t panic if you haven’t booked anything.
From Mongolia to China: the local train to Zamyn Uud
After 26 days it was time to go back to China to use my second ‘entry’ of my visa. I decided not to go to Beijing but to Datong. This place is located about 600 kilometers west of Beijing and also has a number of special sites, but that’s for another article!
One day in advance I arranged a ticket for the local train to Zamyn Uud at Ulaanbaatar’s main train station. Surprisingly enough, it was very easy. Two people at the office helped me. I just asked for the local train to Zamyn Uud, tomorrow please, a bed and gave my passport! Thank you, that’s 10 dollars, in Mongolian Tugrik of course!
Someone told me that you can arrange a ticket for the bus and the border crossing opposite the desk of the train tickets. And indeed, a friendly lady arranged a ticket for 10.000 Mongolian Tugrik, about € 3,50. Another option would have been to use a pickup truck to cross the border. You only have to negotiate the price. I wil never take a bus again. Let me explain why.
The train journey and the border…
The train to Zamyn Uud leaves at the end of the afternoon. There were no other tourists an you will meet some nice friendly locals. But my bed upstairs was a little bit too small for me (1.90 meters long) and I couldn’t sleep very well. There was also no protection, so the chance of falling on the ground was possible. Don’t worry, nothing happened! But it certainly was a bit of a challenge!
After a beautiful ride through the landscape of Mongolia I arrived around 7 o’clock in Zamyn Uud. I grabbed my bus ticket, checked the bus number and then waited bus. It was the start of a long adventure. Every 15 minutes 1 bus was allowed to enter the Mongolian border. I was sitting at bus number 8. Yes, after 2 hours it was our time…
On the Mongolian side things went quite well. I took my bag with me, bought a ticket for 5000 Tugrik and stood in the line. How long have you been in Mongolia? Around 26 days. Okay! Bye bye Mongolia? Let’s go to the Chinese side of the border.
China border: waiting and waiting
In the meantime it already took 3 hours to cross the Mongolian border. But that wasn’t the biggest problem of today. I was already waiting for more than 1 hour till the custom officer decided to take a break. And the other row didn’t seem to like our merging into their line. I decided to use a lot of space, just to secure that I would be next. It helped!
Almost 5 hours had already passed till I noticed my bus was gone. I went to another bus and showed my ticket. It didn’t seem to bother him and he let me into the bus. At 12.30 p.m I arrived at the busstation of Erlian. Now the next bus to Datong.
For those who also want to go to Datong from Mongolia: the only direct bus leaves in the morning and you definitely will miss that one. The only option is to take a bus to Jining (4 hours) and from there to take a local train (1.5 hours) to Datong. I arrived my hostel at 10.30 pm. This adventure from Ulaanbaatar took around 30 hours…
The local or the international train?
This adventure with the international train took place on 3 July 2018 and the local train on 30 July 2018. Most of the data have been checked, only the price for a sleeperbed at the international train via Cits has become slightly more expensive.
If you ever want to do this route yourself, you know what the options are. The big question is: what do you want? Pay a high price but have all the service you need? Then the Trans-Mongolia Express through an organization like Cits is the best option.
But if you don’t want to pay a lot, the local bus between Beijing and Erlian and the local train between Ulaanbataar to Zamyn Uud are the options. I think the low budget option will cost less than 50 dollars. I shared my experiences with you. It’s up to you to decide!
*The sources I used to book international train tickets online are purely informative and do not give me any compensation.