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Cheapest way to go from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing

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Travellers who go on the Trans-Mongolian route usually do the whole thing by train, but sometimes it can be a lot more expensive, and even much longer, than taking the bus, or like we did, cross the border with 3 different types of transportation.

On our Trans-Mongolian train journey, we actually only took the train three times : from Moscow straight to Irkutsk for 4 days on the Trans-Siberian Train ending up on the beautiful Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal ; from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude and from Ulaanbaatar to Zamin Uud, a Mongolian town at the border with China.

During our dreadful week in Ulaanbaatar staying in our hostel trying to figure out what to do next, we had time to talk to a lot with fellow backpackers. One of them, who was doing the Trans-Mongolian route from East to West, told us that he paid half the price by not taking the train to cross the border. Thanks to him, we saved a lot of money on this trip !

Usually booking a train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (or Beijing to Ulaanbaatar) will cost you around 180,000 MNT (around 80 €) for one person. We paid half of that, plus it was an actual adventure !

Here is the cheapest way to cross the border between Mongolia and China, going from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (or Beijing to Ulaanbaatar).

  1. Train from UlaanBaatar to Zamin Uud

We booked the daily night train from UlaanBaatar to Zamin Uud, a town on the Mongolian side of the Chinese border. We were doing this at the last minute so there were no tickets left for the hard sleeper (3rd class) and we had to buy the soft sleeper tickets (2nd class). Soft sleeper class on a Mongolian train is a 4 beds cabin.

We paid 39,200 MNT each (around 16€), which is the regular price for a soft sleeper. We got to sit back and relax on our bunk beds, gazing at the immensity of the Gobi desert from the train window. We left Ulaanbaatar in the evening and arrived in Zamin Uud early the next morning.

  1. Taxi from Zamin Uud to Erlian

Bargain hard !

As soon as we got off the train, we were surrounded by taxi drivers asking “China ? China ?”. They know the drill : no one comes to Zamin Uud to spend a vacation, everyone is here to cross the border to China. Our friend at the hostel told us the usual price is 30 yuans (around 10,000 MNT / 3,50€) for one person.

Every time a taxi driver was coming to us asking for 20,000 MNT each, I said 10,000, they all laughed at me like yeah right. But I didn’t give up until I bargained 8,500 MNT for the both of us. I know, it’s hardcore bargain, but to be honest, it’s all the mongolian money we had left, so I had no choice. Even the Chinese family who came with us in the jeep paid more…

Taxi_crossing_border_Mongolia_China_1

Hold on tight !

What happened next was quite fun. We got on this hundred years old jeep which didn’t have proper seats or even roof, with a Chinese family of 3 for road companions and drove to the border. We stopped in the queue for hours, waiting our turn.

Everyone was getting out of the jeeps, smoking, eating, drinking coffee, talking… or even fighting because some drivers were trying to overtake everyone else on the line (we saw that a lot in Mongolia). All this, chaperoned by military men, watching over the whole thing or just casually smoking and talking to the taxi drivers. We were quite the attraction as well, since we were the only westerners there, in a crowd of Mongolian and Chinese people.

Taxi_crossing_border_Mongolia_China_2

Crossing the borders

Crossing the actual border between Mongolia and China was just like every other border. We stopped at the Mongolian border first, we got off the jeep with our luggage, had to pay an extra 1000 MNT (don’t even try to ask them why, they yell at you something in Mongolian), they scanned our luggage, checked our passports and visa, while the jeep was being searched.

We got on the jeep again, drove a few meters, then stopped at the Chinese border, and same thing again, this time with another 5 yuans fee (for… what ?). And that was it ! After 2 hours of passport/visa/luggage check, we arrived in the Chinese town of Erlian, in the Inner Mongolia region of China and our driver drove us to the bus station.

Taxi_crossing_border_Mongolia_China_4

  1. Bus from Erlian to Beijing

It was almost noon when we arrived at the bus station and the next step for us was to take the sleeper bus to Beijing which was departing 3 hours later. The bus tickets cost us 220 yuans each (around 26 €), and it took us around 12 hours to get to Beijing.

It’s the first time we experienced a sleeper bus, and although the concept does sound comfy, it was probably the worst trip we went on. It was loud, smelly, noisy and well, people were spitting all the time.

Now this is a thing you have to know about China, if you haven’t been there yet. You will experience Chinese people spitting in China : they think it’s healthier to spit out the bad stuff you’ve got inside you… It’s just the way it is, be prepared !

This bus trip was also the first time I experienced the concept of shared toilets when we stopped for dinner : basically a tiny room, with holes in the floor, no dividing walls and let’s say a strong smell.

2015-08-28_01-04-46

If you don’t picture what a sleeper bus is, picture a dorm in a bus, that’s basically what it was. The size of the bunk bed was fine for me as I am quite petite but Antoine was a little stuck, so again, same as the Trans-Siberian train, if you’re tall or wide in this case, you probably won’t be as comfy as we were.

The bus arrived in Beijing at 2 or 3 in the morning and everyone got off. When I prepared this trip I read a few travellers’ stories saying that they were allowed to stay in the bus to finish the night and wait for the subway to open. It wasn’t the case for us, we had to get off the bus, in the dark 2am Beijing. Lucky us we found a 24/7 restaurant that was nearby, and the waiters welcomed us with big smiles. I think I passed out a little next to my noodles, obviously didn’t sleep enough. The sun got up at 4.30am, the city was slightly waking up and people were already out there exercising and doing some Tai Chi.

Total budget spent for 2* :

  • Train UlaanBaatar – Zamin Uud (soft sleeper) : 78,400 MNT – 32€
  • Taxi Zamin Uud – Erlian : 8,500 MNT – 3,50€
  • Mongolian border fee : 2000 MNT – 1,30€
  • Chinese border fee : 10 yuans – 1,30€
  • Bus Erlian – Beijing : 440 yuans – 52€

Total = 45,05€ each / 90,10€ for the both of us

*conversions rates as of June 2014

There you have it, the guide to the cheapest way to go from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, or the other way around.

Have you been on the Trans-Mongolian ? How did you do it ? Do you have any tips to add to this post ? Tell us in the comments below !

 

Hello ! We don't blog on Life Explorateurs anymore. Follow our World Tour vlog series on our new website :
The Vlog Expedition
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32 Comments

  • Hi,

    thanks for sharing your experience with us! I will probably try the same thing this summer! You claimed, that your way of travelling was the cheapest way to go from Ulan-Bataar to Beijing, so I would like to ask: isn’t it even cheaper to go by train from Erlian to Beijing? What I figured out in the internet so far is that a train ticket does not cost more then 20€, on a hard seat even less?! And it is probably more comfortable then taking the bus. Did you think about taking the train from Erlian anyway?

    Best,

    Oliver

    • Hi Oliver, Glad you found this article useful. To be honest it was a long time ago and I can’t remember why exactly we chose the sleeper bus over the train. One thing I’m sure of, is that it was our cheapest option at the time. Maybe the train was not running that day or there was only more expensive tickets left, I don’t know. Sorry I can’t help you with that 🙂 If you do find direct train tickets for less that the sleeper bus, then yeah it will probably be more comfortable, especially if you arrive at a more decent hour than what we did. Have fun !

  • Funny about the sleeper bus! I took the trip with five women (we were from 40 – 60 years of age). We all loved it! Truly the most comfortable overnight I have ever had on a bus. I was thrilled to be able to lie down and I got a good night sleep. We did not experience any smell or spitting at all. We had very lovely travel mates and some cute and quiet children. The only thing that was at all an issue was that after we left on time, we then pulled into a parking lot where we sat for hours while they loaded boxes of produce into the bus, including the aisles which made it quite interesting when it came to the rest stop. We had to crawl down the aisle on top of the buses to get out! But, other than that, the ride was fabulous (actually, having to crawl out of the bus rather made us laugh quite a bit, so that only made the trip better!). I say grab the sleeper bus…it rocks!

    • Hi Pat,
      Being able to lie down in the bus to get some sleep is for sure quite relaxing, I was fitting perfectly but Antoine’s large shoulders weren’t ! Having nice travel mates also makes the trip better. Glad you had a good time ! We love telling that story and the good memories always take over the bad anyways 🙂
      Happy travels to you !
      Violette

    • Hey Saruul ! Violette and I tried to remember (and then look for the info online) but we really couldn’t recall the name of the bus station nor its location… Sorry we can’t help you this time. Please let us know if you find out so we can update this post & relay the info 🙂

  • Hi, Thanks for that, it is just awesome guide. Just a question: where did you book the train from UlaanBaatar to Zamin Uud??? We are going to buy tickets in Moscow from Irkutsk to UlaanBaatar (they are not online) and I didn’t find any mongolian tickets. Thanks?

    • Hi Josef, we booked our train tickets for UB to Zamin Uud here : http://goo.gl/g6iBvQ (it’s the railway ticket centre, different location from the train station). Also, I just had a quick look and you can buy your tickets from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator online here : http://pass.rzd.ru/main-pass/public/en. But just in case you wanted a cheaper and faster (but definitely not the easiest) way to go from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator, here is what we did : we took a train to Ulan-Ude (booked the tickets online) and then a bus from Ulan-Ude to Ulan Bator (13 hours, very bumpy and scary ride but cheap !). If you do the same, try to book your bus tickets from Ulan-Ude to Ulan Bator in advance, it was fully booked when we arrived (even though we called the day before and they said it wasn’t full), so we had to spend the night there and take the bus the day after (luckily our visas were still valid but we met a guy struggling with that…). Hope that helps !

  • Bonjour Violette et Antoine
    Nous nous somme croisé en juin je crois apres votre roadtrip d’Alsace, dans le ter Franche Comte en direction de Besancon.
    A l’époque je vous parlais d’un trip eventuelle de 2000km envrion en fixie de Besancon a cracovie, et bien c’est chose faite, nul doute que votre temoignage de vie m’a aussi donné des ailles, pour la realisation de ce voyage, je pense devenir blogueur tres rapidement pour partager cette richesse eternel.
    Bises a tout les 2, et que les rencontres soit toujours fantastique et joyeuses.
    CIAO!!!

    • C’est super ça, content que ça se soit concrétisé 🙂
      Impatients de voir des images de ton voyage !
      N’hésite pas à nous contacter si tu as besoin de conseils blogging.

  • This is great! Thank you for the helpful advice. I am planning to take this route in August. However, I have a question. In order to get a Chinese Visa you must provide entry and exit information (i.e. booked tickets that show your entry/exit dates). If you are crossing the border with a taxi, how did you get your Chinese Visa?
    Thanks in advance for any tips you might have!

    • Hi Angie, so sorry for the late reply ! In order to get your Chinese visa you must indeed provide entry and exit information. Here is something backpackers do : Go to one of the “Air Market” agencies in UB (there are several on Peace Avenue) and ask for a flight booking for a Chinese Visa (it’s free). You need a flight from UB to China and one from China to any other country. I hope this helps, if you need anything else feel free to drop me an email !

  • Bonjour Antoine et Violette,

    Quelles belles expériences !! j’imagine que vous devez vous régalez, apprendre et vous enrichir au contacts de vos rencontres, vivre des moments exceptionnels et passionnants,
    Bonne continuation et bonne route
    Bises
    Fred

  • I leave in a few weeks for the trans Mongolian and can’t wait! While the bus might be cheaper or quicker there is still something magical about long distance trains! 🙂