Crossing the Mongolia – China Border on a Budget
If you are travelling through either Mongolia or China, it’s always good to know some cheap ways to methods to get around. As a Mongolian traveler who prefers adventurous experiences, I’ve had my fair share of bargaining, negotiating, and finding good deals.
As of 2017, there are 2 common ways to travel to/from Mongolia and China via land.
A) Trans Siberian Railway
For those of you who don’t like the hassle, this is the preferred method of travel. All you need to do is book a ticket from either Ulaanbaatar or Beijing. Although the Mongolian government website is not the best, visit UBTZ.mn for tickets and pricing. Usually it’s 200-300k Tugriks (~100 USD) UB to Beijing one way. ~1200 Yuan (~180 USD) Beijing to UB.
You will mostly be spending the next 24 hours confined in a small bunk-bed room that fits 4 people. When crossing the border, Mongolian and Chinese inspectors will check your IDs and on rare occasions, sometimes your luggage. You do have to wait a few hours for the train to change tracks, but it’s the most seamless and effortless way to travel.
I myself even prefer the train to flying. You don’t have to be patted down for security, nor check your luggage. You simply show your ticket and get on the train. There are plenty of people who will be selling drinks and food on stops, although slightly expensive compared to the original price.
Sometimes you meet cool people on the train and share travel stories, food, and good company. It’s something that doesn’t happen often when flying, so for backpackers and adventurous types who don’t want to go through the stressful hassle, book a direct train ticket from either Beijing or Ulaanbaatar.
B) Local Railway / Drive + Bus
Compared to a direct train ride, this method is a lot more annoying, especially if you are traveling with heavy bags and luggage. However, if you are simply traveling with a backpack, it’s comparatively a lot cheaper.
Ulaanbaatar to Erenhot / Erlian
Head to the national railway station. You can either negotiate a price with drivers that are headed towards Zamiin-Uud (border town) or you can book a train ticket to Zamiin-Uud. It usually costs ~35k Tugriks (15 USD)
Drivers usually only take ~8 hours to get to Zamiin Uud from Ulaanbaatar. However, it’s more dangerous and some drivers can be reckless with the speed limit. Trains usually take 12-14 hours.
Beijing to Erenhot / Erlian
Head to the Muxiyuan bus station and book a ticket to Erlian / Erenhot. You can negotiate a price with 3-rd party vendors outside the bus station. How much it will cost depends on your negotiating skills. Otherwise, official tickets usually cost ~200 Yuans (~ 30 USD)
Make sure you have the writing and pronunciation correctly. I happened to book the wrong ticket and ended up getting lost somewhere in Inner Mongolia.
Finally, How To Actually Cross The Border
Once you are either at Zamiin-Uud train station or Erlian bus station, people will usually ask if you need to cross the border. Be careful of being ripped off if and/or being hassled into uncomfortable situations, some people can be incredibly pushy.
If you like negotiating, you can negotiate the price, but you will ultimately have to choose a driver to cross the border. You are not allowed to walk across the border. You must be transported by a vehicle!
I would advise to mostly go with Mongolian citizens to help you cross the border. Mongolian citizens are able to cross the border with without any visa restrictions, whereas Chinese citizens need a visa. And Mongolians are less likely to rip you off or make you feel uncomfortable.
If you are at the border very early, you will have to wait until 10 AM until it opens.
Zamiin-Uud to Erlian
Once you arrive in Zamiin-Uud, people will ask you if you need to cross the border. Usually it’s 50 Yuan ( ~5 USD) per person to cross and take you to the Erlian bus station.
You will be dropped at the Mongolian border for clearance, picked up again and driven to the Chinese border clearance. Once you pass Chinese border clearance, you can choose to be dropped at the Erlian bus station or somewhere around the city if you prefer.
Once you are at the Erlian bus station, you will be hassled by a lot of vendors who will try to sell you a ticket to Beijing. Tickets are usually 200-300 Yuan (30 USD – 40 USD) depending on your negotiation skills.
Erlian to Zamiin-Uud
After arriving in Erlian, some taxi drivers will ask you if you need to get to the border. If it’s a Mongolian driver, you won’t have much trouble crossing since they are not limited by visa restrictions. They will drive you to the Chinese border clearance, and then the Mongolian border clearance.
If it’s a Chinese national, you will most likely be dropped off at the Chinese border clearance and you will have to find someone else to get you across the Mongolian border. There are plenty of cars passing through, so you won’t have too much trouble. However it is a bit more expensive. Be ready to spend ~10+ USD.
Buses from Ulaanbaatar to Erlian
If you book a bus ticket that goes from Ulaanbaatar to Erlian and back, it’s a bit easier and less hassle to cross the border. You don’t have to negotiate border crossing fees with independent drivers, since it will be direct route. You will have to get off for clearance and such, but you won’t have to waste time worrying about border transit.
This website is in Mongolian, but you could try using Google Translate to make sense of the basics.
Total Estimated Cost
A) Trans Siberian: ~250k (UB to Beijing) or ~450k (Beijing to UB) Tugriks + 20k Tugriks (Food)
B) Local Mongolian Railway: ~35k Tugriks (Zamiin Uud train ticket) + 20k (Food) + 20k (Border crossing) + 90k (Beijing bus ticket) + 20k (Food) = ~185k Tugriks (~80 USD)
C) Overnight Bus: ~55k Tugriks (Bus ticket) + 20k (Food) + 90k (Beijing bus ticket) + 20k (Food) = ~185k Tugriks (~80 USD)
Sometimes it’s simply better to pay a little more to make your travel experience more comfortable. Negotiating prices, arguing with locals and being stingy with money is emotionally draining. It’s not where you go, what you see, what you cross off your list, but the experience and the memories you make. Smile! Enjoy your trip!
For aspiring backpackers, check out my list of recommended travel gear for budget travelers.