What a fascinating trip. I just did this route -
Beijing -> Erlianhaote -> Zamyn Uud -> Ulan Bator
Why do I choose such circuitous, crazy routes? Well, lots of reasons.
I want to understand as much as I can about the world, and taking out of the way routes - especially through important border towns - teaches a lot.
Often, you can manage a route like this in a way that's much less expensive than direct flights. Yes, time is money, but money is also money.
Also, I love trains and really like spending time on trains. Thus, when I have an opportunity to do a crazy journey like this, I do. Here's how the route went, what I learned, a lot of photos.
1. Beijing to Erlianhaote
My China visa was up. Where to go? Well, I've been to South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong already. I'd eventually like to get through every country in the world, and seeing that Mongolia was the closest to Beijing - looks good.
I did research for going over land via train. Turns out, the train wasn't running from Beijing to Erlianhaote (the Chinese town bordering Mongolia) on the day I was leaving, so that was out. These days, I try to avoid bus travel as much as I can since it really takes it out of me and screws up my work, so I looked for a mix of flights and trains.
I found this excellent guide on how to do it, and followed the instructions almost exactly.
I paid 432 Chinese RMB (roughly $67 USD) for a flight from Beijing to Erlianhaote. I bought it on Elong.net, which is a pretty good Chinese flight search site. I took a taxi to the airport since the flight was early, which ran me 90 RMB ($14 USD).
The flight was delayed, but no problem - Beijing Domestic Terminal is pleasant enough, and I got some good work in at the airport.
The flight was quick and painless, taking me to Erlianhaote - a really desolate cold desert on the Northwestern China/Southeastern Mongolia border.
2. Erlianhaote -> Zamyn Uud Border Crossing
From there, I grabbed a minibus for 15 RMB ($3 USD) to the border. Erlian is pretty bare - there's basically nothing there except the railway depots from the shipping in and out of Mongolia. But, they discovered some dinosaur bones a while back, so they celebrate that.
I quite enjoyed the dinosaur statues. There's a lot of them, I only took pictures of a few.
Still painless. The journey is about to get a bit more painful, though...
3. Crossing the Border - Thugs and Thieves and Such
At the border, they don't let you cross on foot. Well, the Chinese don't care - they'll let you do whatever you want. But the Mongolian customs officials will only let you through their side on a Mongolian jeep - just a wait to extract a little bit of tribute for the drivers.
Mongolians and Chinese usually pay 20 RMB (around $3 USD) to get across the border in one of the jeeps. Really, it's a very short journey. But they try to get foreigners for more.
As I walked up the border, a young Mongolian guy offers to take me for 150 RMB ($23 USD). Pfft, no.
I shake my head, I don't even counteroff. "Buyao, xiexie." ("I don't want, thanks" in Chinese.)
He says, "How much? How much?" Hands me a cellphone, wants me to type it into the cellphone.
I type in 20. He shakes his head. Types in 100.
I say, "Maegwenxi." (spelling? "Never mind" in Chinese.)
80. I shake my head.
At this point, I'm walking closer to the border, and there's lots of Russian military jeeps with Mongolians hanging out. An older Mongolian comes up, talks to the younger guy I was negotiating with, and offers me 40 RMB. I shake my head. 20.
He holds up 4 fingers insistently. Very strong, masculine, almost a little threatening.
I shake my head. I hold up 2 fingers.
He holds up 3.
They try to fit me into a jeep with five other people and a bunch of trade goods, and it doesn't work. Then they want me to wait a while.
I walk around, looking to hitchhike with someone going across anyways. One Mongolian guy really doesn't like that and starts shouting. I just ignore that and keep talking to people. Eventually a Chinese guy offers to take me across for 20 RMB.
He drives me to the Chinese exit part, and asks to be paid. I say on the other side. He insists on being paid now and I just smile and say I'll pay him when we're across the border.
Good thing I didn't I pay him! Apparently this is a common enough scam, he was just going to leave with the money after that and not take me across.
I go into the "Foreigner" line at customs, and I'm the only white person. Everyone else in the Foreigner line is Mongolian, with some Chinese people on the other side in the "Chinese" line. A young boy, maybe somewhere between 8-12 years old, is in line with his mother behind me. He starts playing near me, grabbing at my pants leg... for some reason, I'm a little suspicious and my spider sense is going off. I've read pickpocketing is quite common in Mongolia and you've got to be careful.
So I kind of move around and position myself in a way so that my computer bag and valuables in my front pockets aren't near the kid. He starts playing with my luggage a few minutes later, then tries to unzip a compartment! I look at him, and he jumps, acting very guilty.
I get through the Chinese side without any problems. I wind up meeting a local guy named Bat, and chatting with him. At first I was kind of skeptical, but he turns out to be a good guy - world-traveled, owns a farm up in Northern Mongolia, and just got done selling his produce in China and buying tools and goods. Only 36, and he has a big farm, lots of horses, married with a couple kids - really cool and impressive guy.
I was kind of skeptical and worried so probably a little guarded after three unpleasant incidents in rapid succession at the border, but Bat turned out to be super friendly and cool. We chatted, he told me a lot about Mongolia, and offered to bring me across in his jeep - he'd rented three jeeps for him and two other guys, plus some trade goods and tools, so no cost to me or extra expense for him.
They're moving serious amounts of goods across the border, by the way - you're not supposed to take pictures, but I discreetly snapped a couple.
They're mostly all Russian military jeeps. Bat explains how the customs works, the law works, the Chinese and Mongolians, etc. We connected quite a bit - he says the USA is one of the last countries he wants to go that he hasn't been yet, and he's going next year. Likes America quite a lot - says John Deere makes his favorite farming equipment, most reliable at a good price.
3. Zamyn Uud
I help Bat move the goods from his jeep to a car his friend's girlfriend brought to meet us, and we drive to the Zamyn Uud train station. Bat explains that it's difficult to buy a ticket because they sell out early in the morning and you can't pre-reserve them. They go on sale around 8AM, but people line up to buy tickets as early as 5AM or 6AM. You need one ID Card per ticket you buy, so someone's friend or relative or agent will go to the ticket office with 20 passports and buy 20 tickets sometimes. Mongolians are industrious, they import serious amounts of goods from the border - clothes, cigarettes, tools, lots of stuff.
Here's the train station at Zamyn Uud -
The crowd in the upper left part of this picture are gathered around three pool tables were Mongolians are playing, killing time -
My original plan had been to stay in Zamyn Uud for a couple days. I read online that it's dead empty with nothing to do, but that's fine - I've got a lot of work to do, so I wouldn't have minded a couple days in a very boring place out in nature with clean air. Just work and eat and sleep for a few days, and then head to Ulan Bator (the capital of Mongolia).
Bat says I'll have to do that if I can't get a ticket, but he strongly recommends against Zamyn Uud - he says all people there do is drink and use rude language, so I'd be better off heading up to UB if we can. I say okay.
The ticket office is closed for a couple more hours, but around an hour before the train leaves they open back up and sell tickets from people who couldn't get back across the border fast enough. Bat and I go to the nicest restaurant in Zamyn Uud -
Food was excellent, one of the best pieces of chicken I've had in a long time. Very Eastern European style cuisine, very hearty, not at all similar to Chinese food. I like it though, I haven't eaten Eastern European food in a while and it's a nice change from more Asian/Chinese-styled food which I've been eating a lot of.
Bat tries to pay, which is kind of ridiculous after all the nice things he's done for me. I pick up the check. The bill is around 14,000 Mongolian Tugrik, which is $12 USD. Two large plates of food, two waters, a pepsi, and a juice. Nicest restaurant in the border town.
4. Overnight Train to Ulan Bator
We get to the station, and a couple seats have opened up. He tells me there's third class. I ask him, is it a sleeper? I'm pretty spartan and simple, but even I can't really do 16 hours in a single seat crowded in with Mongolian people. I took third class once in China when I was low on money, and I had to upgrade to second for more space and a bed - just couldn't do it.
Bat asks, and they have a second class sleeper available. No first class available. Okay, that's fine. 17,000 Mongolian TGR for a sleeper in second class - $14 USD. I board the train. Bat says he has to go give fuel money to two of his drivers that are taking goods and tools to UB by car, but he'll come check in on me after the train gets moving.
I don't know if he missed the train or what happened, because he didn't stop by and I didn't see him at the platform at UB - which is a bummer, I didn't swap any contact details with him. We had some great chats over politics, diplomacy, economics, Mongolia, China, Russia, history, military, etc. en route and at lunch.
My area of the train had seated/slept six, and they were very enterprising older Mongolian women. Between the five of them, they had over 18 packages full of goods.
I helped them load some of the goods up, we chatted a bit, and I went to bed early since I'd been up since 3:30AM.
When I woke up, we were almost to Ulan Bator. I got a few more photos, note the traditional tents mixed in with buildings that Mongolian people frequently live in -
It was a wonderful trip - I really enjoyed meeting Bat, and he and I had fascinating conversations. Also, I learned quite a lot about how the Mongolia/China border operates - the details, taxes, processes, times, costs, etc.
I like doing things like this - the end result is that my Beijing -> Ulan Bator travel costs came out to around $98 USD total, which is a couple hundred cheaper than a direct one-way flight. So it's an option for the experienced traveler on a budget.
In the end, time is money, so paying another couple hundred bucks to save 6-8 hours of your life or so isn't a bad trade (you can sleep most of the train journey, also I did a few hours of work and reading when awake - so not all that bad).
If you were to do something like this, the real reason to do it would be for the adventure and experience and learning. Seeing the border crossing, the train and train stations, and a bunch of the Mongolian countryside was the best part for me. There wasn't enough light for good pictures, but the sunset and sunrise on the Mongolian Steppe by train was incredible, really beautiful. I also met a number of Mongolian people on the way.
I got a kick out of it, I had a good time. Something for people who like doing out-of-the-way adventuring to try, definitely. I'll write up some of the things I learned from talking to Bat in the next few days, too.