There are plenty of blogs and forums around describing the land border-crossing process from China to Mongolia (some of those we found helpful are listed below), but up-to-date information is always handy. We crossed on 2nd June 2017.
It is of course possible to fly from Beijing, and many other Chinese cities, to Ulaanbaatar. It is generally (not always) cheaper, and definitely more satisfying, to go by land. This is the route of the famous Trans-Mongolian railway, crossing through the Gobi desert of Inner Mongolia, and Mongolia itself.
Beijing to Erlian
The journey from Beijing to Erlian (or Erenhot) can be made by bus, train or plane. The train only leaves on certain days, and, as part of the Trans-Mongolian railway, is expensive and books up well in advance. We took the bus.
Sleeper buses leave from Muxiyuan bus station. (We took the subway to Dahongmen on line 10, and walked from there).
At Muxiyuan there are both private and public buses running to Erlian. There is little to choose between in terms of price or departure times (you will pay between ¥180 and ¥200, and the bus will leave between 16.00 and 17.30). We opted for the public bus, purely for the peace of mind that comes with buying your ticket from a woman behind a desk with a computer, and getting a printed ticket, rather than handing your money over to a chap who accosted you on the street as you walked past. We went to the bus station at around 11.00 on the morning of our departure to buy tickets, but as long as you arrive an hour or two before your intended departure you should have no difficulty getting a berth (we are told!).
The stated departure time may be flexible. We booked on the 17.00 bus. At around 16.50 those of us waiting for that bus were rounded up and herded across the road to a dusty car park, where sat an equally dusty sleeper bus. We are still not sure whether we were farmed out to a private contractor, or if this was the over-flow for the public bus station. We waited there for around two hours, while the drivers smoked and played cards, waiting, we assume, for more passengers.
The bus itself was comfortable enough – much more so than the sleeper buses we used in Vietnam – with clean sheets and a duvet on each bunk. The journey took around 12 hours; in a way the delayed start was a blessing, as it meant we got to Erlian at 7.00am rather than 5.00am, with the added benefit of waking to a stunning sunrise over the Gobi desert. We stopped a few times on the way out of Beijing to pick up additional parcels and luggage, and later at a roadside restaurant for dinner.
A small town in the middle of the desert, a couple of kilometres from the Chinese border, there is no reason to plan on spending any time here. There is a strong dinosaur theme, thanks to nearby fossil discoveries, but the Dinosaur Museum does not get brilliant reviews.
Warning: The road border between Erlian and Zamyn-Uud closes for public holidays. We ended up spending a day and a night in Erlian because the border was shut for Mongolian Children’s Day. It is worth checking before you board your bus – it is better to spend an extra day in Beijing than in Erlian. The train border does not shut – but trains only run on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. You can also fly from Erlian to Ulaanbaatar, but only three days per week.
On arrival at Erlian bus station you will be met by several taxis or old jeeps. The jeeps can take you across the border to Zamyn-Uud, and their drivers will help you through the process (i.e., tell you when to go into which buildings to get your passport checked and stamped). This should cost around ¥50 – agree the price before you start. If there are no jeeps hanging around, the taxis will take you to find one for about ¥10.
This is a fairly common visa-run route for foreigners living in Beijing – if you are lucky enough to have one on your bus, they may be able to assist you. We were fortunate to meet two helpful people on the bus from Beijing: Sasha, a Russian expat living in Beijing, was on her third visa run to the Mongolian border, knew the score and had a contact with a jeep; Siao, a Malaysian backpacker, spoke near-fluent Mandarin.
The border itself is self-explanatory. Have your passport ever-ready (it will be checked about 5 times). The earlier you are there the quicker you will get through (it opens at 08.30). Like I said, there is no reason to hang around in Erlian.
Crossing the border you will instantly notice the difference between the two countries, and realise why 4×4 vehicles are used to do the crossing: the road quality reduces dramatically.
The jeep will take you to Zamyn-Uud’s main square, from which there is no reason to wander. The square contains a couple of small supermarkets and restaurants and the train station, on which the economy of the town depends. ‘Bakery Fast Food’ has a picture menu, and serves Western and Mongolian dishes.
You can change your Chinese Yuan to Mongolian Tughrik at TDB bank.
Lonely planet cites the disused fountain as Zamyn-Uud’s primary attraction.
The train station is at the far end of the square; tickets can be bought from the new glass building to the left of it. The train to Ulaanbaatar leaves every day at 1805. A hard-sleeper berth cost us T22,500 (about £7) each.