Beijing to Ulaanbataar Mongolia: The nitty gritty of independent travel


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border 1While on the road and back home, I frequently meet people who confuse independent travel with vacation. That it, when I describe a few months-long trip across Asia, what comes to mind is some sort of luxurious tour guided through the gems of the continent. The reality, though, is not like that for someone with a backpack and figuring it out for themselves as cheaply as possible (unless you consider riding across the border of China and Mongolia crammed in the trunk of a car with 12 other passengers “luxurious”).

In any case, I originally wrote this for other travelers who were trying to figure out ways to get across the border from Beijing to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbataar, for relatively cheap, but I think it is also an illustrative glimpse of the day-to-day logistics that a traveler has to figure out and that I don’t really write about on my site (it is boring).

There was a train direct from Beijing to Ulaanbataar for a few hundred dollars, but that was way out of my budget. Given that, I pieced this together for less than half of the price and in about the same amount of time as the direct train. So here it goes:


A cheap, quick, and (kind of) easy way to get to Ulaanbataar (Mongolia) from Beijing

border 2Overall, this is going to consist of a flight from Beijing to Erlian (aka Erlianhaote) on the Mongolian border, then a shared car across the border to Zamyn-Udd in Mongolia, then an overnight train from Zamyn-Uud to Ulaanbataar.

Total time 30 hours, total cost ~$70

1. At least 4 days in advance, get a ticket on from Beijing to Erlian (airport name is Elianhaote on the website, a bit confusing). Should be 160Y + 100Y taxes, more if you wait (as of March 2011). Recently, readers have contacted me saying it is about 390Y total in the high travel season from late spring through the summer. They leave at 7:20am from Terminal 1 at the Capital airport, flight number JD5149. Double check the schedule in case something has changed.

2. The day of the flight, make sure you are on the subway early. If you are relatively close to a metro connection with the Airport Express at Dongzhimen on Line 2 you can wait until 5:30 to get on the subway, but you want to be there early. Get off Line 2 at Dongzhimen and follow the signs to the Airport Express. You may have to wait until they open the gate at 5:45.

3. Buy the Airport Express ticket for 25Y and get on the first train at 6am. You will get to Terminal 3 at around 6:20, then to Terminal 1/2 at 6:30. Don’t waste time getting off since you will be cutting it close on time.

4. Follow the signs to Terminal 1, and keep your eye out because it is not very well marked in English (you will have to go up an escalator). Keep up a fast walk and check in with just your passport, do security, and get to the right gate. The gate is close to security and you will be taken on a bus to the airplane.

5. Bam, after a quick flight and a small snack of tea and a ham sandwich on the plane, get the shuttle outside the airport (15Y) and enjoy the scenery of absolutely nothing besides bizarre dinosaur sculptures coming into Erlian. If you just repeat that you are going to the Mongolian border in Chinese (wo yao qu menggu bianjing) the shuttle people should drop you in a place that you can flag a vehicle to take you across the border.

border 36. Going with a car is mandatory, and if you are patient and don’t mind haggling you should be able to get across for about 20Y (I got lucky and a group took me across for free in the trunk of their SUV, maybe it was sympathy for the cold, confused looking foreigner). First stop is the Chinese immigration to get your exit stamp, then to the Mongolian entrance. For Americans, at least, no visa is required to Mongolia, but you should obviously check about your own country.

7. Once across, all cars stop near the train station and central square in Zamyn-Uud with ample places to change money at posted rates. It will be about 12:00. You can buy train tickets from here to UB (16,300 tugrug for hard sleeper, about $13-14) departing at 17:35 every day at the ticket office which is at the far corner of the square on the second floor of a black, shiny building that isn’t immediately visible. Just walk towards the train tracks and you’ll see it.

border 48. Now, get some food and wait for the train, which will arrive just outside the ticketing office. Get some snacks for the ride and you can board the train a half hour before it departs. It will arrive in Ulaanbataar around 10am the next day, and you can figure it out from there.


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Pictures are below



+1 #1 Namuunaa 2011-06-01 03:15
thank you for your info... this is very useful. it was so difficult to get this info... any how the price changed to 780Y? is this common?
0 #2 Bob 2011-06-02 09:20
Hello there!
Thank you so much for taking the time to write this post! It was indeed very helpful for planning my trip to get a Mongolian stamp in my passport.
I am planning to fly to Erenhot from Beijing on June 10th and come back to Beijing on the next day with the morning flight from Erenhot. I am going there just so that I can say I have been to Mongolia.

Now, a few questions:
1. Until what time is the border crossing open?
2. How can I get back to Erenhot? Do the taxis, minibuses or whatever operate all day long?
3. Any place to spend the night in Erenhot? Any hotels? Or could I spend the night in Zamyn Uud and cross the border into China very early in the morning on the next day? But then, will I have time to get on my flight to Beijing which is at 0940 local time?
4. Finally, if I decide to go to Ulaanbaatar (which is highly unlikely), do you know when there are trains going FROM Ulaanbaatar TO Zamyn Uud?

Of course, I do not expect you to know all the answers, but any help would be highly appreciated!
Thank you in advance!
0 #3 Tyler Cole 2011-06-02 11:28
Namuunaa - You probably have to reserve it about a week or more in advance. I just checked online and they cost 310Y now if you buy in advance.

Bob -
1) I'm not really sure, but I don't think I've ever gone across a border that is open past 5 or 6 pm.
2) You should be able to easily get back because there are jeeps and cars going both ways while the border is open.
3) I'm not sure when the border opens, so I would stay in Erlian. I'm sure there are hotels there, there is a lot of movement between the two borders, but I wasn't really looking out for them. Here it says there are places by the train station for 50-60Y:
4) According to a schedule on the Zamyn-Uud wikitravel, there are trains that arrive from UB at 8am, so they probably leave UB around 17:00-19:00. See:

Hope this helps!
0 #4 Bob 2011-06-02 19:02
Thanks for your quick reply!
One last question: how long does it take in total to get from the airport to the centre of Zamyn-Uud (according to Google Earth the airport seems to be quite far away from the border)?

When are you planning to travel to Mongolia? Let me know if you want to travel with me next week:
0 #5 tagle 2011-06-04 15:29
this was very helpful,i will arrive in beijing 29 june 11,stay a couple of days and head off to UB with this cheapest and lovely journey. bob,are u on the same date?
+1 #6 Bob 2011-06-04 18:02
I am actually travelling next week... And I don't think I am going all the way to UB, I think I will just spend a few hours in Zamyn Uud and head back to China - hopefully I will make it in one day...
0 #7 Tyler Cole 2011-06-08 15:16
Hey Bob, sorry for the delay.

There will be a shuttle outside of the airport when the flight arrives. To get to Erlian, it took around 20-30 min if I remember correctly. When you start seeing the dinosaurs, you're close.

To cross the border, if you are with a group of people in a jeep, it will take about an hour to get through both borders. I would budget at least two hours of time to be careful. From the border to ZU, I would say it's maybe 10 minutes.
0 #8 Egi 2011-06-09 13:16
I will arrive in Beijing 15.06.11 in the morning so hard to wait a day to catch this flight. So would like to take a bus to Erlian.
Anyone wants to join me ?
I'm a kind, nice student ;D
0 #9 Ken 2011-06-30 15:27
Tagle, by bus from Beijing, I'll arrived Erlian early morning of this 3 July then cross the border to ZU and find the ticket for train to UB depart on the same day evening.

How about youl?
-1 #10 tsomik 2011-07-26 07:46
info was very helpful . Actually now flight ticket to Erlian is Y390 with 50% discount. But still I find it can be cheaper than a Beijing- UB train ticket.
0 #11 Tyler Cole 2011-07-26 13:32
Great, thanks for the heads up. I will modify the post since I think the price for the flight that I got was in the low travel season and bought about a week in advance. Glad to know it helped.
0 #12 joey 2011-08-19 08:56
thanks your super useful message!!! and do you know how to get back from Ulaanbaator to Erlian if I don't want to match their train schedule..???
0 #13 Caroline 2012-02-23 22:52
Thanks for your explanations.
Just a question, I read that it takes in general about 5 hours with waiting time at the border, is it true?I would like to arrive with a flight from beijing at 10 am in Erlian and take the train to Zamyn Ude at 16.30 pm so I think it can be short...
Are there long queues at the borders (in summer particularly)?
Thank you!
0 #14 Tyler Cole 2012-02-24 04:24
I crossed the border in March, and it took at most an hour. If your flight arrives at 10, you should have plenty of time to make it to the train station. Although I'm not sure how full the train will be during the summer. In the worst case, you can stay at a hotel in ZU overnight, and you'll just be kind of bored...though there might be something worth exploring there!
0 #15 Dani 2012-04-09 10:13
Thank you so much for writing this for us. I was just checking flights from Beijing to Erlian, and can't see any fares. Is this because there's no seats? If it is so, how come there is 0 flight when I'm planning to go in May23? isn't one month and half is not advanced enough? I'm just confused...soryy :(

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