Mongolia-China border crossing
Compared to the Russia-Mongolia train crossing, the Ulaanbaatar-Beijing leg can be described as slightly dodgy. The options for passage from Russia to Mongolia are more or less straightforward but that isn’t the case when it’s time to move on from Mongolia.
There are only two direct trains a week from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing: the no. 24 which departs on Thursdays and the no. 4 which leaves on Sundays. The problem with the no.4 however is that it’s the through train from Moscow. You will only get a ticket to Beijing if someone gets down at Ulaanbaatar, thereby vacating his berth. This makes the no.24 your safest bet because it originates in Ulaanbaatar.
That is, of course, if you happen to be ready and available to leave on a Thursday.
Thursday did not work for me and my friend Florence whom I met up with in UB, so we had to look for alternatives.
If you find yourself stuck in a similar situation, take the no. 34 which departs from Ulaanbaatar at 8pm on Mondays and Fridays for a city called Hohhot in China. Don’t go all the way to Hohhot, buy a ticket to Jining Nan (Jining South), where you’ll be arriving at 7pm the following day. After that, take a train to Beijing- there are trains every day to the Chinese capital.
Note that there are two cities called ‘Jining’ in China; you’ll want tickets to Jining in Inner Mongolia, not Jining in Shandong Province.
Choosing to take the no.34 however, will involve a little more work compared to taking the no.24. It’ll also involve a stopover of about six hours as the train from Jining Nan to Beijing leaves at 1.15 am. (We ended up paying for a hotel room near the station so that we could sleep).
Buying tickets for Jining Nan
The Ulaanbaatar train station only issues domestic train tickets. Tickets to Jining Nan must be bought at the International Ticketing Office, a yellow building some 200 metres northwest of Ulaanbaatar station.
Contrary to what some websites say, the international ticketing office isn’t next to, or in front of the train station, but a few streets away. I didn’t manage to get the address, but ask someone from your hotel to call the ticket office at (+976) 21 243856 or 21 243861 for directions. The foreigners’ counter is on the second floor in Room 212.
Otherwise, you can stay at the guesthouse Florence and I stayed at- the owner was wonderful and knew how to get to the ticketing office.
Buying onward tickets from Jining Nan to Beijing
This was the slightly tricky bit. I had gone here to check availability of tickets and seeing that there were very few left, was concerned that we wouldn’t get any for Beijing upon arriving in Jining Nan. After doing some research, I discovered that there was a travel company in Ulaanbaatar which could provide us with Chinese train tickets.
The travel company in question is located near the International Ticketing Office. To get there, you’ll need to get out of the ticketing office and head for a light-coloured building across the road. There should be a notice saying ‘CCTS Travel Services’ on the left side of the building, facing you as you approach it.
There was no-one when I got there, but I made such a racket knocking on the door that within a few minutes, a man came out from the international ticketing office, unlocked the door and asked me to come in.
What the travel company does is this: Mongolians cannot sell Chinese train tickets so the company asks its contact in Jining to buy the ticket for you. After you pay for the ticket, you’ll be given a plastic-laminated chit. When you arrive in Jining Nan, get onto the platform and hold up this piece of plastic. The contact, who should be waiting there already, will then exchange the card with your ticket to Beijing.
Be prepared to pay up to double the actual price of the ticket for the convenience of buying it in advance. Of course, you won’t know this until you see the price printed on the ticket and compare that with how much you paid the man in Ulaanbaatar.
If you want to avoid the extra cost and buy the tickets upon arrival, be ready to spend the night in Jining in the event onward tickets to Beijing are sold out.
The border crossing
If you take the no. 34, try to wake up soon after sunrise as you’ll be passing through the Gobi Desert at around 6.30am. Watch out for camels.
We reached Zamiin-Uud, the Mongolian border town at about 8am. Mongolian officials then came on board and collected our passports and immigration forms. The main difference between leaving Mongolia and Russia was that here, there was no need to get down from the train, with or without our bags. Clearing the Mongolian side took a couple of hours and at 10.20am, our train left Zamiin-Uud and with it, Mongolia.
At 10.40am we arrived in Erlian, the Chinese border checkpoint where Chinese officials got on to the train and took our passports. Soon after our passports were returned to us at 11.30am, our carriage attendant informed us that we could leave the train. What else, we packed up our essentials, got out of the station and had a light lunch at a restaurant nearby. Our train left Erlian after lunch at 1.30pm and reached Jining Nan at 7pm.
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