Every summer, many tourists travel between Beijing /Ulan Bator and vice versa. Those who do not wish to fly, and many they are, would consider instead a train ride on board of the legendary Trans Mongolian.
The train will take you in northern China, and allow you to cross the Inner Mongolia and the Gobi desert. Mongolians, who are well known for their good mood, may invite you to share a bottle of vodka, or even play cards or just talk. In short, it is an amazing experience that we highly recommend. Here are some tips to make the best of it...
When to go?
If your goal is to experience the Trans-Siberian thoroughly, and only slightly concentrating to each country, so without hesitation I would recommend this trip off-season from October to April. You will see very few other westerners in the train and therefore will ensure you a brief immersion in the local culture amongst the Mongolians merchants bringing back numerous objects from China to resell in Mongolia… If you want to spend some time in Mongolia, then you will rather appreciate sunny days. The month of June then remains definitely one of the best months. This is not yet the "rush" of July and August, but it is perhaps the hottest month of the year, without forgetting that this is the blooming period.
How long is the ride?
The total journey takes about 28 hours 30 min.
Are trains daily?
On the stretch Ulaanbaatar / Beijing (and vice versa) trains are not daily. There are all year long 2 trains per week. From June to October an additional train is set. In general we have:
Ulan Bator / Beijing runs all year long on Thursdays from Ulaanbaatar, and Tuesdays from Beijing.
Be aware that in July and August this train gets full very quickly, at least virtually, since many travel agencies all reserve seats in advance. You can book your tickets through these agencies, but be aware that only foreigners... less authentic might reserve your carriage. For example, if you book via Horseback, you'll get a ticket, which is usually on sale for local people. However, for a ticket in July or August, you will need to plan ahead: at least 3 months in advance.
It is possible to embark for the section Ulan Bator / Beijing, on the Russian rail Moscow / Beijing. It stops in Ulan Bator on Sunday, and leaves Beijing on Wednesday.
For this train, it is almost impossible to book in advance from Mongolia. To get a ticket, you have to go the day before departure at the station and buy a ticket that will be released at the last moment by Moscow. Guarantees are very low, and in July or August it's random. We have a good contact at the train station, which allows us to purchase a ticket for the train Sunday several weeks in advance, and for some individual applications (less than 5 tickets) we can provide them to you without much difficulty, without this being 100% guaranteed.
In July and August is by far the easiest to book and that up to 30 days before departure normally.
The time schedule of the weekly train is known belatedly, usually during mid-march. In fact, it follows a simple rule: in odd years it is a Mongolian train from Ulan Bator on Saturday, and from Beijing on Monday. Even years it is a Chinese train from Beijing on Thursday and Friday from Ulan Bator.
Must book in advance?
You will understand, from June to September, it is almost mandatory to book in advance. Off-season, the train is rarely complete, and you can take it at the last moment. Some dates are very soon complete:
• The first train to Beijing after the Naadam on the 11th and 12th of July
• End of August / beginning of September: many students return to China for the new school year, and seats are sold in priority to them.
• Around the Lunar New Year. Most Mongolians living in China returning to the country just before Tsagaan Sar, and leave China after the holidays. If you travel between mid-January and late February, bare in mind the dates of the Chinese New Year!
What is the price for a train ticket?
Booking your train tickets through an agency costs a bit more than buying them directly at the station. Tickets become scarce and highly demanded during summertime and to easily get our reservations it is often necessary to be particularly affectionate with the station staff. Let’s say it takes time to develop and maintain good relationships!
In the way Ulaanbaatar / Ulan Bator: A ticket in a 4 berths cabin costs 140 Euros per person, whereas a ticket in a deluxe compartment (2 berths) costs 220 Euros.
In the way Beijing / Ulan Bator: Tickets are more expensive. Expect 240 euros for a ticket in a 4-berth compartment, while the price will reach 340 euros for a Deluxe compartment.
It is expensive! Are there any other cheaper solutions?
It is certain that these train tickets are not economical, and return by train is just as expensive as the plane. So we have to consider this journey more for the experience than for its price. Another option if it is too expensive for you or if you weren’t able to get a ticket in the Trans Mongolian, there is indeed a fallback solution which is very economical, and doesn’t require to book more than one or two weeks in advance, even in summertime. For this, you only need to book a train in Ulaanbaatar for Zamiin Uud (Sino-Mongolian border).
This train departs daily at 4pm from Ulaanbaatar, and costs less than 20 Euros (32,000 MNT). You get to Zamiin Uud at 7:00 am the following morning where many minibuses await before taking you to Erlian. It will cost 50 RMB (7 Euros). The passage takes about an hour. The minibus will stop at the bus station from where you can book your sleeper bus ticket to Beijing. The bus leaves at 5pm and costs 150/200 RMB (25/30 Euros). You will reach Beijing around 3am, but the driver will let you sleep on the bus until the metro opens. In short, for about 50 Euros, you can reach Beijing from Ulan bator, and vice versa, within 36 hours.
For Beijing, it works the same way. Note that the buses to Erlian leave from different bus stations. Your guesthouse will indicate you one.