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Crossing the China-Mongolia border in Erlian

How to get out of Erlian and onto the Trans-Mongolian Railway

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The rainbow arch at the Erlian border crossing

When crossing the China-Mongolia border at Erlian, you have three different options:

1) Crossing the border by jeep
2) Crossing the border by bus
3) Crossing the border by train

We will deal with the first option first.

1) Crossing the border by jeep

Having been granted your Mongolian visa, you are now free to head to the China-Mongolia border to cross from Erlian to Zamyn-Uud. The Chinese border crossing in Erlian opens at around 08:30 and closes around 18:00. It is no more than a ten minute drive from the centre of town. There are plenty of taxis buzzing about and it will only cost a few Yuan. Ask to go to the guómén (literally, nation door).

The taxi will drop you on the road near to the rainbow arch at the border where you will see a fleet of waiting jeeps. If they have room you will be able to get a ride across. I told my taxi driver I needed to get in a jeep, and after making a phone call, I was met my one of the drivers when I stepped out of the taxi.

You will need to pay Y80 for the ride and a Y5 exit tax. This is standard. Though you may be able to get the jeep ride for around Y50 if, unlike me, you are any good at bargaining.

Jeeps actually travel to the China-Mongolia border from the market near Dinosaur Square. You can go here and you will be offered a guaranteed ride but I’m pretty sure room can be found somewhere in one jeep or another at the border itself. I was crammed on top of boxes with two Mongolian women in the back but we made it across without a problem until my Mongolian visa issues cut my crossing short.

You cannot walk across the border, a jeep, bus or private car are your only options. The jeep will drive you a short distance along the road, under the rainbow arch, and, once the vehicle has been allowed through the checkpoint, you will be dropped at the entrance to the Chinese passport control building. You will need to queue and go through the departure formalities inside, then get back in your jeep on the other side.

It would be a good idea to take all of your luggage with you when you leave the jeep. If you have any problems with visas or passports inside, you don’t want your driver getting impatient and driving off with your bags but without you.

Once back in the jeep, the same process will be repeated on the Mongolian side, after which, all being well, you will continue your drive to Zamyn-Uud from where you can hopefully catch the Zamyn-Uud train to Ulaanbaatar.

The whole process should take between an hour and 1½ hours.

2) Crossing the border by bus

Buses from Erlian to Zamyn-Uud leave from Erlian bus station on the corner of Chaha’er Street and Youyi Lu near to the Mongolian Consulate. At the time of writing, there is a bus at 13:30 and at least one more later in the afternoon around 15:00. Taking the 13:30 bus should give you enough time to get on the 17:35 Zamyn-Uud to Ulaanbaatar train. This, however, is subject to tickets being available when you arrive in Zamyn-Uud, which, if you arrive in the afternoon, may be unlikely.

The process when taking the bus is pretty much the same as when taking the jeep, only since more people have to get off the bus, go through immigration, and get back on the bus again, it takes a little longer. That said, you should be able to get from Erlian to Zamyn-Uud in around two hours.

The price is Y40 plus the same Y5 exit tax.

3) Crossing the border by train

The third option is probably the easiest, but at the same time, it is probably also the least certain way to get from Erlian to Zamyn-Uud and on to Ulaanbaatar on the same day. Easiest because you don’t have to mess about with taxis, jeeps and getting train tickets when you get to Mongolia. Least certain because it isn’t particularly easy to find out on which days the Erlian to Zamyn-Uud train leaves.

If you cross the China-Mongolia border by jeep or bus, you will no doubt want to get on the first train from Zamyn-Uud to Ulaanbaatar that you can find. There is a train 275 to Ulaanbaatar (16 hours) at around 17:35 daily. Getting from Erlian to Zamyn-Uud and getting tickets for train 275 on the same day, however, is not guaranteed, since it is very popular with Mongolian traders travelling home from China.

On other days, there will also be a later train – train 685 – that leaves around 21:25 coming from Erlian. I have read that trains leave from Erlian to Zamyn-Uud on Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 16:00 and 17:30 (possibly trains 681, 683 & 685). I left Erlian on Monday evening around 17:10 on train 685 and after arriving at Zamyn-Uud and waiting around for a couple of hours, we left for Ulaanbaatar at 21:25.

The ticket for the Zamyn-Uud to Ulaanbaatar leg of the journey can be bought on the train. You will need to buy the Erlian to Zamyn-Uud ticket beforehand from the ticket office opposite the main building of Erlian station. This opens around 09:00 but was closed when I arrived at 14:00. Go there in the morning straight after you have put in your Mongolian visa application around 10:00.

Though it was closed when I got there, I still managed to buy a ticket from Erlian to Mongolia from two old women that were sitting on the steps outside. After some doubt on my part it turned out to be the real thing and I am eternally grateful for their undying business sense.

Should you manage to get a ticket out of there, the station will open again, after an afternoon break, at around 16:00. You can then go through Chinese passport control inside and go through and board the Erlian to Zamyn-Uud train. If you make it this far, you should be able to relax in the knowledge that you should make it to Ulaanbaatar by 11:00 the following morning.

The Erlian – Zamyn-Uud ticket cost Y67
The Zamyn-Uud – Ulaanbaatar ticket cost Y205

Bon Chance

As you can see though, the whole Crossing the China-Mongolia Border situation has the potential to utterly scupper your well-laid plans if things don’t go smoothly. If you are on a tight schedule, best to leave yourself a couple of days breathing space elsewhere in your journey in case things go awry. Despite leaving myself a day to spare, my struggles in getting from Erlian to Mongolia shenanigans almost turned my trip into a full-blown disaster. Somehow I made it. But only with three hours to spare.

Things change fast in China. If you find any of this info is out of date or you have anything useful to add, please let me know in the comments below.

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