Getting there & away
Make sure that your passport is valid for at least six more months from the date of arrival. If you lose your passport, your embassy in Ulaanbaatar can replace it, usually in one day. Before leaving Mongolia, check whether you’ll need an exit visa from the Office of Immigration, Naturalization & Foreign Citizens (INFC).
Full-time students and people aged under 26 years (under 30 in some countries) have access to better deals than other travellers. You have to show a document proving your date of birth or a valid International Student Identity Card (ISIC) when buying your ticket.
Most travel agencies will offer discounted tickets to Beijing and Moscow but not to Ulaanbaatar. In fact, unless you buy a through-ticket with Aeroflot or Air China you will find it hard to even book a Moscow–Ulaanbaatar or Beijing–Ulaanbaatar ticket from abroad. The solution is to buy e-tickets from MIAT’s website.
There are two main land border crossings open to foreigners: Ereen (Erenhot or Érliàn in Chinese) and Zamyn-Üüd, on the Chinese–Mongolian border, and Naushki and Sükhbaatar, on the Russian–Mongolian border. It’s possible to cross borders by minivan or train, though the latter is the more common and convenient option. There are also other border crossings between Russia and Mongolia.
The only border open to foreigners is the one between Zamyn-Üüd and Ereen. It’s open daily but note that on holidays only the train (not the road) crossing will operate.
In 2007 travellers were reporting that it was possible to get a Chinese visa at the border, but until this becomes a regular thing it’s best to have a visa already in your passport. If you are heading for Mongolia and need a visa, there is a Mongolian consulate (/fax 479-7539200; Weijian Binguan Er Lou, Bldg 206; 8.30am-noon Mon-Fri) a 10-minute walk past the main long-distance bus station in Ereen; a taxi will take you there for Y3. The consulate can process a visa in one day for US$55.
If you are taking the direct train between China and Mongolia you will have up to three hours to kill in Ereen. You can buy snacks for the train at the market or one of the well-stocked shops. Many of the shop signs are in Cyrillic Mongolian for the benefit of the many traders that come here. There are moneychangers and banks in and around the station. If you’re going to China and still have tögrög, change it here or you’ll be keeping it as a souvenir. If you need to spend the night there are some cheap and reliable hotels opposite the train station.
Zamyn-Üüd, on the Mongolian side, is not an interesting place, so you aren’t missing anything if the train stops in the middle of the countryside (usually in the middle of the night), and not at Zamyn-Üüd. Mongolian customs and immigration officials take about two hours to do their stuff.
Remember that if you are carrying on to central China there is absolutely no need to go to Beijing first. From Ereen you can travel on to the rail junction at Datong and then catch trains or buses to Pingyao, Xi’an and beyond. Read Lonely Planet’s China guide for details on connections from Datong.
As long as your papers are in order there is no trouble crossing the Chinese–Mongolian border in your own car. Driving around Mongolia is a lot easier compared with China, where drivers require a guide and Chinese driving permit.
Minivans shuttle between the train stations of Zamyn-Üüd, on Mongolia’s southern border, and Ereen, the Chinese border town.
The yellow International Railway Ticketing Office is about 200m northwest of the train station. Inside the office, specific rooms sell tickets to Beijing, Irkutsk (Russia), Moscow, and Ereen and Hohhot (both in China), but as a foreigner you’ll be directed to a foreigners’ booking office (24133, inquiries 243 848; Room 212; 8am-7pm). It’s upstairs and staff here speak some English. On weekends you can use the downstairs booking desk. You’ll need your passport to buy a ticket. You can book the ticket by phone for a T4500 booking fee. If you cancel a ticket there is a minuscule T1000 charge. There is no departure tax if travelling on the train.
You can book a ticket for international trains out of Ulaanbaatar up to one month in advance, but for the Moscow–Beijing or Beijing–Moscow trains you will have to scramble for a ticket on the day before departure (although you could try asking two days in advance). If you have trouble booking a berth, ask your guesthouse manager or hotel reception desk for assistance.
A taxi between Sükhbaatar Sq and the train station costs about T900.
It’s also possible to buy train tickets at the Discovery Mongolia Information Centre.
Most travellers catch the direct train between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. There are two direct trains a week each way between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. One of these (3 and 4) is the Trans-Mongolian train, which runs between Beijing and Moscow. The other (23 and 24) is easier to get tickets for. It is also possible to travel directly between Ulaanbaatar and Hohhot twice a week, allowing you to either bypass Beijing completely or catch a train or flight (US$80) on to Beijing from there.
Trains leave from Beijing Train Station (6563 3262/42). If your luggage weighs over 35kg, on the day before departure you’ll have to take it to the Luggage Shipment Office, which is on the right-hand side of the station. The excess is charged at about US$11 per 10kg, with a maximum excess of 40kg allowed.
The best place to buy tickets in China is at the China International Travel Service (CITS; 010-6512 0507; www.cits.net; 8.30am-noon & 1.30-5pm) in the International Hotel, Jianguomenwai Dajie, Beijing. Tickets are also available at BTG Travel & Tours (010-6800 5588; Beijing Tourism Bldg, 28 Jianguomenwai Dajie), between the New Otani and Gloria Plaza hotels.
With CITS it is possible to book up to six months in advance for trains originating in Beijing if you send a deposit of Y100, and you can collect your ticket from one week to one day before departure. There is a Y150 cancellation fee.
CITS only sells tickets from Beijing to Moscow or Ulaanbaatar – no stopovers are allowed. Tickets to Ulaanbaatar cost Y657/1006 in hard/soft sleeper on the Saturday train and Y595/999 in hard/soft sleeper on the Wednesday train. You can also buy train tickets privately; they will be more expensive than at CITS, but you may also be able to arrange a stopover and visas. In Beijing, Monkey Business Shrine (8610-6591 6519; fax 6591 6517; www.monkeyshrine.com) can put together all kinds of stopovers and homestay programs. The company has a lot of experience in booking international trains for independent travellers. In Hong Kong, it goes under the name Moonsky Star Ltd (852-2723 1376; fax 2723 6653).
If you’re on a tight budget it’s possible to take local trains between UB and Beijing. This will save some money but involves more hassle and uncertainty and requires more time. During the summer season, from mid-June to mid-August, international train bookings are almost impossible to get, unless you have booked your seats weeks or months in advance. The local train may be your only option.
The first option is train 22 or 21, which runs between Ulaanbaatar and Ereen just inside China. This Mongolian train leaves Ulaanbaatar at 10.10pm on Thursday and Sunday and arrives in Ereen at about 10.25am the next morning, after completing immigration and customs formalities. In reverse, train 21 leaves Ereen on Tuesday and Friday evenings and arrives the next day. The schedules for this train change regularly.
The second option is to take local trains to Zamyn-Üüd in Mongolia and then cross the border by minivan or jeep. From Ereen you can ply deeper into China by either train or bus.
From Beijing, the local train for Jining departs at 11.42am and takes about nine hours. A second train departs at 9.20pm and continues to Hohhot. The train from Jining to Érliàn (Ereen) departs around noon and takes six hours. (Alternatively, a 7am bus takes just four hours.) If you have to stay the night in Jining, there’s a budget hotel on the right (south) side of the plaza as you walk out of the train station. Most transport between Ereen and the border takes place in the morning.
Most travellers go in and out of Russia at the Naushki–Sükhbaatar train border crossing. In addition, there are three road crossings: Tsagaannuur–Tashanta in Bayan-Ölgii aimag, Altanbulag–Kyakhta in Selenge and Ereentsav–Solovyevsk in Dornod. The crossings are open from 9am to noon and 2pm to 6pm daily except holidays.
There is hope that the Khankh–Mondy border in northern Khövsgöl will soon be opened; check the situation before heading out this way.
Both the road and rail crossings can be agonisingly slow, but at least on the road journey you can get out and stretch your legs. Train travellers have been stranded for up to 10 hours on the Russian side, spending much of this time locked inside the train cabins. Procedures on the Ulaanbaatar–Moscow train are faster than on the local trains.
We have received a number of complaints about scams and problems with customs on the Russian side of the border, so be ready for anything.
One thing to be careful about is the Russian exit declaration form. The currency you list on the form must match the currency you listed on the customs form you received when you entered the country. If the form shows that you are leaving with more dollars or euros than you had when you arrived, you will have to get off the train and change all the excess money into roubles. Further, if the entry form was not stamped when you arrived in Russia (or if you never received one) it will be considered invalid, so have the form stamped even if you have nothing to declare.
To avoid these problems, either don’t cross the border with foreign currency (roubles are OK) or be vigilant with that exit declaration form. Lying about not having foreign cash is one option, but you run the risk of being searched. Telling the border guard you plan to use a credit card may work.
Customs and immigration between Naushki and Sükhbaatar can take at least four hours. You can have a look around Naushki, but there is little to see and the border crossing usually takes place in the middle of the night. Surprisingly, you may have difficulty finding anyone at the Naushki station to change money, so wait until Sükhbaatar or Ulaanbaatar, or somewhere else in Russia. (Get rid of your tögrög before you leave Mongolia, as almost no-one will want to touch them once you are inside Russia.)
The train may stop for one or two hours at, or near, the pleasant Mongolian border town of Sükhbaatar, but there is no need to look around. You may be able to buy some Russian roubles or Mongolian tögrög from a moneychanger at the train station, but the rate will be poor. If there aren’t any moneychangers, you can use US dollars cash to get by until you change money elsewhere.
Bus is probably the fastest form of public transport between Mongolia and Russia. A daily bus operated by Vostok Trans (9666 5531) departs Ulaanbaatar bound for Ulan Ude. It departs at 7.30pm, and the journey takes 10 hours and costs T33, 600. Buses leave from outside the Discovery Mongolia Information Centre. An Ulan Ude bus departs at the same time for Ulaanbaatar, leaving from the Hotel Baikal in Ulan Ude. In Ulan Ude contact Trio-Impex (3012-217 277; email@example.com) or Buryat-Intour (3012-210 056; firstname.lastname@example.org).
It’s possible to drive between Russia and Mongolia at Tsagaannuur (Bayan-Ölgii), Altanbulag (Selenge) and Ereentsav (Dornod). However, these road crossings can be difficult and time consuming – up to six hours if traffic is backed up or if you have visa problems.
In order to speed things up, it may help to have a letter written by the Mongolian consular (or Russian consular if you are headed that way) when you get your visa. The letter should state that you are authorised to take a car or motorcycle across the border. A carnet (passport for your car) may be useful but is not necessary. US citizens may want to bring documentation stating that visas are not needed as proof to inexperienced border guards.
Foreigners are currently not allowed to ‘walk’ across the Kyakhta–Altanbulag border, but they are allowed to pass through in a car or even on a motorcycle, so you may have to pay someone to drive you across. Things continue to change so it’s worth asking if you can walk across the border.
Besides the Trans-Mongolian Railway connecting Moscow and Beijing, there is a direct train twice a week connecting Ulaanbaatar and Moscow, which is easier to book from Ulaanbaatar. The epic trip takes four days.
If you are headed to Lake Baikal, there is a daily train between Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, which stops en route in Darkhan. These trains stop at every village, however, and train 263 travels past Lake Baikal at night, so if you are in a hurry or want to see the lake, take the Ulaanbaatar–Moscow (train 5) as far as Irkutsk. Note that departure and arrival times at Irkutsk are given in Moscow time, although Irkutsk is actually five hours ahead of Moscow.
This trip can be done more cheaply by travelling in stages on local trains (eg from Ulan Ude to Naushki, Naushki to Sükhbaatar, and Sükhbaatar to Ulaanbaatar), but this would involve more hassles, especially as Russian visas are more difficult to arrange than Chinese due to Russian officials wanting full details of your itinerary.
A reliable agency in Ulan Ude is Buryat-Intour (3012-210 056; email@example.com; 12 Ranzhurov Sta, Ulan Ude 670000).
In Irkutsk, you can try Irkutsk-Baikal Intourist (3952-290 161; Hotel Intourist, 14 Bulvar Gagarina 44, Irkutsk 664025) or Irkutsk Baikal Travel Inc (3952-200 134; fax 3952-200 070; www.irkutsk-baikal.com; 1a Cheremhovsky Lane, Irkutsk 664025).
Approximate costs (in tögrög) for major destinations in Russia from Ulaanbaatar are listed below. Exact costs depend on whether the train is Russian, Chinese or Mongolian; we have listed the most expensive.
Destination2nd class 1st class Deluxe (hard (soft (coupé) sleeper) sleeper)
Irkutsk33, 10053, 72060, 430
Krasnoyarsk60, 54074, 22099, 220
Moscow101, 420139, 510160, 880
Naushki21, 45024, 97035, 750
Novosibirsk69, 21084, 860113, 280
Omsk77, 02094, 370126, 220
Perm94, 220114, 400152, 130
Ulan Ude28, 63043, 060n/a
Yekaterinburg91, 020110, 350148, 080
When entering Mongolia, by land or air, you should fill out straightforward immigration and customs forms. You shouldn’t have to pay anything if your visa is in order. You’ll have to register if you plan to be in Mongolia for more than 30 days. Registering in Ulaanbaatar is fairly straightforward, and it’s also possible in Ölgii if you arrive in western Mongolia.
Flights, tours and rail tickets can be booked online at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel_services.
Ulaanbaatar’s Chinggis Khaan airport (198, 011-983 005) is Mongolia’s major international airport; the code is ULN. Because the runway was built on a slope, landings are one-shot deals for modern jets. There are constant rumours of a new international airport in Töv aimag, though nothing has been established formally.
Mongolia’s national airline, MIAT, has brought its safety practices for international flights to near Western standards (domestic flights are a different story altogether). Online booking is available through its website. On international flights, MIAT allows 30kg of baggage for business travellers and 20kg for economy travellers.
Most people fly in from Beijing, Berlin or Moscow; there are additional nonstop flights from Osaka and Seoul. Current airline schedules also allow you to fly from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk, on Lake Baikal in Russia, and Hohhot (Khökh Khot), the capital of the autonomous region of Chinese Inner Mongolia.
In July and August, most flights are full, so book well in advance.
Airlines flying to and from Mongolia:
Aero Mongolia (airline code MNG; 9191 2903; www.aeromongolia.mn)
Aeroflot (airline code SU; 011-320 720; www.aeroflot.com)
Korean Air (airline code KE; 011-326 643; www.koreanair.com)
MIAT (airline code OM; 011-322 118; miat.com)
Flights to Mongolia go via Seoul or Beijing. The cheapest return flights from Sydney to Ulaanbaatar, on Korean Air, go for about A$1990. Low-season return fares to Beijing from the east coast of Australia start at around A$1080. The lowest fares are offered by Vietnam Airlines. Useful travel agencies:
From Beijing there are daily flights on either Air China or MIAT. Between 15 April and 15 September MIAT flies to Beijing daily except Friday for US$191/341 one way/return. At other times flights are limited to Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Air China has six flights per week (three in winter) from Beijing for the same price. Air China’s one-way flight is US$349 at the full fare, but an advance ticket (booked two or three weeks ahead) is US$192.
Note that you’ll need a double-entry visa to return to China, or you’ll have to buy one in Ulaanbaatar. Travellers without a Chinese visa have been refused boarding flights to Beijing. MIAT (in Beijing 8610-6507 9297) has an office in Room 705 on the 7th floor of Sunjoy Mansion, opposite the Beijing International Club, just off Jianguomenwai Dajie.
Aero Mongolia flies to/from Hohhot in China on Monday and Thursday for US$180/280. It also flies to/from Tianjin on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday for a reasonable US$150/241; the ticket comes with a free bus transfer to Beijing.
Travel agencies include the following:
BTG Ticketing Co (8610-6515 8010; www.btgtravel.com)
China International Travel Service (CITS; 010-6512 0507; www.cits.net)
Fares to Beijing from Western Europe are similar to those from London.
Some travel agencies to check out:
CTS Viaggi (06-462 0431; www.cts.it) Italian company that specialises in student and youth travel.
NBBS Reizen (0900 10 20 300; www.nbbs.nl in Dutch) Branches in most Dutch cities.
In summer, MIAT flies to/from Tokyo on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday (US$471/706 one way/return), to/from Osaka on Friday (US$406/794), and to Seoul daily in summer for US$381/498. Korean Air flies daily to Seoul for US$379/493. For travel agencies try the following:
No 1 Travel (03-3205 6073; www.no1-travel.com)
STA Travel (03-5391 2922; www.statravel.co.jp)
Border junkies may be interested in this obscure route into Mongolia. Trans Ölgii flies from Almaty to Ölgii via Üst Kamenogorsk on Wednesday morning. One-way flights cost about US$300. Remember that after arriving in Ölgii, you’ll need to get your passport registered within seven days if you plan on staying in Mongolia for more than 30 days. The police in Ölgii can do this.
Aeroflot has four flights a week between Ulaanbaatar and Moscow (US$450/580 one way/return). MIAT flies to Moscow (US$361/587) on Tuesday and Sunday, continuing to Berlin and returning the same day. MIAT also flies to/from Irkutsk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for US$117/200.
Aero Mongolia flies to Irkutsk on Tuesday and Friday (US$150/250).
To Beijing, low-season return fares from London start at £720 with Air China (flying direct). Aeroflot flies Ulaanbaatar to London on Friday for £563 one way, with a change of planes but no overnight stay or airport transfer required. The Saturday connection is not as convenient as it entails a night in Moscow at your own expense.
Agencies to try include:
Flight Centre (0870 499 0040; www.flightcentre.co.uk)
North-South Travel (01245 608 291; www.northsouthtravel.co.uk) North-South Travel donates part of its profits to projects in the developing world.
STA Travel (0870 163 0026; www.statravel.co.uk)
Trailfinders (0845 058 5858; www.trailfinders.com)
The cheapest fares to Ulaanbaatar are from San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York on Korean Air, Air China, Northwest Airlines and United Airlines. From the US west/east coast, return fares start at US$1750/2000, unless you use the cheaper Air Bridge. Bear in mind that ticket prices from the US can fluctuate wildly depending on the month and day of travel (sometimes by hundreds of dollars). Return high-season fares between Toronto and Ulaanbaatar are around C$2200.
Agencies include the following:
Air Bridge (1-303-757-1929; www.airbridgeusa.com) The US office for Ulaanbaatar-based AirTrans offers the cheapest tickets to Mongolia (return fares from US$1580 (west coast) to US$1730 (east coast). The company accepts payment by PayPal.
Orbitz (888-656-4546; www.orbitz.com)