How to get to Mongolia by train

May 2, 2011

One of the things I love most about travel is just that.

Travel. Being on the move, the adventure of getting to a new place and the idea of being on my way somewhere. It’s why I named my blog On My Way RTW!

So it didn’t bother me at all that getting to Mongolia from Beijing involved a 36-hour train ride. In fact, I was so excited I could barely sleep the night before.

Getting a Mongolian visa in Beijing

But first things first. If you’re going to Mongolia chances are you’ll need a visa. I had ten days in Beijing before my train to Ulaanbaatar which gave me plenty of time to apply for and pick up my visa.

Getting a train ticket

You’re not really supposed to book your ticket before you have your visa. At least, that’s what the Mongolian consulate and the visa application form advises.

But if you’re travelling from China to Mongolia (rather than from Russia, or anywhere else in the world), you’ll need to book your train ticket a few weeks in advance because they do sell out. There are only two direct trains from China to Mongolia each week.

Because I was worried I’d get stuck in Beijing forever if I tried to buy a ticket at the train station, I decided with the help of The Man in Seat 61, to buy my ticket online.

I bought my hard sleeper ticket from China Tripadvisor for around $200.

The process was simple – I paid via Paypal, they confirmed availability and I provided the address of the hostel I’d booked in Beijing. It was delivered to reception a couple of days after I arrived, and well in advance of my departure day.

I was slightly concerned by how easy it all was. Maybe my ticket was fake? I asked the hostel staff and they confirmed that no, my ticket was real and valid and I’d be on my way to Mongolia in just a few days.

Flying to Mongolia

There are a handful of airlines that fly into Ulaanbaatar, including Air China and Korean Air. I flew back to China from Mongolia, and my Air China flight cost only slightly more than the train ticket. But why fly when you can experience the romance of the railways and one of the greatest train journeys in the world?

Romancing the rails

I like trains. I took one all the way across the USA and once all the way up the middle of Australia so I’d have to, right?

But the trans-Mongolian was special.

Waiting to board at Beijing railway station, I could barely sit still. I was about to catch a world-famous train to a country that I’d been dreaming about visiting for a long time.

Once we left Beijing I discovered that the train was actually fairly empty. So empty, in fact, that I would have an entire compartment to myself for the entire 36 hours. And so did the Italian backpacker in the compartment next to me.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed I wasn’t sharing my berth with smugglers.

My cabin on the trans-Mongolian

But I settled in for the long journey (meaning the contents of my pack exploded all over the cabin) and sat to watch China roll by.

By early evening the suburbs of Beijing and then farmlands gave way to open, empty plains that were dotted with the occasional wind farm.

View of a wind farm from the trans Mongolian Railway

We crossed into Mongolia late in the evening and border formalities took 6 hours to complete.

It was around 2 or 3 in the morning by the time I got my passport back and I could finally fall asleep.

When I woke in the morning, all I could see from my window was the empty steppe, Mongolia’s epic grasslands.

There was no one else in my compartment so I could squeal with excitement. Just a little bit.

View of the empty steppe from the trans Mongolian

Coming up: Once you’re in Ulaanbaatar, how do you rent a van, a driver and a translator for a trip to the countryside? And how do you find some friends to share costs?

In the meantime, read about what it’s like to stay in a ger, the traditional nomadic dwelling, read up on the process of getting a Mongolian visa in Beijing or watch a video of some traditional Mongolian throat singing.


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  • Reply Naomi May 3, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Taking the Trans-Siberian from Mongolia to Russia has been one of my biggest, biggest travel dreams for ages. Definitely envious that you got to experience some of it!! 🙂

    • Reply MeganRTW May 3, 2011 at 7:56 pm

      Do it! It’s so worth it. And if you do, definitely check out the advice from The Man in Seat 61 website – so many people do it on an organised tour but it’s really easy and perfectly safe to do it solo.

  • Reply jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World May 4, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    Thanks for this. I’d be very useful once we get to Asia on our trip. I’ve always wanted to do the Trans-Siberia/Trans-Mongolia trains but have been somewhat anxious about the beuracracy involved. Will check out the Man in Seat 61 now. Cheers.

    • Reply MeganRTW May 5, 2011 at 6:53 am

      Hey Jill,

      It’s actually relatively straightforward – from what I’m aware you still need an invitation letter and to jump through some other hoops for Russia, but there are some great online services out there that can help you with that. Lots listed on Man in Seat 61.

  • Reply Korean Air Train | | ALL HOLIDAYS GUIDEALL HOLIDAYS GUIDE September 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    […] Getting to Mongolia by train | OnMyWayRTW.comDescription : There are a handful of airlines that fly into Ulaanbaatar, including Air China and Korean Air. I flew back to China from Mongolia, and my Air China flight cost only slightly more than the train ticket. … .. […]

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