We decided to travel by train from Beijing, China to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Although China and Mongolia are neighbors, it’s a loong journey. BUT it’s the Trans-Siberian Railroad, so we thought it would be cool. (We were right!) Here’s the only travel guide you need to do the same!
First thing to know – the Beijing to Ulaanbaatar train is for the experience, not the convenience or the price
If you’re just trying to get to Mongolia, a Beijing to Ulaanbaatar flight is by far the simplest option. It’s about the same price per person as the train (sometimes even cheaper), and it’s far quicker than the 30ish-hour train ride.
If you’re looking to go the cheapest way from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, you can patch together various local buses and jeeps and trains, but this will definitely take longer and be waayy more complicated. (There is no direct Beijing-to-Ulaanbaatar bus).
The K23 (or K3) international train from China to Mongolia is a middle ground – cool train experience, easy enough to navigate, but a little longer than just hopping on a plane. As a result of this, the train is mainly filled with Western tourists, primarily (surprisingly!) a lot of older retired people traveling in tour groups, but also some backpackers and families with children. If you love train travel for its own sake, this is the option for you.
Buy your Beijing to Ulaanbaatar train ticket far in advance
The K23 train runs once a week (Tuesdays at time of writing – updated Beijing to Ulaanbaatar train schedule here for K23) and the K3 train runs once a week (Wednesdays at time of writing – updated Beijing to Ulaanbaatar train schedule here for K3). These are the only trains that run direct from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, so you’ll need to get on one of them.
We tried in April to book a ticket for a Wednesday in July, but it was already sold out. We were still able to get a ticket on the Tuesday train, but that train also filled up soon thereafter. So, plan to buy your tickets months in advance.
We bought our train tickets online through CITS, which is China’s national travel agency (submit an inquiry to CITS here). You can confirm your ticket with them and pay via PayPal, but you’ll need to pick up your tickets at their office once you arrive in Beijing. Bear in mind that you can only pick them up during working hours, Monday through Friday, so plan your time in Beijing accordingly. You can also have your train tickets delivered to your hotel for a small fee.
Arriving at the train station in Beijing
The K23 train leaves from Beijing Central railway station. We had read horror stories about navigating the train station, but it was really quite simple. You get your ticket checked and go in through security. Then there is a big sign, which is all in Chinese, but just look for K23. There will be two numbers following the train number. The first number (1 or 2) will tell you which floor to wait on, and the second number will tell you which waiting area to sit at. Then, just follow the signs. When you see all of the Western tourists clumped together, you know you’ve found the right spot.
What to expect in your train car
There are different classes of tickets available. “Hard sleeper” sounds wildly uncomfortable, especially compared to “soft sleeper” or even “deluxe soft sleeper.” Turns out, though, that the hard sleeper class is totally okay, and it’s by far the cheapest option.
In a hard sleeper compartment, you’re in a cabin of four. In our case, we shared with a pair of very nice middle-aged German women who were doing the whole shebang, the Beijing to Moscow train. You each have a reasonably comfortable mattress, sheets, a pillow, and blankets. The bottom bunks double as your seats when you’re not sleeping. There are two outlets in the compartment, a little table, and a thermos for hot water. You have a nice big window for looking out at the scenery. There is a storage compartment under your seat where you can leave valuables; it doesn’t lock, but it can’t be opened if someone is sitting or sleeping on the seat.
Each car has two seated toilets, which start out reasonably clean and deteriorate as the journey continues, although they’re always usable. There are also two sinks (no soap), and a hot water machine in each car. Everything smells vaguely of smoke due to workers and passengers smoking between the cars.
What to bring
The K23 train leaves Beijing at around 7:30 AM and arrives in Ulaanbaatar at around 2:00 PM the following day. That’s a lot of hours on a train, so you’ll need to come prepared.
Definitely bring food. There is a café car available, but it’s nice to have options. The first day, the café car is Chinese and serves Chinese food (think chicken, meat, vegetables, and rice). The following day, the café car is Mongolian. We didn’t actually stop into the Mongolian café car, but presumably they serve Mongolian food. Maybe mutton?
We went to a Carrefour in Beijing the day before we left to stock up on some familiar international foods. We brought fruit (bananas and oranges), bread, peanuts, muesli, granola bars, and a couple of cans of beans. (You can order a bowl of rice from the café car for less than one USD and make your own rice and beans!) We also brought canned coffee and disposable bowls and spoons. The German women in our compartment had very similar provisions with them, except that they had brought instant coffee, which they made with the hot water machine, and their own mugs.
Don’t worry too much about liquids, which can be heavy. Small water bottles are available in the café car for 5 RMB (less than one USD), and cans of beer are available for 15 RMB. Make sure you have some Chinese cash on you if you’re planning on buying from the café car.
We also brought along some well-needed sanitary supplies. The bathroom runs out of toilet paper after about 20 minutes, and it’s never replaced, so bring that for sure. Some kindly person in our car left out a large bottle of soap by the sink, which was a godsend. We also brought hand sanitizer and wet wipes, which came in handy when the donated soap eventually disappeared.
What to expect on the journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
As you wend your way through China, you’ll make several stops at small towns and cities (Shalingzi West, Jining South, and Zhurihe.) It’s definitely interesting to see the more rural areas of China that you may have missed if you stuck to the big cities.
Around 8:00 PM you arrive at the border in Erlian, China. A Chinese border agent will come to collect your passport. There were all sorts of rumors flying around our train that you wouldn’t be able to leave your compartment or use the bathroom during the whole passport-check process, but this was totally false; we could walk around freely. (Update: after talking to others, we discovered that this rule actually was enforced in some cars, and passengers were stuck in their compartments for hours. Make sure you use the bathroom before 8 PM, just in case. Guess we just got lucky!)
The process is long. You sit at the station in Erlian for a while as everyone’s passports are collected. Next, the train is disassembled and brought car-by-car into a large garage, where the Chinese-sized wheels are removed and replaced by the Mongolian-sized wheels. It’s quite a process, and we all ended up going to bed sometime along the way.
But! You can’t sleep very deeply until around 2 AM. Sometime around midnight, your passports are returned to you by the Chinese officials. The train is reassembled and you’re off! Aaand about a half hour later you arrive at Mongolian immigration, you’re awoken again, passports collected again, you go back to sleep. And then around another hour later your passports are finally returned and you’re good to go. (Luckily, to make things simple, China time and Mongolia time are the same, so no conversions to do there). Congratulations, you’re now on the Trans-Mongolian Railroad!
When you wake in the morning you’ll be in full Mongolian desert, the Gobi, giving way to grasslands with gers (yurts) and livestock. Very cool, and very different from the views in China! Eventually the gers come to be closer and closer together, and the cars and people more abundant, and soon the gers give way to buildings, and even to one or two fancy hotels, and you’ve made it! You’re in Ulaanbaatar!
Next step: book yourself a great tour and enjoy the countryside!
Have you taken the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar? Tell us about your experience!