Traveling in Mongolia is Cheaper than You Think!
When I started to plan my trip into Mongolia -which didn’t really happen until I had my visa- I was pretty uninformed. I thought the only ways in or out of Mongolia were 1. the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Railway or 2. Flying, both of which seemed to be pretty expensive. If I didn’t already have a shiny visa in my passport, I may have been tempted to skip it. However, I didn’t choose to skip it, instead, I decided to wait until I arrived in China before making any further plans. This turned out to be the best choice.
It’s tempting to use the booking websites to buy train tickets for Mongolia, mostly because they make it sound like it’s your only option. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is not your only option! If you leave yourself a nice time cushion at the beginning and end of your Mongolia trip, travel in and out of the country can be cheap and an amazing adventure.
Wait until you arrive in Beijing before buying your tickets. From Beijing, you can either…
- Flying into Ulaanbaatar, which will cost about $300 for a one-way ticket
- Take the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar for $190+
- Take an overnight bus to Erlien, and a local jeep across the border into Zamyn Uude for $50, followed by a local train to Ulaanbaatar for an extra $30 or less.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know I took option #3. I spent 12hrs on an overnight bus, 2 hours crossing the border by local jeep and another 16hrs on an overnight train from Zamyn Uude to Ulaanbaatar. Yes, it took a long time, but it was one of the best adventures. I have memories and stories to last a lifetime from my trip to Mongolia.
Once you’re in Mongolia, you’ll be on sensory overload. Zamyn Uude is a small town, with one or two places to sleep. You can see the whole thing in about 2 hours. If you want to continue hitchhiking, there are plenty of locals coming and going -especially in summer. However, a word of caution. The Mongolians invented the clown car -okay, I don’t have actual proof that they invented the clown car, but I’ve seen an insane amount of people crammed inside vehicles in Mongolian. If you’re claustrophobic, take the train. If you have legs of iron, don’t mind random strangers sitting on your lap, or planting your bum on a strangers lap for hours on end, then try travelling by jeep share. The stories you’ll walk away with will be priceless!
Where to Stay
Ulaanbaatar is usually the jumping off point for everyone’s trip to Mongolia. As a result, there are quite a few hostels to choose from. Do your research online, read the reviews and decide how long you want to stay in UB for, then be prepared to completely change all your plans once you arrive.
Hostels in UB can be nice and most are centrally located, however in the summer time, they are often over capacity. So be prepared to let your expectations out the window. Chances are you could be camping out on the common room floor at night or sharing space with the owner’s family. Yes, the goes against everything you know about hostels, but think of it this way. Instead of turning you away and making you spend a day looking for cheap accommodation -and probably failing- they’re going to do whatever they can to make room for you. It’s like one big backpacker sleepover. Relax and find a way to have fun with it.
**Hostel rooms in UB cost around $6 USD/ night. Some only take dollars, so carry some USD on you while in Mongolia.
Do I Tour or Do I Go, Solo
This is a personal choice. Touring can be fun as long as you’re with like minded people and your guide is not a pathological liar like mine was! Actually, pathological liars can be a lot of fun, as long as you’re not trying to learn facts for a story. Tours are a great way to see various provinces within Mongolia, meet nomads, stay with locals. You can do everything from riding horseback to camels, visiting remote mountain monasteries and exploring the Gobi Desert. You can also try to find creative ways to avoid being forced to drink copious amounts of vodka, or being attacked by your driver because he’s a big cuddly guy who’s dying to wrestle with someone Mongolian style.
It’s also possible to tour Mongolia solo. Many people do this and have the time of their life. You can use jeep shares, ride cross country on horseback, rent or buy an old Russian vehicle or take locals buses. Either way, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet and hang out with nomads, and soak in the breathtaking scenery.
**Tours start at 3 days and go up to 35 days. Golden Gobi Guesthouse does great tours, and they let you use their tents or sleeping bags for FREE -just don’t lose them! Tour costs depend on a number of people. The more people involved, the cheaper the tour.
Believe it or not, it’s cheaper to leave Mongolia. Do not buy a round-trip ticket -unless you’re on a time crunch.
Tickets from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian Railway will cost about 130,000 MT for a hard sleeper. That’s about $105. It’s a steal compared to the prices they charge in Beijing and a hard sleeper is not as bad as it sounds. In fact, I spent most of the time wondering if I was accidentally placed in a soft sleeper cabin. If traveling on the Trans-Mongolian is a dream of yours, I highly recommend spending the extra money and taking it back to China. The train is very comfortable and worth every penny. Please note that the Trans-Mongolian is a popular train and you will need to book your ticket at least two days in advance, maybe more!
If you want to save some cash, there are other ways to travel into China. There is a train that travels from Ulaanbaatar to Erlien or HoHot in China -despite the fact that your guesthouse may tell you that said train does not exist. The train to Erlien, China will cost $50,000 MT ($40), while the train to Hohhot can cost up to $120,000 MT ($98). Both of these trains are local trains. If you want to save on commission fees, go to the foreigner train ticket office (it’s a yellow building near the normal train ticket office) just before 3 pm. At 3 pm be prepared to race –and I mean race- to the ticket window and shove locals to buy your ticket.
Travel into Russia from UB is also cheaper once you’re in Mongolia. However, it takes time if you do not already have a visa. You can apply for a Russian visa in Ulaanbaatar (the embassy is massive), but it can take up to two weeks to process. If you’re planning on buying your visa in UB, do it when you arrive and go on a tour. When you get back, your passport should be ready for you.
Remeber that things like fresh fruit will be expensive in Mongolia, as it’s mostly imported into the country. Meals will be cheaper if you cook for yourself and if you take a tour, all your meals will be included in the price. In UB there are a lot of Western options, as well as traditional Mongolian options. Street food is not as common here as it is in Thailand and other countries in South East Asia.