Hopefully this will help those who are looking to do the Beijing-Mongolia visa run as opposed to Beijing-Hong Kong, which is a lot more expensive. But I must say that I’m biased because I did this trip the day after I sat on a bus from Henan back to Beijing for 11 hours, and once I got to Erlian, I was stuck a day longer than expected. Bottom line, I don’t think I’d do it again.
Departed at 7pm (although departure time was set for 5pm). There are 3 bus terminals in Beijing where you can buy long distance bus tickets to Erlian, which is the closest Chinese city to the Mongolian border. The terminals are Muxiyuan 木樨园 (where I left from), Liuliqiao 六里桥, and Jiandemen 健德门. My ticket cost 178RMB and was a sleeper bus. I left Friday evening, and our expected departure time was 5pm (17:00). The driver kept saying we were “ma shang” leaving, which is literally translated into “leaving right away,” but in Chinese time that actually means 2 hours later. So at 7pm, the bus finally left the terminal.
When you get on the bus, take note of the people around you. Amidst the background noises of people talking loudly on their phones (there’s no such thing as minding your own business in China), the driver talking loudly to someone, and the Chinese music that was blasting through our individual speakers, I was finally able to fall asleep after a couple of hours. About 3 hours after we’d left (and an hour after I’d fallen asleep), we were woken up to get off the bus to eat. Here’s where I realized my first mistake…..it was dark, and I had no idea who was on my bus. The rest stop we were at also had about 3 other buses, and I didn’t go inside to eat because I’m a ridiculously slow eater, and I was afraid that once I came out the bus would’ve left without me, since I wouldn’t recognize other passengers leaving. So I stood out in the cold for 20 minutes staring at my bus to make sure it was still there. I know that Chinese people all look alike, but try remembering a few and you’ll be ok. Actually later on, I realized there was one other white guy on my bus. Not that I’m white, or male…..so I guess I mean one other foreigner. I felt a sort of kinship with him, a familiarity that was welcome in this unfamiliar situation. Every once in a while, I’d look over at him and sorta smile, like “Yea, man, I know how you feel. I feel as foreign as you do” and he just looked at me strangely, probably thinking “Why is this Chinese girl being so uncharacteristically friendly?”
Arrived at 9am. I have no idea why, but somehow the trip, which was supposed to take 10 hours, took 14 hours. We didn’t arrive in Erlian until 9am. About 20 minutes before we arrived, we passed through what apparently was Jurassic Park. So the area near Mongolia is vast and flat, and right before Erlian, there were huge dinosaur figurines on the left and right side. I saw Triceratops, Brontosaurus, and the feared T-Rex. Some were even fighting! It was the most random thing in the world, and made even less sense considering that’s what I woke up to. Right, my point was, once you see this, you’re almost there!
Try not to go during the weekend. So I took a taxi for 10RMB from the bus terminal to “guo men” 国门, which literally means Country Gate. The driver was really friendly and we chatted in Chinese. He could only take me to the outside of the gate, and I had to wait for a jeep to drive me across the gate to the building with a giant rainbow outside of it. Literally a 30 second drive. The problem was, I had gone on a Saturday, and the taxi driver told me there aren’t as many cars going through during weekends. I waited in the cold for half an hour. One suggestion I have is to go to Watson’s in Beijing before your trip and buy “nuan bao bao” 暖宝宝, which is a Japanese product. You stick it onto the back of your shirt and it acts as a small heater! Works wonders in the cold. They really should make a scarf version.
Be aggressive in finding a jeep, and cram if you must. This advice is mostly for people who go in the winter and can’t stand waiting outside in the cold like me. There were other people also waiting for a jeep, and nobody cares if you’ve been waiting 20 minutes longer than they have. Most of the jeep drivers don’t speak Chinese, but there are people around who can translate. My jeep driver wasn’t going to take me, but he set a price of 50RMB and I agreed. From what I hear, you can negotiate to about 30RMB. However, that ended up not making a difference for me. Once I was crammed in, literally on my hands and knees in the backseat, the drive was short and took me to the rainbow building. Apparently I was supposed to pay 5RMB for some entry/exit slip at the border gate but I didn’t so the driver gave me his. I never used it, so I have no idea what it’s for. Some guy translated for me and told me that the driver had to return back to the China side, so I should remember the license plate. I tried to ask when I would pay, but they ignored me so I figured I’d just pay 50RMB for a roundtrip.
Americans don’t need visas to enter Mongolia; other countries should check online. Once you enter the building, go through the door to your right and you’ll find the immigration officer there. It was empty when I went, hence the confusion about being in the right place. If you can’t find the Departure form (exiting China), the officer should provide you with one. The officer made some conversation with me, asked me why I was in China, what I was doing in Mongolia, whether or not I was traveling alone, etc. I didn’t need a Mongolian visa because I have an American passport. Once I got my stamp (FINALLY!), I exited the door, and immediately to my left was another entrance. Enter that door because it’s going back to the China side. You’ll have to fill out an Arrival form, and get in the Foreigners line.
Once you’re through you’re almost home-free! After exiting the rainbow building (same door you entered from), go to the right and there is a line of jeeps and other cars. I don’t know if I’d recommend this, but a non-jeep, regular car pulled up and a few people piled in. I told the driver I was going to the bus terminal and he said it’d cost me 10RMB. OH I forgot to mention that I actually looked all over for the jeep I arrived in, but he was nowhere to be found. So I ended up not having to pay anything to cross the border gate. My entire journey from the bus terminal to crossing the border to returning to the bus terminal took me about an hour, mostly waiting in line to go back into China. Oh and also standing in the freezing cold for half an hour.
Return ticket for sleeper bus costs 200RMB. At this point it was almost 11am. I had heard there was a bus at 12pm and at 2:30pm. Negative. The woman said there was only one bus, and it left at 4:30pm. So I thought, ok, as long as I can leave today that’s fine. The ticket cost 200RMB for a sleeper bus. Erlian honestly does not have much, at least from what I could see…..from my limited view from the top of the bus terminal stairs. However, I was traveling alone (by the way, I really recommend going with at least one other person. Makes the journey less lonely and less scary if you don’t know what you’re doing) so I decided to just kill time reading in the nearby restaurant. If you make a left out of the bus terminal, at the end of that block is a restaurant that serves pretty good hot, sweetened soybean milk, among actual dishes. But I’m a sucker for soybean milk.
Stay close to the bus terminal. Around 3:30pm, I headed back, and waited in the terminal waiting room until around 4pm, which is when we were supposed to board the bus. Keywords being “supposed to.” Apparently, because of “snow,” (and I use airquotes because there was light snow on the ground, it was sunny, and not snowing at all) the bus would not be leaving until 8am the next morning. At this point, I was pretty upset. I had spent the last two days on buses, and all I wanted to do was go home to my apartment. There was nothing I could do, so I booked a bed in the hotel attached to the bus terminal (the front desk is literally in the lobby of the terminal). It was cheap, 20RMB per night, which I bargained down to 15RMB. The room had nothing but two beds, no tv or anything. But thank goodness for iPhones and 3G internet =D I spent hours checking out the latest China gossip on chinaSMACK.com.
Bring lot’s of snacks on the bus. The next morning, it was pretty smooth sailing. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to leave, but we did leave, and almost on time. Instead of 8am, we left around 8:45am. Not bad for Chinese time. Despite the fact that it felt like we stopped more times than on the way there (maybe 3-4 times going back for gas and bathroom breaks), we got back to Beijing in about 9 hours. On the way back, however, we didn’t stop to eat. So if you’re like me, and get cranky when you don’t eat (it’s a medical condition, I swear), make sure you buy lot’s of snacks, both salty and sweet for variety. I personally didn’t drink a lot of water…..I had maybe a few sips of my iced tea, but that’s just because I have a bladder the size of a pea.
Total cost: 413RMB (excluding food). So that’s it for my horrible experience of a visa run. In retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as it felt, but I’m a spoiled American who’s not afraid to admit being a slave to comfortable things. The total cost was significantly cheaper than going to Hong Kong. To put it in perspective, a plane ticket from Beijing to Shenzhen (where I normally stay) costs at least 2000RMB, and then there’s transportation to and around HK, not to mention the loads of money I would spend on delicious snacks and dim sum brunches. My trip to Erlian was 178RMB (sleeper bus ticket to Erlian) + 10RMB (taxi to border gate) + 10RMB (car back to bus terminal) + 15RMB (hotel bed for the night) + 200RMB (sleeper bus ticket back to Beijing) coming out to a grand total of: 413RMB. That’s less than my last meal for two at Sanlitun!
If you have any experiences or advice to add based on your own Beijing-Erlian visa run, please feel free to leave a comment! Also, if I left anything out and you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer.