We pushed our way through hundreds of Chinese people clambering to get through the entry gates to the platform and headed towards the train… The ticket for a 9.5 hour journey to the Mongolian border had been surprisingly cheap and we were about to find out why!
It cost us only 29 RMB (about $5.50) per person to get two hard seats on train 6856 from Hohhot in Inner Mongolia to Erlian, the border town for entering Outer Mongolia. We’d managed to secure our 30 day tourist visas for Mongolia the day before and had headed straight to the ticket office to get the next train to the border.
As we approached the platform from the overhead walkway we caught a glimpse of green carriages. The question marks started to fly… Although we’d seen some rather antique looking green trains parked up at railway stations before, we’d never seen them occupied with passengers.
We’d been led to believe that the squalor of the Chinese train system was a thing of the past, we’d had many an uncomfortable long-distance train ride in China up to this point but while often cramped they were all on modern-ish trains with air con.
As we walked down to the platform it was clear that this relic was in fact to be our home for the next 9 and a half hours…
The good news was, we had reserved seats! If you haven’t been to China then you may not be aware of the “standing tickets” that are available once allocated seats have sold out. This system involves ticket holders seat hopping between any empty seats they can find throughout their journey. So, at least we had seats, which was not the case for the family of about 10 people who were sharing 6 seats adjacent to us.
Yes, its cramped and yes the children were running riot next to us but for the price, this is by far the cheapest way to get to Mongolia – and we are all about budget!
The Lows were:
- Being sat next to a window that would not open, it got hot! They turned the fans off whilst the train was moving.
- Being surrounded by multiple hyperactive children.
- Said children using a plastic bottle to piss in, rather than going to the toilets, and then leaving the bottle to roll on the floor.
The Highs were:
- Watching the landscape turn from rolling green hills to open, epic dessert plains over the course of the journey.
- Saving a butt load of money with this transport method.
- Eventually moving from our allocated seat to a spare seat next to an open window!
Finally we arrived in Erlian on time at 7.23pm, next up we needed to walk around and find a cheap hotel for the night… That story coming up in part 2!
Train 6856 leaves Hohhot daily at 10am and arrives in Erlian at 7.23pm – which is too late to cross the border until the following day. This train costs 29 RMB for the cheapest seat.
It is also possible, though more tricky, to join the 6856 in Jining after getting the train north from Datong. If you skip Hohhot altogether it is supposedly possible to get your Mongolian visa from the consulate in Erlian
There is also a sleeper train 4352 that runs on Fridays (Sometimes on Mondays too) leaving Hohhot at 21:23 and arriving in Erlian at 05:58 the following day. This train is slightly more expensive, if you want to get the sleeper its worth booking many days in advance.