"Offbeat" is a SmartBeijing column about stuff to look at or do in Beijing that's interesting or weird (relatively, of course), that doesn't fit anywhere else. It appears weekly, monthly, or maybe even annually, when we're not busy working on other superfluous column ideas.
The visa trip. One of the most storied channels of China expat lore. The gauntlet that many of us have to run every 90 days to tick some kind of bureaucratic box, to exist somewhat legally in our adopted home.
I'm not talking about the kind of sojourn that people with real jobs or family money make to beat the 90 day clock. Yes, I'm sure Burma is quite nice this time of year. Yes I'm sure you went to Pattaya for the fishing, bro. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking econo. The visa trip you make because the part-time English teaching job you work to make rent and be an "artist" doesn't permit any unnecessary frivolities. Fast and cheap. Quick and dirty. ERLIAN.
Erlian — Erenhot in Mongolian, Erlianhaote (二连浩特) in the full Chinese transliteration — is a small town in Inner Mongolia. It's the only overland crossing point along the 4,677km-long China-Mongolia border. It's a gauge-changing station of the Trans-Mongolian Railway, a variation on the Trans-Siberian that terminates in Beijing. And it's by far the fastest, cheapest way to reset your visa from Beijing. Here's how.
You can get to Erlian by plane, train, or automobile. I've done all three at different times, selected mostly by necessity. My preference is train both ways, which is also the cheapest. The catch here is that you can only buy your return ticket at the Erlian train station after arrival, and there are only two such trains per week, so you're pretty much at the whim of popular demand. Maybe try to travel in the off season.
So, STEP 1: Buy your train ticket to Erlian. Again, there are only two trains per week. My personal streamlined system entails taking the K3 train, which leaves Beijing Station at 8:05am every Wednesday and dumps you in Erlian about twelve and a half hours later. There's a return train at midnight the following night, giving you all day Thursday to take care of your visa business. More on that later. The ticket each way costs just under 150rmb, so it's by far the cheapest mode of transportation in the whole visa run equation. The Trans-Mongolian only has soft sleepers. Four beds to a room, one flat ticket price.
I've never had a problem getting the Erlian-bound ticket, even when I've gone around Spring Festival. Two things to keep in mind, though:
- You need your passport to buy the ticket. Even though you're not riding that train all the way into Mongolia proper, you're required to show your passport when buying the Beijing -> Erlian ticket. I don't know why, besides the obvious fact that the train continues on to countries that are not China. Anyway, come prepared.
- You need to buy the ticket at the train station. Presumably related to the passport thing. You can't buy this ticket online or at a third-party ticket seller. You have to go to Beijing Station (北京站, off subway Line 2). If you're facing the train station, go to the building alllllll the way to the right. That's ticketing. You want to line up in front of window #1. You'll have a lot of old/stressed out Chinese dudes trying to cut you, since this is also the window for refunds and exchanges. But generally it's not a long wait. Get your passport and 150 kuais out and you'll be golden.
STEP 2: Don't miss your train. I did last time. Underestimated the Beijing morning traffic. Don't let it happen to you. I was down to the wire with my 90 days so I couldn't even swap my ticket for the next week's train. And I still wanted to try to catch that Thursday midnight train back. So I got a same-day, early afternoon flight from Beijing to Erlian. I booked it about four hours before it was supposed depart and it ended up costing 500rmb. Not too bad. If you're a little more together and hate trains or whatever, you can usually book the plane for 250-300rmb each way. It's some random branch of Hainan Airlines, leaves out of Terminal 1. Two thoughts: a) trains are comfortable, and considerably cheaper for this trip; b) in China, TRAINS ARE (ALMOST) NEVER LATE. My last-minute flight was meant to leave at 12:40pm, which would put me in Erlian early enough to maybe do my visa run a day early and definitely get the jump on the return train ticket action. Silver lining. In the end the flight was delayed SIX HOURS.
Have you ever spent six hours in Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 1? It doesn't even have a Starbucks! Just the Happer Hour at Lucky Shamrock, some kind of bootleg Irish pub where all the waitresses wear pigtails. Beers on tap: NONE. Take the train.
STEP 3: IMMEDIATELY buy your return train ticket after arriving in Erlian. Assuming you rolled in on the K3, you'll be arriving around 8:30pm and Erlian Station's ticketing window will still be open. Just loop around and take care of your return ticket right off the bat. It leaves around midnight on Thursday night/Friday morning, aka Day #2 of your visa run. Last time around my super delayed flight got me into Erlian after the ticketing station had already closed, and the next day the return train was already fully booked. The only other option from this point is a sleeper bus, which you don't really want to do. More on that later. Here's the Erlian train station:
There's a big room on the left to take care of customs/immigration for all the people continuing to Mongolia. Don't worry about that room. Ticketing is on the right.
STEP 4: Get a hotel room and sleep. You have plenty of options on this front, but a word to the wise: go for the bigger, better-lit hotels. They're marginally more expensive but you're still looking at spending 120rmb for the night, max. If you're on a shoestring you'll have no shortage of 50rmb options, but these have a heavy by-the-hour vibe and probably come with a short-term companion and no lock on the door. Your call. Here's one just up the road from the train station that's alright:
Or you could stay at the Tobacco Hotel:
But it doesn't seem very popular…
STEP 5: Wake up and hire a Mongolian guy in a Soviet-issue jeep to drive you across the border. This is it. The main attraction. You want to get a jump on this. Check out of your hotel no later than 10am. The most peculiar thing about this whole process is that even though the border is less than a kilometer out from the city center, you can't walk across the border. The guards just won't let you. Luckily you, the visa day tripper, are a market, and where there's demand comes supply. Basically there's a big parking lot where a bunch of Mongolian guys hang out, filling their broken-down jeeps with people and parcels to mule across the international line. To get there from the train station, first go west on Xinhua Dajie. (It's the big street that dead ends into the train station. Just walk down it, away from the station.) Eventually you'll get to this weird sculpture pasted in the middle of a roundabout:
Turn left here, onto Qianjin Lu. Rock this out for a few blocks. Get a coffee at Dico's if you want, pretty much the only game in town:
Keep going past the Dico's. Cross DINOSAUR BOULEVARD (Konglong Dajie):
Then the lot will be on your right. Cross the road and find about a hundred thousand jeeps that look like this:
The touts will be all over you within ten milliseconds of sensing your presence. They know why you're there. They will offer to drive you to Zamiin Uud, the Mongolia-side border town. There will also be some middle-aged Chinese women offering to exchange your currency. No need to change money, because you don't want to go to Zamiin Uud. There's really nothing there. If you actually want to spend time in Mongolia you should be going to Ulaanbaatar. You won't find majestic open plains or deep horse culture in Zamiin Uud. Just a dustier and much smaller version of Erlian.
So what you want to do is negotiate a one-way fare. You just want the guy you meet in Erlian to drive you through the China side and into the Mongolia border station. You can ditch him there and get another driver going the opposite way to bring you back to Erlian. You could negotiate a round-trip ride with the same driver, but inevitably you'd be spending a lot of downtime with nothing to do at the Mongolian border station while they drop people and things off and pick more up, and try to drum up some extra side business. I don't really know what goes down at the border station. It's a weird scene.
Anyway, the round trip should cost about 100rmb total. That usually breaks down to 70rmb to the first driver (from Erlian to the Mongolian border station), and 30rmb for the return trip. I'm no expert negotiator, maybe you can get a better price. Unless you speak Mongolian it doesn't matter much because most of the drivers don't speak a word of any other language. Not even numbers. Be prepared to draw your counter offers in jeep window grime. Or bust out your cell phone if you're some kind of neat freak.
Once you've sealed the deal with the driver, you'll wait around while he fills his truck up. It'll get crowded in there, clown car style. Just be prepared. Eventually he'll take off in his jalopy, usually stopping at one or two sketchy-looking industrial scrap sites to pick up bags of dirt or bricks or something to bring across the border. I really don't know. Don't ask, don't tell. Just sit tight and read Game of Thrones or something.
FINALLY you'll arrive at the China-side border station. Usually around this time the driver will try to relieve you of that 70rmb, or whatever it is you agreed on. You'll also have to spend 5rmb on this little coupon that China requires for you to legally exit. Don't know what's up with that scam. The driver will dump you and the rest of the people in the car in front of this rainbow:
At this moment you'll want to take a reliable mental photograph of your driver and memorize his car's license plate. Just to make sure you don't miss him when he heads out to the Mongolia side. Best bet is to just stick with the people in your car. You walk under the rainbow and into the China border station. Pretty straightforward. Line up, get your stamp out of China. Immediately go back outside and wait for your driver to get through vehicle customs. If you're smart you'll bring a chair like this guy:
That guy is also rocking twin Jervises. Pretty cool.
Ok, so now you get back in the jeep and get driven across a 500m stretch of no-mans-land before "officially" entering Mongolia. Or, the Mongolian border station. Once you get out here you can ditch the driver, you're on your own again. In comparison to China, the Mongolia-side border station is a mess. There are always huge piles of rubble everywhere. This is the front door to the entrance section:
Ideally you won't be spending much time here. You don't need a Mongolian visa in advance. You just get a stamp that's good for 30 days or so. More than enough time since you'll technically be "in Mongolia" for somewhere between two minutes and an hour, depending on the day's traffic.
PRO TIP: On the entrance side of the Mongolian border station, there's a little second floor convenience store where you can buy drinks and snacks. Your standard Nescafe/Choco Pie kind of joint. If you speak Mongolian you can also order a horse meat sandwich. (Not a joke, seen it done.)
STEP 6: Exit Mongolia. After you leave the entrance side of the Mongolia border station, take a left, go through a little doorway in the fence, go back in to the other side of the same building, and immediately begin your exit procedure. Usually you won't have gotten an exit card (you need to have hired a driver coming in from Zamiin Uud to get that). You can either pick one up on the exit side by asking the person stamping you out, or they won't even make you fill one out. Last time I did this part in record time, maybe spent about two minutes total in Mongolia. Oddly enough, the staff on the exit side of the border station usually speak good English.
Once you're stamped out you can take a spin around the Mongolian duty free store. I recommend picking up a bottle of Chinggis Vodka, Mongolia's most popular spirit after fermented horse milk. I'm not even a vodka guy and I think Chinggis is pretty good. And it would be pretty lame if you "visit" Mongolia without copping any Genghis gear.
STEP 7: Get your ass back to China. It's comparatively easier to hitch a ride going the other way. And cheaper. If you're solo you can do it for about 30rmb, if you're with a buddy you can usually pay 50rmb total. Same thing in reverse: you drive back to the rainbow, go in on the other side of the station, buy another 5rmb coupon, and get stamped back in to China. You might get the usual China border scrutiny, but the staff knows the deal. It's obvious that you left China, entered Mongolia, left Mongolia, and are re-entering China on the same day. They see it all the time.
STEP 8: Leave Erlian. If you already scored your return train ticket, congratulations. Kill time until midnight. I usually go to this Mongolian cafe by the bus station that has a few computers and cheap, off-brand beer. One time I sat next to a ten-year-old kid singing along to Mongolian rap videos for five hours. You can get all kinds of Mongolian dumplings there, which are super, extra deep fried.
The bus station is a bit north and west of the train station. Easy to find. Looks like this:
If you couldn't get the return train ticket, you'll want to go there IMMEDIATELY after you're done with the visa run. Just have whoever's driving you back in to Erlian drop you there. The bus station runs sporadic sleeper buses to Beijing, which is not an ideal situation. It's basically like being in a coffin that smells like feet for eleven hours. But it's the cheapest option after the train (220rmb or so). There are also guys hanging around outside of the bus station who'll offer to drive you to Beijing. I've never gone that route, but I've heard it's much more uncomfortable and more expensive, though also much faster. Your call.
Assuming you're going to take the sleeper bus, get on that straightaway. In the past I've been able to get the Beijing-bound bus as late as 5:30pm, but on my last trip I almost missed the last bus, which was scheduled to leave at 3pm. Apparently they're currently only running two buses a day (2pm and 3pm). Not sure if it's an off-season thing or what. I got done with my visa hop and to the bus station by 3:15pm and was almost denied. But then the bus driver walked by and the ticket seller yelled at him and he said I could still buy a ticket because he hadn't left yet. I got to the bus and realized he hadn't left because there was NOBODY ON BOARD:
So weird. In the end he only picked up four or five more Mongolian guys in the Erlian hinterlands. Otherwise it was a pretty empty ride. Not the worst experience. Still prefer the train, but at least riding the bus you get to see these dinosaur sculptures dotting the countryside immediately outside Erlian:
I guess they have a lot of fossils there or something. One of Erlian's most recognizable landmarks is a sculpture of two brontosauruses engaged either in mortal combat or a deep tongue kiss. I could only manage to get a blurry photo from the bus's back window. Here's a better one from the internet:
Yeah, they're definitely making out. Bizarre.
The bus ride will take approximately eleven hours. You stop at the halfway point for a quick dinner at a point-to-order place where you can get a lukewarm egg and tomato dish, greasy cabbage, and some kind of Mongolian meat stew. In the end you arrive at some random place in Beijing I've never been before or since. Definitely not any kind of bus station. If you arrive in Beijing before 4am the bus driver will usually park and just let people keep sleeping until sunrise. You can get off the bus at any point. Rub the sleep out of your eyes. Sigh deeply. Say to yourself, "Never again."
If you're as broke as I am, your resolve to never return to Erlian will last about 85 days.