Big Plans

Getting to Mongolia the Long (and Cheaper) Way

Save money and see more with these savvy tips.

By Bill Wiatrak July 31, 2018

The Trans-Siberian railway crossing through Mongolia.

I’m going to Mongolia. In a couple of weeks I’m hopping on a plane to fly to LA at the crack of dawn and lingering for 12 hours in California before I catch a flight to Shanghai. A couple days later I’ll jump on the Maglev high-speed train and travel 800 miles to Beijing. From there I’ll catch another flight to the border of China and hire a taxi to the first town I can reach in Mongolia. Next, I’ll take an overnight train to the capital city of Ulaan Bator. On the way back to the U.S., I have a 22-hour layover in Chengdu before I get to LA. Yes, 22 hours.

If that sounds a little complicated and not worth the trouble, you’re half-right. It is complicated. But it’s definitely worth all the planes, trains and automobiles I have to navigate. It knocks off a substantial number of my bucket list items on the way and it's less than a third of what I’d pay if I just booked a ticket to Mongolia. Let me tell you how this works.

I could have skipped LA completely but I saved several hundred dollars taking Spirit airlines there and then flying to China rather than taking a direct flight from Houston.

I could have left a little later so I wouldn’t spend an entire day at the airport, but the day won’t be wasted. There are quite a few art treasures scattered throughout LA and I’ve got a full day to hunt down the best of them for the price of a daily rental car. I’m using my layover to visit the Getty Museum as well as checking out filming locations from some of my favorite shows. (Ever since I saw the film All the Money in the World I’ve been fascinated by the museum that was left behind by the famous business tycoon J. Paul Getty.) Also on my list: the famous painting, Blue Boy, by Thomas Gainsborough at The Huntington. Then I’m off to China.

Suzhou, China

Many people don’t think about flying into a different airport than where they arrived, but booking like this can save you time and backtracking boredom. That’s why I’m entering China through Shanghai but leaving via Beijing.

Shanghai is a wondrous city. I can visit the two-year-old Shanghai Disneyland, run around one of the most futuristic cities in the world, have lunch on the Bund and then stop in at the UNESCO world heritage site of Suzhou. Nicknamed the “Venice of the East,” this picturesque water town is one of several built on the canals about an hour from Shanghai. I visited there briefly on another trip, but now I have a chance to film some of these amazing places I missed the first time.

From Shanghai, many visitors fly directly to Beijing. Why do that when you can take the fastest train in the world? At 204 miles per hour, the Maglev can make the journey in less than four hours. That’s kind of like being a driver in the Indy 500. It’s fast. Very fast.

The Maglev

Beijing is full of fantastic places to see and makes a good base for getting around China. The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Winter Palace, and the Ming Tombs can keep you busy for days. For many westerners, China seems to be a place that’s similar wherever you visit. In reality, each province in this vast country is unique with its own cuisine, language variations, and ethnic groups. On this trip I plan on exploring some places I’ve never been around Beijing as well as some more remote areas of the Great Wall, one of the new seven wonders of the world.

The Trans-Siberian railway has been on my bucket list for over a decade and Mongolia is the place where the track splits into two parts. One runs east to Vladivosto and the other connects the capital Ulaan Bator to Beijing. Passengers can experience this classic train ride, plus save time and money by flying to Erlian, China, crossing the Mongolian border and catching the overnight TransMongolian railway to the center of the country. It takes a couple days to get there, granted, but it’s all about the journey in this case; not the destination. 

In the interest of time, I’ll fly back to Beijing, which costs about five times what I spent to get to Mongolia, but I hate to backtrack and have duplicate experiences if I can avoid it. My flight home from Beijing has an all-day layover in Chengdu. This is no accident on my part. I actually looked for the longest layover I could find because this area of China is famous for its panda sanctuaries. It's one of the few places where you can meet a giant panda and pose for a photograph with the cuddly creature. I’ve got an entire day to hang out with pandas.

I arrive in LA late, so I plan on spending the night someplace cool like The Queen Mary (a retired ship hotel with a reputation for being haunted), or the little motel from the TV show Goliath. I looked it up online to discover that it’s an actual motel in Santa Monica and the bar where Billy Bob Thornton’s character gets drunk daily is next door. I’m going to visit Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Monroe’s graves. I plan on eating at Opaque, a restaurant where everything is served in pitch black darkness by blind people—another odd entry on my bucket list. My whole list is odd, but it’s my list.


So, how do you do put a trip together like this?

First, create a list of things you want to do. If you can organize your list by places, even better. I look for famous art, dead people, unique restaurants and even weird roadside attractions wherever I go. If I’m clueless about a place, Tripadvisor’s Things To Do list can’t be beat.

Play around with flights and destinations on an app like Skyscanner. Search for one-way flights, multiple destinations, or even flights from alternative cities. Why not stop in Boston or Las Vegas for a day? Look at airline companies that give you free layover in their origin country. I once celebrated Carnival in Mainz, Germany on a 10-hour layover to Ethiopia. I saw the northern lights in Iceland on the way to Amsterdam (Wow Airlines offers a free stop in Reykjavik). It’s an easy way to take an extra vacation on your vacation.

Pull up a map of wherever you’re going and see what else is near. If you’re in Boston, go to the restaurant that invented the Boston cream pie, take pictures in the Salem cemetery, and eat cranberries and turkey at Plymouth Rock. As I research a destination, I add interesting nearby places to my notes app on my phone. Don’t wait until you get somewhere before you start looking. Try impossible places on your list. You might be pleasantly surprised. I accidentally discovered it’s cheaper to stop in the Maldives going to Sri Lanka, than just going to Sri Lanka. Have you seen the price of a flight to Maldives? Mine was free, thank you very much.

The cost of all my flights to/from/in Asia on this adventure: $488. That’s LA to Shanghai, Beijing to Chengdu, Chengdu to LA. My round trip to LAX is around $160. I’ll pay $60 to get to Mongolia the long way from Beijing. A 10-year Chinese visa is $140. Hotels are cheap in Asia. Add up my two-week world exploration and you can see that it’s not difficult to spend more for a week in Orlando.

But you won’t get to hug a panda.

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