Trip to Mongolia

I’m writing this (half of the) blog post at 4am, sitting in a Wang Ba (internet bar) in freezing cold Erlianhaote, China, right next to the Mongolian border. The weather report tells me its 0 degrees fahrenheit outside, but with windchill it feels like -11. I came here with my roommate Dustin to do what foreigners in China call a “visa run”: Even though my Chinese visa is valid for a year, I’m only permitted to stay in the country for 90 days at a time. So, every three months, I have to make a trip like this and cross an international border.
Dustin and I came here by taking an overnight sleeper bus from Beijing. I had never heard of a sleeper bus before, and I was surprised at how cramped it was and how tiny the beds were. Fortunately for us, Erlianhaote (Erlian, for short) is a tiny border town of only 16,000 people, and out of the 30 or so beds on the bus, less than ten were occupied.
The bus pulled into the station in Erlian at 3 AM, and we had many hours to kill before the border crossing opened at 9 AM. We took an extremely overpriced cab ride about 1 kilometer to the nearest netbar (10RMB per person… the real taxis in this city start the meter at 3RMB), and hung out there with a bunch of the kind of Chinese person who stays up through the wee hours of the night playing computer games at an internet cafe. That experience was interesting in and of itself. Erlian is known for two things, and two things only: the border crossing, and that some dinosaur fossils were discovered there. So the town has dinosaur statues all throughout (and the main road is called Konglong Dajie, or Dinosaur Street), with a park in the city center, surprisingly named “Dinosaur Park”. Dustin and I thought we could get some cool photos by heading to the park around sunrise and checking out the sculptures. Even though the whole town was maybe two kilometers across, and everything was easily within walking distance, we were taking cabs all over the place to escape the weather. We did get some cool photos there, my favorite being this one of me trying to climb a dinosaur:
After this, we were both feeling pretty hungry, so we decided to find someplace to eat. At this point, it was already 8 AM, and this is when we discovered that due to the extreme cold here, no place actually opens up before 9 or 10 in the morning. So we went to the train station to see if we could take a train back to Beijing (we couldn’t, they only run twice a week), and it still being too early for breakfast, took naps on the train station benches. At about 930 we finally ventured back out into the cold and walked past dozens of shops and restaurants before we finally found an open breakfast food place. We ate warm baozi rolls and warm milk tea, which totally hit the spot!
After breakfast, we had to find a jeep to drive across the border. For some reason, jeeps are classified differently for Mongolian border crossings than trucks and normal cars. We didn’t know where to find them, so we had to rely on a cab, asking the driver to take us to “jie pu che” (Jeep car). After some haggling over price, we hopped into a jeep stuffed with a bunch of Mongolian people. Between the 4 open seats, there were 6 people… one of the Mongolians riding in the hatch. I find it hilarious that sitting in the back of a car is a perfectly acceptable form of international border crossing here. The border crossing happened without a hitch, and now we found ourselves in Mongolia! We continued on for a few kilometers to the town of Zamyn-Üüd, which is even smaller than Erlian.
the border crossing
For the first time in months, I felt like a totally helpless traveler. As soon as the border was crossed, it seems no one could speak English or Chinese, so the language barrier was less like a barrier and more like a 20 foot high electrified razor wire fence. We walked into a good looking restaurant, but unable to communicate with the waitstaff or even read the menu, which was entirely in Cyrillic, we relied on the “point to a random menu item and hope for the best” method of ordering. I was hoping to sample some local Mongolian cuisine here, but I ended up with Spaghetti Bolognese, and Dustin got some kind of steak and mashed potato dish. In the middle of the meal, our jeep-buddies who we had spent the last hour or so with came into the restaurant, so we all moved to a bigger table and had a great time talking and laughing and eating together. The differences between Chinese and Mongolian culture are huge. Chinese guys are quiet, humble, and reserved. Mongolians are big, smiling, gregarious guys who love joking around and laughing REALLY loudly (and trash-talking about China and Chinese people, haha).
Some other interesting things about Mongolia: It’s a hell of a lot cleaner than China. The supermarket I went into was spotless, there was some, but much less litter in the streets, the restaurant felt a lot cleaner than Chinese restaurants. In China, they drive on the right side of the road, and in Mongolia, they drive on the left, so the border crossing is quite confusing as all the cars are crossing over to change directions.
That was a lot of adventure packed into a 36 hour excursion (24 of those hours being spent on a bus). I also think it’s amazing that I was able to travel 1000km and back and make an international border crossing, and do it all for under $100. I’ve decided that at some point in the future I’d like to go back to Mongolia and maybe spend a week in Ulaanbaatar.

3 Responses to Trip to Mongolia

  1. Mom says:

    I bet you were hungry after trying to climb that dinosaur! hahaha And, I love the “surprise” (too bad not Mongolian) meals. Love, Mom

  2. Peg says:

    Jake, you should see Ulan Baatar. I was there in 1998 – I imagine some things have changed since then. We were there in the summer – early July to attend the three-day Naadam Festival that consists of wrestling, archery and horse racing (30 kilometers) over the space of three days. We were able to attend the opening ceremony in the city’s stadium; ceremony included musicians, athletes and a speech by the president of Mongolia. Then we watched the weartling competition in the same stadium. It was filled with duos of men fighting with one another. By the end of the third day, there was to be only one wrestler left.

  3. Georgianne says:

    Merry Christmas Jake. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your writing. It is so informative – you are now my China “source”. At parties, if the talk turns to China, I always say, “Well I have a friend who is living and traveling there for a year or so and he thinks……” The seven of us in our little family are all here in Denver so Christmas is the usual gathering at our house for presents, food and games (usually something on the Wii). We always have a wonderful time together. Dennis and his two sons are all very good cooks so I have lots of help with the food that seems to go from breakfast, brunch, dinner, snacks all running into each other during the day. Have a wonderful day.

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