Thursday, August 28, 2008

The road to Mongolia (also, ugh)

Jon and I got up early and said our goodbyes to Hohhot and the kind people at our hostel who had welcomed us. We had a long and kind of crazy trip planned out for the day in an effort to cross the border between China and Mongolia. The Nadaam Festival, which was our reason for going to Mongolia, was going to begin the next day and so we were told that the border would close at 3 that afternoon and if we didn't get in before then we wouldn't be able to cross the border for a few days, thus missing the Nadaam Festival and the point of our trip. Long story short: we had to make it to the border in time.

So, we set out on a bus that was going to take us from Hohhot to Erenhot, which is the last Chinese city before Mongolia. The bus trip was mostly uneventful, except for some carbonated water that exploded in my bag and spilled in my hair and some obscure dinosaurs we saw meandering in an open field.

Our bus took forever, but we finally arrived at a little after 2 p.m. We were having a race with time to see if we could make it to the border. We decided to cut the crap and jump in a taxi to get to the border even if it would be more expensive. Better to pay the price for the taxi than pay the price by missing our vacation.

We got to the border in no time and we were under the assumption that when our taxi dumped us off we would just be able to walk across the border. Apparently we have no experience in border crossings. A nice enough guy, who spoke English, came over and told us that we had to be in a car to cross the border and it couldn't be our taxi since she didn't have the proper paperwork to leave the country. After a bit of a panic we finally found a bus and we jumped on it and waited to cross the border. The driver of the bus yelled at us in Chinese and told us he wouldn't take us, but when we flashed him the cash he carried us across. The driver was a jerk and he totally overcharged us but we needed to cross the border.

Once inside customs I had some troubles getting through because of my new passport. As you may remember I had to get a brand new passport in March after my old one was stolen. This wasn't a terribly big deal, but it does mean that I no longer have an entry stamp to China in my passport. I tried explaining this to the people working at customs and after some broken Chinglish and a bit of charades (imagine me acting out the theft of a passport) I got through.

Now that we were officially out of China we just had to go through customs into Mongolia, which went off without a hitch. With a new stamp in our passports Jon and I headed outside to wait for our jankety us, which we assumed would take us into the border town in Mongolia. We waited around for close to an hour trying to find our driver before we finally spotted him. When we did he looked surprised to see us and told us we had to find our own transportation from the border into the city. Ughhh.

We tracked down a taxi and handed over some cash - I can't remember how much, but I'm sure it was more than it should have been - and the driver kindly took us to the train station. Jon and I were hoping that we would be able to catch a train to Ulaanbaatar or at the very least a bus. We walked into the train station and realized for the first time that our Chinese was of absolutely no value to us anymore. We could seriously still see China, but no one around spoke any Chinese. Or English for that matter. After saying the word Ulaanbaatar over and over we realized that we were in luck because there was going to be a train heading for the city in about an hour and if we had missed that train it could have been days before we found another one. So we bought tickets and decided to head outside to try to find some food.

This was the point when Jon and I realized we had no idea where we were (I still couldn't tell you the name of the city we were in), what language the people were speaking (it sounded Russian to me, but who knows?), when we had last eaten or when we would be arriving (our best guess was that it was a six hour train ride). This is me at the train station not knowing much.

There wasn't much for food in the area and we didn't want to leave the premise for fear of never making it back so we bought what they had in the small supermarket (cookies, chips and some juice) and hoped that would keep us full for the duration of our train ride. We then noticed that our train had started to board and since it was raining we decided to get on early.

The train was much nicer, although older, than most of the Chinese trains I've been on and we were happily surprised to see that our tickets were for the equivalent of a Chinese soft sleeper, which meant there were only four of us in our compartment. We thought the sleeper was a bit excessive for a short trip but we were happy to take it since it meant we could take a much needed nap.

Just as the wheels started rolling Jon was standing in the hallway talking to a guy who makes the trip from China to Mongolia quite often and so Jon asked him how long the trip to Ulaanbaatar should take. "Oh not long, should be right at 17 hours."


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