Picking up from where I left off in my earlier post about making it to the Mongolian border, Anderson and I had just settled into the questionable jeep we planned to ride into Mongolia.
The jeeps are barely spacious enough for three people, but Mongolians seem to defy all common sense in this area and shoving as many people as possible into a jeep is the norm. When we first approached our driver, there had been at least five inside but he shooed them out when he took us on. I was curious about this, but didn’t think much of it since I was anxious enough with only a few of us in the car.
There were four passengers – two Mongolians plus Anderson and me – and the driver when we set out.
As the driver took us onto the highway that runs alongside Erlian, I glanced at his speedometer and was both amused and horrified to see that it was at zero. The gas gauge was also at zero. All of the gauges were at zero. I guess they were just there for show.
I swallowed hard and sat back in my seat, willing myself to relax. For one thing, I reminded myself, this is all part of the travel experience. For another, I’d have a better chance of surviving a crash if my body wasn’t tense and rigid when it happened.
I feel an urge here to explain that I’m not a prissy or picky traveler. Risky situations don’t bother me and I’ve even learned to be OK with going without a shower for a few days. I have pretty low standards for hostels and am open to trying new things. But this border crossing was new territory for me and I was more nervous than I had expected.
We had been driving for about 10 minutes before the driver pulled off into field that was more dirt than grass, stopped the jeep and began repeating the word “Police! Police!” and holding up five fingers.
Anderson and I looked at one another, confused, alternately repeating “Five?” and “Tingbudong,” which means, “I don’t understand” in Mandarin. In retrospect, I don’t think the driver understood any Mandarin words aside from those referring to money, but it was all we had to work with. We finally figured out that we were supposed to pay five kuai for some form that had to be registered with the police.
That was an interesting moment, to say the least. But things became more interesting a few minutes later, when we pulled up at the police station where the driver did whatever needed to be done with those papers and four more passengers climbed into the jeep.
The arrangement was like this: Anderson and the two large Mongolian men sat on the wooden board that constituted the back seat, while two women and a young boy of about 10 years old sat on their laps. Another woman shared the unstable passenger seat with me and then there was the driver. Nice and cozy.
Less than five minutes later, we arrived at the border. Again everyone had to pay five kuai, although we never found out what the additional five was for. That’s also when the driver decided to tell Anderson and me that he was actually going to charge 100 kuai for each of us, as opposed to 50 a person. One of the women in the jeep spoke a little English so she translated this for us and we told her he had agreed to 50 each. Not much more was said as we got out of the car and headed for the Chinese customs and immigration building, but I had a feeling that was not going to be the end of it.
Nothing particularly terrible or upsetting had happened during this whole ordeal, but still, Anderson and I were both on edge. We had already spent nearly two hours trying to cross and it had been more stressful and hectic than we had been led to believe. Now we were in danger of being ripped off and we hadn’t even made it through customs yet.
The English-speaking women approached us as we waited to have our visas stamped by Chinese immigration officers and told us that the driver had asked her to inform us that he was going to leave us there if we did not pay the additional 100 kuai. We were frustrated and considered letting him go and waiting for another van, but there was no guarantee we wouldn’t get ripped off again and we needed to get across the border. So we paid.
It wasn’t an ideal situation but it also wasn’t the end of the world. Everyone piled back into the jeep and I thought, “Finally. We’ll get across and get to Zamyn-uud (the Mongolian border town where we planned to catch a train to Ulaan Baatar, the capital) and can relax for a few hours.”
This was wishful thinking. Not five minutes after pulling away from the Chinese border check, we stopped again, this time amid humongous filthy trucks and about 100 other jeeps. Time to go through Mongolian immigration.
This was fairly quick and painless, although I will say that Mongolian soldiers are more intimidating than the Chinese, at least in appearance, which adds just a little more tension to the situation.
For one thing, Mongolian soldiers are bigger: larger boned, heavy and broad, with wide chests, shoulders and faces. Their uniforms are different, too: fatigues of light beige and brown that match the desolate land surrounding that surrounds them.
“They look like legit soldiers,” Anderson remarked, “unlike the Chinese, who look like they’re wearing ‘my first Army G.I. Joe pajamas.’”
(The Chinese uniforms were bright green camouflage that did look like they had just been taking out of the package, with boots to match.)
The thing about the Mongolian border check is that even though it doesn’t take long for people to move through the immigration line, every jeep and truck has to be inspected by customs officers. This can take awhile. It was an additional 30-45 minutes for them to check our jeep. I felt an increasing sense of discomfort the longer we waited.
For one thing, we were the only Westerners there at that point. Everyone else was Chinese or Mongolian, mostly Mongolian, and we met only two who spoke English, one being the woman in our jeep, the other a large man named Pagii who had just returned home after living in the States for 10 years.
The sky was overcast, which added an ominous feel to the scene, and soldiers paced slowly past the rows of jeeps and waiting passengers. I’m not sure why but I alternately felt like a criminal and a refugee and was nervous whenever the soldiers stopped near where I was standing. One of them stood leering a few feet away from me and I could feel my stomach heave. He was gross and I just wanted to be out of there as quickly as possible.
Finally, our jeep was cleared to cross and we all climbed back into the hot and stuffy jeep. The Mongolians didn’t seem fazed by any of this but Anderson and I were exhausted. I noticed, not for the first time that day, that my stomach muscles were clenched from tension and I wanted nothing more than to be done with the whole situation.
Five minutes later, the jeep made its final stop, in front of the train station in Zamyn-uud. We bid farewell (and good riddance) to the driver and our fellow passengers, booked train tickets to Ulaan Baatar for later that afternoon and stopped at an Irish pub for cold beers and lunch before beginning the next leg of our journey.