I have a double-entry 30-day Chinese visa, and the first 30 days were due to run out on either the 13th or the 14th – I’m not quite sure how they tally – so this weekend I ran off to the closest and cheapest place I could find to get my second entry stamp into the country: the border with Mongolia.
I woke up at 5 AM on Saturday morning to make sure I would make it to the train station on time. It was my first ride in a sleeper car, which for only thirteen hours (most of them daytime) seemed fairly luxurious to me but was the only option available. Only two of the beds in the four-person compartment were filled. Opposite me was some sort of small-time official from Erenhot, my destination on the Chinese side of the border; he asked me a lot of questions, didn’t tell me much about himself, and kindly shared his oranges and meatballs. I made the first official use of the mini-knockoff-iPad-type-thing that we won during the debate, and to be honest I was surprised: I got a full 5 hours worth of Taiwanese movies in before the thing ran out of battery. (Allow me to recommend 《爸，你好嗎？》 – not gonna lie, I cried twice – and 《最遙遠的距離》 , which I have yet to finish but looks very promising so far.)
As I was getting off the train in the bitter cold of the Erlian night, I had the blinding good fortune of running into a fellow American, who was not only there on visa business but had also done the same run just last month. We found a cheap guesthouse, where we rented a 3-bed room for a total of 30 RMB. The owners invited us down to the back room for drinks, and at one point asked me to put in a plug for their place: across from and to the right of the train station, the sign says 客珠旅房; there’s no shower but it’s great in every other respect, and the staff gave me the only 21st birthday toast I’ll ever get.
We had found out the night before that there were no tickets left for the train to Beijing, which would have left the next night and been a cheap and convenient transport option. So, a little reluctantly, we got up early the next day to make sure we could buy tickets for the afternoon sleeper bus to Beijing and cross the border with enough time to get back before it took off without us. Erlian is a small, compact town of about 15,000, with few main roads and only a handful of shops open in the morning. It was frigid in morning and evening, so before long I was forced to throw on an extra pair of socks and a second, borrowed, pair of gloves. After a short while, tickets in hand and breakfast in stomach, we started looking for the signature rusting jeeps and Mongolian drivers who would, for a fee, take us across the border and back.
These days, opening bargaining price is 80 RMB each way. My new friend Dennis had paid significantly more last time, but he was also one of those uncertain and slightly dependent types who brings two suitcases on a weekend trip, and I had read multiple accounts online stating that it could be done for 50, so the latter was my goal. We arrived a bit early at the intersection of two streets where the jeeps tend to congregate; it wasn’t quite 8:30 yet, so most of the drivers (all of whom, it seems, are Mongolian) were still on the other side of the border. As we were warming up by a space heater in a grocery store, one of the Jeep drivers – a mustached, well-muscled, oily-haired Mongolian – pulled up and came in to chat with the owner. I asked him how much in Chinese, of which it seemed he only knew “China,” “Mongolia,” “money,” and numbers; he told us 80; I countered with 40; he replied by sticking his middle finger in my face and informing me, “Fuck!”
He was a pretty intimidating guy, but there was something so ridiculous about the whole thing that I couldn’t help laughing, and as he walked out of the store I decided I had a good feeling about him. Sure enough, in a few minutes he came back, telling us to hurry and come with him; to be sure we had an understanding, I asked, “40?” and he countered with 80 again. I moved up to 50; he walked out. We did this once or twice more and finally brought him down to 100 each round-trip – and, on my insistence, shook on it. We sat in what used to be the backseats of his not-quite-broken-down Jeep, the Mongolian driver and his Chinese copilot in front, fueled up, picked up some luggage at a storage facility (another way for drivers to make money on these border runs), and headed north to the border.
Our driver asked us for the money before we had even crossed the first barrier (only vehicles are allowed past, and probably only registered ones – hence the need to find someone to drive us across the border instead of just walking across ourselves), and I grudgingly let Dennis give him the first 100. I wasn’t entirely convinced that he wouldn’t kick us out of the Jeep and just drive off once he had our money – especially since he tried telling us “80” once again before I reminded him that we already had a deal at 50 – but Dennis said that this was where he had paid last month and it shouldn’t be a problem, so I let it go.
First we passed through the Chinese border station, a large oblong building with barely any sign of life, where we had to wait at least twenty minutes for staff to get to their posts and place outgoing stamps on our passports. Our driver was waiting for us at the exit – he seemed to be exempt from all border formalities – and we found that we had picked up two more crew members as well, Mongolians waiting for a ride north across the border.
At that point, my fears were confirmed: as we were about to get back into the Jeep, our Mongolian driver turned around and demanded that we pay 30 more – to make it a round 80, of course. We got in the Jeep anyway; he continued demanding his 80, and opened the door but stopped short of grabbing Dennis and throwing him out. (I was squished between Dennis and the two Mongolians, who apparently had paid 60 each to cross.) It was a bit tense, but I told Dennis to close his door, yelled at the driver for a few minutes (through the Chinese guy, who seemed reasonably trustworthy) about his reputation, being an honorable person, and the like; and although he seemed mostly serious when he shook his fist at us, I laughed and motioned that I wanted it to be Dennis and me versus him, and that seemed to diffuse the situation. He started the engine, motioned that he would beat us up when we got to Mongolia, and headed north to the Mongolian side of the border.
Everything went smoothly after that, despite most of the Mongolian officials being unable to speak either English or Chinese. The beating became more of a joke over the five-minute drive to the Mongolian border town of Zamyn Uud, as did the number “80,” which our driver once again demanded of us when he returned from running errands to take us back across the border. We had waited 30 minutes for him in Zamyn Uud, a town that can be walked end to end in about ten minutes, while he went and did a few errands. On the way back, our fellow passengers were a Mongolian woman and the driver’s brother, a friendly young web developer who spoke a bit of English. The driver, whose name we learned was Turuu, apparently liked us so much that he drove us right up to the bus station.
After lunch and a bit of reading I was feeling bored, so I went to find an internet bar to check my e-mail. Internet bars, like karaoke joints, are omnipresent in China, and Erlian was no exception. The first place I visited required an ID card (is this, as I suspect, to discourage people from saying the wrong thing from the anonymity of an easy-to-access public computer?), but the second bar, a block away, was more lax about the rules, and I was able to get one computer-hour for 3 RMB ($.45). It was the third time I had been inside an internet bar, and the first time I had gone to use a computer. This was also the largest concentration of people I ever saw in Erlian.
Internet bars in China are a phenomenon that benefits from the combination of limited access of Chinese students to computers (most don’t have their own), the strict expectations of parents as regards their children’s studying habits (even if you have the infrastructure, you probably won’t dare play video games at home), and the peculiar fascination that East Asian teenagers seem to have with video games. (I generalize… but you don’t often find ads for MMORPGs in the New York subway.) Your basic internet bar consists of a semi-dark room, often underground, with banks of computers preloaded with all of the popular and semi-popular games you can imagine. Add comfortable chairs, headsets, good processing speed and a fast internet connection, and you have yourself a gaming arena, where bored young people (about 2/3 of them male) come to do battle each other or faceless online nemeses. They mainly play strategy games, first-person shooters, and MMORPGs, most of which seem to be mods or copies of well-known games like Starcraft and Counterstrike. In Erlian, there was a smoking section and a non-, as well as a bar that didn’t seem to be in use during the day.
My hour up and my ears ringing with curse words and internet slang that I had previously only ever seen online, I headed back to meet up with Dennis. A decidedly uncomfortable bus ride later (I swear those beds were thinner than the ones we had in Xinjiang), I took a taxi from the station back to my apartment at 5:30 AM on Monday morning – Valentine’s day, which I could now celebrate knowing that I had secured 30 more days in China.
Allow me to end with some facts and figures, all of which are more exact than you might think.
Time: 48 hours
- Getting there: 14 hours
- Sleeping: 8 hours
- Across the border and back: 3 hours
- Eating, waiting, bargaining, killing time: 9 hours
- Return trip: 14 hours
Budget: 1000 RMB ($150)
- Visa for my 40 minutes in Mongolia: 505
- Transportation there and back: 350
- Crossing the border 2x: 105
- One night in a guesthouse: 15
- Food and miscellanea: 25
Getting flicked off and cursed at by your sketchy soon-to-be-buddy chauffer: priceless.