Sunday, July 5, 2009

Mongolia (Visa Run) on the Fourth Of July

"Mr. Hu, TEAR DOWN THIS (great) WALL."
- Brandon Slattery

Happy 4th of July!

I never thought I'd be celebrating this way, but I just spent American Independance day on crowded sleeper buses traveling back and forth to the closest and cheapest place for a US Citizen to exit and re-enter China. Why would I choose to celebrate our triumph over the British this way?

Its simple really, my original visa, issued in NYC (纽约), expired. And because most Asian countries seem to be limited in how many days-per-stay they can issue (30 days max), my Beijing (北京) and Kuala Lumpur (吉隆坡) issued visas have expired as well. My most recent visa from Bangkok (曼谷) is a bit better - I'm allowed to stay for six months, as long as I leave each month. Hence the trip to Mongolia.

Beijing is not particularly well-situated for a quick exit and re-entry. The main options are South Korea (韩国), North Korea (朝鲜), Hong Kong (香港), Vietnam (越南), Japan (日本) and Mongolia (蒙古). Of those, Hong Kong and Vietnam are pretty far away. Korea and Japan are pretty expensive. And, because my home country isn't really on speaking terms with North Korea (politely called The DPRK here), that option is out of the picture. Since time, money and global stability were concerns, I opted for the Mongolia run. And the best news: US Citizens don't require a visa to get into Mongolia! Actually, I can't imagine why they would require a visa for anyone. Who actually WANTS to go to Mongolia!?

This trip was certainly an adventure. There are two ways to get to the China/Mongolia border: Train or Bus. Trains don't run that frequently, so I took a bus. A few stations have a sleeper bus that leaves in the late afternoon. The ride itself took around 10 hours with a one hour stop. Sleeper buses (for people who are uninitiated) contain 40 small beds. They are almost always full, so 40 beds means 40 people on each bus, with more luggage, twice as many stinky feet and easily ten times as many farts filling any empty space not already filled by people, feet or luggage.

Beijing - Erlian Sleeper Bus
We arrived at Erlian (二连) at 4:00am. Erlian is the small town on the Chinese side of the border. INTERESTING FACT: Trains stop here to be refitted onto new wheels because European and Asian tracks don't match. ANOTHER INTERESTING FACT: I do not envy anyone who has to spend time in Erlian. There really isn't too much to the place. Lord knows they are trying. Recent dinosaur bone discoveries in the area have prompted them to put up some statues in their main park.

Erlian Dinosaurs Park
Aside from the dinosaurs, the only reasons people come to Erlian are Mongolian sex tourism and border crossings. You read that right. Somehow this town has a redlight district. Unfortunately, since no one in the town spoke English and my Chinese at this point can only cover "I" and "Go" but not "Whorehouse", I wasn't able to check it out.

Oh, and to make things EXTRA-fun in this part of inner-Mongolia, Mongolian is much more frequently spoken than Chinese and most signs are in Mongolian and Chinese (with no English). The Mongolian is usually written in a vertical script (adapted from Uigher, which was adapted from Arabic and Persian) or in Cyrillic. I did have a lot of fun playing around with my limited Chinese, though. This place had some English on its sign and certainly required a picture:

Gengis Kahn Army Food Store
There are three ways to cross the border: Bus, Train or Jeep. The first two run on a limited schedule - a schedule which I didn't share. This meant I'd need to find a Mongolian or Chinese that would drive me across the border (and hopefully back!). Luckily this sort of ad hoc taxi role is one of the major professions in Erlian!

Even with my limited Chinese, this was easily accomplished. The driver loaded up a car with 8 people and breezed through customs on both sides. After dropping most of the people off at the Mongolian train station in Zamyn Uud, we headed back to the border.

Zamyn Uud Train Station
The way in was a little less fun. All of the forms were in Chinese and Cyrillic/Mongolian, so, speaking my best Chinese, I requested an English form. I actually think I said "I need english ticket. You have my english ticket?"

I'm no Rene Russo here, but this set off some alarms and pretty soon I was filling out the paperwork while having my temperature taken two ways. People that know me can attest to the fact that I run a little hot - so I was almost detained. Luckily, I managed to convince them that I was good and this was not necessary. Somehow they let me back in. And now I don't need to do anything like that for another month!

I bought a bus ticket back to Beijing and spent the next few hours wandering around this bummer of a town, eating, taking a few pictures and waiting for the bus. I really enjoyed the Mongolian / Former soviet feel to the place. I'm including a great picture to empasize this:

Mongolian Chinese Statue
All said, this trip wasn't that difficult. It was a little annoying not being able to sleep well on the bus (they blast Mongolian techno and the drivers smoke). 36 Hours of no sleep is fine - but it can be a little much when negotiating a shady customs transaction.