We got to sleep quite soon after hitting the road again and I woke to see the sunrise over the Gobi Desert. It was a beautiful, once in a lifetime sight and I realised that if I had a better seat I may not have had the best view to see the sunrise. I stared for some time, watching the sky turn from a dark, somewhat drowsy blue to a cool pink, then on to an electric orange. I got a couple more hours sleep then woke for the last hour of our trip. Somewhere close to the boarder there started popping up myriad dinosaur statues. Scores of metal brontosauruses dotted across the landscape. I guess things get boring in the desert.
We finally entered the border city of Erlian at around 7am. A huge, forgotten city, many times bigger than what I had expected. It was an altogether strange area that looked like it could have been something of a nice place to live, but then just stopped caring about itself and sunk into oblivion.
We were once again told to watch our pockets in this town as the people around here were ‘inner Mongolian’ and not to be trusted.
Getting across the border isn’t as easy as it sounds, or as it should be in this part of the world. For one you can’t just walk across, you need to be driven. But there is only one or two official buses every day so the general way is to get a local to take you in a truck. My wife-who likes to steer on the safe side of the road-didn’t like the sound of this but there were other things to consider. We had read that crossing the border could take hours and we wanted to get the train to Ulaanbaatar that day. We certainly didn’t want to get stuck in this town for any longer than what was completely necessary.
Our friend Toogii had picked up our bags from the hold and offered to take us to dinosaur square, where the trucks conjugate to take people across. We decided to follow his lead and see what happens. Dinosaur square was a complete disappointment (there wasn’t one dinosaur about). It was basically a car park full of some extremely shady individuals who seemed to lick their lips at the sight of ignorant foreigners. We stood next to Toogii and did what we were told. He said if we could wait a while we could go across the border together, he had to buy a couple of things for his nephew and wait for his driver to get out of bed. He also sorted out the money we had to pay to the driver for getting us across the border. In the end it came it about 3 pounds. Nice one, Toogii.
We had to wait in this square for around an hour. After a while we started to look around and made a few friends. A woman called Mide offered to help us in Ulaanbaatar if we were in trouble. She had just come back from studying in India. I quite liked Mongolia even before I got there. The three Mongolians I had met had been helpful, friendly and all seemed like bloody good eggs.
We set out to the border, Toogii his wife, YJ, myself and the driver in relative comfort. Much different than what I was expecting after reading stories of 10 in a car, an old woman on your left leg and a chicken on your right, expecting to be beaten up and deserted at any minute.
In reality we got there without any fanfare, in fact we were the first people of the day. They had to open the immigration desk for us! Youngja went first. The wife gets quite nervous at immigration so she likes to get it over and done with. After a few questions she was let through and some pushy Mongolian grannies barge up in front so we let them go first.
Youngja makes a beeline for the only clean toilet for miles and while she is in there, the immigration officer tells no one in particular but someone to go and get the Korean girl and bring her back. As I was there I could sense the mood of the man and he was calm (obviously hadn’t ticket some box or some such thing) and his composed manner rendered me the same. As for Youngja, who came out of the toilet with death in her eyes and fear in her heart, she didn’t have the same assurance. The poor girl told me, after we had all passed through without a bother, that she literally had almost pooed herself.
Over to Mongolian Immigration, only a five minute drive away. This time I went first and went through without a problem. Now it was Youngja’s turn….
I know this may sound like I’m kicking up the drama for the sake of the story bit but I promise you this is how it happened. The immigration officer-a youngish girl with a hairy mole on the side of her nose whom I doubt has ever been described as chirpy-looked at Youngja’s passport picture, then Youngja, then her picture, then her. This back and forth seemed to go on for a while until she flatly refused to believe the girl in front of her was the same girl in the picture.
Youngja had a face on that seemed close to giving up. She had been smiling to officer Moley, or whatever she was called, but the smile had withered and died.
“But, it’s me. Look.” She put the picture up to her face, and to her credit it did look EXACTLY THE BLOODY SAME. This generally happens with you take passport pictures a month before you travel. Miss Moley was unconvinced. In the end she sent for her boos, an older gal who looked like she’d seen some of life’s whips and shackles. She took one look at the picture and another at Youngja, laughed a little and sent her through. Moley had a look on her which seemed to say “You’ve been lucky this time, lady. But one of these days…”
After the fact, Toogii told us the real problem.
“She looks too young for her age. The woman thought the date was wrong.”
It is true that my wife does look young for her age, and this did help ease her worried mind a little. She was basically, very officially complimented.
We got to the train station and, even though we now trusted Toogii and his wife with our lives we still decided on the train. We heard taking the train through the desert was quite an experience. We thanked Toogii scores of time. He had really helped us at the border in many ways and without him we would have still been there, waiting for a van to fill with people before we got to a packed immigration. An uber-legend if ever there was one.
The square adjacent to Zamin-udd train station does have some character. Pool tables, barbecued food, drunk old men sleeping on the floor. I would classify it as a place to visit but not to live. We got tickets for the 19:05 train and had 8 hours to kill. We wondered around the town, went to one of the worst parks I have ever seen, then had some lunch. Youngja chose the restaurant and it turned out to be a Mongolian/Korean restaurant. My wife is Korean and we live in Korea and I often note when we travel abroad that Korea seems to draw itself to us. If we are the moth, Korea is the flame. We ate a mountain of beef and potatoes and looked around a bit more but with not much to do in dear old Zamin-udd we ventured back to the station, watched The Walking Dead dubbed into Mongolian on a TV probably made in the Soviet era and waited to board.
Once the impossibly long train finally arrived we hopped on and found our beds. I had the top bunk, YJ the bottom. As we were packing our cabin-mate joined us. He looked Korean so the wife asked:
YJ: In English “Are you Korean?”
Man: In perfect Korean “No, I’m not Korean.”
YJ: In Korean “Of course you’re Korean. See, we’re speaking in Korean.”
Man: “I can speak Korean but I’m Mongolian. I lived in Korea for 4 years.”
And so my Korean/Mongolian trip began.
His name was Baggi and he had studied in Korea, YJ and he got on like a house on fire. He was a lovely bloke and told us all about Mongolia, Gers, nomads, food, culture, it was a great stroke of luck that we were in the same cabin.
As YJ gave him instructions as to how to make genuine tasting Korean pickled garlic, I looked around the train and took pictures of the Gobi. It was an amazing feeling, being in the middle of one of the great deserts and I was told that I would have time to get used to it, as we would be in the Gobi for the next ten hours or so. Baggi told us about his wife, his job and his plans for the future. He also invited us to his brother’s ger for dinner tomorrow or the day after. A good egg, was Baggi. He explained to us that it wasn’t just the nomads who lived in gers: city folk, especially the ones who lived in the suburbs regularly had a house and also a ger. The wife and I were excited to see the gers and hopefully stay in one.
As she and he talked long into the night about Korean things, I couldn’t add much to the conversation but every once and a while I chirped in with my limited Korean.
YJ: Korean “So how do Mongolian social customs compare to Korean customs.”
Baggi: Korean “Good question. But to answer it one must consider not only the cultural differences, but also the historical ones. As you know, Mongolia was heavily influence by the soviets, both socially and economically.
YJ: Korean “I see. I guess a link can be made with Korea and its connection to the U.S after WWII. We were just coming out of Japanese colonisation and the Korean War only a few years later also had a great impact on how we relate to each other even to this day.”
Baggi: Korean “Exactly. Recent history’s importance on the present culture’s social outlook, especially in times of strife, can never be underestimated.”
Tom: Broken Korean “I like Korean food.”
Time for bed I think.