Hello from China! Ryan and I have been in Beijing for the last week, and despite the fact that we have brought no fewer than three (3) gadgets capable of connecting to the internet, there haven’t been a whole lot of opportunities to sit down and blarg. Danged Great Firewall of China or whatever it’s called. Anyway, because I know you care so much, here are some notes I’ve jotted down in the last week.
July 22, UB to Zamiin Uud
This southern train ride out of UB is very Mongolia. Gers, old Russian railhouses, trash, dogs, cows, mountains, sky, pantsless children waving at the passing train. Goodbye, pantsless children! I think I’ll miss you most of all.
July 23, Beijing
Getting across the border this morning was a breeze. One last: While the caravan of Russian Jeeps was waiting for Mongolian checkpoint to open, I walked off into an empty lot and, with my ass in full view to any passing traffic and secure in the knowledge that nobody cared, peed behind a bush. One first: At the Chinese checkpoint, some lady put a receipt between her index and middle fingers (Mongolian no-no) and tossed it at me (another Mongolian no-no). I would like to say I wasn’t offended, but…I kinda was?
Erlian, the Chinese border town, was some kind of bizarro world, for sure. The city looked nothing like any Mongolian city — wide boulevards, smooth sidewalks, blocks and blocks of new buildings that looked exactly like, I dunno, Crystal City condos — but all the signs were in Chinese and traditional Mongolian script. When I walked up to a tuk-tuk driver and asked, “Do you speak Mongolian?” he said, “I sure do, my child!”
We ended up taking a ten-hour taxi ride into Beijing. Our driver was a young Inner Mongolian named Erdene, who spoke Chinese and Mongolian (with an accent we found totally baffling). He went to lunch with us first (When he asked “Do you want to eat Mongolian food or Chinese food?” I tried not to laugh/weep). I ordered the deep fried eggplant and HOLY FUCKING SHIT:
Hunger may be the best sauce, but two years of Peace Corps service in Central Asia is a pretty good sauce, too.
So then we got in the taxi with three other passengers – a mom, dad and their toddler son, from (regular) Mongolia – and watched the countryside slowly change from Mongolian (gers, horses, sheep) to Chinese (villages, donkeys, chickens). When we reached the outskirts of Beijing, with its highways and green traffic signs and office buildings, we had the weird feeling that we had somehow accidentally gone all the way back to America. When Erdene got in a minor fender bender in the city and sprang out of the car to yell at the other driver, the dad-passenger turned around in his seat, listened to the drivers arguing in Chinese with a smirk on his face, and muttered “Ching chong shing shong.”* And when Erdene dropped us off at our guesthouse’s alley after driving around looking for it for a solid 20 minutes, Ryan shook his hand and said, “You’re a good driver.” Then we turned to walk down the alley, and Erdene drove away, and Mongolia was, for the first time, really, truly gone.
*Smart money says this will be the most hilarious moment of our trip.