Monday, July 9, 2012

I was so hungry...

...that I actually ate a horse. Well, maybe not a whole horse. It was more like two bites of my friend Lucky's horse, but was still my first taste of horsemeat. It tasted a bit like beef mixed with tuna. No joke.

So clearly, I'm in Mongolia, as you probably gathered from my last post. But before I get too ahead of myself, let's go back to the beginning: Beijing.

Those aren't clouds. That's just smog.

I landed on Wednesday night and actually got picked up by my couchsurfing host, Xuehua, at the airport. This was amazing since it was already nearly midnights and public transportation had stopped running. Her apartment was super swanky, as were her tastes, but that worked out well for me since she ended up taking me out to some delicious chinese restaurants. I forgot to take pictures of the good stuff, unfortunately, but I do have this picture of my meat-on-a-stick and soy milk cup lunch to hold you foodies over:

Om nom
 In my two days in Beijing I only really got to see two sights: Tienanmen square (top) and the 798 art exhibition. Other than that I just wandered around and tried to figure out how to get to Mongolia. The wandering let me practice my fledgling Chinese when eventually I started asking people how to get to the subway station, which happened to be about a 10km bus ride away (my host had dropped me off without telling me where I was).

The getting to Mongolia bit actually ended up being easier than I expected. Xuehua picked me up along with another couchsurfer from Spain/France, Jean. He didn't stay with us, but he was also heading up to UB taking the slow route and had met some other travelers at the Mongolian embassy who had helped him out. It turned out that all of the buses to Erlian, the border town, were sold out. Luckily, one of the travelers, Miao, is Chinese and found a guy on the black market who was selling bus tickets. I had to bump my departure date up by a day to go along with them, but it was totally worth it. Our posse now consisted of myself, Jean, Miao, Miao's boyfriend Aaron (from Kent, WA, actually), and Roberto, a Panamanian.

The bus to Erlian was a 12-hour sleeper bus. I've never been on a sleeper bus before, and my first assumption was that I would definitely not fit. I am significantly larger than the average Chinese person. As you can see:

Tall man in a little bed

 The bed actually ended up being surprisingly comfortable, or maybe it was just me, but I slept soundly through the night. Then I woke up to dinosaurs:

Welcome to Jurassic Park (Inner Mongolia)

The Gobi desert is where some of the first dinosaur fossils were found. As we approached Erlian, it became apparent that someone is really proud of this. After the brontosaurus archway we drove for another several kilometers flanked by life-size statues of dinosaurs roaming the desert.

While on the bus, we met Zoloo, Helle and Helle's mother and younger brother, all Mongolians. Zoloo spoke English and was more than happy to teach us some Mongolian and to help us cross the border. This friendship proved invaluable as Miao's Chinese became less and less useful the further north we went and we started relying more and more on our Mongolian friends' help. Our posse thus grew to 9. Then we arrived at the station in Erlian and the girl sleeping behind me introduced herself as a Korean traveling alone named Heijin. Now we are 10.

The plan was to get train tickets in Erlian, then to cross the border to Zamin-Uud via minibus to catch the train that would take us 15 hours north to Ulaan Baatar. The problem was that we were not the only ones with the same plan. The Nadaam festival is happening this week in Mongolia and everyone is on summer vacation, so there is a surge towards UB and nearly everything is sold out. We decided to try our luck anyway and wait in line for tickets in Erlian.

And wait we did. We arrived at 6am, but the ticket counter didn't open until 9am. we were a good ways back in the line by the time we got there, but "lines" are a fairly loose social construct here, so there was a lot of jostling for position for the next three hours. When the gate finally opened, they let us know that there were no tickets left, so all of our waiting was in vain anyway. Here's a picture of a couple Israelis getting pulled out of line by the police because they cut everyone off:

The "line" for tickets

Not to be deterred by a lack of tickets, we made our way for the border anyway. At this point, it was already too late to cross in the morning. Obviously the border guards have to take a lunch break from 11-1:30 every day, so we waited some more. Luckily I could do it in style in our super official minibus:

I'm sure it's official. Just ask that lady
Then we crossed the happiest border in the world:

Nothing says "welcome to the chinese exit" like a rainbow

 And then we got to the train station:

Zamin-Uud station

But, we still didn't have tickets. Despite arming our Mongolian savior, Zoloo, with all of our passports and some well-trained elbows, they still wouldn't sell her any tickets, much less 10 of them. On to plan B: Jumping the train, bribing the ticket-checker until later when we could buy a ticket from the conductor. We had heard that it was possible and had been done the week before, so we were hopeful.Once tre train arrived, though, we saw that there were two officers posted at every door checking tickets and passports. Wah wah.

On to plan C: The black market. This worked well for us in Beijing, so maybe it would work here? We were down to under an hour until the train arrived and several of us ran around trying to find scalpers to sell us tickets. The Mongolians were having better luck, as the scalpers would triple the price for us foreigners or just walk away when we drew attention to them. Even then, they only had a few tickets and wouldn't be able to get all of us on the train. It was looking like we were going to have to spend the night in Zamin-Uud and hope for the best the next day.

But then there's Plan D: The blacker market. Miao met a Chinese guy somehow who knew the conductor on the train. He talked to the conductor and got her to sneak us on to the train, into a locked cabin that was set aside for just such a purpose, to then pay her 150% of the original price later on. Mission accomplished:

Me, Jean, Roberto, Heijin, Miao and Aaron in our reserved cabin
6 people in a 4-bunk cabin for 15 hours actually ended up being quite comfortable (our Mongolian friends had their own cabin). Another pleasant surprise from Mongolian transport, which I had been led to believe was absolutely terrible. They even had a restaurant car with Mongolian food:

Lamb, fat, egg, rice, potatoes, mmm

Then we went a long, long way across the desert and steppe:
Choo choo

Until we finally arrived in UB:
Roberto, Aaron, Me, Miao, Jean, Heijin, Zoloo, Helle, Helle's Mom

 I was hoping to stay with a family in a homestay in UB, but that fell through. Apparently there was some miscommunication. What I was thinking would be more like a couchsurfing setup with me covering some food costs was what they were thinking would be more like a rich American comes to town and throws money everywhere. After speaking with Batka, my connection in the city, I declined and opted to stay in the guest house for a couple of nights until I figured out my next plans.

I was worried that the guest house would separate me from interacting with locals, but I actually was able to luck out again. Although I'm still seeing the posse from Beijing quite a bit, Aaron has some students of his who are from UB who have been showing us around and teaching us Mongolian. Their names are Snake, Tsogol and something I can't pronounce that means "Lucky". Yesterday we settled in and had a birthday party for Helle, today I wandered around the city before we went to the gigantic statue of Chinggis Khaan and ate some delicious Khoshuur (fried lamb dumplings), horsemeat, and fermented horse milk.
Lucky, my Mongolian teacher. It helps that he doesn't speak English
On the way to the Chinggis Khaan statue, we saw police officers lining the road every half kilometer or so for miles and miles. The only explanation I got from our Mongolian friends was "something for Government". I shrugged it off as Mongolian weirdness until a policecar with lights blaring came driving down the middle of the road the opposite direction demanding that all cars pull over and stop indefinitely. So we did.
Waiting for the motorcade
And we saw a truck full of Camels and goats:

Transport in Mongolia isn't uncomfortable just for people

And then a motorcade drove by. The Mongolians I asked said that it was "president" or "ambassador" or "government something", so I felt pretty excited to be seeing what I thought would be the Mongolian president's motorcade. Upon reading the news just now, it turns out it was Hilary Clinton coming to visit. I've never seen her in the US, so of course I should run across our Secretary of State in Outer Mongolia.

By the time we got to the statue I was tired of paying for things, so I opted not to go inside the museum and just to watch my companions wave from atop the great Khaan's noble steed:
Man, with a horse that big no wonder he took over the world.
So that's what life is like on my end. I'll try to keep the updates coming! I'll leave you with this to drool over until next time:
Khoshuur. Delicious.


  1. That's kind of an awesome statue! When will you get to ride one of these horses? Or are you enjoying eating them too much?


  2. PS- keep the updates coming. I'd rather read them than listen in class.


  3. Wow, what an amazing start to your journey! And great writing by the way. I'm sure there is a ton you could say but you have a nice blend of details and commentary while keeping it moving and exciting:) Looking forward to hearing more! I hope you learn a lot from Lucky...