Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Mister Magoo Goes To Mongolia

Tuesday morning we were up and early and off to the Beijing train station, where they were just starting to board the Mongolia Special. Since I'd been saving so much on accommodation, I had decided to go whole hog and get the 'deluxe' 2 person sleeper, complete with easy chair and private bath. When we reached our compartment, however, it was a little disappointing. The decor looked like out of the 1950's and the private bath consisted of a small washbasin. Oh well, at least we had our own small private space.

The train got under way, we slowly got to the edge of Beijing, and then started climbing through the hills that surround the north of the city, passing the Great Wall one more time on our way to barbarianland. The small mountains didn't last too long, and pretty soon we were traversing a flat sandy brown plain that was growing some sandy brown green vegetation. And it was pretty much that unscenic way for the rest of the day, only getting sandy browner. The housing also degenerated into sandy brown concrete block hovels, kind of like in Africa.

And I know how much you like to hear about other people's medical problems, but since the day before I had become more and more allergic to China. Sixteen benadryl had been popped in six hours to little or no effect. Needless to say, I was totally miserable, and just hoping that whatever pollen it was that was doing it didn't live in Mongolia, too.

So the sun went down and the train kept a rollin'. All night long. Except that at around eight thirty it pulled into the Chinese side of the Mongolia border. We got our passports stamped, and then everyone on the train got off and waited for over two hours while they took said train into a shed where they lifted each car and replaced it on top of wheels that fit Mongolian/Russian tracks.

Now whenever I'm being international I always carry my passport, extra money, and important papers in a daypack I can hold tight to me so that we don't get separated. Very little crime in the rest of the world is violent, and I figure that, given Asian standards I'm a pretty big, tough dude, no one's going to mess with me.

Anyhow, around eleven the train pulls back up and they motion for us all to get on. Sumi and I are engrossed in a conversation, and as we saunter all the way over to the track and find our car, I notice that we're about the last people to get on. We make our way to our cabin and I notice that there doesn't seem to be as much junk on my bed as usual. Let's see, there's the one daypack. The other daypack is right here on my... Oh, friggin crap, where the hell is it?

By now there are guards on the platform posted at every car's entrance. I yell 'passport' and jump off the train past them. A mad 150 yard dash later, in the station hall, and bounding up the stairs to... Oh no, it's not there! My mind says, 'you senile fool, maybe you had taken it off already at the cabin and that's why it wasn't on your shoulder'.

Another 150 yard dash back to the train. The guards don't want to let me back on, but finally I get past them. Back to the cabin and nothing there. Okay, back to the station hall. Now they really don't want me to get off. I frantically yell 'passport' again and start the 'feets don't fail me now' bit. My mind is just starting to wrap itself around the reality that Sumi is about to take off with all our baggage, and I'm about to be stuck on the Chinese Mongolia border with no money and the nearest ATM about 500 miles away when...

I see these two Red Army ladies sauntering towards me with my daypack. Bless their Communist Chinese hearts! I take it and bound back towards the train and back to my compartment where I quickly lie down just in case there was a heart attack coming on. Then, once my breath returns, I bang my head against the wall seven times so as to punish myself.

Well, it turned out that my heart was just fine. And it turned out that my passport had been in my pants pocket all along. And it turned out that the train didn't take off for another half hour. Still, in a less honest country I might have never seen my other important papers and around $900 in cold hard cash ever again.

It took until 1 am to finish with Mongolian customs, and then everyone on the train finally got a chance to sleep.

I woke up around 8 am surrounded by the flatness of the Gobi desert. In case you're interested, it looks pretty much like eastern Wyoming, even down to the open pit coal mines. And as the day progressed all that changed was that small hills started to emerge. Yes, there were gers (Mongolian yurts) along the way, but I kept missing the really great picture.

Around two thirty we got to Ulan Batur. For some reason I thought that the mountains around it would be semi-majestic and pine covered. Uh-uh. They were just medium sized hills and they were as bleak and brown as the grubbier parts of Nevada.

The outskirts of UB were also kind of grubby, reminding me of a ramshackle Native Canadian town in the far north. As we pulled into the train station my mind, however, was still kind of expecting to see brightly costumed, friendly yak herders.

No such luck there, either. UB isn't as creepy as old Soviet towns, but neither is it all that uptown. It seemed more prosperous than a lot of third world countries I've been, although I don't know for the life of me how anyone can earn much of a living in a much poorer version of eastern Wyoming.

We walked a couple of blocks over to the international ticket office, where I needed to buy a ticket for Moscow. The bad news was that there weren't any spaces on the two person compartment cars. The good news was that a four person space cost less than $100 for a four day trip. Also, I can try to upgradw once I'm on the train.

Next we had to find a place to stay. The LP highly recommended Gana's Guesthouse, so we stopped the first cab and gave him the name and address. Not a flicker of recognition. Okay, how about another cab. And another. It became clear that most all Mongolian cab drivers neither know where anything is nor comprehend even the most basic English.

So we tried our second option, the UB Guesthouse. This time the driver said he knew exactly where it was. But when he took us to the giant Soviet era UB Hotel, we knew that he didn't. Next we got the English speaking doorman there to give him directions. A few minutes later he had found it and I gave him 1000 Togreg (about a dollar). Except that a guy standing there said after he drove off, 'Why did you give him 10,000 Togreg?'

By now I was feeling totally Magoo-ish. I walked upstairs to the UB guesthouse and found it to be kind of a backpacker dump. And a totally full backpacker dump at that. Never to mind, when we went downstairs the same guy pointed to a pink building a couple of blocks away, and said 'Dream Hotel. Very nice. $20 a night.'

So, lugging our luggage, we walked over there. Except the Dream Hotel didn't have any rooms. Okay, next door was the New Dream Hotel. And they had a room for $35 a night. All nice and clean, except when I went up to check it out there was only one bed.

Being a friendly Mongolian, however, the lady at reception started calling every other hotel she could think of. Finally after about twenty minutes she came up with one that had a room available: Gana's Guesthouse. Which at this point was a fifteen minute walk away. And towards which, given our luck with cabs so far, we started to walk.

Gana was waiting for us when we arrived and showed us to our simple but clean room. Sumi took a shower to try and wash the dusty grumpiness out of her, and then we walked a few blocks to the California Restaurant where we overate with every American restaurant baked cheese dish that had been unavailable to us in China.

Walking around UB trying to find an ATM and then on the way back, we were both struck, as we had been in China, with the normality of it all and the comparative lack of grinding poverty that one sees in Latin America or Africa. China we could understand, given how many mass produced consumer goods they are selling to everywhere, including Latin America and Africa. But how in the world is Mongolia doing it?

Right now I don't really care, though. I just want to go to sleep.


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