Day 89: Zamiin-Uud to Erlian , Challenging China

Dressed in warm clothes, I sit in the metal jeep and gaze out the window.
Nothing to do but wait and ruminate.

By 9am I’m packed and ready to go and at 9:05 there is a knock on my hotel room door.

Bataa is young and polite. He drives a blue Russian jeep, which is in a state of semi-disrepair.

But it’s obviously fit for purpose. With no time for teary goodbyes, we head straight for the border. The pavements and fields are blanketed in fresh snow, and the skies are grey and foreboding. The weather perfectly complements my excitement and unease, feelings which I reserve for life-defining moments such as important exams, job interviews, court appearances and business meetings. Any event with tangible fallout should it not go as planned.

With this being only my third land border crossing, I’m still nervous about the potential for things to go awry. Inconvenient skeletons of convenience, long-forgotten issues from my entry now become relevant again. What exactly did I write on that form and what does that mean now?

In contrast with my strict but leisurely passage between Russia/Nauski and Mongolia/Sukhbaatar, my exit from Mongolia/Zamiin-Uud is far more energetic and intense. Hauling seven of my eight bags inside, I leave the last bag, and the Troll, with Bataa. After paying the T 1000 (NZD 0.77) departure tax, the female border official asks me something about a machine. I assume that this is my undeclared bicycle and I reply that it’s back in the jeep. My departure card only declares small amounts of foreign currency, which she ignores.

Receiving my departure stamp, I drag the seven bags back outside, whereupon Bataa arrives and we reload the baggage into his jeep. We then pass several checkpoints, at each of which he sprints into the booth to get a piece of paper. His form and efficiency are stunning and it’s clear that he is well practiced, constant trips across the border constituting his livelihood.

We then drive to Chinese immigration. Here we join a muted, pastel parade of Russian jeeps. Breaking the silence, Bataa states the obvious: you owe me money. Given the likely duration of our stay here, his demand seems unnecessarily efficient. I hand him Y 100 (NZD 23.94) and he doesn’t offer any change.

Cash in hand, drivers exit their jeeps to light up cigarettes and inspect the outward flow, leaving their anxious cargo to ruminate.

After several minutes a random man jumps into our jeep, then we’re off into China.

At Chinese immigration, the random man ‘helpfully’ takes my bike in first.

I’d have preferred some help with my many bags and I wonder if I will see my Troll again. But when I struggle in the doorway with my awkward load, there he is.

He tries to push me to the front of the queue. The other Mongols object, but he explains something and they smile and laugh. An official takes him to another queue, where he’s processed immediately. I assume this is why he helped, because then he leaves and doesn’t look back.

At the immigration counter, the official asks for my arrival card, which I don’t have. I’m used to being handed these on aeroplanes, but while I saw Bataa filling one in earlier he didn’t provide one for me.

Thankfully the official kindly provides one and I fill it in, with a blank for where I am staying. I am also processed quickly and sent on my way with a Have a nice day.

But I don’t make it far. As my bags go through the security scanner, my laptop sets off a red flag and three officials take me to one side. I am told to Open it. And then Please, after they look this up. The man wants to see Explorer so I show him the Finder, nervously hoping that he doesn’t recognise my VPN apps. But I needn’t have worried. Clearly not a Mac user, he struggles to find his way around the file system. The two ladies laugh and hassle him - clearly this is pointless, but he is adamant that he needs to check. Ignoring him, one of the ladies asks what my job is and what I will do in China, keying my answers into her computer. Then I’m free to go.

I haul my bags outside with the help of a stranger. It’s a cold, grey day in China/Inner Mongolia/Erenhot/Erlian and I’d cynically expected as much. Jeeps congregate under a rainbow arch, their drivers urgently puffing on cigarettes in preparation for the trip back. I stand there awkwardly for a few minutes until Bataa arrives, with relief as the Troll’s racks are still in his jeep.

Although it’s only morning, I need to get my bearings before heading onwards.

I draw a child’s picture of a wide building with a clock tower. It’s supposed to represent the AN TAH (Antai), the hotel recommended by the Five Dollar Travellers. But nothing rings a bell and so, keen to avoid the prolonged embarrassment of Manzhouli, I show Bataa the letter from my Mongol friends, a Y 100 note, max, and add my sole requirement of Wi-Fi.

My strict criteria leads us to the dilapidated Ken Te Hotel. An efficient 20 seconds away, its rooms are Y 108 (NZD 25.85). But it’ll do.

I check in, while Bataa roars off to serve another customer. The hotel staff let me lock the Troll in their store room, hand me two 7-9am breakfast tickets and assign me room 8316, which I locate on level three of the five story building.

My room has everything I need: a wardrobe, sitting chair, footstool, TV, desk and water filter and of course a large bed and bathroom.

The hotel information folder has photos of the hotel when it was new. It looks like a grand affair and, on the face of things, not too dissimilar to the room I find myself in now. The Chinese certainly have a reputation for building great things.

However, a closer look reveals chipped furniture in the bedroom and water damaged door frames in the bathroom area. It’s as if the room’s high occupancy rate wasn’t taken into account when choosing the building materials. It makes the hotel feel dated and shabby and I wonder how old it really is.

Staying true to my misgivings, I’ve decided to skip China and head to Laos.

Bordered by five countries, including China, it seems like a close and interesting option - and at this time of year a warm one.

I just need to organise some transport. But the Wi-Fi is open and flakey and I’m quickly reminded of how exhausting telecommunicating is in China. Neither of my VPN apps work, so I insert my New Zealand SIM card back into my iPhone and buy NZD 50 of expensive Spark credit with the intention of booking over 3G. But this doesn’t work either.

Mentally exhausted, I head to bed for a frustrated, snorey nap.

When I wake I head outside on foot, keen to clear my head and find a train out of here.

But once outside, I’m surprised to find that the weather has improved greatly. Blue sky and sunshine light up Erlian and the compact, navigable train station is a golden temple in the late afternoon sun. Rather than beckoning me to leave, it invites me to stay and I wonder if my energy would be better spent on navigating China’s challenges, rather than battling to escape them.

The streets are quiet, but I do spot a few cyclists, seemingly undeterred by the recent snow fall. Official buildings are large and well-presented without being too grand or garish, and the structures and sidewalks are sparsely decorated with interesting motifs and art.

On the face of it, Inner Mongolia seems like a highly gentrified version of its Wild West neighbour.

Gone are the traditional Mongol cloaks, here retailers sell smart-casual, with Main Street mannequins modelling dark jeans and sport coats with clean lines and low profile collars.

But, Mongol culture lives on in other ways. Grabbing a plate of meat/rice/veggies and a bottle of fizz from a cafe (¥ 29 / NZD 6.94), I’m surprised to find that the local newspaper is printed in vertical Mongol script. This was once the norm in Outer Mongolia, until a period of communist rule by Russia, which saw their Cyrillic script imposed instead (opens new window). Mongolia regained its independence following the bloodless revolution of 1990, but the Cyrillic script remains the status quo, due in part to better support by computer software (opens new window). I expected Outer Mongolian culture to be even more watered down here in Inner Mongolia due to the Chinese influence, but it seems that the local culture is actually staunchly unique in this respect.

Back at my hotel, I switch on the TV and catch the local weather, hoping to get an inkling of what I might be letting myself in for.

The female presenter waves her arm over a map of the country, a handful of icons providing a very high-level summary of weather patterns over this gigantic landmass.

Erlian appears to be sandwiched between two beaming suns, while there are a couple of clouds between here and Hong Kong. A low of just -2C is forecast. It all sounds deliciously balmy compared to Outer Mongolia.