I’ve officially been in China for sixty days, so that means it’s time for a run to the border. It’s the fastest and cheapest to go to Mongolia, so…off I go.
As far as I understand, which doesn’t go much past the end of my foot, I can take a train there and then after I arrive, I can get a train ticket back the next day. Easy enough.
The ride there lasts for about eleven hours. For the last bit of the trip, I talk to my other train-car mates who are both Mongolian women. They start putting on their warm clothes and getting ready, but I’m confused because it’s only ten PM and the schedule said we arrive closer to one AM. I repeat my clarification a few times and each time understand that they’re getting off earlier, but for some reason that’s confusing to me. I get back on the bed and soon after, a guard comes in and tells me to leave. I confirm to him, in Chinese, that we’ve arrived in Erlian, the border city.
I’m so confused about why the women would have left like that. I feel like someone is playing a bad joke on me. I stay near the train for a while to make sense of everything as the people from the train pour out of the gates leading outside of the station. After a few more minutes of checking my surroundings, I walk out to the street and there is no one around. Where did all those people from the train go? I talk to the station guard and he is giddy about being able to speak to a foreigner, that’ he’ll do anything to keep our conversation going. He walks me over to the ticket desk, which isn’t the spacious terminal I was hoping to be able to spend the night in, to get a ticket back the next day. The only train going back leaves in two days! Okay, this joke isn’t funny anymore. When is someone going to laugh and show me their return ticket, and the nice warm train terminal to sleep? I have to wait a whole extra day and then that ticket is still another two day roundabout journey, unlike my direct ride here.
Now giggling at this ridiculous situation, I tell them I’m going to come back to buy the ticket tomorrow. I’m determined to find another option in the meantime. I walk over to an international terminal, which is much closer to the size I was expecting, sit down with the guards, and watch as all twenty of them argue over my possibilities back to Beijing.
They tell me that I can go to a city just inside Mongolia and then get a direct train back tomorrow. That sounds like a good plan and a way to avoid the border jeep drivers that try to fool foreigners into paying more than necessary.
As I’m talking with everyone, one of the Mongolian women comes into the terminal, scurrying through security, and before I can say anything, I look back to her and she’s gone again. Okay, I think I know the culprit in this trick now. Maybe she’s a magician practicing a new illusion. I go through security and remember I added her on a social media app that allows calls. I’ll call her and see if my option in Mongolia is a good one. I’m brilliant! I open the app, and, of course, no trace of adding her just minutes ago.
With another, “What the hell?” chuckle, I head to the ticket window and see that she’s actually just inside talking to the clerk. Not much of an illusion; no wonder she’s still working on it. I find out there is no train back from that spot in Mongolia, so I decide to spend the night here and do my original back-and-forth-land-border-crossing plan.
I can’t stay at the terminal, mostly because it’s just too small and I’d be the only one here other than the guards. So, the Mongolian woman walks me through the abandoned street to find a hotel.
The next morning, I’m up at six to walk to the border and that gives me plenty of time before it opens, around eight. Before I leave, I put on both pair of long underwear and two pair of socks along with my ski coat, followed by thick jean material for extra warmth.
The sun hasn’t risen yet, but I’m completely warm, so I’m excited for the exploration walk to the border. I ask some people for directions and then find the obvious main road leading to the main destination, and probably the very purpose of this town’s existence. I walk by a park and hear people screaming, just like I heard at that park on my way from Sichuan to Beijing. This time I actually see a couple of people doing some arm swings while they yell, so it must be some kind of warm up exercise. Sounds fun because there is just enough violence, but no one is getting hurt. Especially me. Maybe I’ll try it another time because I’m on a mission here.
I hitch a ride to the border, which is only about half a kilometer away. Already, my feet are getting cold and I hope I can get my driver to give me a ride all the way through. No luck. He’s a worker and is going only to the gate, which I can’t enter because I’m too early.
I wait by the gate as the sun rises and as the wind goes from nonexistent to being able to knock me off balance if I’m not standing well. My feet start to get a lot colder, but I figure it’s almost eight, when the guard told me the gate would open. A few minutes past eight, I ask him to enter and he says it opens at half past. I tell him it’s my fault for not listening well and then tell him I’ll wait. This is all in Chinese, so I probably also messed up the tones and just insulted his mother.
It’s too cold to wait outside for another thirty minutes, so I go to a bus stop to sit down and put on my other three pair of socks. I get the first three on my right foot and then can barely get my foot back in my shoe. Before I start on my left foot, I realize my hands are stinging really bad and when I take a good look, they’re swollen and red. I just had them out for a minute to put the socks on! Somehow, I manage to get the rest of the socks on and then jump up to move around to let my hands and feet recover.
I’m now literally dancing with the wind as I leave one foot and float a few steps away before it blows me back to where I started. The guards must think I’m nuts. I don’t care, though, because now my big toes are throbbing worse than they have the entire time and this is after the socks are on. “It’s okay…just ten minutes left,” I say through chattering teeth.
The time comes, but when I talk to the guard, he tells me I can’t enter without being in a car. Are you kidding me? He didn’t tell me that the other ten times I asked about entering.
I walk back up the road and one of the old Russian jeeps, meant specifically for the border, pulls up to offer me a ride. He tells me I must pay him fifty Yuan, which is half of what I feared, so I hop in.
The whole process is easy and I catch another jeep on the way back that takes me all the way back into the middle of town. I’m back just twenty minutes past the time the only train would leave today. After some scrambling to figure out how to get to the train station, I drop that idea and get filled with energy to hitchhike. My body regains its warmth and I have a great backup plan if it doesn’t work, so I go for it.
Before I get on the road, I eat a huge meal to hold me over for the foreseeable future. It was so much food, I think I’m still full.
As I walk toward the edge of town, I have a bit of a strut to my step. I really think I’ve figured this hitchhiking thing out by now. It’s been wildly successful in three different countries now, one of which was on a completely different continent. I go through my normal routine of finding that one road that leads out of town and getting far enough to be completely out of place to get people’s attention, but not far enough to put myself in any kind of danger. The last thing I would ever do hitchhiking is stick out my thumb. I think that evokes too many images in peoples’ minds from movies or stories. I think it would stir up that terrible image about the hitchhiker-killer movie they saw. So, instead, I still use the technique that I first developed in Ghana. I point down the road, as if I’m Babe Ruth calling my shot over the fence, and then with my palm down, wave my hand toward the ground. This seems to be an international signal to tell someone to stop. At the same time I try to think about how crazy I must look and how crazy I actually feel, and then that gets me to giggle to myself. That’s really about it. It’s not rocket science. Using that same routine, I get picked up within a half hour and the guy offers to take me to the linking town between trains I would have been on if I had caught the only morning train.
The first few hours of the ride are stunningly beautiful. The sun is out overhead of us, but there are clouds off in the horizon. It looks really strange, like all the clouds fell to the Earth.
I also notice that the wind is blowing the snow from the right side of the road to the left, creating white streaks across the ground. A few times, the wined would switch and the streaks would go with our car and it would look like we were driving through the clouds. I felt safe the whole time because the guy was driving very slowly. As we got farther, I realize that those aren’t clouds that fell to the ground. (I’m sure reading this you’re probably thinking, “Uh, duh”) Those lovely land clouds are actually the wind whipping up the snow in such a fury that it looks like a cloud. Soon, we enter that wind…
There’s probably already a name for this, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it, so I’m calling it a cloud storm. Keep in mind that the sky above is still blue and I can still see the sun lower on the horizon, barely shining through. It’s a storm from the ground up. Everything about this trip is backwards.
We get a break in the storm and get some really beautiful scenery again.
Even the windmills aren’t moving in this intense win. I guess it’s all on the ground, or the sky, or wherever the hell we actually are. Maybe it’s a dream. I’ll take a picture anyway.
They’re furrier than normal, but those horses still look cold to me!
Just as the sun is setting we arrive in a town, outside of where I need to catch the train. He drops me off at the bus station and we part our ways. In the station, I find that there are no more buses today and I’ll have to wait until tomorrow. That means that after all that, I still will be getting on the same train that I hitchhiked to avoid waiting for. Again, I have a good backup plan here, so I go to the edge of town.
The wind is blowing so hard on my way there that I have to lean my body weight into my steps to make any kind of progress. This is not the same fun win I danced with at the border. This one wants to take off my head. I use some buildings by the edge of town to block the wind and start to flag down some cars. A guy pulls over and offers me a ride, but wants me to pay. With no idea how much the ride should be, I end up declining his offer, and I still have a few hours to find another ride. He comes by a few more times and the last time I start to feel a bit cold, so I give in and tell him I’ll pay him. I guess this ride would probably be close to the cost of a hotel and it would save me an entire day, so it’s set. He actually ends up giving me great practice for my Chinese because he’s really talkative and knows absolutely zero English. Having the attention span of a gold fish, I learned, as a child, to understand what people were saying, but listening to 1/10th of what they were actually saying. That skill has really come in handy since I’ve been traveling abroad and learning new languages, especially right now on this ride. I fake my way through most of our conversation by picking up on the few words I know and then responding with the Chinese I’m much more familiar with. A couple of times though, he catches on to my strategy and then I admit that I don’t understand at all. He’s good about trying to say things in different ways, so after a bit of struggle with his questions, we get to the point where I’m able to respond. I haven’t really put my Chinese to the test like this yet, so it feels good knowing I can hold my own. I had to ask for clarification quite a few times, but I was still able to answer most of his questions and keep the conversation going.
At the train station, I buy a ticket, but they had no beds available, just a seat. I had a bed going there but I didn’t want to sleep during the day, and now, on my way back, when I do want to sleep, I can only get a seat. Everything continues to be backwards and that makes me laugh at its ridiculousness. I go into a small grocery store to get some snacks before the ride and when I enter, everyone stops what they are doing to stare at me. I can even hear them comment about me, where I’m from, and what they think I’m doing. I break the tension when I talk to one of the ladies in Chinese and she nearly melts in her shoes. Her friends are all giggling in the background. At the cash register, I get the most attractive there and when I walk up she pumps her fist toward her friends. As we’re talking two more people come up really close, don’t say anything, and just watch me like they are examining a newly discovered species.
On my way back to the train station, I’d say at least half the people I pass give me a big smile and their best pronunciation of “Hello!” Each time, that was the only English word spoken, but I still appreciate the effort. In the station, I sit down and can see people all around looking at me and commenting to the people around them. One old man even stops before he enters a door and extends both his arms to usher me in first. Whoa, I haven’t seen anything close to this yet in China. A man and woman come to sit down and the man nudges her to sit down right next to me. I stop to look at the, but they’re painfully shy. At the first break in their conversation I turn and greet them both. That was all I needed to start the waterfall of Chinese that comes out of this woman’s mouth. She goes through that common script that I got used to in Ghana and it suddenly hits me that I’ve gone back into “Ghana mode”. The way people are acting around me has shocked my imagination like I’m back in my small village for the first time. As the three of us continue to talk, people start to come over and crowd around us. Again, they are not talking, just staring at me with mouths agape. They ask to see my passport and rapidly chatter at each page they flip through. The couple leave and so does the crowd. Then, a young man comes over to sit next to me an it seems as if he has been sitting there the entire time trying to build up the courage to make the move to approach me. I smile and start to converse with him. In the middle of our conversation, I notice a man across the hall who is staring at me, and when I look back, he doesn’t look away. I randomly look back at him and each time he is still staring at me. I finally forget about him, until he gets up and comes a few feet away from me to get a closer look at my face by leaning down to catch my gaze. He is acting like I’m something he doesn’t believe. Then, he turns around and sits back in his seat without saying one word!
I board the train at 10 PM and luckily no one is sitting next to me, so I’m able to put my bag on the seat and pass out. After the train I took in Thailand, I’m much more used to this and fall fast asleep. The only difference with China, that I hope I never get used to, is the amount of smoking. I can’t stand the smoking here and if I were to get up and walk out or tell someone not to do it, I would fail at fostering any relationships with men over the age of thirty. As far as my experience goes, nearly all of them smoke and not in moderation.
I arrive in Beijin at 4 AM and wait for the subway to open at 5, where I take it back to school. I get to the room and get ready to pass out for a few hours before finding that someone is sleeping in my bed. Goldilocks? From start to finish, this experience is backward and I guess I should have expected something like this. By the end of this, I want to learn how to find comfort in a life absent of my usual routines and comforts. Either that, or I’ll go crazy and leave here screaming. I guess we’ll see soon enough.