It’s that time again, 60 days and another trip to the boarder to reset my visa. It seems like this past 60 days went by so quickly, but when I think where I went and what I did, I feel the opposite. I feel more like, that was one hell of a 60 day period! The unfortunate part is that I’ve only been back from the last train trip for a few days and now I’m buying a ticket for another. I’m slightly at ease knowing this time I have a bed seat and the ride is only about 10 hours.
The ride turns out to be as uneventful as it sounds. I met a nice American family and, surprisingly, they’re the first Americans I’ve met since arriving at the farm in October. It feels really good to speak with another native English speaker again, especially those from the same background. It’s really tiring to speak to people with English as their second or third language, for a whole 5 months, who get what I say, but don’t really pick up on the subtleties. I love to play with language and when I’m not able to do that it bugs me. Part of the way through the train the family tells me about their awful journey on the train with no seat, for a whole four hours! I chuckle to myself and feel happy I wasn’t on one of the 50 hour trains with no seat, like the Chinese guy nearby probably had to bear. I guess the pain is really relative and anything more than a few hours on a train with your luggage and no seat isn’t going to be enjoyable.
This time I booked a cheap hostel ahead of time. I’m off the train and everything is going smoothly as I go right on over to check in. I enter a broken down shop front to find an old couple and their young son, about my age, all sitting in a bedroom the size of most bathrooms, watching TV together. They spring up and quickly start to help me. I get a good feeling from them as we chat and laugh together.
The father takes me up stairs to my room. I ask him for some hot water, knowing then that it will have been boiled and sterilized. As he leaves, I drop down my stuff and check out the situation. There are two beds, a seat, table, fan and air conditioning, and the funniest thing I’ve seen in a broken down hotel room… A brand new desktop computer. It’s by far the newest thing in the whole hostel and maybe even the city. I’ll skip the question about having wifi. The father comes back in the room with a giant thermos of hot water that probably holds more than a few liters and a drinking glass that is closer to the size of my pinky nail. He leaves and I tell them I’ll see them in the morning. I take off the top of the water and a plume of steam shoots up. I have to admit that I’m not a very experienced cook and didn’t pay much attention in my chemistry class, but I do remember that boiling an amount of water like this couldn’t have been prepared this quickly, but it seems as though they just took this off the fire a few seconds ago for me. I pour a glass, I mean a thimble, or drop, or whatever that amount of water equals, but it certainly can’t be called a glass.
I take off my jackets and go to sit down on the bed. Like most people do with beds, I more fall onto it, but remembering where I am, I quickly realize that was a bad idea. I try to spread out my weight, but it’s too late as my butt is the only thing that hits the bed, and I can hear something snap. I’m not sure what on me just gave out, but I know for sure that the bed is fine. I’ve never in my life felt a bed as hard as this one. I felt softer rocks! I grab all the bedding from the second bed and stack it on the first one. Okay, now it’s about as hard a rock. Perfect.
I get out my toothbrush and reach for the glass of water. I don’t know what comes first, dropping the glass or me screaming. They gave me a thermos of LAVA, not water! I managed to keep enough water to get my tooth brush wet. Down the hall in the shared bathroom area I brush my teeth in the detached sink and then go to pee in the toilet room. Someone pooped in the squatty toilet and left it there. I wonder how long that’s been there… Maybe since they last had tourists, which would have been this past summer. We’re just leaving winter now, so that’s a good signal for me to slowly back out of the room without moving to fast and disturbing the new species that have been breeding here.
Back in the room, I turn the light off to go to sleep and it actually gets brighter! There are so many neon sign boards outside that my room is now coated in that creepy fake pink color that is mostly associated with things people want to forget or will never admit knowing in the first place. I guess the florescent bulb was helping to block some of that terrible neon from the room. Good thing I had plenty of preparation for terrible sleeping situations in college. I curl up on my rock and am out like a light.
The next day, I’m off with a skip in my step. I think I’m really starting to figure this living in China thing out. I know how to master the trains, the living situations, and now the borders. I get to the border right when it opens at 8:30, I won’t forget that Chinese listening error I made last time. I can hear the word for “half” now like it was the rattle of a deadly snake.
After about 30 minutes of standing on the road, I start to second-guess that confidence that just helped me glide here. A guy comes and pulls over to take me and I end up not getting the best feeling, but talk him down on the price, so I get in. We just drive down closer to the border and get out of the car to wait for more to fill his car. Ugh, this is never going to happen. I waited here because I wanted to be in a different place, most people go up into town to line up for the jeeps. I was hoping to use my foreigner charm to cheat the system a bit. I get out of his car and try to flag down more passing by.
A few hours go by and now my lack of confidence has turned into desperation. I can’t help but think of the valuable hitchhiking time I’m missing. I keep comparing this to the last trip and thinking, that by this time I was already done and headed to the edge of town. That’s my first mistake. With my style of adventure through these places, I can’t get caught up in wishing I had the same success as before. If I do that, I’ll miss the beauty and unique situation I’m in right now, at this moment. That’s the amazing part of life, no matter how many times I do the same routine, there will always be something different, something that I can notice and learn from.
Shaken out of my dissapointment I see my guy turning around to pick me up. He says that two others are coming to meet us and then we’ll all go across. A woman pulls up in her car and after some arguing I agree just to pay her the full price to take me there and back. Whatever, I just want to get this done and back on the road to Beijing. If i can do this fast enough to get back to the same train station to avoid another hotel, it will have been worth not getting the reduced price. We set off and everything through the check points goes smoothly.
On the other side of the Mongolian check point she calls me over and asks for the money. I laugh and tell her, in Chinese, that I’ll pay her after she brings me back to the Chinese side. The only problem is that she speaks fewer Chinese words than I do, wow that’s quite a feat for someone living in China. She speaks a mix of terrible Chinese, Mongolian, and Russian. We have no choice resort to pointing and making little dancy motions. She takes me over to the side returning to China and points to a guy who, after they both point back to the Chinese side, ask for the money again. I almost give it to them and then the tourist scamming signal in my head is giving me a red alert. There’s no way I’m going to be tricked by something as obvious as this. I try to go back into the building to get my passport stamped out of Mongolia, but they are clearly distressed. I tell them that they should just wait and then as I’m walking away she tells me to pay the money to the guy. There we go, now we’re all happy.
Out of the building, I see the guy and go to get back into his jeep. Before I get in, he asks for the money. I tell him no and in Chinese explain that we still have another check point and then going back into the city before I will pay him any money. He doesn’t budge. He tells me that I have to pay him the money before we go. I can see him starting to lose his patience, but there’s no way that I’m going to let this guy get my money. He could just easily leave at the Chinese check point building and since they don’t let anyone walk across any part of the crossing, I’d have to pay someone else to take me the rest of the way. I know this trick, nice try. He walks around to other jeep drivers to tell them the situation, but like him, none of them speak Mandarin. Finally, there’s a Chinese guy that speaks both of our languages. He tells me what I already know and I say that I’m not going to pay until after the guy delivers me. That’s the way all unofficial transportation goes here. My driver guy completely loses his cool and holds up his hand close to my face and says something that sounds like a terribly pronounced “fuck you”. That’s all I needed for my adrenaline to start coursing through my body. His face is now screwed into a permanent scowl. Even if I knew this guy was going to take me back, I don’t feel safe anymore, so now I have a whole new reason not to go with him. I walk away a few steps and look around to see if there are any guards in the area. There are a few, but they’re all pathetically out of shape. I’m going to have to defend myself here.
When I start to turn around I see him coming up behind me and he lashes out to aggressively grab the strap of my backpack. He tries to throw me around, but I’m much bigger than he is. I spread out my center of gravity and start to plan exactly how I’m going to put an end to this. He’s leaving all his soft parts open and has no kind of stance to hold his balance if I decide to flip him onto the ground. I wait for him to make a move before I do anything, but he just pulls out his phone to call someone. I take a deep breath and ditch the idea of any kind of physical conflict. At the very least I don’t want to hurt anyone, even if he might be only a town drunk who no one likes. On the other hand, he could be the spoiled rich son of someone powerful, so I think getting out of this without a scratch is in my best interests. He finally lets go of my bag and I walk over to his car, give him the money, and he curses a few more times before we all get into the car.
The rest of the crossing goes smoothly and he even drives us all the way back to the center of town. I start to really feel bad about the whole situation. I want to say sorry as I get out, just to maybe help him release some of the tension I’ve caused him, but don’t know what language to speak and don’t have a Mongolian translation ability on my phone.
I just leave his car with a few things on my mind. I don’t really know how this border process works, but I do realize now that he was telling me that he paid the 100 to the woman and didn’t have enough to pay the guards to get back through the Chinese side. I was just worried about not falling into a tourist trap, but didn’t pick up on all the signs that told me that the situation was probably okay. It would be easy for me to blame him and just walk away from the situation, but I can’t help but feel guilty about disrupting the whole process and making him so angry. I want to leave everywhere I go with the people happier than before I got there. I think I’ve had a pretty good track record of that with my travels so far, but lost the battle on this one. I guess it’s just something to absorb and recognize next time I’m in a situation like that.
I get back to the edge of town and start to flag cars over. I’ve already waited longer than last time and fall back into the rut of comparing to the success I had before. I take a deep breath, look around at the beautiful scenery and try to just let everything go. A few minutes later, I’m really surprised when a woman pulls over to talk to me because I’ve never had a female by herself even give me more than a second glance when I’m hitchhiking and for good reason, I wouldn’t either. She gives me a quick ride up the road and I’m happy just to be away from the edge of town. Then, after another few minutes a pickup truck pulls over to take me another few kilometers down the road. Now I’m really off in the middle of nowhere. This is absolutely a perfect hitchhiking situation in my book.
Like clockwork, another few minutes go by and some guys pull over to get me. Three younger guys all jump out to clear out the fourth seat for me. I tell them I’m going to Beijing and they say that even though they won’t reach there, they’ll take on the way there. It’s nice to talk to people to understand the idea of hitchhiking. Most of my time is spent explaining that it’s okay that we don’t reach my destination, I just want to go a bit further down the road.
I find out that these guys are going to another province on the other side of Beijing and tell me that they’ll be able to bring me all the way back. Woah, this is the best situation I could possibly get from the Mongolian border! This is even better than last time… Wait, stop comparing, idiot!
We chat a bit and I quickly realize that these are good guys. We quickly get to the point of teasing each other and laughing at each others’ silliness. Again, I feel so blessed to find these people who I connect with so quickly. It really gives me hope for people after running into some like that jeep driver. It’s amazing to me how the ups and down of this kind of travel are like an exaggerated version of “normal” life and I really love every second. I get the chance to learn how to smooth out myself as I ride on both extremes. We stop quite a bit to get out and stretch and pee and I really like the relaxed feeling I get around these guys. I feel like I’m around my buddies back home. I don’t get that same kind of anxiety I get from most younger Chinese people, especially those in the cities. One time, we stop and even though I don’t feel like I have to pee I go over to try, just like my mom always told me after a long trip, but my feeling was correct. The main voice of the guys asks me if there was no pee and I laugh and tell him I couldn’t find any. It sounds so crude in Chinese, but much funnier than in English. They continue to tease me about that and I’m really appreciative of good friends who can tease each other, especially when they add me to the fun so quickly.
They end up driving me all the way to the subway station to take the rest of the way back to the farm where I’ll register my living arrangements with the local police. Every time I leave and come back I have to register where I’m staying. I was explained it’s China’s way of keeping track of their foreigners to make sure they are in safe situations. China would be missing out a lot if something happened to their expat community.
I get to the subway at about 7 and hurry all the way out to the end of the line where I will then take an hour long bus to get to the farm. After a few minutes not seeing the buses, I check the board and see that all my options stopped about an hour ago. I check my phone and see another option just one stop back on the subway. The subway is open until 11:30, so I don’t have to worry about that. After getting to the new spot I find out that those buses have also stopped. I talk to the farm woman, but she tells me to get a hotel and continue in the morning. If I were visiting the Lin farm, they would have already been here waiting for me, no questions asked. There’s something that feels really different here in Beijing and I don’t like it one bit.
I rush back down the subway at about 10:50, but the guard tells me that even though it’s not 11:30, the train won’t go all the way back to the school before it stops for the night. I take a deep sigh, try to think of someway out, but realize I have to give up and get a hotel. Exactly what I was trying to avoid. I go to the only hotel in the area and find out it’s nearly the price of my entire trip! At first I’m dissapointed, but then I figure after living so frugally the rest of the time, maybe it’s time to treat myself a little bit. A little bit is exactly what happens. The room is not even close to meeting the cost, but there’s nothing I can do now so I take a shower and fall fast asleep on a real, non-rock bed.