the border crossing, read at your own risk

Here is the second of my notebook posts. This one was written on September 26, 2012.  Warning: Concerned parents and friends, this might be one of those stories you don’t want to know about.  It happened, it was probably the result of a stupid decision sometime before, but we made it out OK, so don’t  give me any flack for it! Continue at your own risk.

“On the morning of the 22nd we were still in Listvyanka.  We knew that we had to get to Ulaan Baatar, in Mongolia, by the morning of the 24th, so that we could go on an orientation with the Ger to Ger organization before our scheduled trek into the Gobi on the 25th.

To get there we had heard about several options, all involving a return to Irkutsk.  Listvyanka was so small that the only way into and out of it, for travelers, was via marshrutka to Irkutsk, or via a ferry across the river to the almost as tiny Port Baikal. We felt like the three bears deciding between our next travel step, and hoping there was no big bad wolf lying in wait.

The first option, Option A, involved a thirty-three hour overnight train from Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar.  There was no plascarte (third class) option on this train and second class was running a bit above our budget.  Also, the time spent on the train skirting around the western and southern edges of Lake Baikal is one of the prettiest parts of the trip and not to be passed in the dark.  So we nixed option A.

Option B was pretty nice.  For $33.00 you take a seven hour train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude, and then for $50.00 you take an 11 hour coach bus from Ulan-Ude to Ulaan Baatar.  The whole bus crosses the border together.  This is the option we decided on.  It was relatively inexpensive, gave us a day trip around the lake, and got us to Ulaan Baatar on time.

Option C was described as the adventurous option.  The “off the beaten path” option. Take the same $33.00 train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude.  From Ulan-Ude, take a marshrutka to the Russian border town Kyakhta (Кяхта).  There, hitch a ride across the border, since walking across is not allowed. The going rate is 100 Rub in a marshrutka, 200 Rub in a taxi, or 250 Rub in a private car.  “It  happens pretty regularly, don’t worry,” we were told.  Once over the border, take another minibus to Mongolia’s closest town; where you’ll pick up the coach bus there for the remaining five hour journey into Ulaan Baatar.  Needless to say, we were not feeling the need to take this risky route just to prove ourselves to the world.  And needless to say, the universe had other ideas.
We started out alright.  We left Listvyanka on the first marshrutka out on the morning of the 22nd.  The night before, we had purchased third class train tickets from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude on the 10:00 am train on the 22nd.  Our minibus arrived in Irkutsk by 9:10 am, and a tram had us at the train station by 9:30 am.  I even had time to mail a few more postcards before we hopped on the train.  And despite the crying babies, dirty diaper, and crusty “4 days in” travelers in plascarte, we really enjoyed the ride- applauding ourselves mightily for deciding to make this leg of the trek during the day.

Skirting the lake, view through a dirty plascarte train window.

We arrived at our hostel around dusk, and even before our packs hit the floor, we asked to buy bus tickets to Ulaan Baatar for the next morning . “Uh Oh” said the girl at the Ulan-Ude Guest House.  “I can try, but they might be sold out by now.”

“Uh oh!” we said.  No one mentioned that possibility.  Of course, the tickets were sold out.  Did we want to get tickets for the day after? “We just couldn’t!” we said “We have to get to the Steppes! Tell us about this other way.” we said, and they did.  We’ll try it, we decided.

So early the next morning we made our way to the bus station to pick up a minibus to the border for 300 Rub (about $10).  It left at 9:00 am, stopped for a bathroom break and to change a flat tire at 11:00 am, and had us to Kyakhta by 12:30.  There, we were swarmed by cabbies offering to take us to the border for 200 Rub.  “Over the border?” we asked.  “No, to the border” they said.

We were getting no where with them when a guy with two suitcases and a Mongolian passport told us he was going to Ulaan Baatar too, and we could follow him.  I’m paraphrasing of course.  What he really did was wave his Mongolian passport at us and point to it.  We could share his taxi for 100 Rub each (traced on his palm with his finger) and he would get us across.  And so we met our mute Mongolian Travel Angel.  We could not have done this without him.  You “adventurous travelers”, take this as a warning.

Sometimes time and space are just like a giant fast flowing river.  You know just by looking at it that it is to strong for you to swim.  All you can do is focus on where you need to be, jump in, and try to float with your head above water and your feet pointed down stream; praying that the current and the cosmos will get you where you need to go.  This was like that.  When we got into that first cab we jumped into the river.  After that, we were present, but the fact that we made it to Ulaan-Baatar had little to do with us.

In the back of the first cab of our epic border crossing.

Anyway, we took that cab for 100 Rub to the Russian border.  The we got out, put our things in another car that was waiting for people just like us, and waited in line.  After about 20 minutes it was our turn.  We drove to a guard house, and got out with our things. The car was searched and our bags checked.  That done, we waited for the next station.

While waiting, smooth as butter, with confidence and finesse to put the most hardened Baltimore drug dealer to shame, the little old ladies in the car behind us brought over two duffel bags.  Our driver put them in the trunk just as we were putting our own bags back.  calm as anything, as if she smuggles things right under the noses of Russian border patrol every day.  Maybe she does.

When the guards were ready, we drove another 15 feet to the next station, got out again, and presented our passports for inspection.  And you do need at least one registration in a Russian city, even if you never stay longer than one week at each place.  You need at least one, so don’t let your hotels tell you otherwise.

Passing that inspection we drove into no-man’s land.  We had made it half way! We were out of Russia, there was no turning back now.

We passed a dusty barbed wire expanse, and reached the Mongolian border.  Passports? Check.  Drive up, park, into the building, get passports stamped and luggage checked, get back into car and drive through another barren wasteland and out another fence, and viola! You’ve made it to Mongolia.

There were beggars, drunkards, and currency changers thick and slow as zombies in the street. They called in your car window as you slowly drove past, and once you put your window up they tried to open your car doors until you locked those too.  And suddenly, in the midst of all this, our driver pulls over stops, and demands 200 Rub each.  Her job was done. You were in Mongolia.

We pay, get out, and are ushered into another cab by Ghengis, our travel angel.  But before getting in we exchange our remaining Russian Rubbels with a guy who has a fanny pack stuffed with Mongolian Tughriks.  This one is offering a good rate, Ghengis explains.  Transaction complete, we get in the cab and are told to give the driver 3000T each (about $2.00).

Along the way (about an hour drive) Ghengis explains through pantomime, scratch paper, and a calculator that this cabby will take us to one village.  I use the term “village” loosely.  Much like the ghost towns of the American Mid-West, these villages are strips of half a dozen buildings strung in a row with a public latrine on one end.  Anyway, at this village we will pick up another cab, which for 8000T will take us the two hours to the nearest bus stop.  The bus to Ulaan Baatar will be another 8000T.

Communication at it’s finest! This was our scratch pad conversation with Ghengis.

Sure, OK, we nod.  Do we have much choice? Lets just hope there is an ATM at the bus station we whisper to ourselves.  It is about this time that I realize our travel angel is not just signing with us, but with everyone.  He seems to hear alright, but hasn’t said much to anyone.  No wonder he is helping us! Apart from being a kind person, he must sympathize with the difficulty of traveling anywhere without being able to just say what he needs, common language or not!

And thanks to Ghengis, everything did happen just like that.  The 3000T got us…somewhere, the 8000T got us to the bus station, and another 8000T bought us tickets on the 4:00 pm train to Ulaan Baatar (and there was an ATM at the station).

Sandra and I were sitting with our bags in the cafe, after enjoying our first Mongolian meal, when suddenly Ghengis comes running back in, waving animatedly.  His message was clear: hurry! come! NOW!

We grabbed our things and dashed out the door. Our bus was on the move! We ran in front of it, cutting it off at an intersection, and thankfully it stopped long enough for us to throw our bags in the storage area beneath and climb aboard.  The time? 3:37 pm.  Hmmm…buses leave early here? Good to know.

Five hours later we re-emerged from the bus in the Dragon Center bus stop at Ulaan Baatar.  Ghengis, loyal to the end, shared a cab with us to ensure we made it to our hostel safely.  Stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, with smog so thick it burned my eyes and the back of my throat, I was reminded again how much I despise cities- especially developing Asian cities.  Anyway, another hour of traffic and 21,000 T later and Sandra and I were saying goodbye to Ghengis, the Amazing Mute Mongolian Travel Angel (the trip back to the bus station in the morning only cost 7000T, so you can see how expensive slow moving traffic can be).

Like I said, Sandra and I are good, but we aren’t that good.  Without Ghengis, I don’t think we could have made it past the taxis, the border guards, the beggars and money changers, and all the cabs and buses we took that day.  We jumped in the river and washed up on shore this time, thanks to the travel gods, the cosmos, and human kindness.

I owe karma big time.

Сайн яваарай! (Safe travels!),

Aeri

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