Mongolia: Border Shenanigans

It’s time to be perfectly honest with you, dear readership. Remember when we discussed our visa problems from UB? Well, we didn’t really solve them, we just postponed them until later. We were really in a bind, and none of our legal options really seemed appealing or even possible. We figured that my visa, with a 90 day validity period was OK, but Oona’s with the 0 day validity period seemed questionable. We figured we’d just stay and hope they didn’t notice at the border. As it turns out, any S (student) type visa needs to be accompanied by a residence permit, applied for within 21 days of entry. Failure to get such a permit results in being barred from leaving until paying “between 1-3 times the Mongolian monthly salary”, which is 192,000 T (about $100). Being that we couldn’t get our residence permits, we ended up both getting fined 2 times the salary, for a grand total of way more cash than we had on us. Also, the Bulgan border crossing isn’t exactly well-traveled and is lacking in fineries such as an ATM. We pooled together all our cash (excluding a small private stash to ensure that we had enough to get to the next town) and handed it to the woman (we’ll call her Sugar, which her real name resembles) in hopes that she would either take it herself and somehow find a kindness to let us through. She didn’t budge, and insisted that we pay the whole amount. We were missing about half, so the only option was to find an ATM, which was either 15km into China or 40km back to Bulgan. Sugar let me through (since my Chinese visa is multiple entry) provided that Oona stay put with our bags. After much badgering of the shared taxi driver we left towards Takeshiken. There were two ATMs in town, and neither of them worked with our cards (what kind of heathens use 6-digit PIN codes?), so Bulgan was our only other option.

The driver ambled back to the main square to wait for the van to fill up again, clearly not understanding the urgency of the situation. I assured him that I would pay for all the seats (with what money?) if he could just take me back to the border. He agreed, but the border was closed for lunch by the time I got back, so I could not get back to Oona and our money to pay the driver (what amounted to about $20). He needed to head back to town, so he suggested my watch as collateral, but a border soldier inexplicably offered to pay, sauntering up and thumbing through a giant stack of 100 Yuan notes. With my taxi fare settled, I waited until lunch was over. By the time I returned, Oona was Facebook friends with Sugar and was treated to lunch by her and taken to her house. Staying behind was clearly the better idea…

At that point, we had the idea to include in our cash pool other currencies such as Singapore and Hong Kong dollars, the likes of which Oona had quite a few from her previous travels. With said currencies included, and having verified that we could exchange them at the very same border crossing, we just barely made the cut, including a small ration of Yuan left for our trip to town and whatever we may need to survive for a day or two, given the (functional-) ATMless nature of Takeshiken.

All the while, Sugar –who at this point was a rather confusing mix of draconian-rule-enforcer and helpful-travel-coordinator– was trying to organize a ride to Urumqi for us through some of her friends based in Takeshiken. After wasting about 6 hours at the border, it was looking like transit all the way to Urumqi was not going to happen that day.

After signing various documents labeling us as “offenders” and “transgressors” and paying our fine, we were let go and wished well along our journey. Sugar even gave us a paper with her phone number and the numbers of a few of her friends in town in case we needed anything. She insisted that one such friend would host us for free at his house.

Once we made it to Takeshiken, it was clear that we were not going to find a ride that night. Things were very quiet, and the proprietor of the Takeshiken Hotel said all the cars had left for the day, or so we gathered. We spent 100 yuan on a room and got a much-needed meal. Most of the restaurants in town were inexplicably shuttered, but we came upon a quiet Chinese joint (most of the restaurants are Mongolian, Uyghur, or Chinese) which seemed like the best food in the world compared to the bland Mongolian fare we had been eating for the seven weeks prior.

Sugar had a friend come by to check on us at the hotel. He didn’t speak a word of English, but we concluded that he would have a shared car to Urumqi pick us up between 8 and 9 the following morning.

The hotel was a lively joint at night, with locals running up and down the halls yelling about this and that. There was a random knock at our door just as we were falling asleep, which turned out to be accidental after Oona opened it. A nearby rooster crowed incessantly at sunrise, so we didn’t really need an alarm.

The ride from Takeshiken to Urumqi was about 6 hours, covering 550km and innumerable security checkpoints. Upon reaching Urumqi we needed to try at least five different ATMs before finding one that would give us cash. At this point, we’re relaxing in Urumqi and happy to be out of Mongolia.

What did we think of Mongolia, though? Well, like many countries it was a mixed bag. Mongolia’s nature is like nothing else; the rugged landscape and the grit and fortitude of its inhabitants is pretty stunning. The fact that both camels and reindeer inhabit its vast stretches is a testament to the diversity of its ecosystems; from the Gobi desert to the towering peaks and icy glaciers of the west, Mongolia has it all.

Not without its flaws though, Mongolia’s food is certainly a drawback. While we quite enjoyed a good plate of tsuivan or khuushuur from time to time, the lack of selection and diversity (and vegetables) can get to you. Every meal of every day is fried bits of mutton with dough. Simply by crossing the border into Xinjiang our senses were overwhelmed by amazing smells and flavors.

The same ruggedness that blesses Mongolia with its wonderful nature ensures that only the hardiest of explorers will be rewarded. You need either a lot of time or a lot of money to see Mongolia properly. While trivial in many countries, getting from one side of Mongolia to the other is a 50 hour bus ride over rutted out dirt roads. You can fly, but it will cost you. Looking at a map and thinking “OK great, we can go from here to here” almost never works well in Mongolia; you can get from UB to everywhere, but from one provincial capital (which are often little more than a dusty crossroads with a general store) to another is always a challenge.

Nevertheless, the difficulty of travel in Mongolia is one of the reasons much of its land remains untouched by commercial tourism. If you have the time and patience, independent travel in Mongolia can be a very rewarding experience.

Oh, and bring a tent. Camping is allowed everywhere in Mongolia, and having the ability to post up anywhere for a good night’s rest greatly improves flexibility.

The Mongolian people didn’t strike us as particularly friendly. We were invited into yurt after yurt and introduced to family after family, but we were mostly greeted by suspicion and uncertainty. We were offered food and tea, but we were stared at from a distance. Rarely would people attempt to communicate, content with leaving us at arm’s length and going about their business after we would inevitably leave. The few times a conversation did develop, a friendly, albeit temporary relationship would flourish, laughing and stumbling through questions in our respective languages.

All in all visiting Mongolia was a great experience, but we’re happy to be moving on.

2 thoughts on “Mongolia: Border Shenanigans

  1. I have been reading an old lonely planet Mongolia guide book and just watched weeping camel movie and both point to amazing natural beauty and harshness, and amazingly awful food. Also lots of drunkeness! And now on to new sounds, smells, sights…!!! Enjoy western China and nod to the Taklamakan if you go by, eat melons and grapes in Uighur fringe towns. What a superlative photo of you two intrepids.. My Mongolian postcard has been source of several guffaws. Love your blog. Myself, just came back from the Sequoias, where we scattered ashes of first close friend to die…happy/sad! Adventure on!


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