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The Man in Blue

Boy standing on a tank in the desert
Boy standing on a tank in the desert

It rained nearly my entire last day in Beijing. I spent the evening with my friend Olivia. She was one of the girls that took me in in the Philippines when everything was booked around Christmas. I left her house early the next morning, low on sleep and low on spirits. It was a clear and sunny day in Beijing for once, but that only intensified my hangover. Getting to the train station was no trouble, but finding my carriage was a bit of an issue. It turned out I was in the other car number two at the opposite end of the train. The part of the train that stops at the border and doesn't go all the way to Mongolia. Despite seemingly high demand, there's only one train from Beijing to Mongolia per week, and it books up fast. Perhaps because of a misunderstanding or perhaps because I bought my ticket too late, I wound up with only a ride to the border. I would have to figure the rest out myself when I got there.

After sleeping off my hangover, I got up to make some cup noodles. While searching for the boiling water I passed a man who seemed out of place. He could see that I was looking for the water and he pointed me in the right direction. As the train neared Mongolia people started getting off my car—but not when we were at a station. Soon I had my compartment all to myself.

I was listening to The Woman in White on my iPod. Yes listening, not reading. I can listen and take in the beautiful Mongolian landscape at the same time. I was quite enjoying the book, though it was doing nothing to lift my spirits. The man who had pointed me toward the boiling water appeared in the doorway to my cabin and motioned for me to stop my book so we could speak for a moment. I gladly complied. He was dressed from shoes to shirt in all blue sportswear bearing a logo with the letters FFF on each piece. His hair was done up in a top-knot as to make him look Japanese. He spoke with the diction and accent of Russian.

Prayer wheels outside Sainshand monastery
Prayer wheels outside Sainshand monastery

He asked me the usual questions—where I was from, where I was going—and told me that he was Mongolian and heading to the border as well. I had a lot of questions for him—When did the border close? Did he know a good place to stay in the border town? Did he know how to get across the border or to my next destination? For some strange reason the man appeared to be anxious to leave my cabin, so I let him go without protest.

Half an hour later he appeared back in the doorway and again motioned for me to stop my iPod. "I saw another foreigner on this car. Did you see her? She went that way, but when I went to look, she was gone." I told him that I hadn't seen her, and he departed. He seemed to take an odd interest in the foreigners on the train. It wasn't long after that before he again appeared in my door and again motioned for me to stop my book. "They're selling tickets to the part of the train that goes all the way to Ulaanbaatar. It's 500 RMB ($80). I thought you might want to know." Ah, so that's where all the people had been going.

I considered the situation. I had heard and read that the China/Mongolia border crossing was a bit of a pain, and that doing it by train was the easiest way. I had also heard that Ulaanbaatar (UB) was a terrible city. My childhood neighbor who lived in Mongolia for several years had put me in contact with several locals and expatriates in Mongolia. Some of them had suggested that I venture to the south Gobi to see the huge mining operation going on in a place called Oyu Tolgoi (OT). I had figured that it was providence that I wound up with only a train ride to the border, since it was far closer to the south Gobi than the capitol of UB. I knew however, that getting from the border to OT would be a much harder task than going there from UB. For starters, I wouldn't have any Mongolian money, a Mongolian SIM card or know anyone that spoke English, and it was entirely likely that I wouldn't be able to find any of those things in the tiny Mongolian town across the border. I had an option: take the safer but longer and more expensive road, or take the risky but more adventurous road. I chose the latter.

The Man in Blue again seemed to be in a rush to leave my cabin, so I prioritized my questions to him. "Do you know of a good place to stay in ErLian (the Chinese border town)?" He told me that he did and that he would show me when we got off. When the train arrived in the evening, I saw the Man in Blue depart quickly and exit the train station without looking back. I did my best to follow him, but he was moving quite fast and not carrying much luggage. When we finally got out of the station I was on his heels. He stopped for a moment—perhaps to check for me or perhaps just to survey the surroundings. Either way I caught up with him and he offered to show me a place to stay.

My train to the Mongolia/China border
My train to the Mongolia/China border

We walked through the city at night and he told me that he was on the look out for an electric scooter that he could buy and take into Mongolia. He walked fast and gave off an air of indifference about whether or not I was with him. I figured he saw me as an inconvenience, but since he was going to the hotel himself, didn't mind if I followed. I treated our relationship in suit. We arrived at the hotel which showed nothing on the outside—at least in English—to denote it as such. He asked if I wanted to split a room, and I said yes. I tried to buy a large bottle of water and he said to me: "Water is 4rmb, beer is 3rmb. I think it's better you buy beer." I bought both. He bought a bottle of beer as well and we went up to our room. It was dirty and smelly and crawling with bugs. For the night, it was home.

We drank our beers and he told me that he used to live in Italy. That would explain his outstanding attire. He told me he spoke Italian and Russian, as well as English and Mongolian. I later learned how similar Mongolian was to Russian in both appearance and pronunciation. That would explain his interesting accent. Then he asked if I wanted to go explore the town.

He told me how ErLian has been growing rapidly in recent years. It's the major market for low-quality goods—especially building materials—for Mongolia. Every day dozens of jeeps drive across the border from Mongolia and enter into the vast markets of ErLian and pack themselves from gears to ceiling before returning home that evening. The border crossing itself is intentionally convoluted and cannot be done on foot. One must cross the border in some type of vehicle. On certain days there's a train that crosses the border, and that's the cheapest and easiest way to go, but it wasn't running on the day I crossed. Once daily a fleet of buses cross the border, which is relatively inexpensive but involves shoving through lines with lots of other people. At any time you can buy some space in one of the jeeps—usually not quite enough space for you and your gear—which costs about twice as much as the bus or train and runs a higher risk of being left somewhere—with or without your stuff—but will get you across the border in much less time and without all the crowds.

Sainshand, Mongolia
Sainshand, Mongolia

As The Man in Blue and I walked around town he started asking people questions. People were very short with him and showed incredibly rude body language. I was taken aback but he seemed unaffected. I figured out why before he told me; he was trying to speak to people in Mongolian, but despite being on the border and all the signs being in Mongolian, no one spoke Mongolian or very much of it if they did. I had previously observed the type of responses that he was getting in Russians, when people tried to speak to them in English. I figured the man was on the lookout for a scooter, but it turned out that he was trying to get information for me. He found out the going rate for space in a jeep, the bus and train schedule, and where the bus station was. It was odd; usually when locals try to help me they're brimming with glee, but The Man in Blue was not.

I resolved to take a bus across the border the next day. The Man in Blue woke up with me in the morning and we took a bicycle taxi to the bus station. The driver tried to rip us off, which set the day in a bad mood. After helping me buy a ticket we returned to the hotel and had our breakfast beers. I was sitting on the ledge in front of the windows in our room—which we had open to air the apartment out—with my laptop sitting next to me playing American hip-hop. Jurassic 5 and tall weak beer: what better way to start the morning in a dingy border town? A sudden gust quickly drew the windows closed, and in doing so, completely destroyed the screen on my netbook. What worse way to start the morning of a long and strenuous voyage?

Shortly afterward I packed up my things, checked out, and parted with The Man in Blue, thanking him for all his help. I went to the bus station and waited. The waiting area slowly filled with people and I struck up a conversation with a Mongolian kid who was sitting next to me with his family. He was returning home for the first time in over a year, after being in the United States and Canada. The nice queue of people deteriorated into a mob when they opened the gate to the buses. Why they choose to send five buses across the border at one time instead of spreading them out throughout the day, is beyond me.

Nice kid from the ErLian bus station with me and his brother
Nice kid from the ErLian bus station with me and his brother

As my bus passed between the Chinese and Mongolian immigration offices, a sandstorm quickly picked up. It blew me back to reality. This is the desert. Weather changes quickly here and people die. I remembered what The Man in Blue had told me before we parted ways: "Always carry water." I looked out the window and saw The Man in Blue standing there in front of Mongolian immigration building, looking cool and composed as the sand blew around him.

My friend from the bus station helped me in crossing the border and then immediately afterward in determining that there was indeed no way to get to OT from the Mongolian border town. The Man in Blue had warned me of that and suggested that I go to the first big city, where I may be able to get to OT and could make a stop at The World Energy Center. In 1820 a monk named Danzan Ravjaa decided that all the energy on earth converges to one spot in the Gobi desert. My new friend independently suggested the same plan, so I figured it was the right thing to do. The kid from the bus station helped me buy a train ticket to the "big" city of Sainshand, and then helped me get a SIM card for my phone. No data service but it was better than nothing. He invited me to come wait for the train with his family, where they treated me to my first Mongolian meal. A woman whom I had mistakenly identified as his grandmother, was sitting with his family and selling buuz, delicious beef dumplings. You could taste that the meat came from free-range grass-fed cows.

Buuz - Mongolian dumplings
Buuz - Mongolian dumplings

I arrived in Sainshand in the late evening and a man from my cabin got off at the stop with me. He didn't speak any English but he could tell that I needed a place to stay, so he ushered me into a Mongolian taxi (i.e. some random guy's car) and took me to a hotel. It was a bit more expensive than I wanted, but it was late and I didn't know if there were any other options around and I didn't want to be rude, so I took a room. Before he left me the man motioned for something to write with. I reached for my notebook, which I had put in the side of my pack for easy access since I had been using it as a journal after my laptop broke, and came back empty handed. He got some paper and a pen from reception and wrote his phone number and the word "help" on the paper and handed to me. As soon as I was done checking in I rushed outside to look for my notebook in the dark. I found it outside the hotel, soaking in a puddle. It must have fallen out when I alighted from the cramped taxi. All the notes, all the journal entries and all the beautifully detailed maps which locals had drawn for me, were soaked. Between the train and the hotel I was left with very little money and a bit anxious about getting more. In the night, Sainshand didn't seem as big as I was expecting.

When I awoke, I looked out the window and surveyed the town. It was as I expected. There was a semi-controlled intersection which I suppose defined Sainshand as a "large" Mongolian city. I later learned it was the provincial capitol. Having no laptop or a data plan on my phone, and hence no Internet, and being in a city where no one spoke English, my feeling of loneliness increased. I set out on my mission for the day: get money, find a ride to OT and go see The World Energy Center. The receptionist at the hotel helped me on my errands as she was very good at understanding body language and pictures and whatever other things I did to communicate my needs. The first ATM she took me to wouldn't give me money. The second one was locked. We were by "the intersection" which is where I could possibly get a ride to OT, but she asked around and no one was going there. Much to my relief, the third ATM she took me to worked. Then she helped me buy a train ticket to UB for 9pm. She called someone to ask about going to The World Energy Center. Due to bad roads, limited time and high prices, getting there just wasn't in the cards for me. Finally, she took me to a museum which they opened specially for us. There, in the-middle-of-fucking-nowhere Mongolia, in an unmarked museum, lay several real dinosaur bones, a full dinosaur skeleton and several dinosaur eggs. Not far from there was the first place dinosaur eggs were ever discovered.

Dinosaur bones in Sainshand museum
Dinosaur bones in Sainshand museum

We had finished all the errands by 10am and my train didn't leave for UB until 9pm. How did I spend my time in a tiny city at an arbitrary point in the middle of the desert? All I wanted to do was write, but both my digital and traditional methods were out of order. I did a lot of the things I wish I did more of: meditate, stretch, work out, shave etc. I did many of them while listening to The Woman in White on my portable speakers. I also walked around the town for a bit. As I approached an abandon-looking factory at the edge of town, I noticed a group of men sitting in the shade below a run-down shack. They noticed me. I had just finished taking a picture of something when one of the men get up to come greet me. I saw him pick up a brick and hold it behind his back as he did. Bad memories from 'Nam flooded over me. It wasn't a good time for me to get robbed, not that it ever is. I had my camera, passport, credit card and the equivalent of nearly $500 USD in my pocket.

The man who met me was short and dark and reminded me a lot of the porters that jumped me in Vietnam. His grin didn't help. He didn't speak English and didn't seem to understand my gestures or appreciate my smile. Another man came up to join him. I did my best to stay cool and escape the situation as quickly as possible. Turning my back on the man with the brick and walking away was one of the toughest things I've done. Don't look scared. Don't look back. I walked away unscathed.

Old cars in Mongolia
Old cars in Mongolia

I decided to walk to the train station at the other end of town. It was about two and a half kilometers away, but I had nothing better to do, and despite being really sunny, a slight breeze cooled the amazingly fresh air. I was listening to The Woman in White on my iPod when a man's shadow quickly came up behind me. I heard a voice call over the book: "How's it going?" I responded instinctively: "Well, and you?" I don't usually give that response to non-native English speakers, but something in the way the man said it had caused me to respond without thinking. I stopped my book. "You're not going to walk across the desert are you?" "No, just to the train station" I told the man. "Where are you from?" he asked. "Wisconsin. Do you know where that is?" "Madison" he responded. "Yes, that's my city. Where are you from?" I asked. "New York" he told me. That would explain why, despite his Mongolian appearance, he spoke English so well—and with a New York accent.

The man was apparently a Mongolian-American who had recently moved to Mongolia and started up a furniture business. He was en-route with a load of goods from the Chinese border to OT, when his truck broke down by this city. He was heading to the train station to pick up a part which a partner of his had sent from UB. We passed a couple hours together and it occurred to me that I could give up my train ticket and ride with him to OT instead. The safe road, or the risky road? This time I took the safe road. I was running low on energy—communicating through gestures is tiring and I wasn't able to jump-start myself at The World Energy Center—and I was getting anxious to fix my laptop. At 8pm the man get a call from his partner: the part hadn't made the train leaving UB, my friend would be stuck there another day. Good thing I took the safe road.

Sainshand train station nearing dusk
Sainshand train station nearing dusk

I however, made my train to UB. Mongolian trains are my favorite so far. They're well designed and well built. You can tell they're solid steel but they feel like a log cabin. Real wood framing and wooden veneer siding. The windows open to let in the fresh and dry Mongolian desert air. Everything folds into something or reveals extra space to store goods, like an NYC apartment. There's ample room for everyone and their stuff, and the free boiled water is heated by fire—which perhaps adds to the log-cabin smell inside. I looked up from my seat and saw the metal luggage rack that my friend and fellow world traveler Nich had slept in some three years ago. It was great to finally put reality to imagination, and I have to admit that I was eying that luggage rack until I realized that the table between me and the opposing seat flipped over, dropped down and created a bed.

UB was not nearly as shitty of a city as I was expecting. Not nearly as crowded or polluted. Nor was it as modern as I was expecting. Apart from the main roads, everything in town is dust. Few tall buildings mark the skyline. Most of the people live in gers (yurts), even in the capitol. Its almost as if they're expecting to just up and go at any time, in the nomadic Mongolian style. On my first day in UB I got a data plan for my phone, washed close which dried in a few hours in the dry and sunny Mongolian climate, got the screen on my laptop replaced and went to the office of immigration to extend my Mongolian visa. As I was on the bus to immigration I got a call on my cellphone. It was The Man in Blue.

Soundtrack: Boulevard Of Broken Dreams (Green Day)

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