One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Border crossing

I'm writing to you from an internet cafe in Ulaanbaatar. I arrived here at 6:30 am this morning and was met by a representative of the Juulchin Travel Agency. Her name was Sara, and she had recently returned to Mongolia after living in Los Angeles for three years. On the way to my hotel, I asked her to teach me the correct pronunciations for "please," "thank you," "yes," and "no" in Mongolian. That's all there was time for.

The train ride from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar was very different from my previous one. First of all, this train was not nearly as fancy or well-maintained on the inside: no carpets; no electronic displays; sheets and blankets threadbare. Also, instead of sweltering through the nights as I had on the way from Moscow to Irkutsk, I was shuddering with the cold. On Mongolian train carriages, I learned, they don't turn on the heat until September 15th. There was one passenger in my train car, a Danish woman, who complained loudly and angrily about the heat situation, about the one washroom that was always locked, and about the delays at the border. Her constant refrain, audible to everyone up and down the corridor, was this: "We paid a lot of money for this trip!" Eventually, the provodnitsa lost her temper completely and screamed at this Danish woman. What words she screamed, I don't know.

Another major difference between the two train journeys was the mix of people in my compartment. Instead of three Russians on their way home, I was all by myself for the first night, and was joined the next morning at 6:00 by a young Swedish guy, his Polish girlfriend, and a French woman travelling alone. They were all backpackers in the middle of long trips, hoping to see some of Mongolia and then go on to China. The French woman, Sylvaine, was indispensable to the provodnitsas because she spoke fairly good Russian, and could pass along information and instructions to everyone in the train car. Sylvaine, when she's not travelling, is a doctoral student of urban planning at a university in Paris. She told me that when a person is scanning the classifieds looking for an apartment in Paris, some apartments are listed as being in the "Amelie district." As you might imagine, there's a premium to live in the same neighbourhood and breathe the same air as Amelie Poulain.

Sylvaine and the other two backpackers were doing much more flexible, much less structured trips than me. Each time they arrived at a new city, they would make a circuit of the hostels and see where rooms were available. The Swedish guy and Polish girl were also camping occasionally along the way. Sylvaine had only recently completed a volunteering program in Siberia near Lake Baikal, working with members of the indigenous Buryat and Evenki communities. Doing exactly what, I don't know - I forgot to follow up on that. The one language we all shared in the compartment was English, but I spoke to Sylvaine in French a little bit just for fun.

The entire trip from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar took 35 hours, but about 8 of those were spent at the border - dealing with Russian customs and border officials in the dusty little village of Naushky, and then dealing with the officials on the Mongolian side in the town of Sukhbaatar. There was time in both places to get off the train and explore while the train cars were being inspected and rearranged by railway workers. Waiting around in Naushky and Sukhbaatar, I got to know some more of the people in my train car. There was a family of four from Vancouver: parents in their sixties and two adult children in their 20s. The daughter, Sabrina, is completing her doctorate in experimental medicine at UBC. The four of them had already been in Beijing, then flown to Moscow, and were making their way back to Beijing for the return to Vancouver. I also met a couple in their late 20s or early 30s from Iceland; it turns out that they're doing a Trans-Siberian blog as well, but unfortunately for me it's in Icelandic. I asked them about Bjork and Sigur Ros, and they were fans of both. To be perfectly honest, I found Naushky and Sukhbaatar to be depressing, dusty, tumble-down places, strewn with trash, cinder blocks, and rebar, and I was glad to just sit and talk to fellow travellers. The stray dog index was high.

One thing I did like about Naushky was the little general store, where your bill gets added up on a large wooden abacus sitting on the counter. Right next to the abacus is an electronic scale for weighing fruit and vegetables, so these people weren't averse to modern technology per se. I guess the abacus has the advantage of not requiring electricity - maybe the power supply in Naushky is unreliable.

Another small thing I liked about Naushky were all the magpies hopping around. I didn't actually know they were magpies, at first, because I don't know very much about the markings of birds, but I asked the Polish girl and she said, "These birds are very common in Europe... They steal the shiny things, the colourful things." That's when I knew that the black and white birds with the long tail feathers were magpies.

In Sukhbaatar, I changed some roubles to the Mongolian currency, togrog, with a woman who approached me on the train platform. I bargained her up from 35 togrog to 40 togrog for one rouble, and changed 500 roubles. After finishing this post, I'll check on a currency exchange website to see if I was still getting ripped off despite all my bargaining. The woman agreed to the 40/1 exchange rate, but then failed to give me twenty 1000-togrog notes. First she gave me sixteen, and then when I protested she gave me two more. Only after further protests (by which I mean making a stern face and jabbing my finger repeatedly at the money), and counting the money over and over, did she give me the final two bills.

There was nothing too scary about the actual border-crossing procedures. No one seemed to know the exact rules for taking foreign currency out of Russia, or the penalty if those rules were broken. The Bryn Thomas guide and Lonely Planet guide offer conflicting advice on this topic. As it turned out, no one showed much interest in our foreign currency. The Russians did, however, search every compartment twice - once by a man, and once by a woman. I theorized at the time that the reason for this dual search was that women are better at finding contraband hidden by women, and men are better are finding contraband hidden by men, simply because of differences in brain chemistry and learned gender behaviours. There were passengers in the train car who joked within earshot of the border guards about hiding drugs - I thought this was unforgivably stupid, and if it had caused us further delay, I would have been angry.

On the Mongolian side, we were asked to fill out this declaration form that was completely in Mongolian. Everyone in my compartment just laughed, because it seemed like an impossible task, and then we studied a Mongolian phrasebook to see if it would help. It didn't. One of the Vancouverites walked by our door and I said, "Hey, do you know what to do with this form?" "I was going to ask you," he replied. Ultimately, we just wrote in our names and passport numbers, as well as what currencies we were carrying in what amounts, and that seemed to satisfy the Mongolians. They were scrutinizing my visa, and this one border guard was furrowing her brow as she read out to another guard taking notes: "Ott-a-wa... Ott-aaaa-waaa..."

For reasons unclear to me, my room here at Hotel Gan Zam is quite big and fancy - fancier than I think I paid for. The hotel overall seems geared toward English-speaking travellers, with English-language signs and pamphlets in racks describing the local attractions. My room is great, except that the phone has no dial tone, the toilet doesn't flush, and there is no hot water. I can easily overlook the first two - I'll find some other phone if necessary, and I can use the public washroom right next to my room. The hot water, however, is a sticking point. I haven't had a shower for days, and once I leave on my expedition tomorrow, I may not be properly clean again until the 13th. I need that hot water. I went down to reception to discuss the matter, and the woman behind the desk made what seemed like twelve separate phone calls. In addition, any time a person walked into the lobby, she would tell them about my problem, and the person, presumably a hotel employee, would say something and then turn to look at me briefly before continuing on his or her way. Finally, the reception person looked at me and said, "Hot water today." I'm hoping that it will be available by the time I get back to the hotel. I got good and lost out here in the city so they'd have plenty of time.

If all goes well, tomorrow morning my Boojum Expeditions guide and driver will pick me up at the hotel, and we'll be off to the countryside for ten days of adventure on the steppe and in the Gobi Desert. I never got a reply from Ariunjargal, my guide, after emailing her back in early August, but I hope that nothing has interfered with the plan. I likely won't be blogging again before the 13th, but hopefully there will be lots of good stuff to tell when I get back to Ulaanbaatar.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Aaron,

Visiting with George tonight .. created favourite for your blog site .. so expect that you will hear from him. He was very pleased that his rubles contribution was of assistance to your in st petersburg ... we all wish you safe trip through Mongolia... love u .. mom & dad

8:00 PM

Anonymous Megetable said...

Hi dear Aaron,
I hope you are well.

I am starting to think that renovating an old house is like navigating one's way through Naushky and Sukhbaatar unable to speak the language, tired, poor, hungry and stinky. So, like you, we, too, are on an adventure. Ugh.

10:05 PM

Blogger Your Queen said...

I came across this by chance and actually will be doing something similar with the NGO groups for the MSF/DWB.

Thank you for sharing this, hope you don't mind me bookmarking.

1:21 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aaron, missed your entries so much, have been reading others blogs about Mongolia...hope you didn't end up having to give away the shirt off your back!!look forward to a message soon, mom.

10:45 PM


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