Thursday, January 16, 2014

Freeze me

I didn't have time to write in detail but I'll sum up what happened during that week. We happily lived together with Janela, visited the museum of Ulaanbataar and trying to cook some stuff occasionaly.
The problem with winter is that there is nothing to eat in Mongolia except cabbage. We went to the black market (it's just a name) and took new shoes for myself. I threw away those that got soaked in shitty water from China. A day before Janela's departure, pickpockets stole my wallet containing all of our money and my credit card. Thank god my passport with my chinese visa was elsewhere.

It is a sad day for Janela is leaving. It is 2PM when I leave her at the train station. She doesn't like to walk to train stations alone since her kidnapping while going to the station in Bishkek. The cold is raging outside and through the clear blue sky it seems that you feel the temperature of cosmos on your own skin.

There are just two days left on my visa before I get back to China. I have the sadness of Janela leaving and the fear of freezing at the same time. Not to mention the fear of my visa would expire. I consider the possibility in taking a flight from Ulaanbataar to Beijing so as not to risk my life or administrative integriy (I mean the visa) but then I realize I have absolutely no money. I also have no food. Before leaving, I decided to give all our remaining food to Janela. It was not much, a couple of korean noodle soups. These pickpockets really had no idea who they were robbing and what difficult situation they put us in.
The reasoning behind this was that while I have a small chance to get invited for real food during my trip to china, she will no options during her 2 day train ride. That way, we equalize our chances and rely of destiny's good will for the rest.

I am now walking through the peace avenue across Ulaanbataar. I take a bus for a few stations only to discover that a group of three pickpockets are trying to steal something from me again. Those guys should have more education, every tourist isn't a walking bag of money; just some of them.

At last, I make it to the edge of the capital city, out of the smog and a long paved road which is more narrow now, as a river going to its source. I am picked up by a kind and outgoing girl going to Nalaikh where she works in some mining thing. She leaves me at an intersection with some food for the road which comforts me in the choice of leaving the food to Janela.

So I walk and I wait, relying solely on coincidence, because how the heck I am going to survive the Gobi desert on my own in mid-January? Sometimes, I am trying to convince myself that the coldest moments are over, it's January now, that's almost Spring. And sometimes not.

A nice silver car stops and a middle aged woman tells me to get in. She speaks perfect Russian and is the wife of... either the Mongolian minister of energy himself or the CEO of a the company which handles energy in Mongolia which is basically the same thing.
She is driving to a mining village which serves the sole purpose of mining huge amounts of coal in the middle of the desert.
There are buildings there, factories, food is imported from UB which imports it from Korea and drills are working around the clock. If the drills don't work, there will be no coal, if there is no coal, there will be no fuel to make electricity, no heating either.
Giant parabolic antennas are pointed towards the sky and I theorize that is how we get internet.

The mining village


It is about 4:30 in the afternoon when we get to that destination. We are only in the neighborhood of the town of Choir which is still not that far from the capital and I had hoped to get at least to Sainshand if not to the border. I still have about an hour of sunlight left and I could get lucky. Or I could stand there until nightfall, with my thumb frozen at that intersection, the clear blue sky would switch into a cold dark starry night, I would try to walk to that settlement but would get lost for lack of orientation markers; I would take out my tablet where the village is faintly marked with a +/- 10 kilometer precision. The GPS would not give up but the battery might after a while as the temperature would descend way below -20 Celsius.
I would then put up my tent and shiver in my sleeping bag.

Here in the mining village, I get an apartment for myself with heating, electricity, shower and internet. I even have a kitchen and I make tea for myself.

There are several important people in there. Some work for the government, some are decision-makers for leading energy companies. That woman's husband seems to be the director of all that stuff. He seems confident, humble and kindly welcomes me. The woman is of a similar attitude, common amongst powerful people who have nothing to prove. Smart and educated, she looks at the world from afar. Maybe the wisest people are those who looked at us from the moon.

Some people are very excited to have me there. Many are genuinely interested in my journey. Some can't believe it. They offer me a visa extension but I am not sure how serious they are and I would have to return to Ulaanbataar for that anyway.

We have a copious dinner and breakfast in the dining hall. By now, I have gotten used to Mongolian salty tea with milk. There is a girl I liked, one of the manager, she gave me her business card, I lost it. She is the one back on the picture.
Breakfast

I begin walking to the main road. It is morning, blue sky, the visibility is excellent. It's almost as the cold night had never happened. I would swear it is above zero. But frozen animals around the road remind me that it was real. Poor beasts, not much smarter than me but less lucky.
Poor reckless puppy, not much smarter than me but less lucky
For a long time, I don't find a single hitch. There are some cars but in the other direction. So I walk the empty road. After several hours, I get a ride to Sainshand, a mere 200 kilometers from the border. But the ride is slow, we stop several times to visit some of my drivers relatives. They are a young couple and they have a young child in the backseat. Also, I get lunch.
We also get a flat tire even though this road is paved and when we replace it, turns out the new tire is ridiculously smaller than the last one so the car is bouncing on three wheels.

There is still a few moments left before sunset in Shainshand but the road is empty again. I get a ride with a taxi who tries to persuade me to pay him to drive to the border. At first, he tells me a ridiculously high price and when I decline, he decreases tenfold until he just begs me to pay him for gas so he can drive me there and I don't die in the desert. But I decline. The worried taxi driver leaves me at the side of the road.

An elder man is driving there and stops. He doesn't believe a word from what I say about how I arrived here. Hitchhiking? In Mongolia? In winter? He takes me just for doubt's sake but trusts my story more as he sees more of my pictures.
Turns out he is a part of a convoy of two cars going to Zamiin-Uud, the border city.

When we arrive at around midnight, it is unclear what will happen to me. We are close enough to China to be left to freeze in the night. But I'm in luck, they are driving straight to home and I help them unload a lot of random stuff, mostly clothes. Turns out they have a sewing business exporting Mongolian goods to China and importing some stuff as well. And I am even more in luck, they are going to China tomorrow first thing in the morning. I really don't understand what is going on and if I am staying or not but everybody seems unworried and happy and they give me some horse meat to pass the time eating. All of them seem quite amused to have picked up this reckless hitchhiker and what the hell was he doing all by himself in the desert in winter?

In the sewing atelier, the women seem quite amused by my presence
The whole complex is built underground. There is a hallway which opens on several rooms. Several sewing ateliers, a few apartments of various sizes, bathrooms, toilets.
I am assigned a place in one of the apartment with one the families who drove me in. The young teenage daughter is especially interested in what the hell am I doing here, she reminds me of that young Uygur girl I met after that moutain pass in Xinjiang.

She speaks some Chinese but almost no english. So we communicate in mandarin which is very tiring for my brain but I don't mind as long as I have a roof over my head. Her brother is the one going to China tomorrow and I am to go with him.
Communication with Mongolian locals with Google Translate.
Most common language: Mandarin Chinese
If you were following my blog, you would know that crossing the Chinese border is a procedure that actually makes no sense to people who aren't actually crazy. But this family, they cross so often that they have things worked out. They have the emigration forms at home already so we all pre-fill them before we arrive at the border. They also have their own taxi driver who owns a soviet jeep.
While the preparations are finishing, me and the teenage daughter watch a segment of the last saw movie in 3D, especially that horrible scene where a girl get sawn in half. Those movies are getting almost as nonsensical as the Chinese border crossing.

 Me and that girls brother embark in the soviet taxi and drive to the border. He guides me through the procedure, he even pays my processing fee because I don't have a cent anyway.

In the no man's it's the usual stamp dance where soviet jeeps drive along the control cabins with passenger waiving their passports to show everything is in order and the guards trying to glance every single stamp (they actually manage it!) in the heavy traffic. We lose the taxi somewhere in no man's land and I manage to catch an inter-border shot where you can see that the border crossing is really done exclusively by soviet jeeps!

No man's land where people wait for their soviet taxis
We end up getting into a different taxi and we drive until the other side of the border. We are in Erlian, China! I am actually happy to be here. It means it will get warmer, if today I get out of the desert, I could even pitch a tent, the temperatures should be nice enough, especially with my new warm clothes. It also means that instead of understanding 10% of the people completely and 90% not at all, I will be able to communicate to a 10% level with every mandarin speaker. So the situation is actually the same but different and I like change.
Erenhot(Erlian), Chinese side

On the other side we catch our original taxi who is kind enough to get us to the city center, maybe because he feels guilty that he lost us in No man's land, maybe because it was his plan all along. I tell farewell to my Mongolian helper and now, I must hitchhike South with a renewed month on my visa.