Saturday, December 18, 2010

Jumping Through More Hoops: The L-Visa Trip to Mongolia

Several weeks ago I went through one of the initiation ritual of being a foreigner living in Beijing. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever done…

Many foreigners are living and working here on a tourist (L) visa, because work visas are notoriously hard to get unless you already have a job with a foreign company before you arrive. It’s relatively easy to get a tourist visa for up to a year, but with the stipulation that you have to leave the country every 30, 60 or 90 days, depending on the type of visa you get (mine is 60 days).  When you are working a full time job and don’t have much extra money, the cheapest and quickest way to do this is to travel a few hundred miles north to the border of China and Mongolia, cross over and come back.

Before leaving, I thoroughly researching what my fellow foreigners had done in the past on one of these trips. “Take a bus – it’s the most convenient and one of the cheapest ways to get to the border,” one of my friends had said. “Once you get there, you just have to find one of the jeeps that can take you across, as you aren’t allowed to go on foot. You just have to paying them – but I don’t remember how much.”

So late one afternoon, I boarded a long distance bus from Beijing to Inner Mongolia. These busses come fully equipped with three rows of bunk beds (something I never thought possible given width of a standard bus, but the Chinese managed to squish them in) for the 12-hour, overnight journey to the small border town of Erlian. We set out as the sun was setting and stopped for dinner a few hours later near a large power plant on the edge of Inner Mongolia, one of China’s largest and most desolate provinces. As I climb out of the bus into the freezing night, I saw a giant cooling tower framed against a vividly starry sky – the first stars I’d seen since entering China two months earlier.

That night I didn’t get much sleep. Just as I saw starting to doze off in my tiny top bunk, the bus must have started going through some mountains, because we were suddenly twisting and turning all over the place. Between motion sickness and feeling as though I was going to fall out of my bed every time we went around a corner, I only managed to doze for a few hours. When I woke the next morning, I looked out the window to see the sun just beginning to rise over the endless, flat grassland of Inner Mongolia. Arriving in Erlian around 7am, everyone disembarked and immediately began pilling into several pick-up trucks parked around the bus. Many of my companions on the bus did not seem to speak any Mandarin, so I assumed most of them were from Mongolia and had arrived here to cross over the border as well. I went up to one of the drivers and asked him in English if he was going to Mongolia. “Ah, Mongolia!” He replied in a thick accent and nodded his head enthusiastically. “The jeeps will be pretty obvious when you arrive – you can’t miss them,” one of my friends had said before I left. Confused, tired and thinking that maybe my friend had really meant trucks instead of jeeps, I pilled into the back of the pickup along with three other passengers and a load of cargo.

The trucks parked at the bus station
After dropping our companions off at various places in town (this should have given me a clue), the driver set out for the border gate. But when we arrived he stopped before the gate and said “Mongolia! 100 kuai!” I had broken two of the cardinal rules of getting around in China: Never trust an overly enthusiastic Chinese man, and always clarify/ negotiate a price before getting into a car. In protest, I began saying in mandarin that he was “cheating me,” and discovered that this man also spoke some mandarin. I managed to negotiate the price down to 25 kuai, although this was still too expensive (the “fair” price for crossing the border as I found out later is about 30, and the price of traveling across town should be about 5). It was now about 7:30, but the gate didn’t open until 8:30. So I walked back toward town to see if I could find somewhere to eat. After about 20 minutes of walking through the almost deserted down, I realized that it would take me hours to find food at this rate. A man was park on the opposite side of the road watching me, so I over to ask him where I could get some food and where I could find one of these jeeps.

The man turned out to be a local taxi driver, and he knew a number of places I could get food. He also offered to help me stop one of the jeeps that would be coming through shortly. Just then one of these jeeps started coming down the road. We stopped the driver and my new friend had a brief conversation with him in Mongolian. Then he said to me in Mandarin that it would be 60 kuai. Something told me that this was too high, so I tried to negotiate, but he just shook his head and prepared to drive away. “This is the best price you will get,” my taxi driver friend said. I tried one more time to bring the price down, but the jeep driver wouldn’t have it. Finally I started to walk away, a common tactic that usually gets Chinese people to call you back and bring their price down. But this driver just drove away – a good sign that his price had in fact been the fair one. “I told you, that is the lowest price they will offer,” my new friend said. “Usually their price is higher, but I can help you get a discount.” Feeling silly, I apologized and told the taxi driver that I would appreciate his help getting the next one. Then I asked him to take me into town to find some food. As we drove I had a nice conversation with the taxi driver. He seemed as though he really just wanted to help me. I started to let my guard down.

We pulled into a parking lot, next to several small, hole-in-the-wall type restaurants. The taxi driver told me I could leave my duffle back in his car, and led me toward the nearest restaurant. We soon learned that it was closed, and move on to the next one. Finally we found one that was open, and I ordered a breakfast of generic, white buns with meat in them and some kind of Mongolian milk tea. “Take your time eating,” the taxi driver said, “I’m going to go move the car closer.” I sat at a table, watching him walk out of the restaurant and across the parking lot. Then with a sudden jolt, my complacency disappeared and alarm set in…

How could I have been so stupid? Although he didn’t know what was in it, my duffle bag was sitting in his car with my ipod, camera, and about 1000 RMB in cash. He could easily drive off with my bag and I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to ever find him again. I jumped up and ran out into the parking lot, just as he was starting to drive in my direction (the exit to the parking lot was also in the same direction though). But it turned out I had nothing to worry about. As he drove up and parked in front of the restaurant, he looked at me quizzically, and I made up the excuse that I’d forgotten my hand sanitizer to clean my hands before eating. As I rummaged around in my bag pretending to look for it, I grabbed my valuables and buried them in my coat pocket.

Returning to the roadside near the border gate, the taxi driver helped me to stop another jeep (this one packed to the bursting point with cargo), and “negotiated” another 60 kuai deal for me. I took out the money to give to the jeep driver, but instead the taxi driver accepted it and directed me to squeeze into the front seat (the jeep had so much cargo that the seat itself was already pushed all the way forward, with the head resting against the glass of the front windshield). As I climbed in I notice out of the corner of my eye that the taxi driver and jeep driver were quietly exchanging something.

We arrived at the border gate, where the driver stopped and began arguing with some Chinese people waiting nearby, who looked like they also were looking for a ride. Finally he agreed to let one Chinese guy also climb into his jeep for the ride across. I was a little annoyed, as my head was already pressed against the glass and I had barely enough room to wiggle my toes. But as this guy climbed in, I noticed he was dressed much more cosmopolitan than most of the others. “Do you speak English?” I asked him. “Of course,” he replied in an American accent. “I’m from Austin, Texas. My name’s Frank.”

It was a relief that I had finally found another foreigner going through this crazy ritual. And what’s more, he had already done it nine times. As we drove across the border, he told me about how all the taxi drivers and jeep drivers were in on this whole scam together – how my taxi driver “friend” probably got a cut of the 60 kuai for convincing me that it was the market price – as well as many other details from his past experiences. Within 30 minutes we had gone through the two border gates, gotten the stamps we needed on our passports to prove that we’d left the country, and arrived in the open grasslands of real (outer) Mongolia. And then we turned around and went back through into China. I was in Mongolia for about 10 minutes.

Driving back to Beijing in the van - there's apparently a dinosaur museum in Erlian, so they had these dinosaur statues to advertise it. As you can see, there's not much else for hundreds of miles.

When we came through the gate on the other side, there were some vans waiting that Frank said could take us back to Beijing for about the same price as the bus, but we would leave in the afternoon and get back that night. We asked the driver to pick us up in town around 2pm, and set out to go explore the bustling border town of Erlian. After about 20 minutes of walking down the main street we were already bored, but I had one last mission in mind for my trip to Mongolia: bring back some Mongolian vodka that I’d heard about, called Chinggis (native spelling of Genghis). My friend had told me you can get this stuff in Erlian for less than $10 a bottle, and the quality is about the same as some of the high-end brands you’d find in the US (it’s much better than Absolute, for example). I went into a few shops that were selling it, and eventually negotiated a good deal for eight bottles, which I planned to sell to people in Beijing when I got back.

A few hours later, Frank and I piled into the van, and started heading for Beijing at top speed. We arrived back around 10pm, and the driver dropped me at my apartment. Feeling very car sick (getting back in eight hours meant this guy was speeding everywhere) and hungry, I was glad to be back in Beijing (in time for Halloween the next night), having successfully completed my first ritual visa trip.