From Apple pie to an Arsehole – leaving Mongolia

The first few days in Ulaanbataar were spent running the paper chase needed to get everything together for my Chinese visa. Happily I had also managed to coincide our stop in the city with some travelling friends from my time in Georgia – which inevitably lead to my first hangover in several months. After a couple of nights in the rooftop gers of Gana’s guesthouse,my visa application was being processed and Frank and I were lucky enough to find a host just round the corner. As a Dutchman living with his Mongolian wife, Bolora, and running their own business making beautiful gers for export to Holland and Europe, Froit is a fascinating character in his own right, with a wealth of stories and experience of living Mongolia for the best part of 10 years. As he was telling the story of an Iranian cyclist he had hosted, who had been given a 3 month Mongolian visa, but then been arrested and deported for not having registered within a week of his arrival, I realised this sounded worryingly like my visa (up until the arrested bit) and lack of registration.

Froit and his wife phoned immigration for me and confirmed that even though the Astana consulate had issued me a 60 days visa, everyone who intends to stay in Mongolia more than 30 days must register with immigration police within 7 days of their arrival. Despite being in the immigration office with Frank whilst he applied for his extension when we had arrived in Mongolia, and ticking the box on the immigration card at the border that I would stay more than 30 days, no one had pointed this out to me. I had now been in Mongolia 45 days. Surprise, surprise this was not a new situation for Immigration police and they happily informed me I could fix the situation with a fine of one month’s Mongolian salary – around 190,000 tugrik (or $100). Another blow to the budget and another chapter in my visa horror story.

To add to my frustration was the problem of how I would pay the fine. Of course I needed to go to the Immigration Police office with my passport, but that was at the Chinese embassy until I collected my visa from them at 3pm on Friday and I was due to leave for the border on Sunday. Another call to the Immigration Police office to explain this and they assured me if I arrived before 5pm on Friday it would be sorted. As I suspected, having forked out for a taxi out to their offices at the airport, at 4:45pm on Friday I was being told by an immigration officer that there was no one there who could deal with my issue and I should sort it with the Immigration office at the border.

The next day I had to say goodbye to Frank. He was also heading to the border and then on to the mountains of western China and down towards the border with Laos, whilst my plan was to transit through China and take the ferry to South Korea. We had spent the last 7 weeks together and after a hug goodbye on the platform and watching him disappear into the carriage of his train it was a hollow feeling as I cycled back through the city by myself. The next day it was time to say goodbye again,this time to Froit and Bolora. As I was packing my things Froit came out with a plate of delicious hot apple pie and a pair of camel bone chopsticks (for me to brush up on my chopstick skills after they had watched me struggle in a Korean restaurant) as a parting gift. I ignored the uneasy feeling in my stomach and devoured the pie before two more gigantic hugs good bye and being made to promise to call if I have any more problems at the border.

I fully regretted my lack of self-control over the apple pie as soon as I boarded the train, with waves of nausea and dizziness coming thick and fast. As soon as the toilet door was unlocked (when we had cleared the city) I vomited the whole lot up before having to turn round double speed to deal with a similar effect at the other end. Luckily I was in a sleeper carriage so I crawled my way back onto my bunk and spent the rest of the day in a sweaty daze between dozing and clenching and stumbling back to the toilet. I got off the train in Sainshand at 8pm that evening with just enough sun light and energy left to pedal out of town into the Gobi desert, put my tent up and pray for my stomach to be better the next day.

Luckily it was and I covered the 45km of unexpected asphalt to Khamariin Khid- a renovated monastery near the site of Shambala energy center. The latter is a sacred place for meditation and disciples of the noble saint of the Gobi,  Danzanravjaa. After a spell of cool rainy weather in Ulaanbataar the heat returned in full force at this exposed sacred site. I watched from the shade as people came to perform their rituals of vodka throwing, stone whispering, altar circling and rice sprinkling before they all took their shoes off and lay down in the baking sun at the ‘energy point’. I joined them for a few minutes, happy to try anything to get some energy back after yesterday’s stomach problem and as I sat on the baking hot gravel one member of a guided group spoke English and invited me to join them as they moved on to visit the 81 meditation caves where monks would hole themselves up for 81 days at a time.

The guide explained that one cave was known as the rebirthing cave and instructed us to crawl through a hole at the top and slither out through a hole at the bottom to experience our second birth. The best part of this was watching a pretty large guy (wearing the most ridiculous sunglasses I’ve ever seen and who, I was later told, is actually a Mongolian pop star) having to be pushed in and pulled back out by his skinny, glamorous girlfriend. We then all suffered second degree burns to our backs as we were directed to lean against a sun soaked magnetic rock that would heal our kidneys and livers.

Fully energised, reborn and healed I set about looking for the track I had been told about and had on my map that should cut across to the road to the border. But after asking round, everybody insisted the only route I could take was back via Sainshand so I was forced to start backtracking. The ‘shortcut’ I was directed to followed the old track road instead of the asphalt and I repeatedly tumbled off Raven in the deeper sandy sections as the front wheel dug in and the rear fish tailed about. I camped in the peace and quiet if the middle of nowhere but was kept awake well into the night by a gusting wind buffeting the tent. I woke before sunrise to get some more riding in before the full heat kicked in, only to find a puncture on my rear tire – my first of this whole journey since Bishkek. The delay repairing the puncture meant that I limped into town in the midday heat, heading straight to a shop for a cold drink (no fairy liquid in the fridge here thankfully) and an ice cream. I sat outside enjoying both and noticed I had internet signal on my phone so checked my messages, one of which totally knocked the wind out of me.

My decision to go to South Korea had originally been based on the idea that it was 90 days visa free and seemed like an easier route south (continuing by ferry to Japan and Taiwan) than tackling mainland China. Being visa free it also offered the perfect location for me to meet up with my girlfriend, whom I had met in Georgia over the winter, fell head over heals for and was missing like mad. We hadn’t been able to speak for over a month because of the extremely limited internet connections where we were both traveling, but so many times when I had felt up against it all on this trip I had told myself it was all going to be worth it because the most amazing reward of two weeks together in Korea was waiting.

Now, just a week before, I was reading a message saying a serious family illness meant she most likely couldn’t come. And with that my internet signal died. Not knowing what else to do I convinced myself the best course of action was to get across the border to China – where I had a valid visa for 30 days and I could try and take stock and get in contact. For once the wind was in my favour and after I filled up with water I headed out of town again and onto the road to the border at Zamyn-Uud. But as the Gobi desert opened out in front of me and the asphalt wound its way over the long undulations of the landscape I felt my legs going limp and my arms starting to wobble and I knew I was about to ‘bonk’.

‘Bonk’ is a term I know from a few cyclists for when your energy or blood sugar level totally crashes. It was now 3pm and after eating nothing since breakfast at 6am, riding all morning in the heat and then downing an ice cream, coffee and 1.5 litre of lemonade in Sainshand, I was now crashing after a sugar overload. By some kind of miracle I spotted a tree big enough to offer shade and forced myself to stop and cook some buckwheat. Afterwards I cycled until nightfall, peeling off the road to find a semi-concealed spot to put my tent up as the full moon illuminated building clouds. On auto pilot after pitching my tent so many times in the last few months, I heard a loud ‘snap’ as I attempted to put the poles up. Cursing my luck, but knowing I could repair a broken pole easily enough with a brace piece I looked for the break in the moonlight. Failing to find it, I put on my torch to discover it was not actually a break, but a screw-in connection had popped out and ripped the thread off both ends. I had no idea how to fix that and no physical or emotional energy left to fight the onslaught of tears. I collapsed in a heap and cried like a baby in the moonlit Gobi emptiness.

I don’t know how long it took me to pull myself together, but I eventually made some kind of shelter and crawled into it. It was a long night as the wind picked up again and I expected to be smothered in tent material at any point as the makeshift shelter collapsed, but we both made it to morning. It was a day of slow progress with a head and side wind once again working against me and my water running low in the dry heat. So when a truck driver saw me battling up another long slow hill and offered me a ride to Zamyn-Uud I accepted.

Zamyn-Uud is a classic example of a miserable border town with nothing but dust, wind and over priced hotels, so the following morning I was focused on resolving my issue with immigration and getting out of Mongolia. I had heard the border crossing was chaotic so decided to try and get an exit stamp at the Immigration office in town before going to the border itself. I left Raven and my bags at the hotel and went to the office first thing. A nice woman looked at my visa, listened to me explain the 60 days from Astana story (in my minimal Russian), then got out a rule book and showed me the English translation explaining I had overstayed my visa and needed to pay the fine/penalty. So far so good I thought.

Then she gave my passport to a plain clothes guys and spoke to him before he walked out the door with my passport and got into a car. I followed him and tried to ask where he was going but he just motioned for me to get in the car. This didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but neither did getting separated from my passport. Another guy got in and I asked where we were going in Russian again and he said the border. I explained my bike and bags were in my hotel, the plain clothes guy signalled for me to go and get them, but again I refused to go without my passport, so he started to drive to the border. It seemed like I had no choice but to go too.

2km down the road at the border plain clothes guy, who was obviously some kind of big wig because he was waved through every gate and security check with me in tow, took me into an office and gave my passport to a uniformed guy who I will simply call ‘Arsehole’. Again I had to go through the whole story in my limited Russian. He told me I had overstayed my visa, I told him it was 60 days not 30, I even had the visa receipt to show him. He got angry that my Russian wasn’t good enough for me to understand whatever he said next, then he offered me a cigarette and chewing gum, then he told me I have to go back to Ulaanbataar. He tells me to sit over there, come over here, keeps picking up my passport and shaking his head at it. Then he grabs my phone and starts looking through my photos, refusing to give it back when I ask. He asks if I am married, asks why not? Bla bla bla.

After  an hour of getting nowhere I try to move things along by explaining in Ulaanbataar they told me to come here and pay a fine, so now he tells me to go back to Ulaanbataar again. I phone Bolora for help, he tells her I have to pay 200,000 tugrik or I go back to Ulaanbataar. It’s more than the amount they told me at the office in Ulaanbataar and he won’t give me a receipt but by now I just want an exit stamp and to stop dealing with Arsehole. I give him the money, hating the fact that I am sure its not legit, he tells me to sit back down – its lunch time. I tell him I need to get my bike and bags, he says no, you go straight to China. I am about to lose it and he laughs, it’s a joke! Thankfully plain clothes guy and Russian speaking guy come back in and tell me to go with them to get my things.

I wait for them to come back to the immigration office after lunch to get back to the border but they don’t come and eventually someone comes out and tells me to go the border. I ask how to get through all the checks without my passport but they wave me away. I have to explain everything numerous times, thankfully to army guards who actually speak some English, and find a jeep to ride in (because no one can walk or ride across the border area) but I make it back to Arsehole’s office. I am sure he says “Hello honey” when he sees me but I force myself to ignore it. The he gives me a bunch of papers to sign and as I try and read them to see what exactly I am signing I realise he had said “Hello Huley”. Instead of Nicola Huxley, Huley is written all over the papers and next to each space where it says the ‘infringer’ must sign.

He has spelt my name wrong every time it has been printed and worried this will cause yet more problems if it doesn’t match up with my passport name I try to point it out. He can’t see it and just gets angry again, telling me I have to go back to Ulaanbataar, before I take out my bank card to show him my name. He finally twigs and looks ready to explode. To really piss him off I go through pointing at each one and saying ‘That’s not my name.’ thankfully he is as fed up with me as I am with him and he pulls out my passport, shows me the page with a stamp on it and the new visa expiry date and gives me a photocopy to sign. Finally I have my passport back and I can go. The stamp coming down on the page at passport control is the sweetest sound and I head outside to get Raven and get out of Mongolia.

Outside a Mongolian customs officer is standing over Raven and I prepare myself for more problems. But to my surprise he comes over to help me with my bags and speaks in perfect English, with a northern accent! When I ask him about it he explains that he lived in Manchester for 8 years and he laughs when I say ‘Mad for it’. I need another jeep as this is still a no walking or riding zone and he tells me not to worry, he will find one for free, before flagging one down and helping me load everything in. We then join the bumper to bumper queue of battered old Mongolian jeeps that stall, lurch and repeatedly ram into each other every 2m in the afternoon heat as they ferry people across the 1km to the Chinese border. It takes nearly 3 more hours before the whole process is complete (including 2 nervous hours waiting for my jeep to come through with Raven in after I have to take all my bags through the foot passenger terminal).

Ever since experiencing the breath-taking scenery and seclusion of the Pamir highway on my ride in 2013, I had earmarked a journey through Mongolia in search of something similar. The ‘Land of the Eternal Blue Sky’ also offered an alternative route to the eternal visa problem of China in my ongoing journey east, but primarily my efforts to reach Mongolia were geared towards that inexplicable feeling of awe at mother nature and the privilege of experiencing the true massiveness of both remote landscape and human emotion. But as I left Mongolia i felt physically and mentally exhausted and wondered why I had channeled so much time, money and effort into cycling there, all the while taking me ever further away from someone I was longing to be with.

I tried to see through all this as my jeep now coughed and spluttered its way along pristine Chinese tarmac as we entered the modern city of Erenhot. I asked my sweat drenched driver ‘China, Ok?’ He looked at me blankly and I thought, ‘Shit, what have I got myself into now?’

 

 

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