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Erlian to Zamyn-Uud: How not to cross the border

Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 7

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Rainbow arch at the Erlian border crossing

Related Posts: See my posts Getting a Mongolian visa in Erlian and Crossing the China-Mongolia border in Erlian for a full run down of how to get out of China and into Mongolia without getting sent back.

All or nothing

There was a fleet of jeeps waiting at the border when I got there. I’d taken a five minute taxi ride from my hotel, and after the previous night’s realisation, it was all or nothing if I wanted to make it today. I had no visa, but I also had no choice. The driver had been on her mobile trying to arrange a space for me in one of the vehicles during our drive. When we arrived, I was ushered to one of the half dozen jeeps a short distance from the vehicle checkpoint by the rainbow arch. It would cost me Y80 for the ride across and a mysterious Y5 exit fee, just as I’d expected.

The jeep was loaded with boxes and assorted luggage. There were two Mongolian women in the back as I squeezed in on top of a box of some sort, my head pressing against the roof, my bags on my lap. The driver and his front passenger made us five. He handed us our departure cards to fill out, and when we’d driven through the checkpoint, we piled out and into the passport control building on the Chinese side.

Heading out of China was easy. Or at least it should have been. There was a hall with three or four booths in the middle and a queue of around fifteen or twenty people at the one that was manned. Most of the people heading across seemed to be Mongolian, carrying, dragging and pushing all sorts of strange things with them. Some had bags of toys, some had DVDs, some had turned themselves into walking clothes piles as they waddled their way through. There was even one guy sliding a refrigerator along, wrapped in cardboard, on its side. All of which made the checking of passports and our progress forward pretty slow going.

Perhaps because of the delay, a second immigration officer came out of a side room and headed for one of the other booths. She opened the little door, put her flask of tea down, and along with the others that decided to twist instead of stick, I shuffled across to join the second queue forming at the adjacent booth. But no sooner had she put her flask down than she picked it up and walked away again, and after a couple of minutes waiting, it was clear that she wasn’t coming back.

We are Mongolian

We mingled back in with the original line after our foiled attempt, making a rather disorganised, but essentially no-different-than-before, two-abreast situation. Then I felt a shove in the back. I tried to ignore it, but a few moments later another one came, this one more forceful than before. I knew what was coming.

“You are in front of us,” said one of the three less than friendly-looking Mongolians standing behind me. The woman had a battered suitcase in each hand. The two blokes were carrying a carpet between them that was sagging as much as the woman’s shoulders.

“I know,” I said.

“But you were in that line.” The woman made some kind of twitching motion with her head towards where I’d previously been standing.

I explained that as there was now no one at the other booth, and we were all pretty much how we were before anyway, there was nothing to be said about the matter.

“The back is over there,” the first guy said, pointing as if giving me directions.

Again, I tried to ignore it, not wanting to anger these obviously deeply angry people further. But when the kicking of my heels started, what could I do? I turned round and told them in Chinese that I was only one guy. I’d been in this queue to start with and …

“Don’t talk Chinese to us,” said the spokesman again. “We are Mongolian. We are not Chinese.”

By now, the commotion had caught the eye of one of the Chinese guards who had been minding his own business reading the newspaper. He looked our way and, pointing at the source of the problem, I gave him my best “What am I supposed to do about this?” shrug. He called me over, and after I’d explained, he waved me back in line leaving the Mongolians cursing the wretchedness of the world. If this was what Mongolians were like, I thought, I was lucky I was spending as little time in the country as possible.

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Chinese exit cancellation. Whoops!

Problems on problems on problems

Safely through to the other side, we were back in the jeep and driving the 500 metres through no man’s land towards the Mongolian border. The reports I’d read regarding my Hong Kong ID were conflicting, but even so, though in my desperation I’d convinced myself of the possibility of making it without a visa, common sense told me that it couldn’t be done. My passport was British, not Hong Kong, and that was that.

In the Mongolian immigration building, I tried to act natural. “Be calm; be confident,” I told myself. “Stick to the script if you run into trouble.” I’d taken my rucksack out of the jeep just in case I wasn’t going back, and as I walked up to the booth and handed the woman my passport, she took little time in extinguishing what little hope I had. She leafed through the pages once, twice, three times, without finding the one thing she was looking for, before looking up at me and saying the two words I so very dearly didn’t want to hear: “Mongolian visa?”

I was escorted into an office where the official in charge looked me and my visaless passport over. He was the type of guy that looked like he took great pleasure in denying entry to idiots like me, sitting behind his desk, passing judgement Nero-fashion. He had a face like a slab of yak meat. He told me I needed to cross back over the border, re-enter China, and get myself a Mongolian visa in Erlian. The only problem now, was that I’d used my last Chinese visa when I entered from Hong Kong on Monday. He shrugged as if to say “that ain’t my problem, Baby,” then led me back through the queue of those waiting to get into China, from where I was able to find another jeep for another Y80 to take me back to Erlian.

Since I now had no Chinese visa, despite my predicament, the Chinese were reluctant to let me back in without a thorough checking of my circumstances. It took about forty minutes of questions on their part, and just-adequate-enough explanations in Chinese on mine, before they were satisfied enough to stamp my previous exit stamp with one reading “cancelled” and allow me to cross back over to where my jeep had already left. I got on a bus heading back into town and waited until it was full enough to finally leave, riding back to Erlian bus station, ten minutes down the road.

Was this a deportation? Maybe it’s best to think of it as an annulment, a folly fueled by desperation. But I figured it was worth a try. The worst that could happen, I reasoned, was that I’d be sent back to try again with only the consternation of two countrys’ border guards to contend with. I needed to be in Zamyn-Uud, not in Erlian, and if there was a chance I could get out of China, I was prepared to take the risk. Yet after all that, I was still in Erlian. And I wasn’t getting out any time soon.

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