You know this, I know this: the Internet lies. There are the obvious lies, the bright sparkly pulsating ones you know better than to click on, and then there are the truly insidious ones – the ones that omit crucial details – these are the ones that will leave you to die in a sandstorm in the middle of the Gobi desert.
My fellow Beijingers, if you ever need to do a visa run and find yourself thinking, “oh, I’ll just pop up to Mongolia, lazy bus ride and a scenic day on border no big deal-” well, about that. I’m not saying that going to Erlian, the only overland border crossing between China and Mongolia, is Hell – it’s much too cold for that – but it is quite similar to having the devil instill in you a deep and lasting regret for the decisions you’ve made.
If you do decide to make this bad decision, there are some things you should know, things that the internet is trying to gloss over with straightforward looking bus schedules and directions. These are those things. You’re welcome.
- There are no towns anywhere near Erlian.
When the guy at the ticket window tells you they’re out of tickets to Erlian and you should just buy a ticket to this whatever close other place and transfer, he is lying to you. Do not believe his lies. Unless, of course, his actual intention is for you to get off the bus at the cabbage slop bus ride dinner diner, and change there to a bus to Erlian. Sure, you can do this, but you’ll have to buy an invisible extra ticket from a hustler for a bus waiting at a truck stop several dark alleys away. This bus has windows made of plastic bags, which is good because of the smell, but bad because of the air temperature. You will be on this plastic bag bus for 11 hours. This bullet point could also be titled Don’t go buy your ticket the day before your visa runs out.
- The border crossing into Mongolia opens at 8.30AM.
You will get into town around 6am, and after about 8 seconds realize you don’t need to spend a day “sightseeing” in Erlian. You’ve just seen it. Now you need to leave Erlian as soon as possible. There is a sandstorm blowing, and it is not just any sandstorm, it is The Mother of Sandstorms. It is like a sandstorm summoned by an evil wizard to vanquish his worst enemy. All those little baby sandstorms we get in Beijing? They are her tiny helpless infant offspring. In Erlian, when the wind blows, you are literally in the desert.
You might think, at least I can beat the rush and get this stamp done early style, so you catch a taxi to the border. Wrong. The driver who takes you to the border, he of course knows the border does not open until 8.30. Unfortunately he doesn’t want to tell you this. He wants to leave you to die in a sandstorm for a 10RMB cab fare. You tie a bandana around your mouth and walk to the gate like ok, lets do this.
The border guard very reluctantly opens his window a tiny crack and tells you the border opens at 8.30. It is 6.30. You are in the middle of the Gobi desert, miles from anywhere, in the middle of a sandstorm so powerful you are beginning to panic. Every hole in your head has declared a state of emergency. You begin walking back to town, or at least the direction you think town is, because you cannot see the road, it is covered in desert, all you can see is The Road, like the Cormac McCarthy one where they eat the dead baby. This desolate, broken world, it feels like another planet, another galaxy far far away. Also, it is very cold. You are Luke Skywalker marooned on Hoth. You must find a tauntaun to gut and crawl inside, or you will die in this storm.
As you walk back to town, you will pass lumber mill after lumber mill. Piles and piles of dead trees sit stacked in their yards, awaiting their transformation to product. You think, trees – yes – that’s it, trees! Trees are what is needed to keep the soil stuck to the ground. Trees will solve everything! Then you realize you are looking at all the trees, and all the trees are dead, and once all the trees are dead, all the soil will be gone, and once all the soil is gone, we won’t be able to plant new trees, and the evil wizard who summoned this storm, oh so that would be us – we are our own worst enemy.
- Reserve your Jeep seat at the bus/train station
We went off on a bit of a tangent there, but we’re back from dystopian hell. So, instead of taking a taxi to the border, spend these two hours not using the public bathroom and finding a seat in a Jeep. The only way to get across the border is in one of these old gutted out army jeeps that go round and round like a rusty old carnival ride. Or you can try to hop into an empty seat at the border, if you enjoy fighting women and children who are all throwing elbows trying to get out of a debilitating frozen sandstorm.
- Bring a seat of some kind
Collapsible stool, piece of newspaper, whatever. Bring something to sit on. There is a hall you and about 50 other people at a time, hundreds each day, will have to wait for several hours together while the merry-go-round of Jeeps get searched so you can ride them 30 seconds back across the border. There are no chairs in this hall, because why would there be? Why put chairs in a room where hundreds of people wait for hours each day? When you are trying to recreate Hell, it would make no sense whatsoever.