Oct. 3 - 4, 2014
Days 78 – 79
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part III
When we reached Erguna, the bus dropped us off in the center of town. Vendors sold fruits and vegetables along the sidewalks. Clothing shops and restaurants blasted advertisements from outdoor speakers, competing for our business. Salesmen selling street food from rickshaws shouted their wares into bullhorns. All of the noise and bustle made the city seem much bigger than it actually was.
We bought tickets to Enhe, our destination for the day. There was just enough time before our bus left for us to run across the street for lunch. We walked into a restaurant and saw that nothing was written in English. We “ordered” by pointing at some other patrons' dishes and saying, “I'll have that.” Luckily, our bowl of soup didn't contain any intestines this time. As we ate, a foreign man walked into the restaurant. We exchanged awkward glances of “What are you doing here?” Then Katie and I ran back to the bus station and found our bus, just before it left. One of the greatest pleasures of travel is figuring out how to get from point A to point B, in a foreign country where you can't speak, read or write the language, under the pressure of time. Of course, another great travel pleasure is spending all day doing nothing at all.
The ride started on a bumpy gravel road. When we made it to a paved road, it became inexplicably bumpier. There were few cross streets – we were in the middle of nowhere, and this road went to the border of Russian Siberia. We arrived in Enhe at about 3 p.m.
We only knew two things about Enhe: it had been populated with Russian immigrants, and it had a youth hostel. In fact, the previous night while I had had a decent internet connection, I had searched for all hostels in the region. The one in Enhe was the only result. That alone was enough to make us want to go there.
We gathered our backpacks and walked toward the hostel, passing log cabins built along a river. A Russian Orthodox church was in the center of town, as were little shops selling Russian souvenirs. A bakery exuded the smell of fresh bread. Pigs and cows freely roamed the streets.
The hostel was a nice place at the edge of town. There was a large common area with big windows, where guests could admire the sprawling grasslands. This room was heated with a wood stove, which made me feel like I was “up north” in a cozy cabin.
Katie's flight from Hailar to Beijing was the following night, so we figured we could go for a bike ride or a long walk before heading out of town. Unfortunately, the last bus of the day left at 9:30 a.m. Katie may have had to leave this remote village a mere thirty hours after arriving, but I was under no such time constraints. What would I do next?
It was unlikely that I would visit this part of Inner Mongolia again, so I wanted to see a few more places before heading home. The problem was buying train tickets. I had discovered on this trip that you can't just show up and expect to get a ticket for a long distance train. If you don't want to stand for thirty hours straight, you need to book your tickets online, days or weeks in advance. During my South America trip (2005-2008), I never once used the internet to book a bus or train ticket. Things have changed a lot over the last six years.
The hostel was packed with Chinese tourists. As I was browsing for train tickets, a kid sat next to Katie and me and started asking questions. We were happy to talk with him at first, but he kept asking more and more questions. “Where are you from?” “Do you have children?” “How much money do you make?”. Then he said, “I like to talk about uncomfortable subjects, like euthanasia and freedom of speech.” Katie and I changed the subject, but he kept talking. Finally I ignored him and went back to looking for train tickets. The English ticket-purchasing website wasn't working, though, possibly because it was a holiday weekend. I would have to improvise my way to my next destination, without any idea of how to get there, or what I might do once I arrived.
Ah yes, one of the greatest pleasures of travel...
The next morning Katie left town by bus. She would be back in Beijing later that day. I was actually a bit jealous – at least she knew where she was going. I decided to stay behind for a day and think things through.
I rented a bike from the hostel and pedaled along the road to the Russian border, past vast farm fields and open landscapes. I continued to listen to “Wrath of the Kahns” and learned more of the legacy of Ghengis Kahn's empire. When his son Ogedei died, he didn't leave an obvious successor. For five years, the various factions of Ghengis' grandchildren squabbled. During this interim period from 1242 to 1246, Ogedei's widow took over as leader of the entire Mongol Empire. She ruled over more land than any female before her, and possibly since. Yet few people in the modern world have heard of her. Her name was Töregene Khatun.
I biked across the steppe, conjuring images of Mongolians, riding their horses across this dusty land to conquer new territory, pillaging, raping and slaughtering all who got in their way. I pedaled to the next village, another farming community. The people living there looked Mongolian – direct descendents of Genghis, perhaps?
The next morning I left Enhe with a plan: I would ride buses a couple hundred miles southwest to Manzhouli, on the Russian border. From there, I would find the train station and attempt to buy a ticket home, from a real human being. This may have been a bad idea: it was the end of a holiday weekend, and the only info I could find about lodging in Manzhouli was from a guy who said the cheapest room in town was 400 rmb and didn't have electricity or running water (by comparison, my bed in Enhe was 70 rmb and had both). I had a tent with me, though, so I could always walk to the edge of town and set up camp.
When I got to Erguna, I bought a ticket for the next bus to Manzhouli, which didn't leave for three hours. Luckily, I met a French couple outside of the bus station who were on their way to a park, so I tagged along. The park was at the top of the hill at the edge of town. It afforded us even more great views of the surrounding wetlands and grasslands. While we walked through the park's boardwalks, at least six Chinese tourists stopped us for a picture. The French couple informed me that the Chinese equivalent of saying “cheese” when getting your picture taken is “1, 2, 3, eggplant.”
The road to Manzhouli was long and lonely. The landscape was so flat, the highway so straight, you could see the road all the way to the horizon. The only time it changed direction was when it made an abrupt ninety-degree bend with no other roads intersecting it. Wired fences and flags lined the sides. We passed clusters of yurts and a band of wild horses. The only time we stopped was to let a herd of cattle cross the road.
After a four-hour ride, we saw onion domes and thirty-story buildings emerge from the horizon. If I didn't know any better, I would guess that this was Novosibirsk or maybe Las Vegas. But it was neither. We had arrived in Manzhouli, and it was to be the most interesting destination of my Inner Mongolia trip.
What's next? How about reading Part IV of this series.