Oct. 5 - 7, 2014
Days 80 – 82
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part IV
Officially, I've been to three tripartite borders, though I've traveled in the vicinity of many more. Near the Brazil-Argentina-Paraguay border sits one of the world's most awe-inspiring waterfalls (Iguazu) and the world's second-largest power plant (Itaipu Dam). Peru, Colombia and Brazil all converge on the Amazon River, hundreds of miles from the nearest town with road access. And perhaps the strangest and most spectacular border I have ever been to is on top of Mount Roraima, where Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana all meet at an unmanned obelisk. My trip to Inner Mongolia put me within spitting distance of yet another tripartite border, that of Russia, China and Mongolia.
It was already dark when the bus dropped me off in Manzhouli, China. I walked a few blocks and found a cheap hotel, marked with a plain door and a red neon sign. I walked inside and saw what I had learned was typical of Chinese apartment buildings: dim lighting, scuffed walls, filthy floors, no decorations. My kind of place.
The hotel's front desk was on the third floor. The manager, a middle-aged man with a comb-over and a leather jacket, held a cigarette between the index and middle fingers of his right hand while clicking his ancient computer's mouse. He was playing solitaire. When he saw me walk up with my huge backpack, he took one last drag from his cigarette and stubbed it out in an ashtray, next to its brethren. To my relief, he told me that there were vacancies, and rooms were only 50 rmb. I had been prepared to spend many times that amount on this holiday weekend.
The man plugged an ancient scanner into his computer and turned it on. (Hotels are required to scan foreigners' passports in China.) I handed him my passport, then he set it on the scanner, pushed a button and watched the green wand do its magical wave. An image popped up on his screen, showing half of my picture. It was upside down. The man moved my passport a couple of inches to the left and rescanned it. The resulting image showed only the lower-right corner of my passport. It was still upside down. He repeated the move-rescan process a few more times, each time not even coming close to scanning all of my vital information. Looking confused, he lit another cigarette and started to bend my most important document backwards, as if that would fix it. I yanked my passport from him – it has to last nine more years, after all – and removed it from its RFID-blocking sheath. He scanned it a couple more times, then seemed satisfied when half of my picture and all of my name were displayed, even though the image was still upside down.
The man led me upstairs to my room, carrying a ring of keys in his left hand and a cigarette in his right. The room was small. It was also the kind of place where you don't want to touch anything. The bathroom had a toilet that actually worked, and it had a bathtub, but no running water. Whatever, at least it was cheap.
I dropped off my backpack and went for a walk around Manzhouli. The city was full of thirty-story hotels with bright, blinking lights covering their facades. I walked down the main pedestrian street, which featured a few creepy statues and dozens of shops. Outdoor speakers pulverized my ears with advertisements, half in Chinese, half in Russian. I didn't understand the announcements, but I could tell they were succinct – they looped and replayed every ten seconds, sometimes even more frequently. Large Russian babushkas darted between shops, clutching full shopping bags. But mostly the streets were filled with Chinese people, heavily bundled in the frigid nighttime air.
Eventually I found a set of train tracks and followed them to the train station. Luckily, there was a ticket booth, so I was able to buy a ticket back to Beijing from a real, live person, just like in the old days. Unfortunately, all of the sleeper cabins were sold out, so I would have to spend another thirty-two hours in a “hard seat.”
Train ticket in hand, I returned to my hotel for some peace and quiet. When I reached the third floor, the front-desk manager got my attention. He wanted to see my passport again. Reluctantly, I took it out of its sheath and handed it to him. Just like before, he scanned an upside-down image. He rotated my passport 180 degrees, shifted it to the left, then rotated it 180 degrees. The resulting image was upside down. The man jerked his head backwards and a look of astonishment crossed his eyes. He repeated the same process of rotating my passport 180 degrees – twice – and again couldn't believe that the image was still upside down. He said, “Huh?” lit a cigarette and started to bend my passport again. I grabbed it from his hands and put it on the scanner myself. This time the image was right-side up, but it was still off-center.
The man shouted for a teenaged boy who was sitting in the hallway to help him. The two of them scanned my passport over and over, moving it a millimeter at a time. At one point, they had it almost perfect, but they decided to shift it a tiny bit and accidentally moved it the wrong way. The next few scans got progressively worse, until they pulled my passport from the machine and examined it, effectively starting over. I suggested that they just take a picture of my passport with one of their cellphones, but they refused. Getting a perfect scan had become a quest.
I sat in a chair next to the desk and put my head in my hands. I had spent most of the day on buses, and all I wanted was a good night's rest. Thirty minutes and fifty scans later, they were back to a near-perfect image. The manager finally handed back my passport and said, “We'll try again tomorrow.”
The next morning, there was a giant thermos of boiling water waiting at my door, which I figured was for bathing. I filled a plastic wash basin with cold water from a communal sink, then mixed it with hot water in my bathtub and gave myself a sponge bath. On my way out of the hotel, I ran past the front desk, hoping the manager wouldn't remember to ask for my passport again. Luckily, someone else was working.
I decided to walk to the Russian border, several miles to the north. Before long, I was outside of central Manzhouli, walking past smaller houses with rows of cabbage drying outside. Soon I was passing a large empty field next to the road. A giant shopping mall was on the outskirts of the city. Nearby was an empty stadium. Looking toward the border, I noticed something strange in the distance. It looked like a giant matryoshka doll.
My eyes weren't playing tricks on me. I was actually looking at a five-story Russian doll, surrounded by smaller dolls. The plaza's circular perimeter was sprinkled with dolls about eight feet tall, painted with various world leaders, famous athletes and pop-culture characters. The place looked decades old and poorly maintained. The paint was chipping from the dolls, parts of the walkway had been ripped apart and weeds were growing between the cracks. Yet while I was there several buses pulled up and dropped off loads of tourists to walk around and take pictures.
* I later learned that this is the largest Russian matryoshka doll in the world, and it was built just eight years ago. Go figure.
As if the plaza itself weren't strange enough, giant buildings were under construction all around it. When these buildings are finished, they'll dwarf the original five-story doll. Maybe they'll compensate by building an even bigger doll over the top of it?
Next to the doll plaza was a garden of bronze sculptures, featuring Russian literary figures such as Tolstoy, and various Soviet political leaders. There was also a tribute to Russian laborers, featuring a man and a woman holding a hammer and sickle. Unfortunately and perhaps ironically, one of the facade's tiles had fallen off and broken. The sculpture garden was in an even worse state of disrepair than the doll plaza, and no one except me was walking through it.
I walked the rest of the way to the border, but there wasn't much to see. Just a gate that I wasn't allowed to cross, with a small – and probably equally garish – city on the other side. The Mongolian border was a few miles to the west, but I didn't see any gates or cities or monuments or people. Just rolling hills, covered in grass.
At the end of the day I returned to Manzhouli. I wanted to buy some dried blueberries to take back to Beijing, so I poked my head into a few shops. They all sold large bags that were filled with serving-size bags of blueberries. I've noticed that in China, food manufacturers love wrapping little items inside of bigger ones. Sometimes you have to open a package four times before it's actually open. I just wanted one big bag of blueberries that I would only have to open once, so I kept looking.
Finally, I hit the jackpot: a shop with several piles of dried blueberries, and no excess packaging. I told the owner to give me 50 rmb of his best stuff. As he was scooping the blueberries, he asked where I was from. I told him I was American and he said something I didn't understand. He tried saying it a different way but I still didn't understand. Then he took out his phone, brought up a video and asked something like, “Is this what America is really like?” The video was of a local Chinese newscast where they sent a reporter to the Mississippi River basin. They showed the reporter traveling on a river in a motorboat, and soon hundreds of fish started jumping out of the water, crisscrossing the camera's path. Several fish landed in the boat and flopped around. The whole time they were explaining what was happening in Chinese. They interviewed an overweight American man wearing a muscle shirt and a camouflage baseball hat. He explained, in a thick Southern accent, how these were invasive Asian carp and they had taken over the river system. Then he said, “You have to be careful 'round here, one of them suckers gave me a black eye.”
Even though I knew invasive species were a serious problem, I couldn't contain my laughter. The blueberry salesman put his phone away and gave me a look of concern for my safety. I answered his previous question by saying, “Yes, in America this is normal.”
(I couldn't find the exact video he showed me, which is a shame because the fact that it was told from a Chinese perspective made it really interesting. However, this video captures the essence of the situation.)
While walking home, I stopped at a few of Manzhouli's well-lit plazas to photograph the nearly-full moon rising. It dawned on me that other than Las Vegas, this was the gaudiest city I had ever visited. Normally that would be a major turn-off, yet for some reason, I actually enjoyed Manzhouli. Maybe the buildings that were far too tall, bright and concentrated for a city of this size were what did it for me. Miles of empty land surround Manzhouli, yet city planners had chosen to go vertical anyway. It was as if everyone in Manzhouli wanted to be in the middle of the action, so they crammed as much eye-popping stuff into as small an area as possible.
When I entered my hotel, my old friend the chain-smoking, passport-scanning man was working at the desk. I ran past him and he didn't say anything. Only one train and thirty-two hours now separated me from Beijing.
What's next? How about reading Part V of this series.