What I noticed first were the hands. Heavy, no-nonsense, working hands. Hands that lift and carry and squeeze.
Okay, I might be exaggerating a little and even flirting with political incorrectness, but it’s what I remember.
As we moved further from Beijing and closer to the Mongolian border the hands we encountered grew larger and larger, not to mention the men and women attached to them. My excitement grew along with them. All of the mystique and awe that Mongolia had sparked in my imagination was drawing me towards the border.
While traveling through China I’d become accustomed to being twice the size of everyone. “Traveling” isn’t quite the right word for it though. It sounds too straight-forward, smooth and planned.
I’d say I pushed my way through China. Pushed to hold my place in ticket lines, pushed to maneuver through crowds, pushed to keep from falling over. In order to move you had to push.
I loved it. Constant contact is a part of life there. Nobody gets annoyed or apologizes. A push isn’t acknowledged with eye contact because it’s nothing personal.
Basketball taught me the art of boxing out and a strong stance, so I had no problem holding my own in China. Just when I thought I’d mastered the game, I crossed into Mongolia, the big leagues. China was just the training camp.
Our journey to the border was one big metaphorical push that started with battling the ticket mafia in Beijing. First, we went to the counter to buy tickets the old-fashioned way. Sold out. We came back the next morning. Sold out. We came back the next morning at 5:30am before opening time to be first in line. Sold out. Curious. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me three times and now I’m pissed. We met four Israelis traveling together who were also trying to obtain these unobtainable tickets.
It became clear that the public had no chance of buying them from the bus station at the standard price. The only option was to buy them from the ticket mafia who scoop them all up before they go on sale and sell them at inflated prices. That’s our theory at least. After some sketchy transactions and a lot more pushing we were on an overnight bus heading to Hohhut, the capital of Inner Mongolia. All I remember from the ride is waking up briefly to a brilliant sunrise over a Martian desert.
A taxi took us from the bus stop to the dusty border, where we waited for it to open. One of our Israeli traveling partners pulled a stove and espresso maker out of his pack.
We sat at the edge of the world and enjoyed a coffee with strangers as a line of border guards looked on menacingly and protected their side of the desert.
The next few hours were a blur. Beat up Russian Jeeps began to arrive. Soon the end of the line wound out of sight. Crossing the border on foot is illegal so we started negotiating with drivers to take us through the checkpoints using a Nokia phone to type in prices.
The problem was ultimately not a lack of willingness, it was a lack of space. The vehicles were bulging and even the external surfaces had something tied or stuck to them. You couldn’t be 100% sure what color car was underneath. This border crossing is an informal but central trade route. Mongolians fill up on cheap goods then bring them back to Ulaanbaatar to sell. They do this by the thousands every single day. It’s MADNESS. We split up to improve our chances.
I managed to cram into the back of a Jeep between the legs of an overturned chair, and we tied my bag to the hood. Thank you, yoga.
To keep things from getting too easy the universe decided that my visa should be refused. The Mongolian embassy in Bangkok had forgotten to initial it. As I waited, I tried to convince my driver not to leave me. Without a common language I can only imagine what this desperate conversation looked like.
It’s around this time that I noticed the hands. They were intimidating. She only needed to use one of them to easily untie and lift my 50-pound pack from the roof. I ran out yelling after her to wait. I’d just received clearance. She smiled at my relief. I like to think she hadn’t wanted to leave me. We drove the last 200 meters across the border and she abruptly dropped me off in the Gobi. I didn’t care. I was in Mongolia. Nothing could rain on this parade.
After a few more hiccups we were boarding a train from Zamyd Ud to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The last two tickets had gone to us. Our four travel companions were able to bribe the conductor to let them sneak into a storage area.
The pushing started on the platform, and I quickly noticed that the tables had turned. I was no longer a front runner. Everyone around me was thicker, stronger and heavier. As soon as the doors opened we tried to wedge ourselves and our backpacks through the crowd and onto the train as we always did. It was like trying to wedge between slabs of concrete. Hundred-pound parcels were tossed over our heads like bags of potato chips.
We were one of the last to board. I squeezed up against the wall and tried to stay out of the way as the whirlwind of packages and people and shouting subsided. At a glance it seemed chaotic but upon closer inspection it was clear that this was just an ordinary day for many of these passengers. Everything had been expertly and snuggly packed into the carriage in under 15 minutes.
The carriage was split into open compartments. Eight people sat on two benches facing each other. Two sets of foldable benches were attached to the wall above us. Six “beds,” eight people. Math isn’t my strong suit but even I knew it was going to be a long 14-hour train ride.
Once the boxes were arranged and the dust had settled the vibe was pleasant. People talked, drank vodka and ate aaruul (dried curd). Unlike in China nobody paid us much attention. It was refreshing to escape the stares. Someone gestured to where we would sit.
At around 10pm our compartment mates folded the rest of the plastic benches down, and over the course of the night they orchestrated a rotating sleeping pattern. Boris and I shared one of the 2.5-foot wide benches, hooking ourselves together to prevent one of us from falling off in our sleep.
In the morning they watched us play cards, then we watched them play cards. Well, I just stared at their impressive hands. After a month in Mongolia I would come to see them as a window into a unique culture and history, a reminder that nothing about this country is just average — not the lispy language, not the people, not the infinite landscapes. With hands like these on his side it’s no wonder that Genghis Khan was able to conquer most of Eurasia. I looked down at my bony fingers and knew they wouldn’t last a day of winter work.
My impression of Mongolia is that it’s tough, holding its own between China and Russia, raising citizens who are not outwardly cheerful but not unfriendly either. When they laugh they mean it. When they fight they probably don’t — it’s the alcohol.
In the countryside they are helpful because it’s practical. They wash their babies with warm milk. They tinker on Soviet Jeeps that they will never sell. They feed hungry travelers. They farm and survive. And they do it all with their hands.