Sep 15 2010

The Long Road to Mongolia

Our first bus stop of many.

A thought: Where’s the line between being neurotic and, as one of my yoga teachers used to say, “exploring possibilities”? My yoga teacher usually was referring to exploring the possibility of touching your toes or binding your arms behind your back while standing on one foot. I, on the other hand, am exploring the possibility of what might happen if the 45-person bus we are traveling on from Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatur were to flip over and/or crash. (The presence of a red fire extinguisher strapped to the luggage rack above my  head is not making me feel calmer.)

We’re on this bus – which is supposed to take ten to 12 hours – because the train is even slower: it takes an entire day to travel the same distance, due to an 11-hour stop at the border. No thank you. But the bus is not necessarily a big improvement. Not only is there no bathroom but it’s sold out and has assigned seats. Mine is over the wheel well and Peter’s seat’s reclining mechanism is broken, so if he leans against it at all, it collapses into the lap of the woman behind him as if surrendering. I suggested he ask the bus driver for a long piece of rope so that he could strap his seat to the one in front of him, but Peter claims that it would be more uncomfortable to be tied into his chair than it will be to not be able to lean back.

With all that said, the interior of the bus has unexpected decorative touches. The seats have light blue and white fleece covers. The windows are draped with pink curtains with a dust ruffle of sorts, topped by an undulating strip of white doily. At the front of the bus, the dust ruffle evolves into tassled bunting, which sways with the movements of the bus. There’s a scene in the Nutcracker ballet where women appear on stage in enormous hoop skirts made of materials not unlike these curtains. As the women fan themselves, children begin emerging from beneath their skirts, numerous children, a clown car under their petticoats. This bus makes me feel like I am one of those children.

Our first chance to emerge from beneath the skirt/out of the bus comes only 45 minutes into our journey when the driver pulls to a stop on the side of the road. Gets out. Walks around a bit. Smokes a cigarette. Then, within view of my entire side of the bus, turns his back to us and pees. No one knows why we have stopped – the urination seems more an afterthought than a necessity, and there is nothing around but a concrete bus shelter and a row of abandoned market stalls. Now the driver is on a cell phone. Now he is on two cell phones at once, switching between them.

“Excuse me, do you know why we are stopping?” a young woman in front of us asks me (probably purely to practice her English, since I am probably the least likely person on the entire bus to have an answer to that question).  Someone on the bus finally stands up, realizing that the driver, who is onto his second cigarette, is not coming back any time soon. Others follow. Soon nearly the entire bus has poured out onto the road.

As men disappear behind the bus station to urinate, a stream of women is heading for the area behind the closed market stalls. I wonder for a moment if there might actually be a toilet – which would no doubt be disgusting – but no, there is none. Instead, there is a line of women along the wall with their pants down, peeing into the dirt. It’s a little early in the bus ride to be showing each other our bottoms, but what the hell – I walk to the end of the group and join them. Then, one by one, we return to the bus.

When we eventually depart, we drive for several hours through a stretch of landscape that lives up to the stereotype of Siberia, alternating between hilly forested areas and open empty spaces.

And then, the border. True to Lonely Planet’s claim, the bus does indeed “queue jump,” sliding past other cars with about an inch to spare. At our first stop, two Russian border agents board the bus and work their way up the aisle, checking passports. For what, I’m not sure, since once they finish we drive several meters and then stop again, this time in front of Russian customs. Please, don’t make us have to get out of the bus, I say to myself, just as the entire bus stands up and tumbles onto the pavement. Worse, everyone snatches their luggage from the tightly packed hold and carries it inside.

The line in the customs building is slow. So very slow. First we pass through a metal detector, which is relatively quick since no one is monitoring it. Then is an endless wait for the customs officers themselves, or rather herself, since after 20 minutes one of the lanes inexplicably closes. Peter and I are at the end of the line, right behind a woman who is carrying a cat in a travel case – a cat whose dander has been giving me allergy attacks for the past three hours. (I actually have no idea how she got in front of us, given that I had seen her lingering at the back of the room, letting her cat play in the bathroom.) There is something very sticky on the ground, which I step in and which turns out to be oozing from the bag of a young woman somehow associated with the cat lady. She has an entire juice bottle filled with strawberry jam in her suitcase, which is now broken and leaking onto her belongings, including a book titled Easy English. Despite my animosity toward the cat lady, I feel bad about the jam.

It turns out the line is moving slowly because the customs official is scrutinizing each person in line, checking their face against the photograph in their passport. (The worst inspection is for a dark-skinned guy from Singapore whom we assumed was being held up by racism, but turns out to be a doctor with – as he put it – enough painkillers in his bag to “treat a small village.”)

Back on the bus, I naively assume that perhaps the worst is over. Not true! First, the driver must have another cigarette. Then he must drive the bus less than 100 meters down the road so that a different set of Russian border guards can check our passports again. Then we must cross the no man’s land, so that Mongolian border guards can check our passports. Then we must go to Mongolian customs. I pray that this will somehow be different from the Russian customs procedure – but it is not. We all get off the bus and unload our bags. A carful of Mongolians, seeing our bus approach, leaps out of their car and sprints, full tilt, into the building in front of us. I can’t blame them.

Somehow, Peter and I end up at the back of the line again when the cat lady, who had been firmly behind us, apparates to several spots in front of us. What’s more, there is a stream of Mongolians carrying babies and heavy boxes of soda pushing past us, nimbly stepping over our luggage as if it – and we – did not exist. But revenge is ours when, after a half hour wait, the bus driver appears and begins exchanging aggressive words with the customs official. She responds by segregating the crowd into bus and not-bus lines and only letting bus through, forcibly restraining a woman who tried to merge in front of me.

Our luggage is then scanned by a woman on a cell phone, who notes our arrival in longhand on a piece of paper. Then, back on the bus so that we can drive a few more meters before having the Mongolians check our passports again. We pull away – free at last! – and then I notice that there are two money changers working their way up the aisle, holding fistfuls of grubby cash. Where did they come from? More importantly, where are they going to get off?

The answer comes too soon, as the bus slows down again, this time in front of a sign that says what looks likes “Pectopah.” That’s cyrillic for “restaurant.” FUCK.

The entire bus, seemingly not upset by this seventh border stop, dutifully gets up and files inside. It’s an actual restaurant, with table service and goulash. Perhaps my standards have been lowered, but it’s actually not that bad.

Back on the bus. We drive straight for another three hours (the border stop[s] took about three hours in total) and during that period it becomes apparent that, if I may quote The Wizard of Oz, we’re not in Siberia anymore. The forests give way to undulating grass-covered hills stretching on either side of the road. No towns, no settlements, but every once in a while the driver honks and we drive through a herd of cows or goats or sheep (we also honk when passing other cars, including a pickup full of a stack of sheep skins fluttering in the wind). There are herds of livestock on the hills, and Mongolian gers – white yurts standing out against the green.  Gers are such a stereotypical image of Mongolia that I thought they must no longer exist in their natural state, that they must be campy artifacts from a previous form of life that now exists primarily for the benefit of tourists – like teepees. But no, these are real, lived-in gers. It’s amazing.

On a less admiring note, though, we are now 13 hours into a supposedly 10-hour bus ride. We can finally see Ulan Baatur shining in the distance. And yet the bus driver has stopped again, gotten out, and wandered away with cell phone pressed to his ear. So far no one on the bus has followed him – we are stoically holding our collective bladders, praying that the end is near.

Unfortunately – I’m writing this after the fact — it wasn’t. Thanks to traffic, we still had an hour and a half to go – giving us ample time to observe the fringes of Ulan Baatur. Gers on the side of the road, abandoned bus bodies, cars, farm equipment. To the left, in the distance, we could see a hill entirely covered in gers – thanks to a tough winter, an increasing number of people are moving to the city, pitching their gers anywhere they can find a spot, even if it doesn’t have running water, sewage pipes, or access to a bus.

The most unexpected part of our arrival, however, was when the bus driver suddenly decided to switch on the lights. I knew the bus contained many surprises, but I did not expect the lights to be multicolored. Red, yellow, green and blue – it was as if we had been transported to a 1970s discotheque. I half expected a disco ball to drop from the ceiling and the driver to start pumping YMCA.

But as far as I can remember, he didn’t. Instead, we finally pulled into the bus station around 9pm, 14 hours after we had departed. It will be a while before I can look at a bus again.

Our arrival. It was much darker than this picture.