Monday, March 3, 2014

Border crossing -Er Lian to Ulaanbaatar

Arriving in Er Lian - early morning at 5++am. I was truly amazed by the place and its architecture and the space (we were still in China but it didn't feel like China at all - it was European style) Big wide streets, the Plaza, Ancient train station exterior - Lovely!
The only bad thing, very sandy and a mask here is definitely needed. With the strong wind 'throwing' the sand on the ground at you every second, and it being everywhere in the air, it was S-A-N-D-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y
* The wind there is very strong. I think a very light person might be blown away.
And this was the start to foreign writings/language.


We crossed the street to look for the ticket office.I can't remember what time the ticket office opened, but its important that once you are there, to start queuing. Because the queues are crazy long. With many locals queuing in line for their other fellow workers (because for the chinese, they need an extra health certificate and some visa to cross the border to work or do business ) and minutes before the door opens, there will be lots of pushing and forcing their way though - while the security guard uses a baton to force those who push through - its quite a sight - but common in China.

Specially so when there are so many people but limited tickets.


 Shown on the board is the number of tickets left. Once its gone, you have to wait for the next day and queue again. I heard there is an evening queue for the leftover tickets or people who cancelled at around 430pm. - not too sure about this news.

But while you're in queue, prepare your passports and exact amount so its much faster.
How its done is passport stamping in one queue and the other collects the money.

Its quite scary. Because though one person can only buy one, I saw someone holding 20 passports and went in so we were worried that tickets would run out. I didn't want to take the jeep border crossing route because it looked too adventurous and unknown for my liking. A lot of arrangement were uncertain eg. imagine if you got to the changing point and no minivans were there to bring you across - specially since the time we went was supposed low season - I've experienced this in Central America where I was stuck on the mountain for 2 days so... 

But well.. cross fingers and...

Yay! we got our train tickets!

So we deposited our bags at the shop opposite the train station at a very affordable rate after bargaining and made our way to explore the city of Er Lian.

We walked to the Sculpture Square. Primarily to change money where there are illegal moneychangers all around. And when you try and ask around for the prices, the previous one will come to you and shoo the other away, so no choice, just change with the first one.

Then the alleys at  新华街 (Xinghua Street) and 前进路 (Qianjin Road).
But surprisingly, its quite expensive there.
A scarf I can buy it from Shanghai warehouse would set me back 10rmb but there it would be 40rmb and no bargaining.
The owners are quite fierce.
And in the shops, its mostly covered.  

But the amazing thing about Erlian is that you can see things from every country. Even Singapore.
Food. Coins and dollars. Stamps. Clothes. Cigarettes. Alcohol.
A true trading hub.
And lots of antiques if you are looking.

In the evening, we made our way back to the station for our train to Zamiin-Uud. 

The trains are gorgeous!
Russian deco I think.
Off we went. Leaving the China lands behind for the Mongolia lands.

And we finally entered the Mongolian lands.
So near yet the discrepancy were obvious.
Faces and looks change.
Food change.
Money change.
Forms for entry into Mongolia.
And strict checks from the soldiers.

For me, it was quite scary.
Because we were in the same cabin with 2 men from China.
And according to them, Mongolians do not like the Chinese people, and true be said, the soldier came in, started talking in authoritative tone with the language that I assumed was Mongolian, then started asking for documents and because the health certificate of one of the china men was expiring (it needed to be valid for 2 months) , the soldier started jabbing in the air his baton (i think) demanding for an explanation. Then he used his stern stare at me and my friend, and asked for ours. Thankfully, I kept quiet and my friend spoke in English, said Singaporeans. He eyed us suspiciously. Then he instructed with his baton for us to sit down and wait for him to come back. (It really felt like I was in a war or something)

And the Chinese men still had the guts to continue complaining in Mandarin about the Mongolians. Making things worse, one of the Chinese men spat outside the window slit. And the train lady started running towards our room and ranting aloud in 'unknown language' and pointing mouth, window, mouth. It was obvious to keep quiet. But no, the Chinese men sniggered and insisted it was unintentionally. The lady went away and came back with a Mongolian who could speak Chinese who translated that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.And told them if she sees them doing it again to go out of the train.

All these unfolded before our eyes. Like a movie.

And the soldier came back. Asking for our passports and form for entry. While we sat there in trepidation wondering if we could cross the border to Mongolia.
Thankfully after 30 minutes, he came back with our passports and (even better) with onward tickets to Ulaanbaatar. We just had to pay him the money. Hallelujah. Wonderful!

* So yes, its true if you manage to get train tickets to Er Lian, you can buy the onward ticket to Ulaanbaatar directly on the train. 

We had a rest stop before continuing to Ulaanbaatar.

Here's where those who went through the jeep, stopped and had to  purchase tickets and sort through their applications.
I was glad I didn't have to go through this.
Because I read on one of the blogs that it was crazy. -

The story as I read

 [ At about 4.30pm, the crowd suddenly came alive and started jostling to the front. Someone just got tickets!!! It was really pointless queuing as all the Mongolians were helping each other buy ticket. We took turns standing or should I say getting squeezed in the line. It was not fun. When it was my turn to take a break, I walked to the front of the line to check out what's going on. People were sticking their hands into the ticket window. I slotted myself into a space somewhere near the window and found myself standing next to a man with a gold watch. He had his hand in the window and he kept checking his watch. I couldn't believe it when he decided to leave and I knew my chance was here. I seized it and slotted our passports through the window. An angry mob behind me was raging and started grabbing me. "TWO TICKETS TO UB PLEASE!!! PLEASE! I BEG YOU!!!!!" My hand was hurting.]

Of course, stories might differ from person to person. And on the day I was there, it was empty. No people in the building. So maybe it has improved.

Here's the plaza where there is entertainment and food and hotels.

We had our meal from the street hawkers who were peddling - sitting on the floor or chairs like the locals.

As promised, here's the info I got from the other information sites - if you are doing the jeep crossing-

To get there from the train station, first go west on Xinhua Dajie. (It's the big street that dead ends into the train station. Just walk down it, away from the station.) Eventually you'll get to this weird sculpture pasted in the middle of a roundabout:

Turn left here, onto Qianjin Lu. Rock this out for a few blocks. Get a coffee at Dico's if you want, pretty much the only game in town:

Keep going past the Dico's. Cross DINOSAUR BOULEVARD (Konglong Dajie):

Then the lot will be on your right. Cross the road and find about a hundred thousand jeeps that look like this:

The touts will be all over you within ten milliseconds of sensing your presence. They know why you're there. They will offer to drive you to Zamiin Uud, the Mongolia-side border town. There will also be some middle-aged Chinese women offering to exchange your currency. No need to change money, because you don't want to go to Zamiin Uud. There's really nothing there. If you actually want to spend time in Mongolia you should be going to Ulaanbaatar. You won't find majestic open plains or deep horse culture in Zamiin Uud. Just a dustier and much smaller version of Erlian.

So what you want to do is negotiate a one-way fare. You just want the guy you meet in Erlian to drive you through the China side and into the Mongolia border station. You can ditch him there and get another driver going the opposite way to bring you back to Erlian. You could negotiate a round-trip ride with the same driver, but inevitably you'd be spending a lot of downtime with nothing to do at the Mongolian border station while they drop people and things off and pick more up, and try to drum up some extra side business. I don't really know what goes down at the border station. It's a weird scene.

Anyway, the round trip should cost about 100rmb total. That usually breaks down to 70rmb to the first driver (from Erlian to the Mongolian border station), and 30rmb for the return trip. I'm no expert negotiator, maybe you can get a better price. Unless you speak Mongolian it doesn't matter much because most of the drivers don't speak a word of any other language. Not even numbers. Be prepared to draw your counter offers in jeep window grime. Or bust out your cell phone if you're some kind of neat freak.

Once you've sealed the deal with the driver, you'll wait around while he fills his truck up. It'll get crowded in there, clown car style. Just be prepared. Eventually he'll take off in his jalopy, usually stopping at one or two sketchy-looking industrial scrap sites to pick up bags of dirt or bricks or something to bring across the border. I really don't know. Don't ask, don't tell. Just sit tight and read Game of Thrones or something.

FINALLY you'll arrive at the China-side border station. Usually around this time the driver will try to relieve you of that 70rmb, or whatever it is you agreed on. You'll also have to spend 5rmb on this little coupon that China requires for you to legally exit. Don't know what's up with that scam. The driver will dump you and the rest of the people in the car in front of this rainbow:

At this moment you'll want to take a reliable mental photograph of your driver and memorize his car's license plate. Just to make sure you don't miss him when he heads out to the Mongolia side. Best bet is to just stick with the people in your car. You walk under the rainbow and into the China border station. Pretty straightforward. Line up, get your stamp out of China. Immediately go back outside and wait for your driver to get through vehicle customs. Ok, so now you get back in the jeep and get driven across a 500m stretch of no-mans-land before "officially" entering Mongolia. Or, the Mongolian border station. Once you get out here you can ditch the driver, you're on your own again. In comparison to China, the Mongolia-side border station is a mess. There are always huge piles of rubble everywhere. This is the front door to the entrance section:

Ideally you won't be spending much time here. You don't need a Mongolian visa in advance. You just get a stamp that's good for 30 days or so. More than enough time since you'll technically be "in Mongolia" for somewhere between two minutes and an hour, depending on the day's traffic.

STEP 6: Exit Mongolia. After you leave the entrance side of the Mongolia border station, take a left, go through a little doorway in the fence, go back in to the other side of the same building, and immediately begin your exit procedure. Usually you won't have gotten an exit card (you need to have hired a driver coming in from Zamiin Uud to get that). You can either pick one up on the exit side by asking the person stamping you out, or they won't even make you fill one out. Last time I did this part in record time, maybe spent about two minutes total in Mongolia. Oddly enough, the staff on the exit side of the border station usually speak good English.

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