Sunday morning and the streets with the world’s worst traffic have become vacant. Only the occasional cop car cruises by, and you could here a pin drop. “The apocalypse has come,” I think, “unless of course there is some festival we didn’t know about.” We hope for that. But there are no vendors, or carnival games, or even bounce castles, which we have been seeing pretty regularly in the many city parks on our trip to Mongolia. We ask around but no one knows why the streets have been closed in midtown. It is only when we board the train that we get an answer from one of our fellow passengers. Ulaanbaatar, in an effort to minimize pollution, has shut down the streets of the city today, excluding the main highways and exurbs. And the results are incredible. It is like a completely different city, but with all the charm and Soviet architecture that I fell in love with several days ago and a solemn peace.
But now, it is time to leave. The Circle K next to the train station is open and prospering, as it is located not only by the station but by the highway. All of the capital’s hot dog addicts are here, along with the young hoodlums and intra-city commuters. We join them for a breakfast of beef dogs, with everything on them including fried onions, lettuce, lightly pickled cucumber and even ketchup.
“No No NO!” my dad yells, as he did when the waitress in Beijing tried to give us another duck. “No ketchup please!”
She stops in her tracks, and his dog remains untainted by ketchup, which my father believes should never lace the top of a hot dog if the consumer’s age is greater than nine years old. I am an anarchist. I believe that once you start putting pickles or tomato on a hot dog, you no longer have the right to say what should or should not be deemed culinarily acceptable in this circumstance. Some people put cream cheese on hot dogs. Some wrap them in corn meal. And then there’s whatever the hell Chicago is doing. But the man knows what he likes. Who am I to judge the purists of the world?
The train to Zamiin Uud passes smoothly. Our one bunkmate speaks no English, so we just smile at each other for the first hour or so before we start to prepare for bed. My dad finds out the hard way that the bathroom door to our car does not work, and he scars a young Mongolian woman for life as I watch, grinning, from afar, filling my face with crab-flavored chips. I laugh, but to avoid a similar scarring I make sure to brush my teeth in the hall, spitting out the window rather than into the sink.
I awake, well rested, on the top bunk of our cabin. An hour passes until we reach the border town of Zamiin Uud, where we plan on grabbing a quick bite near the train station before tracking down some enterprising Mongolian to shuttle us across the border when it opens in an hour. Though we time everything the best we can, we still wait in line for over an hour upon arrival at the crossing, in a Jeep that’s had virtually every non-essential ounce of metal and wire stripped from it. My door can only be opened from the outside, so I sit, type, and try not to think about how much I have to pee. Thankfully, we make it across fine and with plenty of time to buy our bus tickets, that is if we can find where to buy them.
In a take-the-money-and-run scheme, we pay our drivers at the entrance to the Chinese customs point and never see them again. That leaves us on the Chinese side with no inkling of what to do or where to go. We find a 1-Yuan bus, which we can afford only because I have two Yuan sitting in my wallet from before, and take it until the city starts looking familiar. When we disembark, we realize that the city only looks familiar, but isn’t necessarily so, and we ask around to locate the long-distance bus terminal. No luck.
We have two leads. My dad advocates for Lead 1, which is little more than a hunch he feels that we disembarked the bus on the other side of the station. I disagree. One cab driver, Google Maps, and Apple Maps all seem to think that there is a bus station two blocks north, and one block west. I advocate for Lead 2 on the grounds that my dad’s leads are weak. I’m about to break into Alec Baldwin’s GlenGarry GlenRoss monologue when the same man who rushed us off the bus in Erlian before tries to sell us on a bus back to Beijing. We smile and say “maybe” before ducking into the station and inquiring about tickets there. Sure enough, the company we took before is cheaper, and we agree to buy tickets for the 2 pm bus for 200 Yuan apiece. We agree to come back before the departure time, and sneak off to find lunch and explore Erlian a bit more.
The only restaurant we find open is operated by a Hui Muslim woman, and with a large menu wallpaper complete with pictures and prices. We pace up and down the wall, then point to what we want. Meals cost 15-20 Yuan (2-3 USD) and arrive hot and flavorful. Savory and rich, the food is similar but unlike that of Beijing. It's not quite like Mongolian, either. The only way I can describe it is by saying it tastes like home, as if it is a recipe not borne of ingredients or tradition but by something strong. Not love, it would be too tacky for me to say that, but something like it. Like Religion. That’s it. There’s Allah in these noodles, making it richer, stronger, heavier.
Back into snack mode, we wander a nearby mall and witness the massive coordinated nap of the many vendors who work there. Past the first seven or eight shops, every single cashier sits, reclined, on their own lawn chair, dead to the world. And no one is mad about it. I suppose if I want to buy something, I am supposed to wake them up, but I don’t dare. In the basement, a giant Chinese Costco sells everything that you never knew existed. It is for places like this that I say China is the most foreign place in the world? Where else are mall employees expected to nap on the job? And where else do shopping malls have basement warehouses selling bottles of wine with root vegetables pickled inside or grilled eel-flavored potato chips? Erlian is out. Far out.
The bus leaves early, and with no one else on it but a couple of Serbian dudes and a Chinese couple seated up front. In the back row, mattresses line the aisle making one large bed. My dad an I pray that this is to be our one and only stop, and that we will be blessed with an entire row to ourselves. We chat with the Serbians who are incredibly fun, and happily share their rice wine with us as we swap stories. Apparently, on their bus from Beijing to Erlian, several foreigners were made to take urine tests, thankfully self-proctored but performed in the bushes of the checkpoint house. There was no urine test for us, presumably because only foreigners who have stayed in China for awhile are expected to take them. I am shocked, to say the least, that a foreign government would force a drug test upon aliens’ leaving the country. What happens if they find something? Is the person questioned? Imprisoned? I reiterate: China is a wild place.
Just beyond the checkpoint we pull to the roadside, where another bus is waiting for us. Within seconds, the rest of the passengers descend on the bus and space is no longer ample. Still, we have fun. On the ride back to Beijing we laugh, drink, and talk until none of us can stay awake much longer. I finish the last of of a liquor bottle that I had bought at a rest stop for the four of us to share, and hardly sleep.
When we enter Beijing, we have no hotel, and nowhere to go. It is just after 2 am. We stop in a breakdown lane, along with several other buses, and while a few people disembark most stay put. This bus has no pickups until tomorrow afternoon, so we can sleep all night here and leave the next morning. I am grateful, but also a little disappointed that I won’t get a real bed tonight. But some hotel money is saved so for that I am grateful. Before long, I am asleep.
It is the last truly full day together, and my dad’s last day with me, so like a dying man I finally indulge him by letting him pick the day’s activities. He wants to see the Great Wall so that is what we do, even though I am convinced it is a tourist trap from which we might never break free. I tell him to plan how to get there the cheapest possible way and he performs this task admirably, researching every detail of how to get to the nearest wall section by public transport for under 100 Yuan (14 USD) round trip. I am so proud of my little man.
At the top, by the entrance, a megaphone blasts the recorded voice of a Chinese woman trying to sell “ice-tea-ice-drink-ice-cream-lemonade-coffee” while a woman--perhaps the woman from the recording herself--sits on a chair dozing. We walk several sections of the wall, photobombing countless Instagram photos and couple-selfies (Us-ies?). I get bored, but happily snap a few photos myself of this magnificent work of engineering. My dad amazingly behaves himself and doesn’t mention Donald Trump once the entire wall-trip. I grapple with the fact that I actually might miss him as we ride from shuttle to city bus to intra-city bus back to Beijing.
Dine and Dash
Rather than sleep in the hostel bed he paid for, my dad decides to head straight to the airport after dinner and sleep there before his early-morning Beijing-Hong Kong-San Francisco-New York trip. But we still have one last dinner together so we wander down our neighborhood’s restaurant row. We come across a food hall and order four or five courses from a few different stalls, then ice cream, then we return to the hostel where I give him my assorted souvenirs. He gives me his leftover snacks and toiletries. We share a tearful goodbye hug at the Metro Station, and all of a sudden I am alone again.
The following day I try to adjust to being back alone by walking endlessly for little more than to save on subway fare and get some exercise. I also get some noodles, my favorite Chinese dish in actual China. At night, I catch the train to the airport and begin the long journey to the Middle East.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.