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crossing a border is often a dull affair; lots of
waiting, filling out of forms, smiling for armed
government officials as they compare your face to the
photo in your passport, and more waiting. i've
crossed dozens of borders on this trip so far and none
fit the preceding description quite like the border
between russia and mongolia.
i was riding the trans-siberian railway from irkutsk,
russia to ulaan baatar, mongolia, a day and a half
ride, 12 hours of which is comprised of sitting in the
railcar on either side of the border doing absolutely
nothing. i looked out the corridor window at the wide
concrete platform of the naiushka, russia train
station - plenty of room to sling the aerobie, that
orange disc, much like a frisbee with a big hole in
it, that i had with me. i grabbed it and invited my
english cabin-mate corey outside for a few throws. he
joined me a few minutes later. the air was crisp but
the sun was out. the dull brown mountains of siberia
stood all around the station. cows munched at the
grass around the trees planted on the platform. as
usual, the guy i was playing with had never thrown an
aerobie so i had to be patient - he often chucked it
well over my head and far down the tracks - and it can
fly a long, long way. i climbed over the oily rails
several times to retrieve it and hurl it back to him.
we played on the platform with our green and yellow
railcar to my right. after several minutes, many
other passengers who i be-friended on the ride spilled
out of the car to join in the fun, taking pictures,
whipping the aerobie wildly, and enjoying the sun.
russell, a university professor from perth, australia,
was particularily excited to play. with his short
frame engulfed in a massive blue winter coat, russell
stood far down the tracks with a vibrant smile on his
small red face as he tossed the aerobie back and forth
with me. guust, from the netherlands, followed our
throws with our eyes and said to me "is it going to
end up in the trees or on top of the train first?"
"neither, i hope," i replied but knew it would be one
or the other. several times already russell's throws
hovered over the top of the railcar, curving away just
in time to float down to me on the platform. but, of
course, as predicted, one of his throws landed on the
roof. it didn't bother me though because i had been
waiting for an excuse to climb the train. i was in
the process of riding the train from moscow to
beijing, a 7 night, 7 day ride, and there was no way i
was not going to ride on top at some point. this was
my chance. if i was going up i was getting a picture
of it so i ran back into the car and got my camera,
handing it to janine, corey's wife, telling her to
liberally snap shots of me as i made my way up. i
used the rubber and steel section between two cars to
get up there. the footholds weren't very good but one
was enough and then i heaved my chest on top and
pulled myself onto the dirty section between the
trains. the hard part was over. "watch out for the
chimney thing," said russell. "it's going to be hot
from the hot water heater." the section at the front
of the car, the roof part, looked thin so i tested it
first for heat and for strength. it seemed fine so i
crawled slowly over it. the people down below were
egging me on and janine said "you gotta stand up." i
stood up in a triumphant pose and said to myself, "top
of the world ma" although i don't think she'd have
been too proud. i avoided the heatstack and
half-crawled/walked over to the aerobie. i snatched
it up and posed for several pictures with it in my
hand. crouching, smiling, holding my orange disc.
(see the attached picture.)
then all hell broke loose.
the russian police came running over and started
yelling at me to get down, indicating that i needed to
come with them. i was getting arrested in russia i
thought. oh. f****ck. i climbed down with my
insides nervously crawling.
they confiscated everyone's cameras, including mine.
oh. f***ck. i was about to lose camera #2 on the
trip and so were a bunch of people on my account. one
guy who wasn't even filming me had his video camera
confiscated by a short thin cop and a tall thin one.
they marched off as i got down, carrying the cameras
by their straps, letting them bang together. all the
owners marched after them yelling. we followed them
into the station and they walked back and forth
through the lobby from room to room with us all
following them. finally they pointed to a place and
told us (in russian since they didn't speak english)
to wait there.
they disappeared into another hall and were gone. we
all stood there, me, corey, janine, russell, and
another guy, waiting for....something.
we all speculated about what was happening. i was
actually relieved because it seemed i wasn't going to
be arrested. losing just the camera would be much
better than getting thrown into a prison at the
mongolian/russian border. everyone was pissed but not
at me. actually they were mostly calm. russell
apoligized to me over and over, i apologized to those
with me. we waited.
no one came. i figured they were smashing the
cameras. everyone concluded that they were deleting
the memory cards, or confiscating them. we eventually
lost our patience and sought them out. we couldn't
find them but suddenly they appeared with our cameras
again from a door in the back of a large open room -
the police office. i noticed they no longer had my
aerobie. they set all the cameras on a table and we
all scrambled for them. i picked mine up and it felt
very light. no battery. the policeman showed me (he
had gold teeth and a small dark face) in his hands the
batteries to all our cameras. they thought the
batteries were the memory cards and they didn't want
us to have our pictures of the event. i didn't care -
i had a spare battery. i looked quickly inside and
saw the memory card still in it's place - it was small
and hard to find. the guy's videocamera cassette was
taken too. i was not too pissed but did want the
battery back since two is better than one, but i
wasn't going to get greedy. corey chased the guys
back into the office demanding his battery back. they
just shook their heads, shrugged their shoulders and
disappeared into the office.
i didn't know what to think. i felt most sorry for
the video camera guy, especially since he wasn't
filming me at all and his entire trip was on that
tape. he was american so at least i didn't screw up
diplomatic relations with another country. i told him
i was very sorry. corey got the attention of the guys
again and they made a sign like they wanted money for
the batteries, which again they thought were memory
cards. a bribe to get them back - so much for border
in the meantime the train we were on left. it started
disappearing down the tracks with most of the
passengers and all our stuff still in it. this didn't
bother me much. russell and his wife started going
after the train. i wasn't sure what to do. i wanted
to help janine and corey, but i didn't have enough
money for a bribe - i only had 100 roubles on me. i
ran to the train which was just off on some other
dead-end track getting new cars attached to it. the
train was abuzz about what just happened. everyone
asked me what in hell was going on? was i all right? i
told them that i was getting some money for a possible
bribe, that all the batteries had been taken, that a
tape was taken, and, worst of all, my aerobie was
gone. i remember realizing it and everyone laughed.
"wait. they didn't give me my aerobie back." so i got
my $20 and 10 euros and 100 roubles and ran back to
the station. before leaving, russell offered me money
telling me it was mostly his fault. he wouldn't take
no for an answer so i told him he could just buy me a
beer later. he laughed and said ok and clapped me on
the back as i ran to the station.
corey was gathering together his money. i went back
outside when corey told me that the cops were out
front, and i asked them in russian if they had my
frisbee? police, police is what they said and pointed
back inside. i walked up to the office and rang a
bell and some man boomed out "da?"
i went down a wooden hallway concealed by an old metal
door and walked up to a window, behind which were a
few desks and some men in uniforms talking. in
russian i asked if they had my aerobie. an intense
man in the corner bounced up, grabbed my aerobie off
the window sill, and walked toward me hollering in
russian. i understood "pochemoo" which means "why?"
i just said "sorry" a thousand times and he gave it to
someone to hand to me. oh, thank you. i said "thanks
very much" several times. janine was now standing
next to me and wanted her camera battery back. i
didn't really care about mine - i just wanted to get
the f*ck out of there. but i got her into this mess
so i busted out russian again and asked for my "memory
card." - battery really. the same guy who had handed
me the aerobie started shouting again so i said "i'm
sorry" several more times. he went into a drawer,
grabbed our batteries, and handed them to us. wow.
never expected that. i apologized many more times,
thanked him very much and we got out of there. it
took a lot of effort actually because the man minding
the window at first started yelling at us to come back
later but our persistance paid off and they returned
our sh*t. i went outside and saw the man with the
video camera and told him to go back in and get his
tape. f*ck, i couldn't do that to him, i had to go in
with him but didn't want to p*ss these people off any
more. like i said, i just wanted to get the f*ck out
of there before they decided to make an example of me.
i went in with him and asked for his tape. they said
they didn't have it but then the same guy again went
into a drawer and fished it out. he shook it in his
hand, yelling at me some more. i am sorry, i am
sorry, thank you. he gave it back. everyone got
their stuff back. we wondered what in h*ll that was
all about - after all was said and done we got away
with aerobie in hand and battery in the other i ran
back to the train which was 700 meters away. i
climbed up the stairs, opened the door to the
carriage, and walked down the hall holding up my
things. everyone clapped and cheered, and said "yes!
great! excellent!" i spent about 30 minutes ripping on
myself for being the typical american, further
strengthening our reputation as maverick travelers,
and everyone just laughed. they patted me on the back
and congratulated me, no one seeming too mad. they
all talked about it for a long time, shaking their
heads and smiling at me.
i think i entertained them.
i plugged my camera battery back in to see the 9
pictures that janine said she took but saw a hand
instead, and then some faces i recognized from the
station. i flipped through the photos finding about
10 pictures of all the policemen, usually with smiles
on their faces.
the f*ckers took pictures of themselves.
i looked at the photos and confirmed again that we are
all just the same, no matter what country we come
from. we like to laugh, joke and have fun - no matter
how much those guys acted like hardasses they probably
thought the whole thing was pretty d*mn funny.
i finally scrolled back to the photos of me and loved
'em. several others showed me their pictures of me
clenching my aerobie triumphantly on top of the
lesson learned man. don't f*ck around at borders and
don't act like you are at home where you can talk
yourself out of these things. if i had been arrested
my whole life may have changed - for the worse. i am
lucky to have my camera, my photos, and all my money
if you were a buzzard, that massive scavenger of the
desert with a bald, wrinkled, gray head, hunched back,
and tattered black feathers, floating high in the
cloudless blue sky above the gobi desert of mongolia
on tuesday, october 6, you'd have seen a moss green
russian van charging over the dusty lanes that cut
across the sands. i was in that van, along with my
new friends guust and chantal from the netherlands,
anael from france, seok mee from korea, and hamish
from new zealand. the 28 year-old old mongolian otto
was behind the wheel, leading us on a 13-day adventure
in the gobi desert. we watched you and your
companions chewing on a dead camel at the roadside,
and then you took off, resembling a 747 rumbling down
a runway, fleeing from our speeding, bouncing van. we
were on our way to another ger, a circular felt white
tent which the nomads of mongolia have lived in for
thousands of years. nomadic families often had two
gers: one for themselves and one for guests, like us.
we would stop each evening at another ger, otto would
talk to the owners, then we would unload our bags and
settle in, sometimes on wooden beds but often on the
floor. the gers were very rustic, particularly one we
stayed in at the base of the sand dunes. if there was
someone checking you into this ger it would have gone
something like this:
GER OWNER: for your $2.50, we offer you and your
friends a ger of your own in the gobi desert with a
spectacular view of the sand dunes, backed by rocky
YOU: wow. looks great. just a few questions before
you leave: where's the toilet?
GER: oh. uh, there isn't one.
YOU: ok, well surely there is a hole in the ground
with two boards above it for squattting, right?
YOU: i see. well i'm sitting on the floor so i assume
there are no beds?
GER: you assume correctly.
YOU: the floors are a little hard, are there
mattresses we can lay on?
GER: i'm afraid not.
YOU: all right. it's a little chilly, are there
YOU: the others gers have had stoves to warm them, but
i don't see one in here.
GER: right, no stove.
YOU: ok. hot water? cold water? a sink?
GER: no, no, no.
YOU: any electricity?
YOU: it would be nice to have a table to sit at. is
there one? some chairs?
GER: we lack those, all apologies.
YOU: a stool at least? do you have a stool i could sit
YOU: any furniture at all?
GER: a floor and a ceiling.
YOU: half the ceiling is missing...
GER: i realize that.
YOU: so, what exactly am i getting for the $2.50?
GER: a great view of the dunes.
YOU: yeah. you mentioned that.
GER: so, before i leave, do you have any other
YOU: no, i guess not. we'll just have to rough it a
bit i guess!
GER: ok, well goodnight. oh, i almost forgot, one
other thing: during the night you may be attacked by
small yellow rats! goodnight!
and attacked by rats we were. who got attacked first?
me. me, of course. in a ger late one night in the
middle of the desert, i was laying on my bed when i
heard a crunching sound through my ear plugs. uh-oh.
what in h*ll was that? a minute or so later something
was running down my leg and i leapt from my bed, my
sleeping bag still bunched around my legs.
"guust! guust!" i loudly whispered to the dutchman
huddled in his sleeping bag on the floor. "can i
borrow your flashlight?" he woke up and asked what was
happening. i explained it to him and everyone else in
the ger who was now awake, awoken by my girlish
screams. i hoped it wasn't my imagination. i flicked
on the light and justified my fright. there was a
furry yellow mouse/rat/gerbil running back and forth
on my bed. it would be a long night. how to get him
out? i grabbed the "death pot", which we used to cook
our lunches in, and assigned flashlights to guust and
hamish. i chased the rodent as they shone their
lights on him and dropped the pot on top of him,
trapping him underneath. i jammed a plate under the
pot, carried the trap to the door, and cast him out.
but of course he returned. he returned with an army.
all night long we were stormed by battalion after
battalion of the yellow beasts. they had burrowed
several holes underneath the ger walls from the sand
outside and were after our food. they were
relentless. we potted one, and 5 came to replace him.
i finally set up my tent in the ger to shield myself,
getting made fun of the whole time. but who came to
join me after an hour of rodent assault? guust.
"mike, is there room in there for me?" he asked from
the darkness, his voice drowned out by the scurry of
feet on the floor and the chewing of our food by our
attackers. i turned on the flashlight to help him
see. my beam caught a battle between two of the mice
fighting over a biscuit - the one beared it's teeth to
the other, saying "step off man. this here's my
biscuit." i grew afraid, knowing that if they really
wanted to get into my tent they could. guust climbed
in, folding his long body to fit in my short tent.
just before he fell asleep i said to him "i'll bet
when you left the netherlands 3 weeks ago, you'd never
believe that you'd be in the gobi desert of mongolia
in a ger sharing a tent with an american to avoid
maurauding mice." we had a great laugh at the
beautiful unexpectedness of life.
then the morning came, and with it le teuer de soiris,
the mouse-killer, a modern day chinggis (genghis)
khan, the brutal "oceanic" king who built for mongolia
the largest empire the world has ever known. the
ger's owner, an old man with a flat, deeply tanned,
wrinkled old face, and a broad, crooked-toothed smile
darkened the doorway of the ger, armed with a stick.
i tried casting the rodents out with a frying pan,
flinging one high into the air and back into the ger
once, but he was there for action, to get things done.
with a quick crack of his stick, one mouse was dead.
he grabbed it by the tail and flung it out the door.
soon there was a large pile of half-dead mice lying in
front of the ger with kicking legs and twitching
tails. his little granddaughter was inside, shrieking
with delight when she would she spot another mouse, to
which the old man would smile broadly and let out a
little laugh as he lumbered over to squash it. i
almost puked when he stamped one with a large boot and
spread it's blood all over the floor. but life is
about enjoying yourself and this man certainly was - i
was not going to express my distaste. but i couldn't
help wondering WHERE IN F*CK WERE YOU LAST NIGHT?!?!?!
anyway, we survived to have an amazing time in the
desert. we ate interesting food, including camel
meat, drank bizarre drinks, like fermented horse milk,
rode horses to a volcano crater, explored caves, drove
in the four-wheel drive van through riverbeds, across
collapsing bridges, and over thousands of miles of
dirt track, mongolia's version of highways. we hiked
along the tops of gorges, watched herds of wild horses
thunder across the hot sand, visited buddhist temples,
played aerobie in the shadows of rocky mountains near
bright blue mountain lakes, rode camels over sand
dunes, admired the comically large vultures, and
adapted to the lifestyle the nomads have lead for
thousands of years, one without tv, the internet,
newspapers, electricity, showers, or real toilets. it
was an amazing adventure and one i experienced with 5
amazing people, representing all parts of the world.
thanks for that, guust, chantal, anael, hamish, and
seok mee: people make a place...i say it yet again.
i also went to siberia, to lake baikal, the largest
freshwater lake in the world and had a fun time. too
much for one update again. i just can't put it all
down and have the e-mail still be of a readable size:
that's what my random thoughts on my website are for i
suppose - an opportunity to convey more of this
incredible adventure to you. trust me: i am having
the time of my life.
i am leaving for china tomorrow, thursday. it will
take me 1.5 days and will mark the completion of the
trans-siberian railway for me: a 7 night ride from
eastern europe to asia, which i have broken up into 3
parts. glad i got off in mongolia - it's a
see you on the great wall.
keep on keepin' on,