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Chocolate Cake and Jeep Racing

Our last evening in Ullanbattar, Ariunna invited us over to her house for dinner.

She and her mother had made an incredible feast, and invited some other Americans over to share it with us.

The meal was huge and delicious, with two fresh salads, fried sausage, meat pies, Manty, homemade Solyanka (my favorite), roast chicken drumsticks, and even a big cake to celebrate Scott’s birthday.

Ariunna then took us out to a traditional Mongolian song and dance show, where booming announcements in English heralded 2 and a half hours of performances varying from giant group dance numbers to solo throat singing renditions of everything from traditional tunes to western favorites.

My favorite was the throat singers, for sure. They appeared in many different acts, often accompanied by lutes and bowed instruments called horse head fiddles.

After the concert, we headed up to the top of the mountains to the south of the city, where there is a large Soviet monument to cooperation between the Mongolians and the Soviets.

It was a very popular place for young people to hang out and as we were leaving, we even spotted the contortionist from the show that we’d watched earlier. She’d come up here with some friends to watch the sunset as well and was contorting here body so her friends could take pictures of her in front of the sunset.

It was a great last night, and we thanked her again and again before leaving to head back to the Hotel to pack.

The next morning, we feasted on the last bits of internet before we packed up our things, strapped them down on to the Speed TRs, and hit the road.

We made it to the train station with plenty of time to spare, and climbed on. It was platzcart again, so thank goodness, there was plenty of room for the bikes. I also got one last chance to speak Russian before plunging back into China. A barrel chested Mongolian fluoride mining engineer came over to speak with me. He spoke very little English, but was fluent in Russian, and we went on for hours chatting about the history of Mongolia, reasons why the great horde came to power and fell (my knowledge in these areas was all thanks to the wikireader), and the peculiarities of the fluoride market. He sold almost all of his fluoride to Russia, and the majority of his Russian sales went to firms in Buryatya. I had no idea Russia had such an appetite for fluoride!

He laughed when I expressed this: “They have bad teeth!” he said, flashing me his own set, which was itself none too shiny and manageable.

We did our best to go to sleep early on that train ride, for we pulled into the border town of Zamin Uud at the crack of dawn.

Zamin Uud was only 7 kilometers from the Chinese border, and we figured we would be able to easily wheel across. So it was with great confidence that we unfolded our cycles, strapped our bags down, and fended off all the cab drivers who attempted to convince us that it couldn’t be done.

But when we arrived, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, at the road that lead to the border, it was a madhouse of honking jeeps and screaming people, and a huge police roadblock. We headed up to talk with the guards, who confirmed for us that it was illegal to wheel across into China. So we would be needing a jeep…

We headed then over to find some chaps who might be willing to drive us. Tons of jeeps were already lined up and waiting for passengers, so it was certainly a buyer’s market.

We selected a couple of guys in an old soviet jeep who seemed especially friendly, and were not driving too hard of the bargain. They also spoke some bits of Chinese, which helped lubricate the wheels of communications.

It looked like they were using a system not dissimilar from that used by the uzbek border officials, in which at the shout of one man, the entire line would be allowed to flow into china for a moment, the when the road seemed full enough, cut off, like pulling a draft of beer.

And it looked like the next pint was going to be pulled any minute now, for the jeeps were all stating their engines, and beginging to whoop and holler as we wheeled our bikes over.

Our two drivers, one in a bright pink shirt, one in deep purple, rushed to load our things into the van and then we were off!

It was a wild ride.

All the jeeps burst forth, drag racing down the road, taking up all lanes and the shoulders, passing each other when they could. Our drivers turned up the music, downshifted into second, and just put their foot into the old soviet jeep. The ride was both terrifying and exhilarating, and the termination of the ride at the Chinese border was both relief and letdown.

We walked into the Chinese customs hall, and things we very clean. Cleaner than anything we’d seen in weeks. The system was also newly automated, so that no one needed to fill out customs cards. Instead, we just put our passports down onto a large scanning machine, and it did optical character recondition on the documents and printed our entry card for us. Was it possible that China had developed perceptibly even in the few months since we’d left her?

The border official seemed pleased with all the stamps in my passport and bubbled at me in English about how he had family in Indonesia… knowing Indonesian-Chinese they were probably running the place.

We exited the customs hall and proceeded over to wait for our jeep to make it through the vehicle inspection. While we waited, I took out the ukulele and played Queens of the Stone Age’s tune, “no one knows.” The other travelers who were also waiting for their jeeps to make it across gathered round and listened while the customs agents took their sweet time inspecting the Speed TRs.

Finally our things arrived, we paid our pink and purple shirted friends, and we were off into the city of Erlian. Erlian was quite a place. We were excited to be back in china for many reasons but not least among them was the availability of noodles. Food in Mongolia had been interesting, but also not our favorite of the entire trip. In fact we’d both been losing weight ever since we left the culinary womb of Uzbekistan, and it seemed high time to start 吃ing hard again.

So once we were in Erlian, we stopped into a noodle shop, and ordered two big bowls of lamb noodles, embracing the return of not only those chewy thick Chinese soup noodles, but also the availability all kinds of condiments at the table.  I poured hot oil, soy sauce, and vinegar into my soup with abandon, as though making up for lost time.

We exited the restaurant, and asked the owner for directions to the train station as we hoisted our packs back onto our shoulders. At the train station, however, we discoverer that we would need to wait until the next day to get a seat on a train to the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot, so we headed over to the bus station.

Have I mentioned recently how much respect I have for Chinese busses? No matter where you are in China, no matter how sold out the trains and planes might be, there is a Chinese bus that will get you were you need to be. My opinion of bussing as an industry has only grown as AsiaWheeling has progressed, and for me China is right near the top, just under Thailand, perhaps.

Sure enough, there was a bus leaving for Hohhot within the hour. We bought tickets and began plugging our various peripherals into the wall socket in the station to charge them a little before we left.

As we were doing so, another startlingly drunk man approached us. He cracked open a bottle of Er Guo Tou, a heinous 70% alcohol sorghum liquor that is truly undrinkable, and began sipping it from the bottle. He came closer and tried to talk, but was mostly able to splatter us with saliva and stutter incoherently. He then attempted to make up for his inability to speak by waving his hands around in vehement gesticulation, splashing the terrible reeking liquid everywhere. We did our best to be simultaneously polite and brush him off, but succeeded in neither.

It was close enough to the time our bus was leaving, that we attempted to busy ourselves packing our things up while paying just enough attention to not enrage the guy. We finally apologized, excused ourselves, and climbed onto the bus.

The very drunk man had been holding tickets for our bus, we’d seen them. But it seems that either the powers that be had decided not to let him board, or that he had wandered off and gotten lost, for he was not on the bus as it pulled away from Erlian, through a giant archway of French kissing dinosaurs, which marks the entrance to the Erlian to Hohhot highway.

Much like they had in Mongolia the nation, here in Chinese Inner Mongolia the semi autonomous region, they were very proud of their fossil collections and build many statues of dinosaurs. As we drove along the steppe, we could see them out of our window, and they just refused to cease, and for kilometers the roadside was studded with life sized concrete dinosaur statues.

On the way, our bus collided mildly with a semi-truck, bending one of its antennae-like rear view mirrors. This caused a slight delay, as everyone on the bus felt they needed to climb off, inspect the damage and then weigh in in the argument as to whose fault it was: the bus or trucks. We attempt always to stay neutral in such conflicts.

It was just after dark when we finally reached the city of Hohhot and unfolded the bicycles. We were surprised to find the place lit up like Las Vegas, and absolutely busting with Chinese business hotels. We really had the pick of the litter, so we rode around for a while testing our various places, before settling on the hotel.


  1. Eleanor Moseman | February 15th, 2011 | 11:47 pm

    oh sh!t!!!! those pictures and videos are of my experience last August…but my camera was stolen in Ulan Bator. Zamyn Uud is a crazy town…and we were stuck there for 3 days, one day off because of a sand storm. We thought we could just wheel over from the Chinese side, but also found the guards telling us we’d have to hitch a ride. full size bikes are a little more difficult, while mine was thrown on top of a jeep and my partners bungee tied to the back.


    (ps, just found this website…it’s great)

  2. prence | May 1st, 2011 | 10:17 pm

    Nice popped collar and pink shirt on that dude haha.

  3. James Trent | August 8th, 2011 | 11:34 am

    Looks like a blast, i bet you found the 4×4 cars there a bit different to the ones back home?! Good times still though i’m sure.

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