Archive for June, 2010

Mongolia was on the list already. One morning, I woke up and decided it was at the top.

On paper, Mongolia is baffling interesting. For being the 17th largest country by land-mass on the planet, Mongolia has only 2.6 million or so inhabitants, making it the least densely populated country (with a population over 57,000 — up yours, Greenland) on earth. For every human, there are ten horses… and for every horse, there are roughly four heads of livestock. Land is public outside of Ulaan Baatar and perhaps one or two other cities. If you look at the country on Google Earth, you see… nothing. Lots and lots of nothing. This, I’ll admit, was a big draw for me: I love China, truly enjoy the place… but no matter where you go… well, there are just so many people everywhere. I dreamt that night of peaceful desert, and spotless lakes, and nomads serving tea, and dirt, sand, grass, rocks, birds… I dreamed of nothing.

So I bought a train ticket. Well, that’s not quite right… I looked online and found that the international, Beijing->Ulaan Baatar leg of the Trans Siberian is $200 — an astronomical figure for a train ride here, even if it is international, 1,600+ km and 30 hours. After reading up on it a lot more, I found that if you just get a train to Erlian, the Chinese border town, cross overland, and buy a ticket from Zamin Uud on the Mongolian side to Ulaan Baatar, you can do the same journey for about $33 — it just takes an extra day, and a hell of a lot more legwork.

northern exposure

In Erlian, I found that most people would rather just pay the extra $170. A nice pair of Polish people, however, were clearly on my page: they jumped ship in Erlian as well, and we found ourselves the only westerners out in the rain at 8:23 pm. An interesting note is that they use the same trains across the borders, but as Mongolia and Russia use a different gauge of rail, they actually change out the bogies (wheels) on each carriage — a process I have yet to witness but am sure is quite incredible in terms of arbitrary labor.

We find that the train station has no tickets for the connection, and that the bus station inexplicably closes before 9pm — very odd for a border town. The priorities shift suddenly: the border can wait. We require food and drink. We find a decent hotel room and get to work. The next morning, we awake at some ungodly hour and hike to the border. My Mandarin is still too shaky to realize what the taxi drivers are trying to tell us: the border doesn’t open until 8am. Still, one taxi driver is more than happy to take us there at 6:20 am, a gesture we immediately regret. I go for a walk to kill time and meet a very nice Mongolian truck mechanic who shares some of his rancid coffee with me as I shoot pictures of what is certainly the filthiest workshop I’ve ever seen. We chat.

Eventually, the border opens and we find new challenges – namely, that the land border is inexplicably not cross-able by foot, but that you must cross it in a vehicle. Madness. We eventually find a jeep driver (with an already full jeep — ever fit 7 people in a Wrangler? It’s not pretty) who allows us to tag along for 50 yuan each, which makes it easily the most expensive 800m you can traverse in Asia. 30 minutes later, we’re in Mongolia, at a border town called Zamin Uud. We hit the train station to check on tickets to various destinations (nearly all tourists head straight for UB, as most of the tourism infrastructure is based there), but the earliest trains are at 6pm and the Poles are strapped for time in a bad way — their entire trip is only 11 days, and the Mongol leg is only planned to be 2 days total before getting back to Beijing. The major transportation system in Mongolia, after trains and buses, is Jeeps: guys who rent themselves out by the kilometer or by the day to act as taxis, for anywhere from one to 3,000km. Obviously, it’s rather expensive, particularly for foreigners… I’m kind of sitting it out, chatting with a random Mongolian guy who apparently likes the Chicago Bulls quite a lot, when eventually Jack walks up and says, “so we found a guy who will take us in to the desert and to a small village for 500 yuan. You wanna come?” I think it over. “Does that include the stay overnight?” “No, he’ll take us back here this afternoon…” I am perplexed at this plan, but at $20, I can’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon in a shitty border town. Sure, I was three weeks behind on correspondence and writing, but hey — new country. Sitting can wait, right?

“My Jeep”, he said, while pointing to a red, right-hand-drive Mazda MX-5. Not exactly the vehicle that comes to mind when you think of desert travel, and in a parking lot full of Russian jeeps, it looked rather pithy. We piled in and hit the road, or rather, the path, as obviously, nothing is paved. In less than three minutes we were completely in the middle of nothing, just nothing in sight in every direction. We get our first taste of the place, and it’s simply incredible… I can hardly describe it. If you try to focus on the vanishing point between the landscape and the skyline, a funny thing happens: the whole world shifts forward a bit, the skyline and the land sort of pushing against each other in this bizarre vertigo-like trick. It was new to me. I call over to Jack:

“Dude, are you seeing what I’m seeing here? The shifting when you focus on the vanishing point?”
“Yes. I am seeing that.”
“Was there ketamine in those cookies we ate this morning or something?”
“What is ketamine?”
“It’s a cat tranqui— …you know what, never mind”

You don’t need drugs to hallucinate, you just need some Mongolia. It’s okay, don’t be scared… you can dabble in desert. You can be a weekend warrior on skyline. We amused ourselves endlessly, randomly having the driver stop at picturesque places, like the odd brick shacks, bands of horses, ridges and watering holes. For three people who’ve just come from Beijing, the contrast couldn’t be starker: Nothing. I’m liking it.

how not to behave around a camel

After drifting about the desert for a few hours and learning the finer points of how to truly mistreat a Mazda MX5, we stopped at a ger (Yurt). The ger is the key to the whole nomadic life: it is incredibly simple, can be assembled or disassembled in less than six man-hours, and is solid protection from the elements. In a place where the temperature ranges from -40f to 110f, the only way to keep your family and your livestock alive is to keep moving, find new ground for grazing, and protect the animals from the cold. This is done by moving with the seasons, rainfall, and grazing patterns. Outside of the cities, Mongolia is public land: if you can get there, you can live there (Is Greenland like this? Does anyone care?). The whole traditional aspect of it is immensely interesting to me, as gers these days will often sport solar panels, flat-screens and LED lamps, but the song remains the same in its basic outline…

We arrive to the sight of three dogs, about seven camels and perhaps a dozen sheep and goats. The patriarch of the family greets us: he is perhaps forty-five, with streaks of silver in his jet black hair, a huge smile and firm features. He greets me with a smile and a word I am so used to hearing, it has practically replaced ‘hello’: “Tall!” I correct him on the pronunciation of my name: “No, no — it’s TooTall.”

Our driver doesn’t speak English either, so we pantomime it out: age, where we’re from, the usual. He says “Camels!” at one point and grabs a saddle. We glance at each other. “Cool! Camels!” As we walk up, I realize the scale — I’ve never actually seen a camel in the flesh. They are somehow much bigger and less graceful than I imagined… one is kind of mawing on some grass, smacking its lips together and hacking a bit. I am instantly fascinated. I sort of sneak up in front of it, trying to get a picture of it’s jaws, its ugly maw, munching stringy green snot-like nastiness, when bam: it pukes on me. Well, it sort of coughs up some digested food, and as I’m down-wind of it (and the wind in Mongolia is quite something) the matter basically atomizes and hits me from head to toe in tiny, almost neon green bits of putrid horror.

The smell of it is… indescribable. I think the closest thing I can compare it to is choudofu (in Mandarin, it literally translates to “stinky tofu”), a fermented bean curd product in China that is unmistakable in its stench… you can smell it a block away, or from the tenth floor of your apartment building, if you happen to have the terrible misfortune of living in a place with a choudofu vendor out front (I am certain that at least a few choudofu vendors wind up being homicide victims each year). It smells, as my friend Keith so eloquently and accurately once put it, “like a rotten foot that has just been pulled out of an asshole”. That is about what camel vomit smells like, if you marinade the foot in bile first, and perhaps let it ferment in a camel’s maw instead of in a clay pot. It is really, truly that bad.

I did what any reasonable person would do: stripped down and tried to shake the stuff off my clothes. The patriarch had other plans, though… namely, bringing the camel up behind me, still up-wind, and letting it cough up a bit more of its previous meal on my now naked chest. He thought it was hilarious. So did the Mongols and the Poles, but then I had an oddly comforting thought that was almost instantly shameful: a Mazda MX5 is a rather tight space for two Poles, a Mongolian and a Yank who smells like a bile-cured rotten foot that has just been pulled from an asshole. I notice that the patriarch has a chunk of vomit the size of a fist on his shoulder. He doesn’t seem to mind.

Eventually, we saddle the vile creature and take turns riding it. The patriarch has a ton of fun getting the camel to run at full clip, cackling and smiling like a madman as he watches each of us clutch the front hump for dear life, attempting to not get bounced off the damn thing. Camels bounce a lot when they run. It hurts in all the wrong places. This is of course in addition to the puking and spitting and farting and generally disobedient nature they have. I’m quite confused… if there are ten horses to every human here, why do people ride these? We get our fill of the camel rather quickly and walk about the compound, greeting the family and passing out cookies that are hopefully ketamine-free.

After another few hours wandering around the desert, we wound up back in Zamin Uud with mild sunburns, sore bums and an overheating Mazda. We walked to the train station — I needed tickets to Ulaan Baatar, and apparently the Poles were heading back to Beijing. They were on a very tight schedule, but still… Mongolia for an afternoon? After two days of travel and $90 worth of visas? That is silly. You are silly, Poles. Anyway, after looking at the schedules, I determine there are two trains leaving that night for UB. I stand in what I assume is the line, for quite a while, before sort of muttering “what the hell is with this line?” which garners a response from a forty-something Mongolian guy (we will call him Niceguy) near me:

“There is no line. No tickets.”
“Oh. So… why are we all standing here?”
“Waiting.”
“I see. When is the next train?”
“I think there are two tomorrow… one at 9am and another at 7pm or so…”

I walk up to the window and ask for tickets for the 9am train. The woman behind the glass gives me a look of true scorn and mutters something in Mongolian.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Mongolian. Does anyone here speak English?”
Niceguy replies for her. “She says if you want a ticket for the 9am train, you have to come here before 9am tomorrow and buy it. I’d think you should be here much earlier than that…”
I take stock of Niceguy. He’s wearing a Yamaha motorcycle jacket and thick boots. His only bag is a tiny duffel. He looks to be in his mid-forties, streaks of grey, soft features but a square brow. His English is impeccable.
“Thanks for helping… why would they not sell me a ticket for a train that runs tomorrow?”
He rolls his eyes. His mannerisms are oddly Western. “They can be a pain in the ass….”
“What are you thinking of doing?”, I ask.
He smiles. “Not sure. Might keep trying to get a ticket for tonight’s train… or maybe just sneak on. There are people downstairs, they sell tickets for sold-out trains… though they charge a lot more.”
“Scalpers?”
“Is that what you call them?”
“Yeah. What do they charge?”
“Well, you are a foreigner… so maybe double-price? It’d be about 20,000.”

During this short exchange, another Mongolian wedged his way between me and the ticket counter. After some short words, the lady behind the glass started printing a ticket for him.. and then another. And another. And another. The guy reeked of sweat and keeps dangling a set of keys while waiting. One is a car key with a Cadillac emblem on it. I glance at Niceguy.

“Hey, maybe this guy’s a scalper, eh?”
He doesn’t even look up. “No, not him.”

I wait another seven minutes or so for Cadillac guy to finish buying his inordinate number of tickets, then wedge myself back to the window in front of a young woman who smiles at me when I explain “this will only take a second”.

“I’d like a ticket for tomorrow’s 9am train.” Niceguy interperates for her, smiling. She yells back the same bit about coming back in the morning, again translated. I’m losing patience and my temper is wearing.
“Bullshit. There is no such thing as a train that you do not sell tickets for until the morning it leaves. I am not leaving this window until you sell me a train ticket — I don’t care if it’s for tomorrow’s 9am, tomorrow’s 7pm, the next day’s train — I am not leaving without a ticket.”

Niceguy explains it all to her, almost laughing as he does so. She gives me a look that says “Fuck off, white boy” which I briskly return with my freshly minted “Hey. Lady. Do not fuck with those who’ve recently been puked on by camels” look. She sighs and starts punching at her keyboard angrily. The crowd around me seems to have scattered… perhaps an unintended consequence of my look of scorn, though more than likely due to my scornful odor.

“Dude, I can’t thank you enough for helping me with this…”
“It’s no problem… hopefully you get a ticket.” His manner is incredibly calm; the whole time, he’s just leaning on the counter beside me, hands folded, eyes easy. About six minutes go by, during which she takes a few phone calls, sends at least two text messages and takes my passport, though not in that order. I mutter “Shit, I thought we had some lazy fuckers in American transportation offices…” which garners a hardy laugh from Niceguy, random chuckles from around the room, and absolutely nothing from the woman behind the counter. A few more minutes go by.

Eventually she hands me a ticket and takes 8,600 Tugrik from me (about $6). I am shocked by the price but even more shocked by what is on the ticket. Niceguy grabs it from me and says,

“Okay… here… tomorrow, 5:35pm…”
“Ummm… that says 5/28. That’s today.”
A confused look of non-belief strikes his face. “What the fuck? I’ve been trying to get this ticket all day…” His response garners a crowd. A lot of people look pissed off. Yes, apparently, there are tickets left. A swarm of people start pounding on the glass and yelling. I seem to have gotten a golden ticket…
“Wow, you are really lucky!”, Niceguy says.
“Dude, I only have this because of you — here, take it. I’ll keep trying to get one for tomorrow morning. Seriously, you deserve this more than me… help me get a 9am ticket and we’ll go get a beer.”
“No, no… it’s okay. I might just rabbit.”
“…Rabbit? Like the animal?”
“Yeah, sneak on to the train.”
“Where will you sit?”
This question is answered with a huge smile. Niceguy knows something I don’t know, and he doesn’t want to tell me. I’ll learn soon enough.
“C’mon, man, let me buy you a beer — we’ve got two hours to kill. I’ll help you sneak on.”
“No, it’s okay — my family is here, I want to stay with them. We will be fine.”
I catch his name, but like most of the names in Mongolia, it is incredibly hard to pronounce and I don’t manage to write it down properly. It sort of sounded like “Tsogorick”. I like Niceguy more.

The Poles were downstairs in the restaurant when I tell them the tale; they explain they got the same “no tickets, come tomorrow” spiel from the ticket lady. I tell them to give it a shot — it’s worth trying. I still can’t believe they’re leaving Mongolia after 6 hours, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. I meet a pair of Israelis named Ben and Gaia, and another Mongolian guy, having lunch. The Israelis have tickets on the same train, but their Mongolian companion is also planning on Rabbiting with his family. It looks like they met at the border. The Mongolian introduces himself as Turshinbayar and is perhaps mid-thirties, incredibly fit, and wearing army fatigues and a drab t-shirt. He explains that he just got back from a tour in Afghanistan. He has a strong posture, scars on his face, what looks to be defensive knife wounds on his left arm, and a huge smile. His English is very, very good. He asks where I’m from, and when I tell him, he points to his own chest and says “Ranger! Army Ranger!”

Now, I’ve met some Rangers in my life, worked for one for a few years, and let me tell you.. they are a proud bunch, with good reason, and you don’t throw that word around without meaning it. The training course in Fort Benning, GA is very, very hard to get in to, and over half of all applicants don’t make it past the first two weeks — of the three phases, only 20% will succeed in all three on the first try. Students are limited to 2,200 calories per day, which seems just fine until you strap on a 70-90lb pack and do a 320 mile patrol for 20 hours every day for 61 days. It is common for students to lose 20-35 pounds during the three phases. Graduates liken the physical toll and stress to several years of aging. The ultimate goal for many is Jump School, the training grounds for Airborne, basically the most elite outfit in the US Army (not all Rangers are Airborne, but nearly all Airborne are Rangers). You have to be incredibly smart, incredibly fit, unbelievably disciplined and a little nuts to even think of signing up for Ranger school, and it really is the pinnacle of training in the Army — there is a reason USSOC uses the 75th and the 82nd as first responders.

I sort of check him, politely, with silly trick questions. “You trained in Virginia?”
“No, Fort Benning, in Georgia, then Florida for three weeks” (swamp week — I’ve heard some serious horror stories from one friend on this.)
“With the 82nd?”
“No, the 75th. Always with the 75th…”
Story checks out. Holy shit, there are US-trained Mongolian Rangers out there?
“How the hell did you get in to Ranger school!?”
“Exchange program. Six months of intensive English, with other training, then some applicants are admitted to Ranger school.”
“How many Mongolians were in your class?”
“Just me. Two others applied but didn’t make it.”
Wow. I might be having lunch with the best-trained, most elite soldier in the Mongolian Army. We chat some more about the training program and his time in the States. Military service is compulsory in Mongolia, like in the IDF, but the Israelis don’t seem interested in our conversation. To each their own, I suppose.
“What was your post in Afghanistan?”
“I was stationed with MTAP, training the AFA (Afghan National Army). Probably going back in July to help again…”

Some people join the army and mow the lawn. Some people join the army and do everything possible to advance to the furthest, hardest, most elite levels of training and conditioning, at great physical and mental toil and unbelievable personal cost. There is a massive difference between these people, and the latter deserve the utmost respect in my opinion. I do my best to show him that respect. We part ways a bit later, so I can stock up on instant coffee and cup-ramen. “See you on the train…”

The Train: how to fit five hundred pounds of shit in to a five pound bag

I have been in some crowded trains before. Once, in Vietnam, just after Tet, I took one from Hue to Nha Trang that had 11 people in 4 bunks. We shared hard-boiled eggs and jackfruit chips, and slept squashed next to each other with stoic solidarity.

That train, in contrast, was pure opulence. Cigars and champagne couldn’t have widened the gap.

It was probably only four to five people to every seat, but the amount of stuff that each person was carrying just put it over the top… Apparently, every person in Mongolia has a side-business in importing from China. The $170 premium from the direct Beijing -> Ulaan Baatar train isn’t buying you simplicity, it is buying you out of the train that the locals use. Each person was transporting much, much more than they could carry. Boxes upon boxes, suitcases, burlap sacks, jugs, jerry cans, bundles, cases of beer and cigarettes, crates so heavy that they required the buddy system. The platform was madness: people throwing boxes over the heads of others, sometimes missing. Lots of yelling, sweating, pushing and shoving. The car, when I finally made it on, was a full-scale riot: people were throwing punches. Children were crying. I’d never seen anything like this… just a complete disregard for others. “Move, I need to get my shit on-board” seemed to be the mantra. It was actually disheartening… I eventually made it to my seat, or what I thought was my seat, only to witness the insanity from a stationary position. People were literally walking over each other. The only things missing were whips and livestock. I seemed to have discovered the tenth circle of hell. Boxes and crates and bags covered every square inch of luggage-rack, then the bunks below them, then the floor… it was nearly impossible to move. My thoughts drifted to George Carlin’s opening act from his stand-up in ’86… sorry I’m late, folks… I was just looking for a place to put my stuff…

I had a cheap, third-class ticket… perhaps the Israelis were basking in relative civility, I wondered. Eventually the train starts moving. An obese man with acidic mannerisms and a crooked truckers hat wedged in to the spot on my right; on my left was a man with an acrid odor, three gold teeth and the worst breath I have ever smelled… maybe he was a big choudofu guy. Across from us sat a family of five. I passed out breath mints (thankfully, it is incredibly rude to refuse anything offered to you in Mongolia). No use. Six minutes went by that felt like 60. I spotted a young Asian guy with a backpack in the aisle, no doubt looking for a place to put his stuff, his seat likely occupied by two or three other rabbits. He looked shocked and a little scared. I tried to place his features. Japanese? Nepalese? He certainly wasn’t Mongolian, and his dreadlocks made him look even more out of place. I stood up and called out, “Hey man, I saw some room on a luggage rack a few bunks over if you wanna try and drop that sack…” He looked at me with earnest gratitude. “Thank you!”

A few more minutes passed before I simply had to get up… the smell and confinement was making me anxious. In the hall I came upon dreadlocks again. “No room?”, I asked with a cocked smile. “Yeah… I have some friends in car number five.” We made our way to the end of the carriage. I offered him a cigarette. We smoked.
“Where are you from?”, I asked.
“Hohhot, in China.” Inner Mongolian, then. Many different bloods in Northern China.
“I’m Nich. Nice to meet you.”
“I am Baysaa (pronounced ‘bei-sah’). When you come to China… you stay with me. At my home.”
His English was rough, my Mandarin is terrible. It is shockingly easy to make friends in a strange land — just treat them as you would want to be treated. Do not throw boxes of shit over their heads, maybe try to help them out — stuff like that.
“Okay.”
The cigarettes were done.
“Here… we go to car five… my friends.”

I was oddly relieved and equally shocked to see that every car was as crowded as our own… just.. shit… everywhere. Everyone was cramped. Nearly no smiles in those four cars we traversed. Eventually we make it to car five and I meet his friends: a Mongolian guy, an absolute monster of a Mongolian, in a neatly pressed pink oxford, and several other younger Inner Mongolians. They all spoke Mandarin and Mongolian, interspersed. He introduced me and must have explained how I tried to help him or something, because two of his friends who were flanking the monster got up and gestured me to sit next to him. The Boss Of It All, perhaps? We made our introductions… so many consonants. The monster’s name is Tuliga. Baysaa produces a sack and hands us all iced tea. We sit in mildly awkward silence for a while, and then Baysaa grabs a pen and paper and we start communicating through drawing. Mostly jokes about odors and the superiority of airplanes to trains. He draws a map of the US and asks me to point out home. I trace out the Great Lakes and place a star for him to see. He nods. I draw out a half-decent map of China and ask him to do the same. He adds Mongolia to it, places a dashed line across, and puts a star to Hohhot (I knew where it was already but wanted to reciprocate the interest in kind). We nod.

More awkward silence. Baysaa plays with several cell phones, swapping out SIM cards for a while. I notice that the background photo on one of the phones is Tuliga, shirtless, looking mean as hell. I point and put on my questioning brow. “Wrestler. Champion.” I bet he is! I look at Tuliga. He nods with a smile of pure smugness. A man walks past with a box full of decks of cards. Tuliga buys one. Maybe he knows Rummy 500, I wonder. I point to the cards with an inquisitive look on my face. “Texas!” Smiles. “Lets play”, I say, making a ‘dealing cards’ gesture.

No matchsticks… hmmm… what to use for chips? I still have some of my friend Mike’s stickers left (I put a lot of stickers on stuff). I hold up one of his ‘prole’ stickers (of which I have 18 left) and say “yi kuai” (one yuan), then a Crime Ridden Cycle sticker (of which I have four left) and say “wu kuai” (five yuan). 20 yuan a game seems about right for an amateur hold-em tournament between a wrestler and a clueless foreigner. Tuliga deals.

I don’t gamble often, but I know when to fold. Tuglia does not share this fastidious trait. I win the first game in six hands. The next game lasts about eight. On one hand, I make an over-the-top bet after the flop, on a high pair, and glance at him. We’re both smiling. “You call?” He smiles wide and says, clear as day, “HI NICE TO MEET YOU HOW ARE YOU I’M FINE OKAY BYE BYE!” We both burst out laughing. He calls, most likely on a straight draw, but I sweat it out and pick up a full house on the river. I’m trying to let him win a few pots, but it’s hard… he’s a bit too head-strong in his calls, and his bets are totally transparent. After five games I’m up four to one. He pulls a wad of cash out of his pocket. “No, no, no, bu yo, bu yo,” I say… I can’t take his money. He smiles and puts the wad back in his pocket. Then he gets up and waves me along.

We hit the dining car. It is about as crowded as any other car, completely awash in cigarette smoke, and every table is covered with beers, all the same brand, Hite, a Korean swill that is possibly the worst beer in Korea, which would place it high in the running for worst beer world-wide. I think about the fact that my backpack is seven cars away… George hits me again: …And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up! Wouldn’t want someone to come along and TAKE your stuff. They always want the goooood stuff, ya’know? Nobody’s interested in you third-grade geography papers… Hey, I’m rolling with a champion wrestler and the only Ranger-Trained solider in Mongolia — I think I’ll be okay, right?

A table scatters at our entrance. Was the wrestler enough to guarantee us seating in an over-packed dining car? No matter… we sit, and Baysaa translates for Tuliga: “He’s asking if you drink vodka.” I think about the bottle of Jameson I have sitting back in car one. “Umm.. sure. Love it. Can’t get enough.” Tuliga looks me in the eyes and says something I can’t understand in Mongolian, and then Mandarin I do understand: “yi-ga, liang-ga, san-ga…” and waves his hand in dismissive smugness. Apparently this man likes his vodka. They don’t seem to have his preferred brand, though, so we stick to beer. Plates of food start coming. Meat. Rice. Salads. Fried eggs. Dumplings. Potatoes. The appetite of a wrestler is not to be underestimated. We eat our fill and chat in broken language and pantomimes.

Hours pass. We hang out and chat, drink a few more beers. The ticket lady passes after each stop, flanked by two police lackeys. Each time they pass, they make a mark on my ticket. By the fifth hour, the ticket is almost unreadable from all the scribbles on it… but each time they pass, they simply sell tickets to those who don’t have them (almost the polar-opposite of the lady behind the glass at the ticket office). Tuliga buys one in the dining car. This is the system, this is what Niceguy was smiling about: you don’t need a ticket to get on the train, you just need to get on the train… and 75% of those in my sight seem to have done exactly that.

Almost ever cast member from my day besides the Poles and the putrid Camel are somewhere on the train — indeed, rabbiting seems the status-quo. Smiles seem to emerge throughout the cabins… children start playing again. Card games break out. Laughter is even audible. Walking is hard, but as sitting is harder, many random souls wander the cabins — I run in to Niceguy, Turshinbayar, the clinically insane neurologist chick from New York, and many others on our wandering, bi-directional linear paths, half-searching for comfort, half-evading the sleep we all so desperately crave. Eventually, I make my way back to my ‘designated’ seat, wedge myself into a corner, lean my head against a round piece of steel, some supporting rod for another bunk, and try to close my eyes. It is cramped and hot and the smell is not getting any better.

I awake not long after to the family across from me trying to pantomime what I gather is a request for me to lie down half-cocked against the cabin wall, with my upper back and head on a cardboard box of what I can only assume is bathroom tile. They gesture with their hands that I am to sleep next to the gold-toothed choudofu guy. No dice — I’ll walk, thanks. They seem to be insistent , though, and choudofu guy is smiling, patting the tiny sliver of space on the bunk next to him bordered by rock-hard cardboard. I vaguely recall saying something through my half-sleep that resembled “Fuck that, there is no way I am snuggling up next to you, dude” but I can’t be sure. Okay, sure, my chest probably smells as bad as your breath, but I can’t do it… The family laughs and starts pointing towards the luggage rack, above two (occupied) bunks. “You’re joking. Why can’t I just sit down like I was? That piece of steel was a perfectly adequate pillow…” I can’t tell if they are attempting to test my comfort threshold or my patience. Maybe both?

The luggage rack is being occupied by two more boxes of tiles, five jugs of ominous white goo, and several bags, my backpack among them. We start shuffling them, playing Tetris on the other luggage racks about the car, searching for the cubic space to accommodate all our collective shit. Somewhere, George is laughing pretty damn hard. In China, I have to sleep in the top bunk when I book hard sleepers (hard sleeper: most aptly named ticket class ever) as I am roughly 25cm taller than the bunks are long, and the height of the top bunk allows my tibiae and feet to dangle without interfering with the flow of traffic through the aisles. The top bunk is the cheapest bunk for good reason: closest to the lights, furthest from the ground, and only 40cm or so of space between the bunk and the ceiling. There is no top bunk on Mongolian trains, just a luggage rack, and I am not exaggerating when I call it just that: a rack. I am shaking my head at the prospect of a night’s sleep on this barren, ridiculous surface, when my head starts churning up ideas: “hmmm… I think we’re inventing a new ticket class here. Super Hard Sleeper? Luggage Class? Trans-Mongolian Last Resort? Chodofu class? What the hell do we call it?”

Eventually we clear it off and after exchanging some very forced smiles with the crowd that has come to see what all the hubbub is about, I shimmy my lanky ass on top, a real challenge as there is only perhaps 30cm of space between the rack and the ceiling of the cab. The entire car erupts in laughter and applause at the witness of this feat of struggled contortion, and it’s hard to blame them: it must look absolutely ridiculous. The crowd seems enthralled with the fact that my legs and feet really do hang off the end of the rack by those 25cm I mentioned; it seems my height reaches its pinnacle of ludicrousness when positioned horizontally, particularly on the luggage rack of a packed Trans Mongolian train. I stretch out, feeling my sore back supported by chromed steel bars, punctuated with 5cm gaps of nothing. “Mongol Massage Sleeper… Steely Dan Sleeper… are you reelin’ in the yeeee-eeeears… stowin’ away the tiiiiii-iiiime…” My brain will not shut up. I pop a 5mg Xanex and try to close my eyes. A few minutes pass, at which point I feel an odd, cold feeling on the soles of my feet, accompanied by a psssssht…psssssssht sound. I cock my head forward. An older woman is spraying my feet with aerosol deodorant, a task she can barely accomplish standing on her tip-toes with her arm fully stretched. The group cracks up again.

“Oh, sure, like your feet smell any better! You’re all just jealous that I got this sweet bunk… suckers…”

…And that’s how I learned to stop bugging out and accept the nature of my situation: stretched out like some Spanish Inquisition suspect on the luggage rack of a horrendously crowded train in Mongolia, reeking of camel vomit but with feet as fresh as daisies, head pressed against my make-shift pillow of jacket and oxford, full of mutton and Hite I won playing poker with a wrestler, and smiling… just smiling…

You’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were seventeen…
In all the years I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean…
The weekends at the college didn’t turn out like you planned…
The things that pass for knowledge, I just can’t understand…

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holy shit! this night happened a month ago! although, to be fair, I just spent ten days in the Gobi desert, and they don’t exactly have a lot of internet there… so here comes Operation Transmission Overload. ready.. GO!

visa run number one: follow the music, baby

A bittersweet feature of my Chinese visa is that it only allows 30-day entries, which is a sick joke given the size of China and the cost of the damn visa. I marked “60-day entries” on the form back in BKK, but when I complained after getting my passport back, the woman behind the glass made a rather “that’s what you get” gesture of dismissiveness that was clearly not negotiable. I blame… the Expo.

Anyway, I had originally planned on only doing a chunk of southern China, but I’ve got a real crush on the place… so visa runs are in order, or buying another visa, maybe through an agent with more guanxi than I, who can make something happen… but the thought of giving another $130 to the PRC to circumvent the need for visa runs makes me clench my jaws in agonized frustration. Well, if the Chinese government and the damn Expo are going to force a pedantic trip upon me every month, so be it — let’s get out of here, lets find a cheap ticket, lets see some new ground.

I picked South Korea for my first, partly for its ease of access but mostly because I’ve got friends there I’d like to see — Mo is there, as well my friend Mandie. The former is a fitting reason to show up unannounced; as I met him on his visa run, so he shall meet me on mine. I emailed the latter to let her know I’d be wandering through her country, which prompted the news that I was inadvertently flying into Seoul the day before the Seoul World DJ Festival — I just keep falling in to these things, I swear. I went the World Electronic Music Festival up in Ontario for a few years, so I’m somewhat acclimated to the use of the word ‘World’ in electronic music fest lingo: generally it pertains not to the size of the event but rather the invitation of worldwide DJs, which is somewhat of a misnomer if you ask me.

I flew in on a Friday to yet find more culture-contrast-shock. In my first seconds off the bus from the airport to Hongde, I went to cross the street and yielded to a black sedan turning right in front of me, a sedan which in China would have been halfway though my torso if I had kept walking. I was sort of spacing out and glancing around for a few seconds when I heard a short honk to my left. I was absolutely shocked: the bastard was actually yielding to me. He must have wondered what I was laughing at… I guess it was minor in retrospect, but that would simply never happen in urban China, and I was happily shocked by the courtesy.

The contrast continued of course: the place is clean, very clean for a city of 10 million+ people. The rivers run clear. The streets are not covered with garbage, and when someone pulls the last cigarette from their pack, they don’t just simply drop the empty pack on the ground, which is the standard operandi in China. People stand in lines instead of barging through them. The streetlights exist not just to add a bit of color to the streets, but to actually act as mediators of motor and pedestrian traffic. Actually, on that note, it’s safe to a degree even we would laugh at in over-regulated America. The buses have seatbelts. The subway system is constantly awash with videos of cuddly, anthropomorphic teddy bears, in hats and uniforms, explaining the dangers of improper subway etiquette. In fact, everything seems to be explained by uniformed anthropomorphic teddy bears and cats and raccoons here, like the speed limit signs, and the lane merging signs, and especially the “No tobacco to Minors” signs (aren’t these supposed to be designed for the adults?) . When you walk in to a building, there is generally a device at the front door to place your umbrella into a bag so as not to let it drip about on the floor inside. Icy stares are replaced by bowing. Barging is replaced by yielding. Spitting seems to be replaced by doughnuts (they love doughnuts here). If you seem to be having trouble, using a subway ticketing machine, or talking with a taxi driver, or staring at a map, there is a 96% chance that a native will walk up and try to aid you… which is roughly a 95.8% higher chance than in Beijing.

A typical first night in any new country: make some friends. Make some food. Make some drinks. Maybe go out for a while, try to find some trouble. The owner of the hostel that Mandie recommended, Min, is without a doubt the nicest hostel owner I have ever met… it felt more like couchsurfing than hosteling. We were chilling outside for a bit just after I got in, he was nursing a hangover, I was introducing him to the wonders of Coldcut, using their BBC Essential Mix from ’08, kind of warming up to the idea of the festival, when he slaps his hands on his legs and says, “Okay. Tonight, lets barbecue up on the roof. Okay?” He has this great way of proposing, asking, and confirming every idea with that word. It is pretty special. “Sure, man. What should I make?” “I’ll make… meat. You make salad? Okay?”

“Okay.”

Here, I was introduced to another contrast: the cost of food, and therefore living. In China, there is no produce (except for perhaps Avocados, and certain citrus fruits) that cost over $1.30/kilo — in most cases, four or so kilos of vegetables will set you back about $3.50, making it certainly the cheapest place to cook I’ve yet to find on earth, which is great, as I love to cook four kilos of vegetables at a time. In Seoul, though, there was nothing I could find that was under $3/kilo, and many things, like citrus, ran up to $5/kilo… there was certainly some sticker-shock involved in this. Getting enough to make a decent salad was about 25,000 won — around $22 ($22 is a roasted duck feast with sides and drinks for three people in Beijing). So I figured I’d stretch it a bit, in true summertime barbecue fashion: pasta salad. Always an excellent source of filler, and a good way to add a pound of food and a bunch of carbs to that salad for a buck. It took me a few shops to find some fusilli, and the tag indicated it was 4,500 won/500 grams, about $4.30. This was turning in to the most expensive pasta salad ever made, and I hadn’t even gotten the ingredients for the garlic lemon vinaigrette reduction yet. Yes, after China, everything will give you sticker shock, and sure, the Western elements of a pasta salad are certain to come at a price in Asia, but damn…

The barbecue was a smashing success, so to speak. Soju, Korea’s version of rice wine, is a dangerous thing — it is as mild or milder to the taste buds as sake, but at 20% alcohol or so, it sneaks up on you fast. I woke up feeling pretty good, though, and after meeting up with Mandie, we went for brunch. After buying a subway ticket for 1,500 won, I subconsciously muttered to myself “hmm… a dollar-forty… well, that’s only nine times as expensive as in China..” Shut up, brain. My pockets were still empty from the previous night’s happenings when we walked in to the brunch joint, and I see the prices: 16,000 won or so for the average plate. I hate thinking about money, let alone talking about it. It sucks to be stingy, and you gotta splurge sometimes, but when you’re traveling, watching your savings account trickle down and tick away, like minutes on the clock before you have to wake up and rejoin reality again, the whole game is to pinch pennies, stretch the money, to figure out how nickels add up and exploit every possible means of being a cheap bastard. I sort of whisper to John, “Dude, I’m from the Midwest — I can’t pay $14 for a plate of bacon and eggs. Well, I guess I can, but there better be a world-class pint of Bloody with a Guinness chaser sitting next to it… ” He smiles at this. “Yeah. I know. It’s gonna be an expensive weekend.”

The food was delicious, truly, wonderfully delicious, with avocado in the eggs, and bacon in the pancakes, and olives in the Camembert… and the price turned out to be a non-issue, as I had no money to pay for it anyway. Mandie treated me, and I tried my damnedest to feed her a sufficient amount of bourbon and other sundries later that night to reimburse her. This is the last I will speak on the costs of Korea, as anything past these two introductory anecdotes would be beating a (very expensive, pure-bread, bejeweled, prize-winning, amazingly well groomed) dead horse: Korea is not China.

the festvus

After a day of venturing out, eating, finding Mo, shopping (the girls), failed shopping turned pint-swigging (the boys), stocking up on supplies, other miscellany, and a few more pints, we finally made it to the festival. We managed to recruit a pretty great crew, too: three people turned in to five, which turned in to nine. I managed to smuggle in a good deal of bourbon by stuffing somewhat crushed water-bottles full of it in to my pants (whiskey out of my pants: inherently better than regular whiskey) and as the only other cocktails available were five-packs of Jäger Bombs, this was a wise smuggle indeed.

I take it all back about the ‘World’ misnomer: this festival was, by any standard, absolutely world-class. I didn’t recognize more than three names on the bill, but holy shit, Korea has a hell of a music scene! The house stage was killer. The main stage was almost always stellar. The rogue stage was generally cool, until they played some metal that made everyone walk away shaking their heads… but the hip hop stage… wow. The hip hop stage was absolutely awesome, all night long. Turns out there’s a real hip hop scene in Korea! The MCs were solid, and the flow of some of these guys would turn a lot of heads in the States. The DJs were even better; the sunrise dance set by some Korean guy I’ve still yet to learn the moniker of was probably the best dance hip-hop set I have ever witnessed. Early in the night, a very interesting set by a band called EE included a full five-piece group, a DJ, three vocalists, and, after the third track, a nearly naked man, sporting tighty-whities and nothing else, covered in something resembling antiquing powder and lots of face paint, just simply going nuts… after about ten minutes of his rolling about and frolicking, he ran up to the front of the stage to puke on the front row. Then he grabbed one of the monitors and started humping it. The band was not the least bit surprised by this. Go figure.

Other random highlights include Vandalism, a UK DJ who just plain kicked ass and was accompanied on-stage by a very tall blond woman in leather and aviators who looked like she needed a whip, and about a dozen other DJs of surprisingly high caliber. I must say, for an 18-hour event, this was one of the best parties I’ve ever seen… it was just fantastic. The only bad set I witnessed the whole night was from a German DJ called Dirty Disco Youth (not to be confused with Dirty Disco Kidz, who rock steady) who’s set stumbled and faltered, a major disappointment after the awesomeness of Vandalism. To top it off, he looked like an anorexic, snuffly Carrot Top. I walked away from the stage after 20 minutes of awkward, half-dance-able mediocrity, shaking my head, only to have the next track be — I am not making this up — the final track that Vandalism played. Many confused looks bounced around. A lot of people walked away. Maybe he was just playing an MP3 off his Macbook or something. Kids today, I swear…

They kicked us out at about 8:30 am, after a set by Freemasons, another UK DJ who was mostly playing old-school UK drum & bass and dancy trance stuff, shifting to a lot of female-vocalist mid-tempo dance. He was swigging a bottle of Patron Anejo and looked like he was ready to keep playing all day, but I suppose all parties must end at some point… he grabbed the mic at the end and said “Tha road is closin’ in thirty minutes, so if yer not stayin’, ya need ta git tha fuck aout”, which was not heeded at all, until the PA was cut, at which point it was heeded with groans and slow shuffles towards the gate. Needless to say, we were in the same boat: not ready to leave. Too pumped to stop dancing, too wired to sit down, too famished to keep drinking but too thirsty to stop. Where’s the damn after-party?

We drowned our sorrows in the Soju we left outside the gate. After a very interesting van ride back into the heart of the city, nine wired, half-drunk party people in face-paint descended on the streets of Seoul to a lot of odd looks. Showers. A nap or two. Tacos. The nice German student in the hostel got a real earful on just how bad he screwed up on not coming with us… the anecdotes and rave reviews went around. Shortly thereafter, the crew split: almost all were English teachers, who had to teach on Monday, and Mo had his internship to attend to. Nine became three in a matter of minutes. Min, Jerah, Mo and I went picnicking near the river, and after telling ourselves all day “tonight we’re gonna chill, no partying, no drinking, seriously” we get back to the hostel, only to have the German look at us and say, “So. Wanna go out tonight?”

Well… yes. Yes, we do. Screw Monday — there’s no morning-after like the-morning-after-the-morning-after. Cue the music and the soju and the barbecue…