A couple of funny things happen when the temperature gets down to minus 40° degrees. The first is that the Fahrenheit and Celsius temperature scales intersect. The second is that all your nose hairs instantly freeze solid.
Let’s go back to how I know this: It was January 2010. I was also 26, living in Beijing and dirt poor. To sum it up, every meal I ate at was at the dumpling restaurant across the street from my apartment. Actually, it was a dumpling stall in the supermarket. I had decided that, for whatever reason, I was going to make it as a freelance translator. And I certainly was making it, if the “it” in question was “no money whatsoever.”
For reasons that I still do not fully comprehend, the visa I had applied for at the time, which allowed me to stay in the country, required me to leave the country once every 30 days. To restart the clock with a fresh set of thirty, all I had to do was set foot anywhere outside China. That’s easier said than done when a $300 plane ticket to Seoul might as well cost a million bucks.
Looking for answers, I accost my friend Chris online. I figured if anyone knows the answer, he does.
“Hey man, I think this is gonna be tough.”
“Yeah, been there.”
“Yeah, I have. Take the train.”
“Mongolia. Look up the prices online.”
I did. One-way tickets from Beijing to Erenhot, a town on the border with Mongolia, are about thirty bucks. I’ll have a sleeping berth, which is good because it’s a 12-hour ride. Sold.
“The border’s whack.”
I wander down to the train ticket office. The next train isn’t until next week. I’ll get into Erenhot after the border crossing closes, so I’ll have to spend the night in a hotel and cross the next day. That’ll put me a full two days past the 30-day limit. I don’t have another choice. I plunk down the cash in front of a bored-looking attendant. Four days later, I board the train.
So there I was standing, the sun down, a nose full of frozen hair and no room for the night. Next to me, the train gushed steam (I mean, it actually gushed like in those old movies). I had on three pairs of socks, but by the time I walked into the nearest hotel lobby I was already stamping my feet, trying to get circulation restarted. The hotel ends up turning out to be too expensive. Wearing running shoes to Mongolia was a bad idea.
As fast as a man in a knee-length parka possibly could, I hustle down Erenhot’s neon-lit main drag, eyeing up a succession of drab flophouses. If you’ve not been to China, maybe your mind conjures up images of temples and chopsticks alongside buildings with gracefully sloping eaves. Sure, if you watched too many kung fu movies as a kid.
That China may still exist somewhere, but it’s definitely not in Erenhot. The city ferociously lacks in charm, a frozen-solid soup of grey and brown; the end result of beauty and taste sacrificed at the altars of speed and thrift. I rush past row upon row of one cut-rate motel to another. Eventually I settle on one that charges 50 yuan ($8 USD). My re-thawed nose hairs cheer. Who knew wearing running shoes to Mongolia was a bad idea?
A small pinpoint of human existence among a thousand square miles of snowy, indifferent grass, Erenhot is an island in the middle of the ocean.
The sun outside the bus to the border was blinding, but did absolutely nothing to cut the cold. Everywhere—feet, legs, torso—I was triple-layered in clothing. Still, I’d only been out of my warm hotel room 30 minutes and I was already losing feeling from the bottom up.
(I’ve brought a Mongolian phrasebook with me. As the bus coasts to a stop, I wonder idly if it has the Mongolian for “The frostbite’s too advanced. We’re going to have to take your feet.”)
I step down from the bus. The empty bus stop and I regard one another. It seems unmoved by my presence. It’s also the last stop on Erenhot Bus Line 1.1 Past the stop is a long black iron fence, running hard for a few football fields in either direction before turning north. In the fence’s center is a guard post. Behind the post, up another field’s worth of icy approach, is an honest-to-god castle.
Whoops, no, that’s the border crossing. Actually, “border fortress” might be a better way to put it. It’s a concrete hulk that dwarfs every other building I’ve seen in Erenhot. It looks like an aircraft carrier cresting a grass tidal wave — one might be forgiven for thinking it was built to repel invading Mongol hordes.
That’s where I’m headed, except I don’t have the faintest idea how I’m going to get inside.
Chris has told me that the border couldn’t be crossed on foot, that you needed to be in a vehicle of some kind. The exception: most people can hitch a ride with one of the jeeps that made runs between the two sides of the border. The drivers eked out a few bucks each run carrying goods from China to resell in Mongolia and were usually happy to pad their margins by filling any leftover space with passengers. The jeeps started lining up to make the trip to Mongolia at nine in the morning, as soon as the crossing opened.
Or so he said. It was getting on towards 9:30 a.m., and the only thing lined up to get into Mongolia was me and my rapidly-freezing extremities. I double-timed it over to the guard post, hoping to make friends with the PLA guard on duty. “Hi, do you know where the jeeps are?”
He was young—even younger than me—and he smiled embarrassedly. He could see that I was cold, and that his answer was going to disappoint me.
“In the winter they don’t usually come until ten-thirty or eleven.”
Jesus Christ, ok. Only thing was, I was pretty sure my feet had stopped tingling a couple minutes back.
I gestured towards the border post. “Can I go in?”
“Can’t, not unless you’re in a car.” The embarrassed smile again. Clearly, not the answer I was looking for.