Somewhere there is something—call it karma, call it a deity, call it whatever—that looks after drunkards, small children, fools, and cash-poor, frozen-footed translators.
A solo car comes coughing up the hill towards Kingdom’s Gate, boxy and black. It stops in the miniature parking lot next to the guard post. Two men hop out. One’s tall-ish, and visibly wiry under his winter clothes. The other lives in my memory as a short, anonymous scrub.
The Tall One’s dressed for winter, but not the same winter as I am. He’s wearing a leather jacket and jeans. No hat, no boots, no scarf; he looks positively jaunty. His ears are practically glowing red against the white-blue morning sky. It’s 30° below Fahrenheit and I’m swaddled head-to-toe in my parka, layered up like a giant mutant onion. If it weren’t for the sneakers and jeans sticking out the bottom of my parka, I’d look like I was going to the moon.
I was not and am not the type to serially befriend strangers, but impending frostbite has a way of shifting your perspective.
“Hey, are you guys headed inside?”
Silence. Confused looks. They look at each other. Tall One looks me up and down, grinning. He sees that I have no idea what I’m doing.
Scrub stutters out a couple words in English.
I suddenly get it: they’re from Mongolia. As a general rule, Mongolian tongues do not wag in Mandarin. There’s no love lost between the two sides of the border. (To say there’s a lot of history there would be an understatement. The two countries have spent the past thousand years taking turns at invading each other.)
Tall One smiles wickedly again, gestures for me to follow him, then sets off at a trot…moving away from the border post’s front gate. I hesitate, but at this point what choice do I really have? I follow my new Mongolian pals off to points unknown.
You’d think it would be harder to sneak across an international border. But no, it’s just as simple as slipping through a hole in a fence.1 A hundred yards to the west of the guard post is a spot in the fence where the bars have gone missing; the Mongolian Back Door, if you will. As a white-bread child of white-bread suburbia, I have nothing if not a healthy respect for the rules, and as I ease myself through the gap in the iron bars the quivering conformist in me waits for the sky to fall. Is it really this easy? Shouldn’t there be at least some dogs running after us?2
Whatever arrangement where the Chinese border patrol is willing to overlook a gaping hole in their fence ends up prevailing, and our motley posse slips through to the other side unmolested. As soon as I clear the fence Tall One and Scrub take off the border post at a fast jog. I sprint to catch up. As I puff along behind them, I can’t help thinking about myself: six feet plus of black parka, grey-black backpack, and tennis shoes galloping along the frozen ground after a pair of Mongolians.
The sun lights up the snow around us as we close the distance to the border castle, three small souls sprinting across a boundless white plain. Am I really doing this? What am I running for?
The customs officer is giving me the evil eye. Tall One and Scrub are fidgeting anxiously. If they had wristwatches, they’d be furiously checking them. Their passage through the checkpoint was like water over river rocks; mine’s more like a hippo through a cheese grater.
Ms. Customs Officer looks down, looks up, then looks down again, her eyes flitting between my passport and its mildly terrified owner. The page with my visa is apparently very, very interesting. I mean, it is two days overstayed.
“You were supposed to leave the country two days ago.”
“Really? I didn’t know.” Hey, it’s worth a shot. The country’s huge, the language a headache, the culture sometimes impenetrable. The more sympathetic locals know that China is a hard place to get your head around as a foreigner. Whatever the reason, the upshot is that sometimes you can get away with stuff by playing the Stupid Foreigner card.
She narrows her eyes at me, and then gives my visa another good hard squint. She’s pressing her lips together so hard they look like they might burst. Under Chinese law, she has the right to fine me 500 yuan for each day I’ve overstayed my visa. I won’t be able to take the hit. I start to think about how I might sell my digital camera (or my body) briefly in Erenhot. Behind the customs officer, Tall One and Scrub start fidgeting towards the exit.
She opens her mouth to speak.
“You have overstayed your visa by two days.” Not a good sign…
“In doing so you have broken the border control laws and regulations of the People’s Republic of China.” Oh. Shit.
“I have the power to fine you five hundred renminbi for each day your visa is expired. I could also have you detained.” My legs are already quivering.
“However, you’ve claimed ignorance and I believe you. Since this is your first offense, I’m going to let you go.” She glares at me. “Just this once.”