I was on an adventure…
Even for this veteran traveler, to fly to Outer Mongolia was pushing everything up a notch. Okay, two notches. It was the spring of 1994 and I was leaving the familiar Manila and heading to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, as a language learning consultant. For a couple of weeks I was going to help some coworkers who were trying to learn Mongolian.
At that time, Mongolia had recently broke away from the Soviet Union, and the only two places in the world where I could get a Mongolian visa were Moscow and Beijing. So my first stop was Beijing. My friends told me to allow three days on the ground there, because it would take that long for the Mongolian Embassy to process my request for a visa. Three days! I was excited to see China for the first time, but that didn’t happen, because “three days in Beijing” meant “daily trips to the Mongolian embassy three days in a row.” So no Great Wall. No Terracotta Warriors.
Oh, well. Simply walking the streets of Beijing was fascinating in itself. But no one spoke English. AT ALL. This was quite a switch from the Philippines. Although I speak Tagalog, I could function in the Philippines without it, because nearly all Filipinos all know English. However, pretty much the only English the Chinese knew was the word “Okay,” which is the most universally known word in the world. So I could raise my camera, smile, and ask, “Okay?” and get permission (i.e. a smile and a burst of Chinese) to take a picture.
One way in which China was very much like the Philippines was all the stores were owned by Chinese. Fancy that. But the bicycles! I’d never seen so many bicycles in my life. They didn’t have skimpy little “biking lanes” beside the road like we do in California. Oh, no. There were whole, full-width lanes of the street, just for bikes, on both sides of the street.
Embassy Row in Beijing
All the foreign embassies in Beijing are located in one neighborhood. It’s easier for the PRC regime to keep an eye on them that way. Some are huge, elegant mansions behind towering walls. Others, more humble. I walked past the Cuban embassy and several others to reach the Mongolian consulate. It was a small, ordinary, two-bedroom house in the middle of a unfenced yard of overgrown weeds. But when I got to Mongolia and saw how barren much of the countryside was, I realized they probably had never had to face mowing or weeding before.
To get a visa to Mongolia, I had to have a letter of invitation from a valid organization within Mongolia. My contacts had written a formal request and sent me the telex receipt. But at the embassy, they told me, “No, no such letter here.” Fascinating how they could know that, since they didn’t even look up from their desks. “Come back tomorrow.”
I was getting an idea of why I needed three days.
Back at the Mongolian Embassy, on the second day, the guy actually looked in a log book and yep, my invitation letter was there. It was in the middle of the book, meaning, it had in fact been there the day before. It had been there for over a month. So invitation letter, check. But today, I was told that I needed a passport-sized photo of myself. They directed me to a nearby shopping center.
No one in the little strip mall spoke English. AT ALL. Well, I take that back. They knew “photo.” So I was sent back and forth to kiosks selling cameras and film, stalls offering picture frames and art prints, a film developing service… finally I think I said “passport” and got a smile in return and was pointed to the storefront where a young woman took pictures for IDs and passports. When she added up the bill, she used a calculator, then to be safe, she double-checked the calculator’s total using an abacus. Then she let me know the amount by showing me the screen of her calculator.
Back to the Mongolian Embassy. I gave them my photo and…
…they said to come back the next day.
Eventually, I did make it to Mongolia just fine. It was an unforgettable trip.
And well, let’s not even talk about the Mongolian Wrestlers…
(coming up next: Shopping In the Wrong Language)