Outer Mongolia via Beijing

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.

Photo? Photo!

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.

Ah, the “third day.” Yep.

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)


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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2 Responses to Outer Mongolia via Beijing

  1. Don says:

    What an epic opener: I was on an adventure.
    Nice. Strangely, I know nothing about Ulaan Baatar aside from a traditional festival/ half-hour horse race held there, with riders under the age of 12 who guzzle mare’s milk and braid their horses hair, etc – it was exquisitely detailed in one of the English lessons at WSI. But find it on a map? Probably not. “Next to China” is probably about the best I could do – then I’d have to search.

    Great article. I want more details though. What happened the third day? Let’s talk about the Mongolian wrestlers. And most importantly, that guy at the top there – is his name Khan? It is, isn’t it?

    • Bill Davis says:

      Thanks, Don!

      Most people wouldn’t know much about Mongolia (Genghis Khan, maybe), much like “U.B.” as they call the capital. They are indeed into horses, FERMENTED mare’s milk (forget the French wine… you need to find a source for THAT!) and other oddities. It’s north of China.

      There WILL be more about the third day… and some other bits. Plus I have to get through my list of 50+ other travel stories ideas. Stay tuned…

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