Two days

Travelling across land borders teaches you many things. Most evident is, of course, that the area around the edges of every country is where the taxi and minibus mafia dwell.

These shady individuals, citizens of neither country and both countries, at home in the badlands between nations where others fear to tread, make their living through a subtle kind of extortion.

You see, buses and trains go to border towns. They do not go to border posts. So there is always a gap between where you are (border town) and where you want to be (border post). And once you cross the border, there is another gap between where you are (other border post) and where you want to be (other border town).

Gaps alone are not enough, of course. There is a gap between the previous town and the border town that is easily bridged at a reasonable price, after all. The other crucial ingredient is monopoly. And this the mafia creates in various clever ways.

The simplest is to set up shop right after the border, but a few hundred metres or a kilometre or two (and out of sight) from the bus stop or the place where the other taxis and minibuses stop. So when you arrive, you see nothing but a couple of taxi or minibus drivers. And they tell you lies about buses and demand extortionate fares, knowing that you won’t just set off walking down the road into the middle of nowhere. You only realise your mistake when you race past the bus stop in your horrendously overpriced taxi.

From bitter experience I can confirm that there is a minibus stop a few hundred metres on the Turkish side of Sarp (the border with Georgia), so ignore the taxis and catch a cheap bus to Hopa. Similarly, there is a bus stop right on the Uzbek side of the border with Turkmenistan. All those people are not waiting for the second coming after all. Ignore the taxi drivers and save yourself $20 on the trip to Bukhara.

The second method is for there to be other people around who assure the unwary that there are no public buses and no other taxis or minibuses (although there might be a minibus every 20 minutes that will carry you cheaply). These people look like disinterested observers to the tourist (and therefore trustworthy) but are in fact just drivers of other taxis and minibuses who are part of the same scam. They can also be other passengers, who want to get you in the cab to share the fare, and pay less than you do in a side deal with the driver in return for getting you in the door.

At the border between Mongolia and China the same kind of human detritus dwell. But they do not have the advantage either of distance or of helpful co-conspirators. From the exit from the train station you can see all the minibuses and public buses. And there are a million touts all around you from the moment you step down trying to get your business to the border.

Of course, that does not stop the mafia from trying it on. The guys I met assured me that the buses only went in the afternoon (I mean really, there are better lies than that, surely). Unfortunately for them, it was just a matter of a twenty second walk to find out that that was not so.

I should not be so smug. The bus drivers probably ripped us off anyway. Stupid foreigners who don’t know the prices, after all.

Another funny thing that happens at borders is opening and closing hours. Not very often, but sometimes. The border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan closes for lunch at 1pm. The border guards all come in to the one restaurant and sit in the shade and have lunch. I know, I was there. The border between China and Mongolia does not open till 10am. So we raced there in a bus at breakneck speed (pausing only twice for reasons that remain mysterious), only to wait in line for an hour or two.

Then we waited in some more lines. Why not? We were getting good at it. The line for Mongolian customs (very uninterested). The line for Mongolian immigration (slightly more interested, since we had overstayed our visas by one day, but only long enough to decide they didn’t care enough to do anything). The line for China immigration (in which I realised I had left my boots on the train in Mongolia – so close (visible even) but also impossibly distant), and the line for Chinese customs (again, not very interested).

And suddenly, China! Energy, bustle, heat, action, dust, straight roads with streetlights, people trying to sell me water when I already have a bottle in my hand, the unfortunate taxi-driver we refused to pay because he took us to the bus station not the train station (even though there were no trains so we would have had to go to the bus station anyway – sometimes travellers can mean, and he only wanted 25 cents), the money changing merchants who cheat outrageously on the rate, and then try to give less than they have agreed anyway.

Ah China, already I can see why I like travelling here. A scam every moment of the day. But with a smile.

Eventually we reach Datong (where we went to see the Bhuddist carvings in the famous grottos whose name escapes me). Find a hotel. Realise we have no money to pay. Embark on a ridiculous midnight ramble to try to find an open bank that will change our money. Without success. Well, we found a bank, but they could not help us. Not till tomorrow morning. What difference do those 8 hours make, we wonder?

But a day can not be all bad if it ends with dumplings and beer.

Day two starts with an extension on the money changing saga (no bank will change money without seeing my passport, but I can not take my passport from the hotel because I can not pay them unless I change money) resolved only by making a scene (often good to be a rambunctious foreigner in China – rules often change quickly in the face of resistance).  Then the grottos, some chill out time (although not very chill out at 35 degrees and very humid), a seafood feast fit for a king that cost hardly anything, and, at last, an overnight train to Beijing. Again the taxi mafia are moronic (demanding ten times the normal fare, and therefore spending a lot of time sitting on the pavement waiting for stupid or rich customers). And eventually, after some crazy driving, the homecoming smell of the stinky canal, and the peace and quiet (like the grave, actually, SARS has killed off all the tourists, it seems) of the Jing hua international youth hostel.

It’s nice to be home. Well, homeish.