China to Mongolia Visa Run
by Owen Daniel
The flight from Beijing to Erlian (known as Erlianhaote – 二连浩特in Chinese and Erenhot in Mongolian) was painless enough. The Inner-Mongolian border city, placed in the middle of the Gobi Desert is technically just over an hour's flight.
It’s worth noting the different spellings of the city
Touching down in the town of around 130,000 inhabitants, this route is reportedly the only crossable border between China and Mongolia on their 4,677 km (almost 3,000 mile) border, taxi guys start offering you a ride to Erlian town / Mongolia. With my oober lame haggling skills I got a ride into town for 80 RMB ($12), but I'm sure my father - or an equally pro haggler - could have slashed that price in half.
The kissing dinosaurs of Erlian
Driving towards the town, you pass the many green dinosaur statues by the roadside celebrating the no less than 10 different kinds of dinosaur remains that have been found in this area. The weirdest of which, by far, is the two beasts leaning over the motorway for a proper tonguing session.
Regardless, the taxi guy will drop you in front of the great rainbow arch; a piece of decor that would look much more fitting at a Pride Parade than a desolate border crossing.
The rainbow bridge outside the China customs and passport control office
Surrounded by rusting old issue Russian army jeeps, they try pitching for 100 RMB to take you across. Trying my best I whittled this down to 40 RMB, but again it's possible to half this number. I reluctantly paid him as he dropped us a few meters away from the rainbow arch (I'd read this could be a scam and it's better to pay on the other side but was too tired to argue the point - and not to mention my lack of Mongolian and/or Chinese language skills).
I tagged close behind some Mongolians who were in the truck with me and we first passed through the Chinese exit side. Checking your bags through X-ray scanners, I quickly filled in the yellow departure card you have to complete every time you leave the country.
Don’t forget to grab a copy of this card and have it completed before you leave China
The security guard tried talking to me in Chinese and could tell from the blank look on my face I didn't understand a word. He discussed the complicated foreign guy with his colleague and before I knew it: Bam! He'd stamped the only blank page I had left in my passport. What a disaster. This was no doubt about to cause me further problems back in Beijing, but that's for another time.
This was the moment I had dreaded.
Staying close on the tales of my jeep-mates, the vehicle came round the corner a few minutes later. Officially, but not yet geographically, I'd left China. Driving for approximately 500 yards, or about 5 minutes, we came to the Mongolian customs side. Again clinging to my co-passengers we went in to the Mongolian building, and popped our bags in the scanner and handed over our passports to get stamped entering the home of the great Genghis.
From here I was on my own again as I was fairly sure these locals weren't doing a ludicrous bureaucratic loop-de-loop like myself so I left the Mongolian entrance and took an immediate left, through a gate in the fence, and followed the building round to find the next entrance.
Green is for go, go straight back into China that is.
Now I was heading back to China, out of Mongolia, kind of. I gesticulated I want to go to China (pointing that way), and the women in the little ticket office agreed and gave me a ticket showing me some Mongolian currency, a quick shake of the head and she told me 5 RMB. Taking the ticket and marching through to have my passport stamped yet again, I was then hovering outside thinking about just how bizarre this whole thing is.
Then a lady approached in pretty good English and asked if I wanted a ride. She asked for 20 RMB so even with my poor haggling skills I got a great deal on the way back, she was also driving a luxury MPV and not a broken-down rusting jeep so the return leg would be a bit more stylish.
There was also a lovely Mongolian family in the car that chatted to me, and made the whole thing a lot more pleasant than the prior trip, all the while Whitney Houston tracks played on the in-car TV.
Dropping us off back at the Chinese side the guard asked me if I remember my jeep number, I didn't even look as ours was by far the swishest looking set of wheels doing this trip. Luckily the Mongolian family had and they answered for me I think, so take note of your jeep number/license plate if you do have to go on this Mongolian visa run.
Take note (or a photo) of your jeeps plate number and stick close to your co-travelers
He didn't even raise an eyebrow about the fact I left China 30 minutes ago, and chuckled about my incompetent language skills and allowed me back in to the motherland. We cruised back into Erlian and the lovely driver took me straight to my hotel and the whole process was wrapped up in a couple of hours from touching down.
Popping over the road to get some food from Dicos - China's answer to KFC - it's clear they don't get so many foreigners in these parts; children point, stare and smile in amazement at the site of a laowai (meaning old outsider or foreigner)... It's kind of cute, but I wonder what they think and say... I hope it's nothing nasty. I didn't see another western face during my whole trip here, but the local people - be it Mongolian or Chinese - we're very warm and friendly, unlike the biting -15 winds hitting the city.
Brrrr… wrap up warm kids! Although -8 doesn’t sound too bad, the -14 wind-chill is a killer
China’s answer to KFC and it’s pretty tasty too
They don’t always have everything in stock though
All in all the trip wasn't as hectic as I'd expected but if you are going there with only one page left in your passport that you want to keep free, take a written/typed note in Chinese and Mongolian asking them not to stamp that page, unless your skills in both languages suffice.