So there’s Inner Mongolia and there’s Outer Mongolia. What’s the difference? I hear you cry… Well, it’s like this, see: half of the historic area of Mongolia is in China (that half being Inner Mongolia) and half of it is an independent and sovereign state which used to be called Outer Mongolia, but is now known by the more snappy and dynamic title of Mongolia.
The same thing has happened thousands of miles away in the country of Macedonia, made famous as the birthplace of a certain Alexander who was apparently (like Peter, Britain and Frosties) GR-GR-GR-GREAT! Unfortunately for the Macedonians, the Greeks who control the southern part of historic Macedonia won’t allow Macedonia the snappy and dynamic title of Macedonia (on the grounds that they own the lower half and they don’t want hapless holiday makers getting confused) nor will they allow the name ‘Outer Macedonia’, no, what the Greeks have decreed (with all the common sense of a bunch of Trojans happily pulling a giant wooden horse into town) is that we all call Macedonia ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’ Yup, they want us to kinda explain everything in the title. I mean, why call it ‘The Odyssey’ when they could have called it ‘The Journey Home from Troy Of The Greek Adventurer Known By The Greeks As Odysseus But By The Romans as Ulysses’?
Did I mention how much I love Chinese long distance buses? Damn I had completely forgotten how unbelievably ace they are. And now that I’ve caught the bus (or whatever happens to pass for a bus) in pretty much EVERY country in the world, and since you didn’t ask for it, here is my top 3 in reverse order.
3. Turkey: Free cups of tea, free internet, costs about 1 penny a mile. Awesome.
2. Central America: Free food, BIG seats and unbelievably good films on the telly.
1. China. You don’t get a reclining seat, you get a BED. A real BED. Win!
And the worst?
3. Guinea: Two nights along a potholed dirt track in the jungle crammed into a shared taxi designed to fit 8 that somehow fits 16 sitting on the handbrake and handing out money AT GUNPOINT to every horrible policeman who demands it. But still infinitely more pleasant than:
2. UK (National Express): Overpriced nightmares of discomfort and horror. Take the overnighter from Liverpool to London at your peril. The driver will probably be drunk.
1. USA (Greyhound): Appropriate name as they treat their customer like dogs. I would rather spend a night in a Congolese jail than on one of these horrible, filthy, wretched and insidious buses ever ever again. This so called ‘public’ transport company is an embarrassment to the good name of America on a par with George W. Bush and Scientology. I speak with utter authority on this matter: GREYHOUND BUSES ARE THE WORST IN THE WORLD. AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE and if all else fails, walk.
Ah, that feels better. Now, where was I? Oh yeah – Mongolia. So I arrived at the capital of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot, at some ungodly hour of the morning. There I changed buses and headed to the bordertown of Erenhot.
The bus ride there was rather uneventful, except for the fact that some brilliant mind had decided that the otherwise dull fields of nowt that mark the approach to Mongolia should be livened up with the addition of hundreds of large metal dinosaurs. And as every manchild knows, dinosaurs ROCK.
I was kind of expecting there to be a bus leaving Erenhot for Beijing around 8pm, which would allow me bags of time to cross the border, eat some Mongol Cuisine (yum!) hang out with the locals and then get the bus back to the capital of China – after all, this was going to be a border-hop: there and back again.
So imagine my horror when I arrive in Erenhot to discover that the last bus leaves at 4.30pm. I looked at my watch. It was 2pm. No time for love, Dr. Jones. This was going to be all business.
Unfortunately for the sake of my sanity, it took me TWO HOURS just to cross the border. The Chinese and the Mongols have a mad system (which also exists in a few countries: the border between Romania and Moldova being a good example) in which it’s illegal to cross the border on foot. This creates a NICE LITTLE EARNER for the owners of the clapped out jeeps that ply the 500 meters between the border posts. Ten quid to be crammed into the boot of a 4×4 (I sat on a large tin of beans) and driven half a kilometre across no man’s land is not something I would usually pay for, but time was short and I had little choice. I decided to make up the loss by forgoing dinner.
The trip across the border was also prolonged by confusing stemming from my Chinese visa, which, as I had come through Tibet, was not stamped in my passport, but printed on a sheet of paper.
But eventually (being the operative word) and after much smiling and nodding, I made it into Mongolia: COUNTRY NUMBER 168. By now it was 4pm – the last bus back to Beijing was leaving in half an hour and then I learned that this Mickey Mouse border that separates two of the biggest countries in the world closes at 5pm anyway, so unless I wanted to spend the night in Mongolia, I had to get truckin’.
So I turned around and walked back into China. As I was the ONLY PERSON in the entire frickin’ world who seemed to want to go to China at that exact moment in time, you would think it would be a quick and painless procedure, even if the border guard was a little perplexed about why I would leave China to just come back again five minutes later on a different passport.
But no, the process ended up taking 45 minutes, by which point, the chances of me getting on this damn bus seemed slimmer than an anorexic stick insect that’s just been run over by a steamroller, since it should have left 15 minutes ago, but I still charged pell mell into the Erenhot bus station shouting Beijing! Beijing!
A plump middle aged lady came to my assistance. ‘Beijing?’
I nodded frantically.
And with that I was again bundled into a car and driven to the edge of town. There seemed be a pattern emerging here. Anyway, all aboard the night bus to Beijing! As I watched the dinosaurs pass by, posed majestically against the setting sun, I was content in the knowledge that Mongolia could be ticked off the list and I was on schedule to get the ferry to country number 169, South Korea, on Wednesday.