Traveling alone without speaking the local language is no simple task. Why, then, do I continue to do it? This was a question I was asking myself two winters ago when I was traveling alone to Mongolia. Actually, something always seems to go wrong on my trips and something did go wrong on this one. Believe it or not, I forgot to bring my bank card and thus was limited to the cash in my pocket to get me to Ulaan Baatar (the capital of Mongolia) from Beijing.
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The first leg of my trip was from Beijing to Erlian, where I stayed one night in an overly-priced hotel. The next morning I was up early, optimistic and chugging down my Nalgene bottle of hot, sweet Doujiang (“Soy-soup”). As a point of explanation, I am fluent in Mandarin. Therefore, communicating in Erlian was not a problem for me because the city is technically part of China (not to mention I had been to Erlian before). However my Mongolian is limited to words like “tomorrow” and “Hello” and communicating any further on my route to Ulaan Baatar was going to be rift with misunderstandings. Nevertheless, I went to the bus station and easily purchased a ticket to take me through customs into Zamin-uud, Mongolia.
Things were going smoothly as I watched the passengers arrive in the station waiting room until it was close to departure time and I realized that I had the hotel room key in my pocket! Here was a true moral dilemma. I could refund my ticket, head back to the hotel, return the key and miss my bus, or I could hold on to it, pretend it never happened and never return to the hotel. Ultimately, I decided to return the key and take my chances that the bus would be late. As it turned out, the passengers had so much luggage that when I returned they were still loading up. Utterly relieved, I hopped on the bus and off we went. Although this stretch had gone relatively well, I had lost precious money on the hotel room and the ticket refund.
Once I got off the bus at the train station in Mongolia I walked up the steps to the ticket window. Knowing my Mongolian was poor, I had asked a Mongolian acquaintance to write out “I would like the cheapest sleeper to Ulaan Baatar for today”. So I approached the window and shoved the piece of paper under the window opening. She looked at me and said “Bakhgu” or “We don’t have any.” I began to shake. I repeated my request just to be sure, and she returned the same reply. What would I do and where would I go? I remorsefully dragged my bags down to the waiting room where there was a group of young Mongolians. I could hear some of them speaking Chinese (a rare thing in fact) and immediately started up a conversation. Finally, they wrote down for me on a slip of paper the name of the cheapest place to stay in Zamin-uud which was behind a bank. After this I ran back upstairs and asked for a ticket for the next day.
Next, I trudged into town asking everyone in sight where the bank was, and after being misdirected several times I finally found the bank and the building behind it. The owner told me how much the room would cost for the night, and in despair I admitted to him that that price was more than I had left on me. However, he agreed and accepted every last Togrik I had. After taking down my passport information he asked to look at my “bilet” (ticket) and stood up suddenly saying “today!” Confused, I looked over the gibberish of Mongolian that covered the ticket to where he was pointing. Somehow he communicated to me that my ticket was actually for that day. I literally wrapped my arms around this man and jumped up and down in absolute enthusiasm. He subsequently graciously returned my money. What luck! I was in the caboose, and I had literally purchased the very last ticket for that train.
Once on the train and in my seat, I sat drenched in sweat and praising God for getting me to Ulaan Baatar with cash left in my pocket. I learned several things during this trip, not the least being to remember my bank card. First, this trip affirmed my belief that helping others and doing the right thing is simply part of being human. It strengthened my faith in Providence. Finally, it deepened my humility and heightened my awareness of my weaknesses. In reality, many people helped me on this trip and acknowledging their contributions was really the rewarding part of this and all my other travels.
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