September 12th, 2010
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia

Turns out Chris’ pneumonia is a little more serious than we thought. He’s not at death’s door or anything, but there’s no way he can go camping anytime soon, and he needs to see a better doctor than what’s available in Mongolia. So we’re cutting out the last few weeks of the trip and going straight to Europe. It sucks, but that’s life.

Unfortunately we made this decision on a Friday evening, and our passports are currently in the bowels of the gargantuan Russian embassy compound. According to Lonely Planet it’s open every day from 2 to 3 pm, and we we figured it was worth trying the next day, since we had nothing else to do except sit around and twiddle our thumbs. We walked around the fence for half an hour (it is a huge complex, since Mongolia used to be a Soviet satellite state) before eventually finding a gate with a buzzer. We tried this, and had somebody scream at us in Russian for a while, before saying “NO ENTRY!”

Anyone who has ever gone (or tried to go) to Russia will know how difficult they make it, what with the visa invitations and the registration and the general jerkery. It boggles my mind how unwelcoming they still are to foreign visitors. The Soviet Union collapsed nineteen years ago, guys. Come on. You don’t have to actively encourage tourism, but you could at least not be so overtly hostile towards it. That would be a start.

Anyway, this meant we’d have to wait until Monday to go to the Legend Tour office, explain the situation and try to get our passports back. We checked around a few different flight centres and on, and we should be able to get a flight to Moscow or Berlin for a reasonable price. We contacted Mendee and met up with him today, to pay for the training we received and to sell some of the gear we’d bought to him. Now we’re just waiting on those irritable Russians. Given how little they want to give us visas, you’d think they’d be more than happy to throw our passports back.

Once we do get a flight, we’ll have to kick around in Europe for a bit while Chris applies for a British working holiday visa. Reading up on all the rules and regulations for this is appallingly tedious, like doing a tax return or writing a CIT assignment. You have to force your brain to pay attention, reading about tier 5 category points and skilled assessment and youth mobility schemes and blah blah blah. It’s a horrifying Kafkaesque whirlwind of red tape, and I’m glad I don’t have to go through the same thing. I did offer for us to go straight to Dublin and enter a civil union so he could get European citizenship, but Chris isn’t too keen on marrying me, even on paper. I can’t imagine why. I think I’m a pretty good catch.

It’s strange, really – it was only in a few weeks time anyway, but now that we’re going to London directly we’re standing at the edge of another precipice in our lives. We’re looking at rental websites and jobhunting search engines, and trying to find a hostel where we can sleep until we find a good flat. (If you’re “lucky,” you can get a wretched dorm bed for about $200 a week. In South-East Asia I could sleep in an air-conditioned hotel room with a plasma TV and a private bathroom for three weeks on that much money.) It’s a shame that we missed out on horse-riding and the Trans-Siberian, but we can always come back. In fact I was planning to anyway, because while horses sound like the perfect way to see Mongolia, you’ll actually be seeing a very limited slice of it. Here’s the distance we could have covered in ten days on horseback:

Here’s the distance that Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor covered during Long Way Round, in the same amount of time, on enduro motorbikes:

There’s a reason vehicles supplanted horses. They’re better.

I’m not saying that we needed to burn across the countryside and cover heaps of ground – it’s just that it’s a tiny (and well-trodden, and touristy, and close to the city) part of the country that we would have seen. If you want to really get out there in the middle of nowhere, you need a vehicle.

Something I would sort of maybe like to do is the Mongol Rally. It’s an annual charity rally (not a race) from London to Ulaan Baatar, in cars that must be less than 1200cc. That involves driving across some of the roughest terrain in the world, through Kazakhstan and Russia and Mongolia, in a crappy hatchback. A whole bunch of cars had just finished up and were celebrating at the pub when we first arrived in UB, and it looks like a lark. I would love to do it in my ’96 Hyundai Excel, but unfortunately that now belongs to Chris’ brother Jesse.

In any case, the jury’s still out on whether I actually like travel or whether I’m just going to curl up in an armchair and never step outside the first world again. I’m going to write much more about that once the trip’s over. In the meantime, I’ve started taking metronidazole in an attempt to counter my suspected amoebic dysentery, because this was my last chance to get it over the counter in a part of the world that doesn’t give a shit about prescriptions. The kicker is that I’m taking it just as we’re about to re-enter the West, so if my persistent traveller’s diarrhea does come to an end, I won’t know whether it was because of the drugs, or my triumphant return to a part of the world that’s clean.

I’m looking forward to that – not just the cleanliness, but the efficiency. We’ve been in the developing world for five months, and the communist (or former communist) world for four of those, and both of those things spell death for basic infrastructure. We’re now completely accustomed to things like toilets, taps, keys and doors never working smoothly. “I wonder if we’re going to notice that,” I said. “Like if we get to Europe and we’re stunned that doors open without creaking or jamming or not fitting in the doorframe. Like a constant noise that you don’t notice until it stops.”

That reminds me of a conversation we had ages ago, back in Beijing, riding bikes to the supermarket. Chris had been talking about how expensive BMW motorbikes are, and one of our host’s friends had suggested that he just “buy a copy” – as in, a counterfeit Chinese copy.

Chris had nodded politely at the dinner table, but as we were riding to the supermarket later he said; “Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Let me think: do I want to buy a German motorcycle, or a Chinese motorcycle? That’s a joke. That is actually a joke on The Simpsons. ‘Things were going so well, and then they fell apart like a Chinese motorcycle’.”

“That’s what worries me about the rise of China,” I said. “I mean, this country is going to be dominating the global stage during our lifetimes. And the dictatorship, yeah, that’s bad and all, but just… the shittiness of everything. The lack of care they put into building things, into craftsmanship. They do it cheap and fast but they do it shit. I don’t want that to become the norm.”

Mongolia (and I presume Russia) may be bleak, but it’s a decaying kind of bleak. So that’s okay. Decay and neglect and disrepair is supposed to be bleak. Ulaan Baatar has a sort of disreputable, scruffy charm to it. But China is bleak even though everything is new. That’s just sad.