September 14th, 2010
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia

A year and a day ago, I was sitting on my bed in South Korea in the middle of the night with my bags packed, waiting for some ungodly hour of the morning to flee my school building and make my way to the airport, to board a plane and go home. Now, on the anniversary of my arrival home, I am again sitting on my bed in a bleak city in North-East Asia, waiting for an ungodly hour of the morning to make my way to the airport and board a plane.

The comparison breaks down there. I’m not “escaping” Mongolia, just leaving it (with the intention of returning someday), and I’m not going home, I’m going to Berlin, and I’m not alone, I have my best friend by my side. Also this time I’m not doing anything sketchy and possibly illegal. But still, I thought it was an odd coincidence.

We’re flying to Germany because we’ll have to wait around a while as Chris applies for his British working visa, and Germany is apparently one of the cheaper countries in Europe. Berlin is, for some reason, one of the only cities with direct international flights from Ulaan Baatar, but we actually have a connecting flight in Moscow. I’m not sure what carrier we’re with; for both flights the code is “SU,” which I dearly hope isn’t a budget airline.

Fortunately we managed to get our passports back from the Russian embassy, after being ushered through several layers of barbed wire fencing. We had to sit around waiting for half an hour, but that was okay, because for some reason the Russian embassy was full of amusing weirdos. There was a hippie backpacker wearing fisherman’s pants (you’re a long way from the Gulf of Thailand, buddy), a stern consular official wearing a pastel shirt buttoned all the way up to the top (but with no tie) and an incredibly tall man with overly large shoes, trousers an inch too short and a brush-like mustache. “That man looked like a broomstick transformed into a human,” Chris said. “Even the mustache, that was the broom part. And he constantly had his head down, like he was always ducking under doorways so he decided to just settle it there, like a vulture.”

After we got the passports back we went to a flight centre to book the plane tickets. Then, with the few remaining hours in the day, Chris went to the British embassy to talk to an actual human being about Tier 5 visas (and had no luck), while I went to the train station to refund our tickets. It took forever to find, because the international ticket office is actually in another building across the street and down some alleyways, but I made it in the end and was pleasantly surprised to find that we could get 90% of our money back. They wanted to see Chris’ passport, though, so we had to go back again today.

Later in the afternoon someone tried to rob me. I was walking back to the apartment after mailing some postcards, down crowded Peace Avenue, when I felt a tugging at my backpack and whirled around to see everyone looking nonchalant and carrying on with their business, except one guy who ducked down an alleyway and into a doorway. I thought I’d imagined it, but then I realised my bag was open. I had nothing valuable in there except my shitty camera, but even that was untouched. I guess he aborted when I turned around. Better luck next time, butterfingers.

The Germans left on the weekend, so for our last few days in Ulaan Baatar we’ve had the apartment to ourselves again. It was weird how, after a week of living here, we’d come to regard this place as belonging to us and viewed them as intruders. “I was sitting there on the couch and they were making spaghetti in the kitchen,” Chris said, “and then one of them opened the curtains, and I was just thinking ‘What are you opening my curtains for? Did you ask if you could do that’?” That later become a running joke – Chris would open the curtains wide and say, “Hey Mitch, who am I?” before pausing and adding, “They were actually very quiet and didn’t bother us at all.”

They did, however, vaccum the living room floor and clean the other bathroom. I find that completely baffling. They were here for three days. Even if I were here for a month, it wouldn’t even occur to me to do that. Who walks into a hotel room, or any kind of short-term, daily-payment accommodation, and decides to clean it? Weird.

The thing about Germans is that, for whatever reason, they long ago became the butt of many jokes between Chris and myself (certainly at least as far back as Day 7). It’s partly the language, which we think is just inherently funny, and I’m sure its original basis was the ending of the Simpsons episode “Raging Abe Simpson And His Grumbling Grandson In The Curse Of The Flying Hellfish,” in which a rich young German party animal is concerned only with his CD stacker and getting to a Kraftwerk concert on time. The basis of the joke is that Germans are never-ending techno fiends who dance to house music 24/7, usually with random German words thrown in, most of which are complete gobbledegook, like “ein schassenhauser” or “oppel schlostengeister.” This was further reinforced when we met a young German named Matthias in South Vietnam, who said in Mui Ne, “I am a little worried, because it has been a few weeks since I have had ze party.” DJ Matthias hence became a long-running in-joke between us, Max and Jess.

I mention all this because we are now flying to Berlin, the heart of Ze Funky German Techno Zone, and I think we’re going to have trouble keeping straight faces. If the title of every single blog post I make while we’re there is some nonsensical gibberish pseudo-German phrase, I hope you’ll understand.