Electing to save money and the twelve hours the Trans Siberian Express takes to cross the Russian border, I step out off the rail-line in Ulan Ude intending to purchase a bus ticket to Ulaanbaatar (actual spelling) Mongolia leaving the following morning.
Taxi drivers immediately recognize the foreigner and descend upon him; a man with a friendly, pudgy, well worn Asian face wins my fare.
Only slightly larger than a janitor's closet, a small window in the door acts as the link between the sales office and the lengthy line there to purchase tickets. My taxi driver, knowing he still has to take me to find lodgings, weaves his way to the front and shouts a question at the scowling, chubby clerk, who angrily responds that no tickets are available for tomorrow.
"No tickets?! When then?"
A German girl and her boyfriend with a similar plans overhear the commotion. Speaking some Russian, she acts as translator. Turns out there is no bus to Mongolia for three days ... So much for saving time.
Considering our possibilities, my new comrades use their local SIM card to check availability on the Trans-Siberian ... also three days. It seems as though fate has intended to strand us here, but trust me when I say "here" ain't very nice.
No bus, no train, are there any other options?
|the outskirts of Ulan Ude|
I'm anxious to exit Russia. ... I consider walking.
Turns out there are shared vans that will take you as far the Russian border town, and the last one of the day departs in 45 minutes.
Gotta leave Russia. Don't want to be here no more. Wearily, I throw my luggage in the back of the van and board.
|the van's interior. Notice the passengers are Asian or mixed|
|the van (blue) at our one stop|
The van's windows turn so dirty I wonder how the driver can continue. I close my eyes so I don't get a headache trying to make sense of the smudged images hurtling towards me at 100km an hour. Darkness falls as we near our destination, and I still have no idea where I'm going to spend the night, or what journey lies in front of me.
A soldier steps onto our van, only cursorily glancing at everyone; except for me. My passport is taken outside, giving me shortness of breath.
Time passes ... everybody waiting because of me. I'm not sure they care how, but I'm certain they hope it will be resolved soon, one way or another.
Eventually the van's door slides open and he hands me back my oxygen, then curtly explains I need to leave Russia immediately.
I'm being kicked out of Russia? I probably deserve it, but how could he know?!
"Seriously, is it because I'm American?" I ask out loud.
Needless to say no one around me can explain it, mainly because they can't understand a word escaping my lips.
A half hour later we're at the border town. I get out of the van, collect my bags, and stand in the cold, a shiver coming over me, partly due to the chill of the night air, partly due to the fact that I'm completely unsure of where to go. There's nothing here, just a dusty area with a few buildings. An older man from the van kindly approaches and offers the following advice: "Leave Russia now."
I know better than to mess with Russian authorities- after all, it's their easy-going chillaxed attitude which makes me so anxious to escape.
|the border, around midnight|
Many people in this region of the world augment their meager incomes by acting as impromptu taxis, and one soon stops for my fare.
A few miles later my driver unceremoniously dumps me in front of a barbed-wire rolling gate, the rest of the border protected by concrete walls.
He shrugs his shoulders, gets back in his car, chuckles for a moment, and drives away, leaving a cloud of dust as a parting gift for me to inhale.
The border is closed, it's after midnight and the only good news is that five cars are waiting to cross. The driver at the front of the line seizes the opportunity presented.
He rolls down his window and offers to take me across the border and then to the nearest town on the Mongolian side for 200 rubles. Lacking options, I climb inside their well worn car.
The Russian/Mongolian border where I'm dropped off
"We don't see many Americans here," she explains, "And when tourists cross, they're doing so by an actual sanctioned bus. No one just walks up to the border."
|interior- passport processing office, Russian side of Mongolian/ border|
Finally escaping Russia, I allow myself a deep breath.
We complete the Mongolian side much more quickly.
There is no border town, no lights, and tonight, not even a moon. We peel out into the vast expanse of darkness.
Suddenly we turn off the main road. Not far away is parked a large SUV.
"Switch, switch," my driver yells in response to my "what the fuck are you doing?" question.
Now I tense up. How much is an American worth here? Am I being robbed, kidnapped? ISIS hasn't burrowed it's way to this side of the world, has it? Outside of a mile back to the border there's nowhere to run, but my nostrils are dilating in anticipation.
The SUV's window's roll down and a chubby Mongolian steps into the beams of our headlights. Turns out "switch" meant money exchange. One US dollar translates to to 1,850 Mongolian tugriks, and with the biggest denomination being 20,000, being a one man exchange means carrying a stack of bills the size of a small piano.
Having exchanged some rubles, we get back on the road and drive to the "border town," located 20 miles away. When I say there is absolutely zero in between, it's a generous statement. They drop me at a hotel by the bus stop (the center of action for this populace) and charge me triple the original quote. I'm too tired to put up much of a fight, and for these poor people, the $18 is a fantastic score, a generous day's wages.
It's 2:30 AM as I rent a room for what at best will be five hours. Brush my teeth, hit the sheets, out like a light.
So, to any of you who can deal with this amount of improv, uncertainty, and honestly ... a little discomfort ... I'm issuing an open invitation to come travel with me on my next trip. Applications are now being accepted! Anyone? ... Anyone??! Why do I feel so unpopular?