North Asia is big sky country, which, as it usually does in this world, goes hand in hand with being long border country. Indeed, four of the world’s 10 longest land borders are to be found here, including the 4,630-kilometer stretch that separates the People’s Republic of China from Mongolia – China’s longest land border.
The border is shared by three of China’s administrative regions: Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Gansu province and, of course, Mongolia’s main Chinese neighbor, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where the crossing at Erenhot is located.
Erenhot, and its Mongolian neighbor Zamiin-Uud, are by no means nowhere, but the journey there certainly feels like that’s where you’re heading. My first trip there is a mostly successful hitchhiked journey from Zhangjiakou in Hebei province, a trek of nearly 500 kilometers, first through the vast expanses of Chahar Banner’s Right Flanks, then through the vaster expanses of the western reaches of Xilingol League (the region’s violent history of conquest and reconquest left its mark in the form of super cool administrative titles, with banners and leagues instead of counties and prefectures).
Image via Benjamin Plafker
Rides are plentiful until arriving at Chahar Youyi Houqi (come for the China-Mongolia-Russia Trade Fair, stay for the beautiful sunset, and avoid the sheep-gut soup, 羊杂, if you please), where I am informed that I can either wait for the vegetable truck that ventures north once a week, or I can ride the night train to Erenhot. I choose the latter.
Erenhot is a trading town of 75,000 people that, as is often the case with border towns, feels quite different from other cities of its size. It is where the Trans-Siberian Railroad changes gauge, and indeed it gives the impression that it is a city accustomed to translation: Chinese, Mongolian and Cyrillic script can be found on most business signage in the city, and the shushus have a look in their eye that tells me I’m not the first foreigner they’ve encountered. Many speak Russian and have lived or done business internationally.
Image via Benjamin Plafker
The city found its place on the map with the opening of the border to international trade in 1992, and in 2002 when the Dinosaur Fossil Museum was rebuilt and modernized. In that year the Deputy Secretary of Inner Mongolia’s Party Committee declared that “dinosaur culture is the pride of Erenhot.” For an alternative tourist attraction, check out the trade center, where you can find myriad products from Russia and Mongolia conveniently located near a park with some dinosaur-shaped bushes, providing visitors in a hurry a quick taste of Erenhot’s prehistoric pride.
“The border is quite literally a line in the sand, and the broad streets of Zamiin-Uud seem to be in a constant tug of war with the Gobi Desert”
It costs roughly RMB100 to ride a Jeep from the Erenhot train station to Zamiin-Uud. Drivers stop first at the Chinese border station (get your official, mint-condition exit stamp, fellow tourist-visa holder!) and then at the Mongolian border station. In my transport, I am accompanied by university students from Mongolia who are studying in Beijing. When I ask about their lives in China their answers are confusing; as they rearrange the many domestic appliances they’re bringing home as gifts from their lives south of the border, they struggle to describe their opinions of China. They tell me that in the past they’d have preferred to go to Korea, but in recent years China’s advantageous position in the global economy is hard to ignore.
We arrive in Zamiin-Uud and the difference between a country of more than a billion and a country of three million is glaring. The border is quite literally a line in the sand, and the broad streets of Zamiin-Uud seem to be in a constant tug of war with the Gobi Desert. It is smaller and quainter than Erenhot, but a great window into Mongolia for those who do not wish to continue north through the desert.
Image via Benjamin Plafker
There are a number of restaurants in the main plaza where you can buy khoshoor, Mongolia’s fried version of jiaozi, filled with meat or potatoes, or if you’re lucky somebody might whip you up a plate of tsoyvin, chaobing’s northerly cousin. If you prefer to take advantage of Mongolia’s ample empty space, grab yourself some bread and cheese at the grocery store and you’ve got a picnic.
While Mongolia is famous for its meat consumption, in the summer months dairy is the main nourishment, and the variety of cheeses, yogurts, creams and butters is astonishing. Grab some airag, fermented mare’s milk, to wash it all down, or rub it into your skin if you want to trap some summer heat in you to last through the winter.
For those who do wish to continue on, the train to Ulaanbaatar departs in the evening and treats passengers to a glorious Gobi Desert sunrise upon awakening. Mongolia’s train culture is quite different from China’s: Cleanliness standards are higher, and I was treated to a Mongolian dubbed version of Back to the Future. But, perhaps I got lucky.
Enjoy this story? Click here to read more features from our November 2019 cover story, ‘The Borderlands: Dispatches from the Edge of China.’
[Cover image via Benjamin Plafker]