Mongolia: A bully at the border

The stunning mountains between Irkutsk and Ulan Ude, en route to Mongolia. Photo / Rob Gray
The stunning mountains between Irkutsk and Ulan Ude, en route to Mongolia. Photo / Rob Gray

"Welcome to Mongolia!" cried several sun-battered locals, leaning out the windows of their crowded vans and waving as we passed through the border post into their country.

A wave of relief swept through me as I heard the friendly voices. The sun might be disappearing between grassy hills on the horizon, but we were in Mongolia. Finally!

I had woken early that same day at the local Ford dealership in Ulan Ude, a large Russian town directly north of Mongolia. The kind owner, Gennedy, had allowed us to sleep on the floor of his staff room and park our bikes in the workshop.

As I walked back from the grimy mechanics' shower in my underpants, casually greeting the security guard who was watching television in the lobby with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, I concluded that this was one of our more unusual campsites.

After a breakfast of soup, meat roll and rice from the small dealership cafe (paid for by Gennedy, washed down with a hot cup of chai), we packed up and headed south out of the city.

We had spent a glorious week around Irkutsk exploring Lake Baikal, and now it was time for the next stage of our journey: Mongolia.

A smooth trip saw us near the border by early afternoon. As we grew closer, Russian military activity became more apparent, with columns of tanks and lorries lined up at military bases.

At one stage we passed a tank with its gleaming barrel pointed directly at us, but our jumping hearts relaxed when we saw the gunner sunbathing on top of the machine.

With little idea of what to expect from our first land border crossing, we took bets on how long it would take us to pass through customs and enter Mongolia. Everything from 2.30pm to the next day was floated. I locked in 6.15pm. We were fairly relaxed, reasoning that if the process took too long, we could always pitch a tent in no man's land and start again the next day.

Exiting Russia proved straightforward. As always, the Russian guards were polite, courteous and almost friendly. They briefly inspected our bikes, not bothering to open most of our luggage bags, while we pulled out camp chairs and waited.

Handing over our passports to a solemn matron who couldn't hide a small smile when I tried to replicate the serious expression I have in my passport photo, we received our exit stamps with a gratifying "kerthunk" and were directed with a wave toward the Mongolian border.

Mongolia was instantly different. The next two hours was a whirlwind of paper (six types), stamps (three green, two blue, two red and one which the man simply licked before pressing a faint semi-circle onto the page) and fees (one fee of three thousand turig, which seemed outrageous until we realised this was less than four dollars).

We queued at counter after counter, only to be directed to yet another official, yet another stamp. The officials seemed pleasant but we had to wonder if they knew any more than we did. We were directed outside with our swathes of paper and told we needed our bikes inspected, only to be turned back for not having enough stamps.

No one was sure where to obtain the elusive stamp, until we eventually returned to the person who had directed us outside, and they begrudgingly gave it to us.

Filling out all these forms had made us work up an appetite, so we hungrily wolfed down some stale bread and processed cheese wrapped in tinfoil. Then we began gearing up in our riding attire, ready to ride through into Mongolia - the guy who had picked 4.00pm as our entry time already crowing in victory.

We were so close. But it wasn't going to be that simple.

Suddenly, a loud, officious-looking character swaggered up, announcing his presence with an indignant bellow, like an angry hippopotamus. With a wide girth, large hat and several prominent medals and badges, he was clearly in charge.

It was also obvious he wasn't happy with us.

Through a series of hand gestures, it became apparent that the bread crumbs we had spilled while eating, along with a few stray shreds of foil, had offended him and he was here to set matters straight.

We soon discovered that this man was of a breed that can be found anywhere in the world: he was a bully, he was in power, and he would use that power to do whatever he pleased.

He leered close, waving a finger in front of his face as if scolding a small child. His breath was tainted with vodka. Pointing at the bread crumbs, he signalled for us to get down on our knees and start gathering them up.

He sat down on my camp chair with folded arms to watch as we grovelled around him.

Picking up the crumbs might be humbling and embarrassing, but we knew we had made the mess and it was reasonable for us to tidy up, so we got on with the job, fingers struggling to gather crumbs in sparrow-sized portions.

While Tom and I took a small handful of crumbs to the nearby bin, Climo showed his paltry collection to the captain. Incredulous at the request, Climo asked "do you really want us to pick up crumbs this small?"

Unfortunately, this altercation was nearly the end of us. The captain misinterpreted Climo's gesture: convinced Climo was disrespecting him, he lashed out with a steel-capped boot. In his drunken, overweight state, he missed Climo and nearly fell backwards off the chair.

Losing dignity in front of the crowd of border guards and curious onlookers who had gathered to watch the spectacle only served to infuriate him further.

Heaving himself to his feet, the captain again aimed his boot at Climo, this time succeeding in dishing out an almighty wallop.

He wasn't finished there. Eyes narrowing, he snatched our motorbike documents and passports.

The games began. First he alternated between striding off, waving our papers as a taunt, and coming so close to our faces we could smell the vodka as he shouted.

Then he would turn to the onlooking crowd and make some remark about us, at which the crowd would laugh nervously, even more afraid of this man than we were.

The captain's next ploy was a cunning one.

Approaching with a conciliatory smile on his face, he offered our passports and documents one by one, asking Misha to point out in turn who each of the documents belonged to. We quickly realised he was doing this to establish which documents, and which bike, belonged to Climo, so he could keep them.

Misha was having none of it: "Mate, you can have all these back - if he stays, we're all staying."

We had no intention of splitting the group, and knew that five people would be a bigger hassle for the captain than one.

Furious, the captain screamed and stomped. He pointed at four of us and gestured for us to enter Mongolia, but that Climo was to remain overnight at the border post.

Friendly as ever, Misha had earlier befriended one of the guards who spoke a little English. We had also met a Mongolian truck driver called Dash-daj. These two men were to prove invaluable in salvaging the situation.

Our friendly guard explained: "This is our captain. He commands the entire border control. He says you insulted him."

The captain strutted around like a spoiled child, laughing with the crowd and then raging at Climo within the same breath, unpredictable and menacing.

"You must be punished," translated the border guard.

"He wants to fine you."

Climo tried explaining the misunderstanding through our friend, but this did not appease the man.

As this was going on, Tom and I were conducting parallel negotiations through Dash-daj. He slid up to us and whispered "the captain is asking for $100 US dollars and then he will let you go".

This was the first time we had encountered corruption on our travels, and we were not keen to cave to the first bribe demanded from us, especially from such an unpleasant man. When Dash-daj relayed our unwillingness to the captain, he stepped things up a notch.

"Russia!" he said impatiently, waving his hands in the direction we had just come. The friendly guard explained the captain had decided none of us could enter Mongolia. We would have to turn around and re-enter Russia.

"Impossible. No visa" we bluffed.

With the threat of deportment hanging over us, Tom and I decided that perhaps a bribe was the lesser of two evils.

Through Dash-daj, we established that the captain would accept $50 US dollars. We literally had our hands in our money pouches when inexplicably, the situation ended as quickly as it began.

"He has decided you can go" the guard said, while the captain pouted behind him.

"Quickly, before he changes his mind!"

We kitted up under urgency, but when I went to start my bike, Piza was not interested. Come on Piza, not now! I thought. Not when we are trying to flee from a drunk, angry captain who could send us back to Russia!

We were positioned on a slope about 40 metres above the final border gate, and with no time to diagnose the problem I kicked Piza into neutral and began to roll forward.

Nearing the gate, we gathered speed and I began making "brrmm, brrmm" noises while shaking my head incredulously.

Unbelievably, Piza and I were rolling into our second country: first Russia, now Mongolia.

Finally, at 6.28pm, we heard the Mongolian voices welcome us into their land.

Piza roared into life, her problem as much of a mystery as the abrupt ending to our encounter with the captain.

Dash-daj had been waiting patiently for us, and over the next few hours, as he escorted us toward Ulan-Bataar and shared a late night meal with us on the roadside, he restored our faith that the Mongolian people are actually exceptionally kind, welcoming and generous.

After all, you can find a bully anywhere.

* To help Rob and his mates reach their fundraising target for the Living Hope charitable organisation in Vladivostok and for more information on their journey, click here.

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