Saturday, July 25, 2009

Will Somebody Please Try To Sell Us Something!

As we exited the airport at Manzhouli, we fully expected to be besieged with hawkers trying to convince us to let them take us out to the Hulunbeier grasslands. In fact, we were actually looking forward to this onslaught, having booked no itinerary or place to stay.

Imagine our surprise, then, as we walked out into the fresh, dry Mongolian air and saw nothing but a stray taxi or two, with their drivers chatting and smoking cigarettes, apparently not at all concerned with ferrying four clueless waiguoren around.

Appraising the situation, we quickly moved to Plan B. (There's always a Plan B!) We jumped into a cab and told the driver to take us to this well-known Russian restaurant in town. Actually, we jumped into two different cabs, as the drivers each already had passengers and were looking to fill out their loads. Normally, this would have been no problem, except that my driver dropped me off at the wrong location. In a bad move, I had given Desi the bag with my cell phone in it. Unable to contact Desi and the kids, I began walking down the street, trying to get my bearings, trying to figure out just where I was. Luckily, the driver who had taken Desi and the kids to the restaurant happened down the street, recognized me, told me to jump in, and ferried me to where the gang was waiting.

Crisis averted, we resumed our search for passage out to the grasslands after lunch. We had heard that local families hang out at the train station, and offer to take people out to their countryside homes. Asking around, we found the train station without much trouble. The only problem was that essentially the same taxi drivers were there waiting for the next train to come in. We lingered a bit, but nothing was happening for us, In fact, the only person to approach us was a businessman from Qingdao, who may very well have hoped we were Russian traders.

So what was Plan C? Back into the town center we trekked. (Manzhouli is a tiny frontier outpost.) This time, we were in search of something we normally steer clear of...A travel agency. Earlier, Desi had seen a sign on the outside wall of a hotel that featured a train and a woman who looked like a flight attendant. Sure enough, on the second floor of the building, there it was...A classically chaotic Chinese travel office. The small staff seemed amused at the sight of four Chinese-speaking, backpack-toting waiguoren. They were even more amused when we announced that we wanted to go stay out in the grasslands for a couple of days. "No, you can just go see the grasslands for the day," was their opening gambit. "But we really want to spend two nights sleeping in the grasslands," came our reply. "OK...Wait a second..."

Sure enough, next came the discussions and phone calls we have become so accustomed to. Eventually, we got the good news we had hoped for. The next morning, a driver would take us out to the grasslands, to a place where we could stay for two nights.

"What about tonight?" we asked. "Oh, you don't have a room yet?" This new problem precipitated a second round of banter and working the phones. At first, there were a lot of mei yous (no rooms). But then, finally, there we were, off to the bank to grab some cash and following one of the office workers to a hotel around the block.

I know the question you're asking...What would Plan D have been? Trust me...There was no Plan D!

~Steve

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