A Little Secret

Back in the capital city after a little more than three weeks on the road and it seems like we had just left. Neither Maaike nor I can believe how fast it flew by. Both the second road trip and the whole two months for that matter. Getting here at the beginning of July, September seemed so far away and now, not only are we back in UB, but it’s almost time to go home. The first couple of evenings that we are back we hit all the good restaurants where we know they actually use herbs and spices in their food. First it was Rosewood, then a Thai place (which was a little slice of heaven right here on Earth).  This is where I have to let you in on a little secret. We actually got back to UB on the 31st of August. We zipped thru the last couple of places that we wanted to hit and made it back a little early. I kept writing the blog as if I was still on the road because I had a sneaky plan in mind. As soon as we got back to UB I e-mailed my Dad. It was thru his travel agent that we made all of my airline reservations (who uses travel agents any more?). Anyways, she ended up with better prices for the trip than I could find on the internet by myself so we booked everything thru her. I asked him to call and see if she could move my reservations from the 8th to the 2nd or 3rd of September. I wanted to see if I could get home early and surprise Donna, my wife. This is where things got tricky. I e-mailed my father on Friday the 31st. He sends an e-mail back on Saturday saying that it’s a “go”, but he doesn’t send any details. He says that we’ll get an e-mail spelling out all the details soon. This presents a small problem. Afternoon Minnesota time is in the wee hours of the morning UB time on the next day so by the time I find out it will already be early morning on the 2nd. I have to get up early on Sunday morning to check e-mail and find out if I’m leaving that day or the next day, Monday the 3rd. My quandary is that we no longer have an internet connection for Maaike’s compter. The air card we were using the last time we were in UB ran out of time. Also, Rosewood Cafe, which has Wi-Fi is closed on Sunday as is Millie’s. Adding to my frustration is that the Telecom Mongolia internet center doesn’t open until 11:00AM on Sunday mornings. Aaargh! I think, well, maybe I can get Shombodon to come to his office early, which is fairly close by,  and I could connect there, but he runs on Mongolian time, which means he might show by ten o’clock. Not good enough since if I leave on Sunday I’ll have to make a mad dash to the airport to catch the one and only daily flight to Beijing at 11:00AM. I had met Eddie, the guy who was going to rent the apartment that I had stayed in between road trips, so I climb the stairs one floor and tapped on his door. I can hear the TV thru the door so that’s a good sign. A few moments later he opens the door and invites me in. We exchange pleasantries and he asks about the road trip. Not wanting to make it seem like the only reason I came to see him was to find out if he has a computer and internet connection in the apartment yet, even tho it was, I spend a few minutes giving him the highlights of the trip. Finally I get to the crux of the situation. He says yes, he has a computer, but no, no internet. He does explain that his office is right down the street and we can go there in the morning and I can log on there. Great! We make an agreement to meet at a little before eight o’clock in the morning and walk over to his office. I spend the rest of the day shopping for a couple of presents for Donna and packing. With nothing else to do I spend the rest of the afternoon plotting how I’ll get to the airport in the morning if that’s what my reservation gets changed to. Maaike is at Shombodon’s office helping them put together a proposal for a project they were asked to bid on. I know she’ll be back by late afternoon and I know she has the number of a reliable taxi service and I’m sure I can lay on a car if need be. She returns at five-thirty with Shombodon and Engthbier in tow. She had told them of my plans to leave early and they wanted to come say good-bye. We talked a bit about the road trips and how they want me to come back and visit. They also said that Engthbier would be happy to take me to the airport whenever I needed to go. Score! Every time I’ve arranged for him to take me somewhere he’s been early. Gotta love that. So, after having done all of our laundry and getting packed up Maaike and I walk over to a Thai restaurant that we hadn’t noticed before.  We just couldn’t get enough of the food that was literally exploding with flavor. Our taste buds had gone dormant while we were out on the road and we were shocking them back into operation.

The next morning I am up a few minutes before the alarm. I shower, dress and pack in record time so I have about an hour and a half before my rendezvous with Eddie. I use the time to finish a book that I had started the night before. A fascinating travelogue by Peter Fleming (the brother of Ian of James Bond fame) about an epic journey he made from Moscow to Beijing in 1934 which gave me another brilliant idea, but more about that later. I sit and watch the minutes tick by and at precisely seven-fifty-five I bound up the stairs and knock on Eddie’s door. Okay, “bound” might be a bit of an exaggeration, trudge is more like it. He’s ready to go, grabs his laptop and we walk over to his office. He’s hooked in and logged on in no time. I see the e-mail from the airline and I scan it frantically looking for my departure date. Why is it that when you are desperately trying to find something in a written document it takes about three times longer than usual to locate it? Bingo, my eyes rest on the departure date of September 3rd! I don’t have to make the mad dash to the airport. I can take my time and when I get back to the apartment Maaike calls Engthbier and tells his what time to pick me up in the morning. That evening Maaike wants to take me to an Indian restaurant. It had been close for a while for remodeling so we were taking a chance not knowing if it has re-opened yet. It had and we were treated to a wonderful meal. We spend the time laughing about all the crazy things that had happened over the last two months. Back at the apartment I ready my things for the morning.

Again, I’m up about ten minutes before the alarm. I shower, dress and pile my duffel bag and camera case by the door. I grab a bite to eat and a little after eight o’clock Maaike and I go downstairs and find Engthbier smoking a cigarette and patiently waiting for me. We load my stuff into the Isuzu one last time, say our good-byes and we’re off. It’s Monday morning and traffic is everything you’d expect it to be during morning rush hour. It takes us exactly an hour and a half, the very time we alloted for the trip, to get to the airport. Engthbier and I do our best to say good-bye, neither one of us having command of the other’s language to fully express what we want to say. I make my way to the “International Flights” waiting area. The doors aren’t open yet and there are plenty of other people milling about so I get the idea that I’m in the right place. A few folks strike up a conversation with me and we find that we are all on the same flight to Beijing. We exchange stories about our time in Mongolia and share a laugh about the food and the fermented mare’s milk. Finally the doors to the ticket counters open and we all flood in. In short order I am face to face with a smiling, helpful ticket agent and I hand her my passport and my itinerary. She doesn’t speak much English but she is very good with facial expressions. When her expression turns from happy and confident to utter confusion it gives me cause for alarm. “Name not right”, she says without taking her eyes off of the computer screen. “Huh?”, I utter knowing that needs no translation. “Name not right”, she states again, this time with more authority. “Must go to office”, she says while pointing at a door on the far wall. I take my passport and itinerary over to the Air China office. This space is only slightly bigger than your normal office supply closet. They have managed to cram two desks, two filing cabinets and a stack of boxes. The stack of boxes is perfectly placed to make sure they are in the way of everybody. I stand in front of one of the desks that is occupied by a young Chinese lady who has four passports in one hand and is pecking away at the keyboard of her computer with the other. She looks concerned. She is in the midst of trying to explain to a Mongolian tour operator why four of his client’s reservations appear to  have been cancelled. The other desk  is manned by another employee of Air China. He is dealing with two Mongolians who aren’t happy, but are speaking Mongolian so I don’t know what their issue is. I just know that, if you are in this office, you have a problem. The lady behind the desk, in front of which I am standing says something to her office mate, hands him the four passports and looks at me with a look of complete exasperation. Having their dilemma usurped, the Mongolians switch from confused pleading to rapid-fire anger. I try not to make eye contact. The lady behind my desk reaches for my passport and itinerary and I surrender them in hopes that she can straighten this out. She examines my passport and types my name into her computer. She gives my itinerary a cursory glance and types some more stuff into her computer. She types and waits. Types and waits. Types and her expression turns from exasperation to confusion. Types a little more and turn her computer screen towards me so I can see. She points at something on the screen and says something about me not being confirmed. “Wait, the lady out there said something about my name not being right”, I say. “No, name correct. You’re seat not confirmed”, she replies. “Um, the piece of paper you have in your hand has a confirmation number on it. How can it not be confirmed?” I plead. She points at her computer screen which is nothing but airline codes and pokes at a set of numbers and letters that is supposed to prove her point. “Okay, how do I get it confirmed?” I ask flatly. “Have to call travel agent”, she replies. I laugh. I didn’t mean to, it was just a natural response. It’s now 8:00PM Central Standard Time on Sunday night in Minnesota. Yeah, that’s really gonna happen. I try my best to explain that to her, but it’s not getting past the Great Wall of China. Finally she tells me that I can buy an upgraded ticket to make sure I get on the flight. Right, and I’m sure that’s going to be cheap.  I say, “okay, go ahead”, and I whip out my handy, dandy travel debit card. Turns out they deal strictly in cash. Where am I suppose to get cash? “Downstairs, at ATM”, comes the reply. I leave my duffel next to the pile of boxes in the middle of the room  just to further disrupt the traffic pattern in the cramped office and strike out on a search for a way downstairs. The only option is a flight of stairs that is roped off. Seeing no alternative I step around the ropes and slip stealthily down the steps. I spy two ATMs in the corner, one of which is out-of-order. That leaves me with one chance to get any money from my card. This card doesn’t work with every bank ATM in Mongolia so I’m sweating it a little. I insert my card, choose my language, enter my pin and take out one million tögröt, about seven hundred U.S. dollars.  I figure that’s a reasonable amount with which I can buy my upgrade. I nonchalantly pocket the wad of cash, look around to see if there are any security types around and slip back up the roped off stair case. At the top of the stairs is a long line of people waiting to get into the ticketing area and a security guard with a befuddled look on his face. The trick is to look like you’re on a mission so I stormed past everybody without looking back. I was expecting a police whistle or an authoritative shout, but nothing. Whew! So I get back to the Air China office and I barge to the front of mob gathered around who I’ve now become to regard as “my” ticket agent. I thrust my passport and itinerary into her hand and wait. She types a little and reads her screen. Types and reads. Types and reads. Every once in a while she mutters something under her breath. She tells me she can get me on the flight, but it will cost $115, far less than I anticipated so I shell out 160,000T and she takes me out to another ticket agent. While the ticket agent prints out my boarding pass my other ticket agent is giving me some double talk about not being confirmed for my flight from Beijing to Los Angeles. It’s then that I realize that she’s just handing me and my problem off to some poor ticket agent in China. Oh well, at least I’m out of here. In the back of my mind is the nagging little detail that you have to have a visa if you stay in China more than twenty-four hours. If I don’t get out on a flight I might end up in one of those Chinese prisons that you see all the time in movies. One last little bit of business to attend to. I have to make my way back downstairs to one of the bank branches in the bowels of the terminal to exchange the rest of my Mongolian currency back to U.S. dollars. Between the ATM fee, the buy-back exchange rate and getting scammed by the Air China con artist, I figure I’ve been taken for about $150.   The other passengers who were having issues also make onto the flight.

The flight to Beijing was uneventful and we land and taxi to the cavernous Terminal Three. T-3 was built just in time for the Beijing Olympics. It’s a beautiful facility with absolutely no signage to give you even an inkling on where you’re supposed to go and what you are supposed to do. Luckily I had figured all that out on the in-bound leg of my journey. This time it was easy. I go stand in line at the International Transfer desk and wait my turn. When my turn does come I confidently hand my passport and itinerary to the pleasant ticket agent. She takes them and types something into her computer. She types a little more and reads her screen. Types and reads. Then she starts a conversation with who I suppose is her supervisor. A short question and answer exchange occurs and she types something else in her computer. The things that are running thru my head at that moment aren’t suitable for mention in this blog.  She looks at me and smiles and asks if I would like a window or aisle seat. What?!?!?! At the same time her supervisor delivers a stack of boarding passes to load into her printer.  That whole conversation was about getting boarding passes for her computer! I am bathed in relief. I answer AISLE! trying to remain cool and calm. She prints out a boarding pass for my PEK to LAX leg and another for LAX to DEN. I grab my camera bag and head for the security screening. Even tho we just went thru security in Ulaan Baatar, we have to be subjected to and even more thorough search before you get to board a flight out of China. I was just so happy to get my boarding passes you could have done a full strip search right there in front of Buddha and everybody and I wouldn’t have cared. Now all I have to do is figure out a way to pass a seven hour lay over. One of the ladies on the flight to Beijing asked if I had any books to trade. Even thought I didn’t she graciously gave me one of hers that she had already read. I got thru the first twenty-five pages of a murder mystery and it was so bad I left it in the seat pocket when I got off the plane in Beijing. I found a bookstore that had a couple dozen books in English so looked for one with an interesting cover and the words “New York Times Best Seller” on the front. (Isn’t that how you pick a book?) I check the departure board and my gate has yet to be assigned. I find a comfortable place to sit away from the noise and confusion of the shopping mall part of the terminal and settle in for a long afternoon of reading.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the “Surprise” ending.

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