Elianhot, China

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of China  , Inner Mongolia,
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The contrast between the Mongolian and Chinese sides of the border couldn't be greater.  Zemin Uud on the Mongolian side had dusty, mostly unpaved roads and a mix of gers and permanent buildings, including a few newish looking hotels to accommodate the Chinese businessmen increasingly trading across the border.  The small chaotic customs post couldn't quite handle the large numbers of Mongolians returning from China for the Nadaam festival and travelers passing through on the trans-Mongolian railway.  On the Chinese side, though, the massive new customs post in glass and granite was highly efficient and looked like an international arrivals hall at a major international airport.  This place could probably process through half of Mongolia's population in a day.  Tonka was another story, though, and had to undergo a rigorous vehicle inspection and permitting process that took most of the day while we waited outside under the shade of an immense rainbow arch, napped on the pavement, and ate cup-o-noodles for lunch.

Erlian (or Erlianhot in Mongolian) is still described in recent guidebooks as a regional market center for nomads in Inner Mongolia but looks more like a typical Chinese frontier boomtown with wide boulevards, a buzz of new residential and commercial construction, and a huge central square graced with a Mao Tse Tung statue at its center and giant Chinese flag overhead.  As in many of the frontier towns I saw last year in western China, in the evening the square became a huge amusement center with virtually everything you'd find on an American county fair midway and then some children.  And best of all, an en-suite hotel room that felt like the pinnacle of luxury after the last five weeks.

After checking in I wandered out in search of Internet.  A young man asked me what I was looking for and guided me to an Internet cafe.  Michael told me he wanted to practice his English and waited for me while I checked my month's worth of e-mails.  He was ethnic Mongolian and a university student in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia which I visited on my Silk Road trip last year, who was home for the summer.  Michael and I had dinner together, then played pool for 1 Yuan (about 12 cents) on one of the outdoor tables set up on one side of the square while children in toy tanks rode around us and a large crowd gathered to watch and laugh at the foreigner's pathetic pool-playing skills. Michael then took me around town to visit his relatives, most of whom seemed to be in the shoe business, as they were closing up their shops.  They were all very hospitable and served us watermelon and tea.  The experience was a very enjoyable welcome to China.

The fast 500-mile trip from the border to Beijing was entirely on a new four-lane divided expressway which first passed through a bizarre Jurassic Park of massive dinosaur sculptures on the outskirts of Erlian. 
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