Finally, we are on the ground in Beijing. I know what you're thinking right now - "This is the third installment and we're still traveling? We aren't in Mongolia yet?" Well, if you think you're tired of reading about it, imagine how we were feeling as we were living it!
As I said, we're now in Beijing, and after deplaning, we follow Omar through the challenging maze of the airport. We are to collect our luggage which, by no small miracle, has made it to Beijing with us. I can't imagine what it took to get it off our broken plane and reloaded onto the one that actually brought us here. Transferring the luggage for about 500 people would be a monumental task, but they did it.
We complete all the formalities in the airport - and they are legion - and gather at a staging point designated by Omar. He is deep in negotiations with United Airlines, as our Miat Airlines flight to Ulaanbaatar has long since departed without us, and there is nothing else until tomorrow. It is Omar's opinion that since it was United's fault that we are going to be stranded here overnight, they should pay for hotel accommodations for us. Naturally, United sees it differently, but implacable as always, Omar finally convinces them and they agree.
Omar manages to get enough rooms for us at the Sino-Swiss hotel, where we stayed last year, and the hotel sends vans to pick us up. Our luggage is loaded in with us, with large pieces in the aisles and smaller pieces in our laps, and away we go!
Arrival at the Sino-Swiss feels like coming home, weary as we are. Those of us who are veterans of last year's trip remember the hotel very well. It's nice - not overly luxurious, but very comfortable. After the heat and humidity outside, our room is cool, the beds are comfortable, and there is a shower that willing delivers a generous supply of hot water. At least it does after we remember that we are in China and the hot water tap is on the right! We wash away a layer or two of travel grime, and with grateful sighs, we settle into the clean beds and very quickly fall asleep.
Five a.m. comes with astonishing speed, and we are up, dressed and in the lobby well before six. The group assembles, and soon we're back on the vans, heading for the airport. Due to the very early hour, the traffic is quite light, and we oldtimers are mildly disappointed, because we had been anticipating the expressions on the faces of the newcomers when they saw Beijing's traffic for the first time. Consoling ourselves that we'll have that bit of fun on our return trip, we give way to gratitude that we're going to make it to the airport in record time.
Indeed, the vans deliver us to the airport in just a few minutes, and we follow Omar inside. There is a delay, while our group assembles and Omar goes off to begin negotiations to get us on a Miat flight. For some reason, United needs to be involved - probably to confirm why we missed yesterday's flight and therefore need to get on one today. Finally, the appropriate officials show up, Asian amenities are observed and we can see Omar smiling. That's a very good sign, and sure enough, in a few minutes the Miat ticket counter is opened and the agents begin issuing boarding passes to our group.
Once this is done, Omar again leads us through the various phases of approval required by China. We visit Customs, fill out and turn in our health questionnaire (as though anyone with an ounce of smart would admit to being ill and risk being quarantined in China) and complete our exit cards. All documents ask for essentially the same information, all are collected by an unsmiling Chinese and put into a large pile of similar forms. I feel so certain that each of these are carefully read and processed at some point, probably sometime within the next two years. What is the point? Still, we do it.
We make our way to our gate and soon are boarding a plane bound for Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia. The Miat staff, as always, are friendly, charming, efficient and make us feel welcome. The two young female attendants are lovely, very beautiful women. As soon as we're in the air, cabin service begins and is almost non-stop thereafter. At this rate, we'll all soon be too large to fit in our seats!
There is some cloud cover, and we're not able to see the Great Wall. I couldn't have seen much anyway, from my aisle seat. Too bad. It's truly a sight to behold from the air, but I have to content myself with memories of last year's flight. In what seems a very short time by comparison to the last flights, we feel the plane start to throttle down and before we know it, we're on the ground in Ulaanbaatar.
In the jetway after leaving the plane, I stop to attach my carry-on bag to the little wheels I bought. Taking a step backward for a more stable position, I suddenly find myself flat on my back. My first thought is that I've somehow fallen off the jetway, but immediately, reason tells me that this isn't possible. It's enclosed, for heaven's sake! All I can remember is stepping back, and the odd impression that either my leg wasn't there, or there was nothing beneath it to stand on. Obviously, neither of those options can be true. I become aware that my knee, the one I twisted on the United flight, is hurting. OK, that explains it. The knee simply gave way.
Immediately, I see faces above me, and hands are reaching to help me up. Dr. Tom and others soon have me on my feet, my carry-on is retrieved and I'm assured it will be taken care of, and I have a tall, strong man on either side, practically carrying me through the jetway. I have probably been this embarrassed at some other point in my life, but right now, I can't think when it was. Feeling like the world's biggest klutz, I gratefully allow the guys to assist me.
Fortunately, the airport in Ulaanbaatar is small and informal. There is only one luggage carousel (maybe two?) and the guys find a chair nearby, deposit me there and go off to retrieve my luggage. That's not a problem. Everyone on the trip knows my blue and white flowered luggage. In fact, it's used as a signal to let us know when we're at the right carousel. If my "hand-painted periwinkles" bag appears, then this must be the place!
All the luggage is collected, and Dr. Tom - ever the gentleman - insists on helping me outside to the bus which is waiting for us, to take us to Darkhan. Others of the guys are nearby, as well. I feel safe. I'm walking okay, though the knee is tender and feels very unstable. Of course, I thought I was walking okay before I fell in the jetway, too. It's a bit disconcerting to realize that I can't depend on my knee to hold me up, but it's encouraging to know that I won't be left stranded, like a turtle on its back.
Again let me say, the only reason I'm recounting this personal situation is to underscore the spirit of unity, of helpfulness, of support for each other that is woven through our group like a golden thread. I can't see my bags anywhere, but I'm not worried. I know that someone has taken care of them. I know that Eloise has the bag containing my cameras, and my passport is secured in a little leather pouch which hangs around my neck. As I attempt to board the bus and find that I cannot use my left leg to lift myself up the steps, hands are there to support and assist, and I'm quickly settled into a comfortable seat. The bus is large, and there are empty seats, so Eloise is seated behind me and we each have a whole seat to ourselves. I'm glad, because now we can both see the beautiful Mongolian countryside as we travel toward Darkhan. I get myself situated, camera ready, and prepare to watch for remembered landmarks.
This has been a long and arduous journey, but for those of us who have been here before, the stressful journey fades in our memories, no longer important. We know the joys and rewards of a period of service in this beautiful land, as we try to show the love of God to the remarkable people who live here. The first-timers in the group are fun to watch, as their anticipation and excitement overcome their fatigue. Of course, the same thing is happening to us old-timers as well.
Finally, we're all on board and settled, and our driver shepherds the big vehicle out of the airport and onto the highway. We are on our way to Darkhan!
As I watch the landscape unfold as we pass, I'm once again struck by the stark beauty of the place. I begin to recognize those landmarks I mentioned - a particularly spectacular group of hills, or a rocky outcropping. We pass many ovoos, but I don't see the one I photographed last year. I'm sure it has been added to by now, and would no longer look the same. An ovoo is a pile of stones, sticks, trinkets and other things that are piled together by travelers, as an offering to the spirits of the mountains. Often poles are stuck into the top of the heap, and strips of cloth are attached like banners. The cloth is always in the color I call "Buddha Blue". The same shade of blue, always. I learned from my translators last year that the color is often used by Buddhists, who believe it to be a sacred color to the Buddha. So, while established to pay homage to elemental spirits such as wind and rain, and to animal spirits as well, there is a strong overlay of Buddhism in the piles of debris known as ovoos.
As we approach the halfway point, memories of the infamous restroom (read: outhouse) come to mind, and I'm thankful that I'll be able to pass up a visit there. The bus stops, however, and a few brave and/or desperate souls do enter the dark portals. Not I!
We finally arrive in Darkhan, and are taken to the Darkhan Hotel, the same place we stayed last year. Still shabby, still crumbling, still struggling, but not seedy. Somehow, the woman who runs it manages to put in little touches that just break one's heart. Her daughter is one of our translators, and in the course of this visit, we learn about her struggles to extract operating funds from the owner. She usually can't even get enough for daily operation, much less repairs and upgrades. In the journal of our last trip, I described our room. Rickety furniture, threadbare carpet, unbelievable plumbing and broken bathroom tiles, but we had sheer curtains at the windows that bore lovely embroidery work. This time, everything is the same, but we find a pair of complimentary disposable slippers by each bed, and in the bathroom, on the sagging shelf above the cracked, leaky sink, we find a new toothbrush and some packets of shampoo. Later we are to learn that not every room had these little amenities. I guess the woman just does what she can, with the pittance the owner allows her for operating expenses. You have to give her credit for trying.
After a little time for cleaning up and settling in, we gather in the dining room for dinner. The food, as usual, is good. Fried potatoes that quickly become everyone's favorite, which is a good thing, because we receive them three times a day. With some of that good Mongolian catsup on them, they're great! I don't recall what else we had, but it must have been good, because I do remember that I didn't go away hungry.
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