"Your new passport has come," said the lady behind the visa counter yesterday at the embassy, "Your old passport is now invalid." She handed over the document that had allowed me to drift aimlessly across the hemispheres for the past five years. It was a shocking sight and my heart broke within me.
My old passport, my old friend, had been executed.
Five brutal holes had been shot through his navy frontpiece. He was gone. There was nothing I could do to revive him. The only option was to remember him with reverence and try to love his ultra-patriotic heir. So I spent my breaks for the rest of the day flipping through my mutilated passport book and recalling the times of port-of-entry stamps past.
There are no swaggering murals on my old passport, just a tasteful pink-and-blue octogon arrangment. My photo, taken at a post office in Indianapolis back in 2005, shows me looking extremely sensible, trustworthy and responsible. I am exactly the sort of person you want to hire as a school teacher. The second page has a trilingual request from the US government to allow the bearer of this passport to cross borders "without delay or hindrance." A large, black "CANCELLED" label is stamped across this portion.
The next few pages are full of very sensible bits of advice and warnings about international travel that I have never bothered to read. Only on page 9 does the fun begin. There is my first visa. It is a pink visa slip granting me persmission to reside in Mongolia for the space of 3 years, 2005 through 2008. There is an iridescent sticker showing the national Mongolian symbol of a stylized winged horse leaping through the air. The visa categories are bilingual in English and Mongolian. The mimeographed text is charmingly faded. There are two stamps on it. The first confirmation stamp has been vigorously stamped twice.
The first time I had set foot in Mongolia I had been held up at customs. It was midnight. The outside was dark as only a total lack of regular outside electric lights can make it dark. Inside the airport was grey, dingy and tiny. The Mongolian international airport is extremely small... smaller than the Fort Wayne airport. There is only one gate... and through that gate more international travellers cross the tarmac in a day than Fort Wayne will see in twenty years. Flights for Moscow, Beijing, Frankfort and Seoul leave Mongolia daily... and the passengers all go through one gate. No flight from Fort Wayne has travelled further than Cleveland (I assume) and there are ten gates to accommodate the traffic.
Back in 2005, when my flight from Seoul had arrived in Mongolia at midnight, I was tired, scared and baffled as to why all the other Peace Corps trainees had been allowed to pass the immigration officials' desks unmolested. I had been asked to stop, with no explanation. So I stood by the immigration official, awkwardly holding my suitcase and unable to do anything as she placidly continued to stamp the passport of every other person who passed her. She did not speak to me... but when I tried to proceed onward she would hold up her hand and stay my movement. I was stuck in a hideous international limbo. I would have to spend the next three years in this room.
Finally Ken Goodson, the director of Peace Corps Mongolia at the time and a man of terminal good nature, walked over to the immigration official and asked her what the problem was. He was almost as new as I was to Mongolia and his grasp of the language was shaky. The most important Peace Corps official in Mongolia has better things to do than get up at 1 am and greet a bunch of bleary trainees at the airport. He especially has better things to do than wrangle with a recalcitrant immigration official using a difficult language. But still, Ken was there with a cheery smile and welcoming handshake. After much ado with hand gestures and Monglish the problem was boiled down to my passport.
Apparently an earlier official in Seoul had stamped my passport as required but his hand had been insufficiently firm. As a result about ten percent of the postage-sized stamp was slightly faded. So my entry was held up on the charge of poor stamping technique. Ken wrangled further and finally the immigration official took out an identical stamp to the one used earlier and stamped my passport. It took eight seconds.... and after that I was free. I was out of limbo.
Flip a little further and you see my Chinese visa. It is light green, bilingual in English and Chinese and has a tasteful drawing of the Great Wall in the bottom right-hand corner. The black type has no hint of fade in it. I had obtained the visa to take the great UB-Beijing train. I traveled in a compartment with an old American man in his seventies and his Mongolian wife... who was in her early thirties.
"How do you get up to the top bunk?" I asked the old man.
"Just pull the ladder out," he replied, "Pull the ladder out like that, yes, and then you can climb up to the top bunk. After you get to the top bunk you can pull the ladder back into the wall so it fits very neatly. Then, when you want to get down you can pull out the ladder again and climb down to the floor. After you reach the floor you can pull ladder back into the wall."
"God, you talk too much," his wife grumbled in Mongolian.
"How long have you two been married?" I asked the old man.
"Ten years," he replied and then laughed, "Oh, you should have seen her when I married her! She was so small, so young... and I was so old!"
I did the math and tsked mentally to myself. "What are you guys gonna do in Beijing?" I asked
"We're going to put together my documentary film," said the old man, "Normally I don't like going to Beijing but this time it's necessary to meet my backers. Beijing is such a cruel city. The Chinese are a cruel, cruel people."
I tsked mentally to myself again. Outside the hot, featureless desert rolled past. The sand was yellow-beige and the sky was the hard blue that strikes despair into the heart of anyone who has an easily cookable epidermis. Now and then I saw plain brick buildings and gers at railway stops.
After dark the train pulled into the station for a wheel change. The rails in China are slightly different from the rails in Mongolia and thus all trains need a wheel change before entering China. The train cars in question are lifted up on hydraulics and have their underparts readjusted. If you are entering Mongolia from China you are allowed to get off the train and brouse at a candy store on a cool dark train platform in Erian before the train returns. If you are entering China from Mongolia, all doors and windows are locked and passengers forced to remain on the train for four hours while the wheels are slowly changed for each car. Small, elfin soldiers in green stand outside to make sure that nobody escapes. To add insult to injury the bathroom doors are locked too.
I remember feeling so chilled... in only the metaphorical sense of course. The train car was hot and stuffy. The air seemed to be draining. I remember frantically trying all the exit doors, just wanting to be reassured that if need be I could escape from the train car. I could breathe air again. I could leave. No such luck, the doors were firmly locked. "What if there's a fire?" I asked the old man, "We'll all die."
"Yes," he replied calmly, "The Chinese are very sure about keeping people from escaping the train before they have their visas checked. I've seen people faint from lack of air while waiting in the locked train cars."
I remembered being so struck by this cold lack of respect for human life. I hated China already... it made my stomach feel cold and sick. It made me wonder if I was going to die and be forgotten as another piece of "tsk-tsk" international news that nobody really pays attention to.
Then I felt a draft of cool air and saw that someone had managed to open one of the windows. Yay! We weren't going to suffocate! I could already see one woman hold her toddler up to the window so he could poke his curious little head out into the large garage where the train cars were currently being lifted and adjusted. I looked out the window and saw the soldiers. They really were so small. They didn't look older than fifteen. One boy yawned as he stood dutifully at attention. For some reason this really touched me.
Not much later the train lurched and we pulled into the Erlian train station for an hour before continuing on towards Beijing. It was relaxing to finally get off the train and browse the candied fruits at what I like to call the Erlian candy shop. Still, I have never forgotten the hot, frightening wait in the train car at the Erlian crossing. It is why, to this day, I have resolved to never live in China.