Perils of Polly: Tough traveling transition decisions

Posted: Friday, November 05, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Although she is now a teacher at Soldotna Middle School, the perils continue as she just returned from an around-the-world journey that started in Russia and ended in Tibet.

Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Polly and her translator enjoy a luxury -- ice cream bars.

Transitions are tough when traveling. Are people going to be where they say? Are flights going to be on time? We hadn't quite figured out the transition between Mongolia and Beijing. We had wanted to take a train, but were told even Mongolians have trouble at the border doing the train to jeep, to bus, back to train routine. So we opted to fly with Mongolian Air -- slightly cheaper than China Air. It was going to be our most difficult transition.

First, back to the ger. Believe it or not, neither Sue nor I got sore from horse riding. But we were definitely thirsty, and she was sunburned. They had boiled some river water and made tea, but when it's 90-100 degrees, hot tea is hard to take, although it does prevent dehydration. Sue said it had floaties, and didn't want to drink it.

We needed water, but first things first, which included riding in the little yellow car straight up a mountain to get cell phone service -- a hair-raising trip. Then we headed to a tiny store miles across steppe and mountains for water. We drank greedily. We stopped for a shower at a spa-type hospital/resort, then careened across the steppe to go back to Kishigee's house in Arkhangai. There Sue, Baigalmaa and I wandered the city, eating ice cream bars. Nighttime arrangements included bedding down on the living room floor next to the 91-year-old grandpa who peed in a bottle. It was all hilarious, and since we now had water, we were happy. Plus, they fed us quite well -- and they had an outhouse. It had the standard two slats of wood over a hole, but it didn't stink.

We took the 8-hour, hot ride back to the Steppe Rider camp in stride, having a jovial time with our young people. We spent that night at their tourist ger, nice and clean with a clean outhouse that even had a toilet seat! We got to talk to people who spoke English, and one was even from America. We met a couple from Austria who had never ridden before, but was planning on buying three horses and spending a month trekking across Mongolia. I shook my head in awe. Not even I would want to do that! I wonder if they made it

I rode a horse the next morning that didn't know the meaning of whoa. Sue and I were together, and we urged our mounts into a lope, and mine grabbed the bit, stuck his head straight out, and streaked across the mountainside. I finally got him to slow down -- and eventually stop -- by muscling his head uphill. He stood there panting, and my heart was pounding. I like control in a horse. I kept him down to a trot, much to Sue's disappointment, for the rest of the time until we turned to head home. Then I gave him his head and hung on. It was fun, but dangerous, as he galloped and jumped over the many marmot holes. I arrived at camp long before Sue rode up.

We had told Kishigee we had to be to the airport by 4 p.m. "OK," he said. Our plane for Beijing was set to leave at 6. Three-thirty came, 4 p.m. went, 4:30 went, and no sign of Baynah, who was our ride. The only vehicle at the camp was a junk car. Kishigee, seeing our agitation, fiddled with the starter, put our packs in the trunk and tied it down, and with a push downhill got it started. We got in and it died. They pushed again, and we merrily chugged down the hill. I whispered to Sue, "It's not downhill all the way to the airport." I really didn't want to miss our flight. I was getting slightly worried.

We coasted almost all the way to the highway when finally Baynah showed up. We jumped from one car to the other, and off we went. She helped us to the airport gate, where we discovered that the afternoon storm clouds had delayed the flight. And delayed. And delayed. China Air left. Korean Air left. The clouds left. The snack bars closed down. Were we ever going to leave? We ate M and M's, KitKats, and orange juice for dinner, and commiserated with a French man trying to get home, and a Canadian family also going to Beijing. Finally at 1 a.m. they announced departure -- no understandable reason for the delay.

And then, Beijing -- at 3:15 a.m. No sign of taxis out in the front, but there were a few young men calling themselves taxi drivers trying to get us to ride with them. We finally agreed to the price of one and he proudly marched us out to a no, not a taxi. A private white car parked where no one else was parked.

I slowed down. "No way!" I whispered to Sue. "This isn't right. We shouldn't go. He's not a taxi driver."

"What else are we going to do?"

I didn't have an answer. "At least let's keep our packs up front out of the trunk." We'd heard of taxis demanding money to open the trunk and get the bags out.

He began driving and asked where we were going. We handed him the address and phone number. It was a large hotel in downtown Beijing. He didn't recognize it. He dialed the number on his cell and didn't reach anybody. Suddenly he turned from the main road onto a dark side road. My eyes grew big and my heart thumped. I turned to Sue. "He's going to roll us. Can we take him?"

"I think so," she responded. "Our backpacks are heavier than he is!"

He turned into the driveway of a dark office building. Surprisingly, it was open. Sue followed him in while I stayed in the car praying. He was getting directions. I breathed a little bit of relief. From there, we headed to a freeway, and I whispered, "If he were going to rob us, he'd have done it back there."

I watched incredulously as he turned the wrong way onto an exit ramp, and at the top turned with the traffic. He was avoiding the toll booth. I shook my head in disbelief and whispered to Sue, "We have a winner here!"

"He's just a hustler trying to make a living."

Our hearts slowed down as the sun pushed itself above the horizon and he pulled into our hotel parking lot. A hot water shower. A bed with sheets -- even if it was a bit hard, it wasn't as hard as the ground. And air conditioning. Our only luxury of the trip.

We agreed our decision to take the non-taxi driver was probably the dumbest thing we did the whole trip.

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