Thursday, August 2, 2012

You Xuan

Sometimes the simplest foods are the best foods. Simple foods don't pretend to be anything they are not. They offer great tastes for limited effort or cost. One super example of a simple food is the You Xuan (油旋) in Jinan.

This unassuming pancake is much tastier than you might guess based on its appearance. The dough is made of flour and lard, with a couple of spring onions thrown in for flavor. The vendor rolls it out into a tube, then coils it up into a spiral and flattens it out on a griddle over an open flame. It gets fried on both sides and then toasted a bit next to a fire inside like this:

The final product is a slightly salty coiled pancake, crispy and golden on the outside, warm and doughy on the inside. Because the dough was coiled rather than balled, the crisp edges are not limited to the shell, but follow the outline of the spiral right to the center—a perfect ratio. It's such a simple product, but it really hits the spot, especially if you're the type of person who gets cravings for oily, salty snacks such as potato chips. You shouldn't pay more than about 2 or 3 RMB for one pancake. Definitely worth it for this tasty snack.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Visa Runs to Mongolia

Recently a friend shared this article from the Wall Street Journal with me. This is actually something I wanted to write about anyway, so the article provides a nice cue. Although my situation was a little different than the ones described in the article, the basic facts remain the same: I was running out of days on my multiple-entry 60-day tourist visa, so I needed to leave the country and then come back in to reset the count to zero. (Note that this is only possible with a multiple-entry visa. If you try this with a single-entry visa, you will get stuck in Mongolia.) China shares land borders with 14 different sovereign nations, plus Hong Kong and Macau (which, although part of China, have different visa requirements), so if you need to leave and come back in, you have some choices. Most people go down to Hong Kong or Macau, as that tends to be the easiest border crossing, but I was in the north of the country and didn't want to head all the way back down south. As an American, I didn't need a visa to enter Mongolia (thanks, Mongolia!), and it was much closer to where I was than Hong Kong, so it was an easy choice.

I did a bit of internet research before heading up there and found a number of sites with varying degrees of helpfulness. It may be futile to add another voice to the crowd, but I thought I might be able to offer some additional insight on how to make the border crossing. I figured I could provide some information that I wish I had known before I went. So here goes.

Most people who go from China to Mongolia cross the border through Erlian (also called Erlianhaote or Erenhot). Erlian is a tiny border town of no more than 20,000 inhabitants. Even though the city is not very large, the biggest thing that would have helped me in my research would have been a map. I took the liberty of creating one here.

View Mongolian Border Crossing in a larger map

This map should show everything you need to find in Erlian. Chances are you will arrive in the city by either bus or train. The stations are only a few blocks from one another, and are shown on the map with a bus icon and a train icon. If you are in the center of town, the most obvious landmark is the huge sculpture in the middle of a roundabout marked with a yellow pinpoint on the map. The road running roughly east-west of the sculpture leads directly to the train station, and the road running more north and south heads straight up to the border crossing. It's probably the easiest way to get your bearings in the city. If you are looking for the border crossing and you can see that sculpture, just go north on that road.  If you see signs that say "
国门" (literally "country gate"), you're going in the right direction. You should also be able to see a giant rainbow sculpture directly in front of the border (marked with a red pinpoint on the map).

As others before me have written, it's unfortunately not possible to walk across the border. You either have to be part of a bus that's crossing over or you have to get in one of the many jeeps patrolling the city. These jeep owners are all independent entrepreneurs, so there is no real set price for their services. This is the time to use your haggling skills. Most of the sites I have read say that you should count on about 50 - 60 RMB for each trip (if you are crossing the border and then coming right back for visa-renewal reasons, then you are paying for two trips). I've heard that there are places in the city center where the jeeps congregate and collect passengers. Alternatively, you can just walk right up to the Chinese gate of the border crossing (marked with a blue pin with a black dot on the map) and try to find a ride there. The gate is about 2 miles (3 km) from the center of town. This plan can be a bit of a risk because the drivers know that they make the most profit when the jeeps are full, so if they can fill up in the center of town before going to the border, they won't be able to pick you up next to the border itself. On the other hand, if they are already at the border crossing and they need to fill a couple more seats, they might be willing to offer you a better rate since a small amount of money for your seat is better than an empty seat. When I went, I took my chances and walked up to the gate. There were a few nearly full cars there, and I managed to negotiate the driver down to 60 RMB for a round-trip--30 up front and 30 when we finished. With the haggling complete, I piled into a five-passenger jeep holding nine people and all of our luggage. This seems to be pretty standard--be prepared to have no personal space in the jeep. Once you're in the jeep, the next steps are pretty straightforward, if unnecessarily numerous:

  1. Drive from the Chinese border gate to the Chinese customs building (the blue pin on the map).
  2. Get out, go through customs, go out the back door of the building, get back in the jeep. At this point you are technically but not geographically out of China.
  3. Drive from the Chinese customs building to the Mongolian customs building (green pin on the map).
  4. Get out, go through customs (welcome to Mongolia!).
  5. If you are staying in Mongolia, exit the building through the back door, get back in the jeep, and drive to Zamyn-Üüd, Mongolia (and skip all future steps).
  6. If you are returning immediately to China, make a U-turn to the left just before the exit doors. This will place you right by the departure customs desks for Mongolia.
  7. Go through customs, wait outside for your jeep.
  8. Get back in the jeep and drive to the Chinese customs building (again).
  9. Get out, go through Chinese customs (welcome to China!), go outside to wait for jeep.
  10. Get back in jeep, drive through Chinese border gate, and get out wherever the driver drops you off.

That's all there is to it. One thing to keep in mind is that at some of these stops the jeep will need to be searched by customs officials. A lengthy queue of cars is not uncommon. You may have to wait longer than you expect for your jeep to catch up to you. Also, a word of advice from my own experience: if you are doing a round-trip and plan to use the same driver, make it as clear as possible with the driver where you are going to meet him. I thought my guy and I had a good understanding, but I ended up waiting outside in the cold (≈ 0° F / -17° C) for about half an hour before another driver took pity on my shivering form and let me into his jeep. I got pretty lucky there, I think (even luckier in that he didn't charge me anything, so I managed to do the whole there-and-back trip for only 30 RMB), but I wouldn't count on that happening every time. Some drivers may want you to go with them all the way to Zamyn-Üüd before they take you back through China. It all depends on the driver. Just make sure it's clear ahead of time.

I hope this map and description helps out some. If you have any questions about how this all works, feel free to leave a comment below and I'll try to answer. All in all, the process is easy enough and takes only about an hour and a half. Tickets in and out of the town aren't plentiful, but they exist. Erlian is a pleasant enough place to spend a night. There are dinosaur statues to see in town and south of town on the main road (some are marked on my map) and I have been told the dinosaur museum is worth a visit. If you are in the north of China and need to refresh your multiple-entry visa, this may be the option that makes the most sense. Good luck out there, folks.