Two small dogs are attacking a homeless man, while I’m nursing my lingering fever with sidewalk kebabs and a bottle of Yanjing beer. One of them bites at his ankle, and he hobbles away, cursing while diners beside me laugh, and the wind picks up again. I shield my face from the sand.
This is Erenhot, or Erlian (二连), Erlianhaote (二连浩特), Eriyen, or Ereen… a town on the Chinese/Mongolian border with too many names. Every passerby stares at me, and every child shouts “Hello” as I pass.
One stranger steals a photo of me with his cellphone. Someone else asks me to pose. “And with my friend, also?”
In the crowded restaurant this morning, a table was filled with plates. Pickled cabbage, fried breads, a heaping mound of freshly-cooked dog meat with the dog’s head stacked beside it. I opted for the fist-sized dumplings and a bowl of hot water. Using chopsticks, I mixed instant coffee into the bowl, and drank it like soup.
“What is that?” asked a neighbor, leaning in to examine my black broth. Others stopped by to laughingly shout “你好,” ask where I was from, where I’d studied Chinese, if I could read, what my annual salary was, if I liked Chinese food, if I was Russian, and how I’d learned to write with my left hand. The usual questions.
“You speak very good Chinese,” said one cab driver, before swerving off the highway and into a field. “There’s a toll booth, ahead,” he laughed. “I’m saving you three kuai!” He held up his fingers as we flew through the field, in case I’d missed the savings. Fifty cents.
“What is this place,” I asked him. The car was pulling up a cloud of sand and dust, but I could see a camouflaged tank and a row of targets in the field beside us.
I didn’t understand his answer, and I told him, so he held up a finger and started shooting. “Pow! Pow!” he laughed. This was military land, a target practice field. “Don’t be scared,” he said as he laughed some more, and then waved his fingers at me. “Three kuai!”
Erenhot is an ugly town. It sits in the middle of the Gobi desert, and while every building looks new, everything is already crumbling.
Construction goes on non-stop. New hotels and apartment buildings and strip malls and wide six-lane boulevards were expanding into the desert. Yet the roads and sidewalks are scarcely used, and the new buildings all looked cheap and empty. Only 20,000 people live in Erenhot, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, so I’m confused about what they’re doing.
The desert around the city is filled with statues of wrestling Stegosauri, kissing Sauropoda, and other dinosaurs, but it didn’t feel anything like a tourist destination.
The dinosaur museum had been demolished for a mall, and the dinosaur park was filled with hawkers and carnies. Most of the shops I passed sold only building supplies. This was no tourist town.
It felt more like a town for smugglers and whores.
“Change money?” old ladies would shout after me in English, “I give you good deal!”
Drivers in rusty beat-up jeeps would offer to steal me across the border for $7.
One cabbie gave me an un-planned tour of the city’s best whorehouses. “Here, they have both Chinese and Mongolian women. The Chinese women are very cheap. Only 100元 (~$15). The Mongolians are more expensive. For them, maybe 120元 or 130元. This is a good place! Cheap!”
Elsewhere, on Friendship Street (友谊街), I came across blocks of squat storefronts, each opening onto a dark kitchen with boarded up windows and a single bed. At every open door — and some of them were already closed — a woman called out as I passed. “Hello,” they cried. “Come! Come!” I quickened my pace. “You want paopao?” shouted a man, laughing after me.
This wasn’t a small discrete alleyway. It was a main city boulevard.
The one other foreigner I crossed paths with during my two days in Erenhot was also staying at my hotel. “Can you help me?” begged the receptionist in Chinese on the phone. “There’s a foreigner here, and he can’t speak. Can you translate for me?” Translating for the two of them on the phone was my proudest moment in years.
Language in Erenhot is confusing. Shop signs use Chinese, Mongolian script (Arabic-esque), and Mongolian Cyrillic (similar to Russian). Some throw in Korean, or Chinese pinyin, or English, or Russian. Here and there, you’ll even see Soyombo script.
Gift shops carried fake cultural revolution “antiques” beside cartons of fake cigarettes and bottles of Jieka Daniels whiskey. There were shelves of fur hats, wild west statuettes of black servants, Osama Bin Laden matryoshka dolls, and boxes of leather handbags.
Later, I saw my first foreigner on the street, carrying a bag of beers. He smiled and stopped. “Was that you translating for me on the hotel phone,” he asked in an English accent. Clearly I was the first foreigner he’d seen, too.
He’d just arrived from Mongolia, two weeks sleeping in a tent in the Gobi desert.
“It’s amazing to be in a big city again,” he said, waving his hands around. “Streets, cars, buildings, beer! They have everything here — absolutely everything!”
I smiled. I guess they did.