It is Monday morning, and we're about to see if we can give our car to Mongolia. Tom from the Adventurists has told us to go to the customs office, so that's where we're headed. "Okay, get psyched up", I say to myself. It's going to be one of those days, the kind where we have to get something really important accomplished in a foreign country.
Our driver doesn't seem to know where he's going. The meter is racking up tögrög at an obscenely fast rate, and we're stuck in traffic, not getting anywhere. We rarely take taxis, but we're expecting a long and difficult day of running around town; time is of the essence. I wonder if his meter is rigged? I'm certain we could walk faster than this, so I tell the driver we're close enough.
A kilometer after we set out on foot, we arrive where the customs office is supposed to be. Last night, I marked its location on our woefully spartan map, but it isn't here. Unsure of what to do next, I notice our mostly-blank map does list a US Embassy nearby. We've never actually been to a US Embassy, but I think they might be able to help us.
Back on the hunt, we arrive where the Embassy should be, and again, no joy. As our primary on-foot navigator, now highly capable of leading us through foreign cities, I find this mildly infuriating.
Normally, we try to approach these situations with a positive attitude, treating whatever task we have before us like a grand treasure hunt. This morning, we are both lacking the perspective. Instead of seeing this as "all part of the adventure", it feels like a chore. We can't even find the building!
We're standing on the sidewalk, a cold wind whipping around us, as I scour the map once more, trying to figure out our next move. I look up from my book to see a very short, elderly Mongolian man wearing a crisp white shirt and a dapper hat. He walks by, turns a corner in front of us, then hesitates.
Suddenly the man spins around, looks me in the eye, and in perfect French asks "Vous êtes de nationalité française?" I reply, "Non, nous sommes americains… mais je parle français!" Do you need help? he asks in French, and I say Yes please, can you tell me where the customs office is? Or the American embassy?
Immediately "on the job", he leads us, walking quickly through a maze of side-streets. There, behind a bunch of buildings, is the custom's office. He also points out vaguely where the American Embassy is, then shakes our hands, nods his head, and walks off. And we're left exactly where we need to be feeling stunned and grateful. Thank youuuuu!!!, we call after him.
We walk into the customs office and Tyler takes charge. After a bit of talking and miming, they point us to the building next door. Back out the door we go, over to the next building. There, Tyler tries to explain that we'd like to… ummm give our car to Mongolia? Also, we could use a nice stamp on this piece of paper so we'll be allowed to leave the country?
The security guard takes our paper and shows it to everyone, not knowing what to do. Eventually, he gets the attention of a smartly dressed business man who tells us to follow him. Up an elevator we go to the fifth floor. Next, we walk into a swanky, efficient-looking office where everyone is busy doing very official and important things.
We follow the man inside, feeling a little sheepish, and he deposits us in front of a woman's desk. Apparently, she doesn't deal with situations like ours, but she speaks English, so that's a step in the right direction. We tell her our story, and she informs us that we need to go to the other customs office across town by the train station.
Before we go, she writes her phone number and a note on our very important piece of paper, and tells us to give her a call if we have any problems. With a sweeping and professional stroke, she signs her note. Not through yet, she sets our paper on the desk and opens a small drawer. Out of the bureau she pulls a delicate-looking pouch that could very well be some ancient purse full of magic dust or gold coins.
She fiddles with a fascinating spiral clasp on the top of the pouch, and it spins open, unfolding like a peacock's feathers. Inside, there is an ornately decorated brass stamp. She takes it out, deftly unscrews it's cover which doubles as an ink-pad, and bangs the device on our paper. Then, she reverses the entire process, returning the stamp to its resting place.
The whole ritual occurs in a single, fluid motion that is completed in a matter of moments. Then, she shoos us away with hardly a goodbye.
"Tyler!", I hiss, as we're leaving the nice office, making our way back to the elevator, "What just happened?!" "I have no idea!", he replies. Out we go, into the cold, blustery city, to hail a cab once more. Hanging our wrists out as the Mongolians do (like we're royalty proferring a hand for our subjects to kiss) we attract a car instantly.
It's not an official taxi, but this means we can haggle over a price. The man doesn't seem to know where the train station is, even after we show him on a map, but a short conversation with a young Mongolian couple gives him the information he needs. We agree on a price (half of what the other taxi charged for twice the distance), and then we're off!
As we pull up to the train station, I notice the building next door shares the same symbol as our newly acquired stamp. Hopeful, we climb the small staircase and go inside. A row of booths stand numbered overhead like a post office, and a ring of yellow plastic chairs circles the room. This looks a lot dingier and less-organized than the last place, and it certainly does not inspire confidence.
Unsure if we're supposed to wait in some line or take a number, we go straight up to booth number five. Our attendant isn't on the phone and she doesn't seem to be busy doing anything, but we're met a blank stare. We try to show her our paper, saying "look at the note, look at the note!" even though we don't know what it says. She just stares at us and points her finger upwards. We're supposed to go upstairs? Okay.
We trudge up the dusty staircase, and find a similar office and many more blank stares. It takes some effort to get any help at all, but once we succeed, they simply look confused and then point their fingers downwards. Back downstairs we go. At a different booth than the one we went to the first time, a woman points her finger downwards. We need to go to the basement? Okay.
We tromp downstairs to the basement, which looks least promising of all. There are a bunch of young women and a couple of men in there, goofing around, playing computer games, and looking at Facebook. Are we sure this isn't an internet café? Is everyone on break?
We quietly approach one of the women, but she's glued to her monitor. We stand over her desk and say hello as she's busily moving her mouse around. She looks up, immediately disgusted that we disturbed her game. Then, she stares at us blankly with a hint of annoyance, and points her finger upwards. Upstairs again? Okay.
We're about to lose every shred of our faith in humanity when a man on the ground floor kindly takes it upon himself to help us. He leads us upstairs to see another official-looking man in a small office, who passes us off to a smiley young woman, who in turn takes us back downstairs to the delinquent-section of the basement, where she hands us over to another lady who seems pissed that she's been the one chosen to deal with our case. Our nice woman gives the basement woman some sort of instruction, and then leaves. Everyone else seems relieved to see her go, quickly resuming their Snood.
After we present our documenation, the woman starts putting our information into her computer; the form on the screen has several pages full of blank boxes. She begins by copying our car's title, asking us occasionally when she can't read something. This takes over an hour. When she is through, she types a number into her calculator: 2370.
She wants us to pay her $2,370 dollars! I'm quickly losing hope that this "give the car to Mongolia" scheme is actually a viable option. I'm weary of the miscommunication, the upstairs-downstairs run-around, the blank stares, and the unknown result of our dogged efforts looming ahead. If this doesn't work, we'll have to go back to the drawing board.
But Tyler is still cool as a cucumber, and responds by patiently exercising the full extent of pidgin English, explaining over and over what we are trying to do in as many ways as he can think of. We want to give them the car. We don't need the car. They can have the car. Mongolia can take the car for free. Finally, he manages to hit on something that registers: We cannot afford the tax.
The woman responds by typing 2000 into her calculator. Tyler shakes his head, presses the CE for clear button, and the calculator displays a big fat zero. He shows it to the woman and hands her the keys to our LRC, saying we don't want to sell it. Her eyes open up really, really wide, and it seems that she finally, she understands!
By this time, the whole office is clued in to our situation, and everyone is laughing at us. We sit there, quiet and confused, while everyone else seems to think we're hilarious. Then people begin raising their hands and shouting, and by the looks of it, people are joking about buying our car for the price of our import duties. Are they going to auction off our LRC?
This hullabaloo doesn't last, though, for everyone is easily drawn back to their computer games. Once the fuss is over, the woman we're working with motions for us to follow her. Back upstairs we go, where we follow her through another maze of offices which leads to a lone printer. There, she takes a few sheets of printer paper and brings us back downstairs to the basement. Hmmmm.
By this point, I am feeling hopeless and I have to pee really badly. When I leave to go to the bathroom, partially to escape the situation, things are not looking good. And yet, when I return, Tyler is calmly writing a note on the printer paper we fetched a few minutes ago:
I, Tyler Kellen, hereby agree to give you my 1991 Toyota Corolla XLi. You can have this fantastic car free of charge because your import duties are too expensive.
"What is going on!?", I hiss, the situation vaguely reminiscent of a different futile note-writing session. But Tyler just smiles and says, "I'm giving them our car! I told you it would work!"
When he's done, a friendly woman with a Mongolian-English dictionary informs us that the office's lunch break is from one to two o'clock. At two, we're to bring the car back here and hand over the keys. In return we'll get some sort of documentation of the donation, and will be free to go on our merry way!
We are simultaneously excited and overwhelmed. We thought this would take forever, but instead, we have to get everything taken care of right now. Time to go unload our LRC!