Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
31.10.2005 - 31.10.2005 15 °C
"Don't give your passport to the Ulaan Baatar Police. It's just a scam to extort money from you."
That was the advice I was given by a nice Russian woman on the train from Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar. The problem is, she never said and I never asked what I should do if I am surrounded by 3 police officers and they are demanding to see my passport.
So, when walking to catch my train out of Ulaan Baatar, and the police demanded to see my passport, I handed over my passport.
- * *
Ulaan Baatar is the capital of Mongolia. It's a nice city, a mix of gers (traditional huts used by Mongolian nomads), wood shacks and new high rises. I saw Gandantegchinlen Khid monastery and the winter palace of the Mongol Khans. The museum of Mongolian History was closed on Mondays for "winter hours," even though the weather was beautiful, sunny and warm.
As dusk falls, I had 3 hours to kill until my train is leaving and everything is shutting down, so I decided to grab a beer at a local pub. After 5 rounds of South Korean beer in 2 hours, I headed out and towards the train station. After crossing a major street, I was approached by three men in police uniforms.
"You're drunk," one said. He seemed to be the "leader" of this pack, a short Mongolian with a very unfriendly face. Shorty had two buddies with him, Grabby and Bashful. Grabby and Bashful seemed to be hanging back a bit, so I started talking to Shorty.
"Not drunk," I replied, using simple English. "Just two beer. I go to the train station. I leave Ulaan Baatar."
"Drunk. Walk," replied Shorty, indicating that I should walk along the line in the sidewalk to prove that I wasn't drunk. Now, I had seen a few drunk people in Ulaan Baatar, so I don't know that being drunk is an offense, but that was beyond my capacity to communicate to people who don't speak English, so I tried to walk the line. I got 4 steps off, but on the 5th step I stumbled.
"Aha!" exclaimed Shorty. "Drunk! Passport," he demanded. If I wasn't tipsy (not drunk, just tipsy), I probably would have pulled out the photocopy I keep of my passport, rather than the passport itself. But I was tipsy, and feeling quite threatened being surrounded by three police officers, so I just handed over my passport. I did think enough to slip the customs form out of the passport before handing it over. The customs form had listed that I was carrying $US 500 (hidden in a money belt), and I really didn't want the Police to know that.
Shorty looks over my passport, and starts patting me down. "What's that," he said, feeling a bulk in my left pants pocket. I remove some loose change, and Grabby takes it from my hand, and holds it. From my right pocket, Grabby takes my wallet. From my right jacket pocket, Grabby takes my train ticket. They find my camera and guidebook in my left jacket pocket, and Grabby's hands being full, Bashful is recruited to hold those items.
This is obviously a shake-down. I figure that I am going to for sure lose some money here. I am hoping that the $US 60 I have in US Dollars and Mongolian currency will be enough to cover the costs. I would hate to after retrieve my money belt so they could see the $US 500 stored there, and I am hoping that they won't feel it in the pat downs.
It's a little like playing poker at this point. The pot is my money, and I don't have much of a hand at this point. I am facing 3 police officers (3 Kings) and with my drunkenness as an excuse (almost like another King) they are holding 4 of a kind of the second highest card in the deck. I am going to lose this hand, my only hope is to manage the pot, and try and lose as little as possible.
Shorty points at my backpack, and indicates that I should open it. I put the pack on the ground, and then crouch down to open it up. As I am opening the pack, I hear a crash in front of me. I look up to see my camera lying in three pieces on the ground. I look at the faces of Shorty, Grabby and Bashful, and see a change. This was not in their plan. They may have four Kings, but I can see in their faces, I've drawn 4 aces.
- * *
The camera I brought with me isn't much of a camera. It's a Fujifilm digital camera that I bought for $200 to travel with. It's smaller then my nicer camera (the one I took to Africa), but easier to push into my pocket and forget about.
$200 is not much to me, it's a night out for dinner and drinks. I think of the camera, in some respects, as being "disposable," in that if I lose it or it breaks, it's not a big deal.
However, in Ulaan Baatar I had only spent a total of $30 so far, and that includes all the museum entries, picture taking fees and my drinking binge. It was a big day of spending for me. $200 would buy dinner and drinks, plus the rest of the meals for the rest of the week, probably. $200 is probably a big deal to an Ulaan Baatar police officer, and I could see in their faces that they were scared. They'd broken my expensive camera, and that suddenly opened up a whole range of options for me.
I could complain about the camera, demand to go back to the station and see their supervisor. That would take most of the wind out of their sails, if not put them off completely. But I have a train to catch, and I want to get going. I decide that I can discount my extortion fee using the camera breaking, and get out with a respectable loss.
I stand up with my broken camera in my hand. Bashful takes the camera, and desperately tries to put it back together. Grabby then does the most amazing thing, he gives me back everything he took from me. My wallet, my money, my train ticket. Just hands it all back. I quickly stow it in my pockets.
Shorty still makes a show of it, rummaging through my bag and suggesting that my pocket knife could be an offensive weapon to stab the poor people of Ulaan Baatar, but already Grabby is backing away from the situation, and Bashful is looking more scared as he can't repair my camera. I scoff at Shorty's suggestion.
Shorty looks at his two mates, and realizes that he has lost control of the situation. He hands me back my passport, and makes a show to say that I need to go directly to the train station, and never darken the streets of Ulaan Baatar again. His way of saving a little face in the situation. I thank him, grab my camera from Bashful, and hurry down the street away from them.
I arrive at the train station and jump on my train. I pull out my busted camera and look at it. The three pieces, I notice, are all modular pieces. I snap the camera back together, and turn it on. It works fine. I snap a few celebratory pictures of the train cabin.
Somehow, I managed to bluff my way through this situation, and wound up not losing a cent. I'm not usually much of a poker player, but somehow I managed to walk away from this hand with the whole pot.