What to Eat When You’re Trapped in a Parking Lot on the Road to Ulaanbaatar
Dumplings at the Russian-Mongolian Border
Cutting through the hardened dough of dumplings requires some concentrated care. Too much pressure on the fork edge and the pocket could rupture suddenly, sending steaming hot oil in unpredictable directions.
Despite the culinary hazard, these meaty florets were my greatest source of comfort for five long days at the border between Russia and Mongolia.
I was driving from London to Ulaanbaatar with two friends and a stream of fellow rally drivers. We were well-versed in the logistical tangoes required at border crossings, but when the uniformed men ushered us into a fenced parking lot, rather than an office building, our preparation failed us. We were told we could sleep in the lot. No additional information was offered.
The next morning, we unfolded creaky limbs from our compact car, each of us groaning with muscle ache and hunger.
When we inquired about food—we were just about out of peanuts and Pringles—a guard opened a small door in the fence and pointed to a ramshackle house about twenty yards away.
A Mongolian woman with giant sunglasses and a shower cap framing a heart shaped face ushered us in with a smile. A long table was set up in the front room, spread with a floral cloth and silverware.
A younger woman sat at a kitchen table, meticulously rolling dough and wrapping little mounds of meat. Her son and daughter, around eight and four years of age, played tag around the table. They giggled and flashed gap-toothed smiles when they caught our eyes.
Minutes later, we were each presented with a large plate, packed with dumplings.
The steam rose to my cold cheeks with a kiss of misty warmth. I inhaled the savory scent, then approached my plate with mild trepidation. Once I’d discovered the proper angle and force with which to puncture the encasement, I began to methodically inhale every last one.
Puncture, ooze, slice, stab, chomp. Puncture, ooze, slice, stab, chomp.
These pockets of dough—perfectly fried with just a hint of browned crisp, concealing flavorful, juicy meat—were just what my travel companions and I required for the days that followed.
For five days, we were confined to that concrete parking lot as paperwork was shuffled aimlessly in a room we never saw. Every morning, we were allowed to escape briefly and fill up on dumplings. Every afternoon, we tried to obtain information from the guards who would march through our asphalt camp, requesting cigarettes but refusing information. By evening, we’d be frustrated and cold, eventually sleeping fitfully in frosty cars.
We were in Mongolia, but not. We were surrounded by Mongolians, but the border patrols were cold and usually wordless.
The Mongolian family, with grandma in her shower cap, ushering us in for yet another plateful of dumplings, the kids squealing at her feet, was a comforting source of reality. There was a vast country—sights and sounds and people and places we’d yet to experience—waiting to be encountered. But for now, we had this.
On the fifth morning, a border official entered the kitchen as I prepared to stab a dumpling with my fork. I recognized him as one of the few who marched through the parking lot each day. Now, his gait was relaxed.
He stooped down and opened his arms to the two little faces that peaked out from beneath the long table. They stormed his embrace with relentless laughter. He smiled at them, then looked up, and smiled at us.
I wanted to ask him for answers. I wanted to ask when we would be allowed to go. But he posed a question first.
“Good?” he asked, pointing to my dumplings.
Yes. They were delicious.
That afternoon, our paperwork was cleared. We were free to enter Mongolia.
But before we continued toward the golden hills, sparkling in the distance like endless rising suns, we stopped just twenty yards beyond the parking lot. We would need a belly full of dumplings to face the road ahead.