“I figured we’d survive the cold desert night with the van as shelter and our dry, warm gear. But a submerged van and wet gear out here cast that into serious doubt.”
[My pictures from Mongolia are here. Many are through the window of a wildly bouncing van.]
The platform at Ulaan Baatar was abuzz as the hundreds of locals got off, and the next round of passengers waited to get on. I said a few quick goodbyes to my German friends and the other folks I’d spent the previous 42 hours with. I happily spotted a woman with my name on a sign, sent from the Nassan’s Guest House to pick me up and take me to the hostel. We made our way through the throngs of Mongolian faces, dumped my bags into the car, and fought our way into Ulaan Baatar (“UB” from here) traffic.
UB streets are a battleground, with everyone fending for their own lives. Cars rule the road, and pedestrians are constantly at risk. But so are the cars; lanes mean very little, and cars drive as much by honking “sonar” as by formal rules of the road. I was glad to be encased in steel, piloted by someone familiar with the local rituals, rather than trying to find my way around on foot. This was the first place I’d been that felt truly foreign.
We arrived at the hostel, and Nassan met us at the car. I had found Nassan’s Guest House on Hostelworld.com from Irkutsk, and had sent them an email asking to pick me up from the train, and let them know that I was interested in setting up a tour into the Mongolian countryside, preferably with some other English speakers. I also asked for some help getting my train reservations from UB to Beijing, as my original ticket purchased in St. Petersburg didn’t have a date or seat assignment for this leg. Nassan said she had info on these items, but that I could clean up and see here in the office when I was ready. I was glad we didn’t have to go over details immediately, because I was feeling woozy for some reason.
After relaxing for a bit in my private room, I visited Nassan’s office. Another guest was also interested in doing a 5 day trip around Mongolia, so we decided to link up for a trip into the Gobi desert, departing early the next morning. News about the train was not as good; the Thursday train that I wanted was sold out, with little hope of getting a last-minute opening. I had been talking with my friend Shannon about meeting up in Beijing on Friday, but we hadn’t finalized plans yet. There was a slight chance of getting a seat on the Saturday train, and Nassan’s staff would keep an eye on this for me.
Still not feeling great, I headed off to the State Department Store to buy food for my trip into the desert. The store was a large, multi-storey building, easily recognizable as a department store. It also contained a full grocery store. I picked up some dehydrated soups, fruit, bread, peanut butter and snacks. I was excited to see a case of Cholula–one of my favorite hot sauces–in one of the aisles, but decided not to buy one of the giant bottles (looking back, I probably should have). Despite the dire warnings of many people about the dangers of the streets of UB, nobody attacked me or slashed my bags on the way back to the hostel. Over my several days in UB, I never had anyone approach me and never felt threatened in any way, even when walking around (probably too late) at night.
When I announced to my college friends that I was going to do this big trip, I asked people to let me know if they had good contacts anywhere. One of the most surprising locations for a contact was Mongolia. My friend Stacey’s brother-in-law John runs horse tours in the northwest regions of Mongolia. He spends the vast majority of his time out in the wilderness, but he happend to be in UB between trips when I arrived, so we met up for dinner. I met him at City Cafe (or Coffee, depending on where it was written) for some tasty Chinese food, and a few beers. We chatted a bit about Mongolia, travelling, and Stacey & Rob (and the funny events around John’s arrival for their wedding: “Arctic bus”). John’s fiancee and business partner Sam, and one of their clients, Emily, met us out as well.
After dinner we headed to Dave’s Bar, for their weekly quiz night. We arrived at Dave’s to find a parking lot full of thrashed cars, the lucky finishers of The Mongol Rally, a wild race from London to UB in small engine cars.
I also spotted my cabinmates from the last train, Michael & David, at a table. We joined them, and teamed up for quiz night. We had a blast with the quiz, and finished second out of 12 teams, losing only to the supernerds who go and win every week.
Chatting with the Rally participants was also highly entertaining. Everyone who ran the race was very cool and had great stories of their adventures over the past six weeks.
For our Friday morning departure into the Gobi, Nassan had told me to be downstairs at 8am (John semi-jokingly told me this meant we’d probably leave around 11, factoring in “Mongolia time”). Arriving as instructed, I sat downstairs alone for about 15 minutes, then wandered up to the office to investigate. “Oh, I meant to tell you 8:40, not 8:00″ Nassan said. Grr. She introduced me to my fellow traveller, Shigeaki “Kuri” Kurimoto, who was waiting in the kitchen. Kuri was 26, from Tokyo, and a fellow geek (a system admin for a telecom company). We chatted while waiting for our driver to arrive. Kuri didn’t get to practice English much in Tokyo, but he had a moderate command of the language. He came to Mongolia with a dream of lying on his back in the Gobi at night, looking up at thousands of stars.
The driver arrived at about 8:40, and we were ready to go shortly after 9. Nassan surprised us just before departure by telling us that we’d need to pay for the driver’s meals, and/or share our food with him. This would have been good to know earlier, to factor into shopping, especially since she’d said the $270 fee covered the driver, car, gas, lodging, and dinners. Oh well, not a big deal, as meals are quite cheap in Mongolia.
Our driver, Amartugs (“Omra”), spoke basic English, supplemented with a broad, easy smile. Omra’s wife worked in the local US Embassy, and he worked as a guide and driver in Summer, and taught karate in the off-season. It would turn out that we’d have been far better served if his second job was as a mechanic.
We were rolling in a standard issue Army-green Russian-made off-road van. They’re built with the engine directly between the driver and passenger seats. This typically means that the interior of the van is roasting hot, which was certainly true on our case. These vans are built tough and high, to handle bad roads–which Mongolia has plenty of.
Roads in Mongolia are legendarily bad. And the legends are true. Driving out of UB, I was shocked at how bad the paved roads were. Gigantic potholes that would swallow a VW Bug consumed entire lanes. Drivers frequently left the paved roads and drove onto the dirt shoulder to have a smoother ride. Then we got to the bad roads. Imagine the roughest dirt road (if you’ve ever been on one…) you’ve ever been on. Now make it 3x worse, and 300 miles long. Toss in some washboard sections, and a healthy dose of serious potholes, and you’ve got a sense of basically every road outside of UB. After about two hours of exhausting bumping and jittering along, you get the hang of when to tense up and when to relax. Oh, and of course there are no seatbelts, silly! You’re riding bareback, yeehaw! I was jolted so hard by one bump on our first day that my shoulder–not just my head–was slammed into the ceiling. You also get some bonus time in the saddle, as there are no road signs anywhere, so you’ll head down a branch in the road, drive for a while, then stop to ask a local on a horse if you’re heading the right direction. Quite often you’re not, so you get to backtrack, which usually involves making your own road for a while.
After UB disappeared in the rearview mirrors we were into the great open expanses of Mongolian steppe. We would drive for hours each day and only pass a few cars, some tents (“gers”), and maybe a tiny village. The landscape was mostly wide-open treeless plains, with the occasional small mountain range. Skies were huge.
Kuri and I were introduced to ger living and Mongolian hospitality a few hours outside UB. Amartugs pulled off the road and approached the first ger we’d seen in a while. He hopped out and stuck his head inside the door, then waved for us to join him. The Mongolian nomads are very hospitable, and openly welcome strangers into their homes for a chat, meals, or a sleepover. I was surprised to see a solar panel system, and satellite dish outside the tent. But I’d later learn that while the nomadic life is generally simple, it’s not totally devoid of modern amenities. The tent’s interior was about 20 feet in diameter, with small furniture items lining the outside, and open space in the middle. “Try Mongolian national beer!” Amartugs said as he handed us each a bowl of something that the tent’s hostess had scooped out of a 50 gallon barrel in the “corner” (round tents don’t really have corners, right?). This was airag, fermented mare’s milk, a lightly alcoholic drink enjoyed widely across Mongolia. It has a strong odor and a stronger taste of incredibly sour yogurt. Mongolians can down large bowls of it in two gulps. Not one to shy away from a drink, I tried hard to force down the whole bowl, but only managed about half of it. It’d take a few years to get used to, I think. I never made it through a whole serving in my time in the desert, and Kuri was only able to endure a few polite sips. We were also given some incredibly hard cheese. Reminiscent of parmagiano regianno in flavor (mild, salty), it resembled a jaw-breaker in consistency. Gnawing our way through a few tough, tasty pieces, we said farewell and drove on toward the Gobi.
Amartugs supplied the soundtrack for our journey. He had an MP3 player that plugged into the cigarette lighter and broadcast a weak radio signal that the van’s radio could pick up. Omra’s device held about 30 songs, and he had it loaded with mostly English songs. He’s a huge Enrique fan (as are many people in Asia, for some reason), and pop in general. We rocked out to Enrique, Dido, Eminem, Rihanna (of course), and a cool Mongolian trance tune by Mr. Dizzy. Unfortunately I hadn’t followed Andy’s advice and brought along a tape adapter for my MP3 player, so I was unable to supplement the selections. Songs that I’d never heard before (or intentionally blocked) became burned into my brain.
Our van sputtered to a stop mid-afternoon, in the middle of a vast valley. Amartugs yanked up the engine’s cover, and removed his own seat to get full access. He poked and prodded the engine for about 15 minutes with no luck. I watched several large hawks hunt for lunch, and Kuri marvelled at the great open spaces. A semi truck loaded with wood for a house stopped, and the driver came to stick his head in the van. A few minutes later, another truck stopped. The sight of several Mongolians scratching their heads over our engine would become a frustratingly familiar over the next few days, but it was interesting to see how any passer-by would automatically stop to offer help out here in the steppe. After an hour of tinkering, the makeshift mechanics figured out that we had an electrical problem of some sort, and created a hotwire rigging of the van’s ignition to route around the problem.
Shortly before sunset we arrived at our destination for the day: Bagagazryn Uul (“small rocks”). The carved rock formations reminded me of southern Utah. We scrambled over the rocks for a few minutes while searching for a “secret secret” monastery, where monks had hidden decades earlier to escape persecution (they were still found and killed). This secret monastery was also home to anomaly: trees! The only cluster of trees I saw in my entire time on the tour grew in this tiny rock enclosure.
As darkness fell, we settled down in our lodging for the night. We were supposed to stay in family gers each night of our tour, but the several family gers that we had enquired at previously were already full, so we were staying in a tourist (spare, effectively) ger adjacent to a family ger. We were still treated to a traditional family dinner, of plain flour noodles and mutton in broth, with “tea” (half milk, half water). After dinner, when I asked Amartugs where the toilet was, he chuckled, waved his arms broadly and said “There are many toilets!” Any bush, boulder or hill suffices as a toilet in the Gobi.
After a cold night in the ger (only the second time on the trip I used my fleece), we awoke to a treat of fresh yogurt for breakfast. Our hosts had prepared this overnight in addition to the typical Mongolian breakfast: leftovers from the previous evening. With just a little sugar added to it, the yogurt was delicious. We packed up the van and were on our way by 8:00.
On this second day we drove for hours across the bumpy nothingness of the Gobi. The endless plain stretched out on three sides, and small mountains grew slowly before us. We stopped a few times during the day to see small temples and the occasional interesting rock formation, like “White Moon Hill”. We were under warm, sunny skies, but we could see rain clouds over the mountains throughout the day. Late in the afternoon we encountered our first village in two days. It was at the edge of the rain clouds, and we had our first rain, and could see streams of water running through town. We needed to fuel up, so we made our way to the local gas station, where we pumped gas. And I mean literally “pumped” gas. When you want to fuel up, you need to crank a handle to get the gas up out of the storage tanks. We left this little village under dark skies, and headed into the mountains. Our goal was the “flaming cliffs” of Bayanzag, site of several important fossil discoveries in the early 20th century.
About an hour outside the village the road turned into a stream. The first steady rain in months had saturated the loose soil, and pooled up in the dirt track road. As far as we could see–several kilometers–our road was a brownish, silverish river snaking through the desert.
With no gers in sight, and not wanting to backtrack to the village, we forged ahead. Big mistake. Ten minutes into the watery adventure our van started to struggle. Amartugs dropped the van into 4×4 mode, and it shivered ahead for another few minutes before sputtering to a stop. “Shit, shit” he said. He managed to get it started again, but the wheels just spun in place in the slick mud. He tried rocking the van loose by switching between drive and reverse, also with no luck. We were stuck. “Maybe push?” he whimpered.
Kuri and I hopped out into the calf-high cold water and put our shoulders into it. I resemble a sumo wrestler, but Kuri would never be mistaken for one; with his slight build he wasn’t able to apply much force to the effort. Twenty minutes of fierce struggling resulted in a few feet of movement, but the van was still dead in the water. Starting to feel the gravity of the situation, Amartugs told us to look for rocks. Luckily we were able to find nearby the only decent sized rocks available in the desert for miles, and we worked one into the hole created by the spinning rear tire. Omra used this as a platform to generate some momentum for the van, and got it moving under the light of the moon. He used this opportunity to turn the van around, to head it back for the only dry ground we knew of. Kuri and I scrambled through the thick mud as quickly as we could in our bare feet to keep up, and we hopped in.
Still several hundred meters from dry road, the van started to buck the track, and fought its way onto a split between the upper and lower paths. It seemed almost certain that this high-riding van was going to tip over into the cold water of the lower track, as Omra tried to fight it back under control. I figured we’d survive the cold desert night OK with the van as shelter and our dry, warm gear. But a submerged van and wet gear out here would cast that into serious doubt. Kuri and I shifted our weight to the right in a feeble attempt to counterbalast the tipping van. At what seemed to be the last possible second, Amartugs was able to right the van, and got it under control again, and we levelled out. Phew.
But the struggle through the mud had overtaxed the engine, and it started to smoke. “Uh, the engine is smoking” I said. After a few seconds of no acknowledgement from Omra, and frightened looks from Kuri, I shouted “Omra: fire, fire!!”. “Shit, shit!” he exclaimed as he shut down the engine. Luckily the engine wasn’t actually on fire, but things seemed grim. Kuri and I trudged through the mud ahead of the van to pack it down and create a grooved track as best we could, while Amartugs investigated the engine situation. We were withing throwing distance of dry ground, but it looked like we’d be spending the night over the water. The engine was good for one last go, and we managed to push it free of the mud lock and it crept forward onto the dry ground before sputtering its final death rattle. We tried fruitlessly for another twenty minutes to revive it, but it had clearly given its last rotations to our cause.
Amartugs floated the idea that he’d head off into the night to find help, but this seemed pointless with a sea of thick mud between us and any potential help, and no lights to be seen across the horizon. He reconsidered, and we prepared to spend the night in the van. I tried to make light of our situation with Kuri by pointing out that the stars were out on display, including large visible patches of the Milky Way. This offering brought a momentary smile, but it was wiped away shortly by exhaustion. Happily the van had a gas stove on board, so we were able to heat up water and make some of the soups that we had brought. With warm bellies we hunkered down under all the blankets, sleeping bags and clothes we could find. Omra slept in the driver’s seat, Kuri took the middle row, and I had the back row of seats in the van. I tossed and turned through the night, stuggling to find a comfortable position, and to manage my temperature under the heaps of blankets. I managed a few hours of sleep before catching the spectacular sunrise over the distant hills.
We all rose at 8:30, and Omra immediately headed off to find help. Two hours later, with no sign of Amartugs or other help, Kuri and I started to develop plan B. We figured we’d wait another two hours, and then start walking up the road. Fortunately we didn’t have to exercise this plan, as another car finally appeared over the hill an hour later. This was the first other care to come down this road since we’d gotten stuck 16 hours earlier. It was another tourist van, carrying Malcolm, a solo Australian, and his guide. We explained our situation, and waited while Amartugs sprinted toward us from some distant location. We quickly agreed to tow our van back to the nearest ger, where we’d leave it, and then get a ride in the working van to the nearest village.
During the hour-long ride to the nearest village with mechanic services I felt my spirits lift. This new van was more comfortable, and I enjoyed chatting with Malcolm and his nearly-fluent guide. Since Malcolm’s itinerary roughly matched what Kuri and I had planned, we figured we’d join his trip, and Amartugs would stay behind to deal with the dead van. Unfortunately this plan and my spirits were squashed by Nassan when Omra phoned UB to run it by her. I don’t know exactly why, but I assume this was because of money that would have changed hands. So instead of joining Malcolm, we were to stay in the village, and wait for a replacement van which was to arrive later that afternoon to take us to Bayanzag. Malcolm and his crew headed off on their way, and we were put up at the incredibly sketchy hotel in the middle of the village.
This day was a big one in the village, and across the country. It was Naadam, a day to celebrate with traditional Mongolian sports: archery, wrestling, and horse riding. We were able to catch the last two wresting matches of the day, between the biggest, strongest young men in the village. Mongolian wrestling is a pure match of strength and leverage. The winner is the last man to be forced off of his feet; touching the ground with anything other than your feet means a loss. Ceremony precedes and follows each match, with the participants bowing to the elders, and then the victor gets to do a hawk flap/soaring dance.
As soon as the championship match concluded (the biggest man won easily over his smaller, tired opponent who had just finished a long match), the crowd rushed up the hill to get into position to watch the end of the horse races. I enjoyed watching the villagers interact. Lots of smiling and laughing. A few inquisitive folks approached us, but limited overlapping language kept the exchanges brief. Naadam festivities concluded after the horse race, and we made our way back to the hotel for a short nap.
Amartugs came in and informed us that we wouldn’t have a new van to take us further that day. But another van was waiting to take us back to get the old, dead van. I resisted this, preferring to stay at the hotel and rest. Omra prodded a bit, saying “2 hours, maybe 3″ to get the van back to the village. I knew better, but gave in and joined the mission to get the van. Dumb. Five hours later we were struggling in the dark to get the new van unstuck from the mud patch it became mired in while towing the old van. And this time we had no warm blankets or additional clothes to put on.
Luckily the residents of a ger about a kilometer away heard our engine revving repeatedly, and came out to see what was happening. They only had a motorcycle, so they couldn’t pull the van out, and even with their help we weren’t able to free the van from the mud. After another hour of fruitless labor we called it a night, and trudged back to their ger. I finally reached my breaking point; the Gobi had won. I wanted out. Instead I had to settle for another dinner of flour noodles and tough mutton and another cold night in the desert. My sour mood softened slightly as I watched the Mongolians chatting in the ger, and I drifted off to sleep.
We awoke to car lights at 3am. A couple had ridden off earlier on the family motorcycle, and now returned with a neighbor in a 4×4 truck. Twenty minutes later the van was freed from the mud, we were on the (bumpy) road back to the village. Kuri and I were deposited in the back seat of the 4×4 truck for what would be a truly miserable ride, as the driver alternated between smoking and stopping for brief naps along the way. My seat squeaked loudly as we bumped along, which greatly agitated the passenger in the seat ahead of me, and made it impossible for me to sleep. Kuri was exhausted enough that the slept through this horrible voyage. I hated him for this. We finally made it back to the village and our hotel after almost 2 hours on the road, and I passed out.
“New car at 12,” Amartugs informed us at 10:00. We treated ourselves to a much deserved shower at the “shower store” a few doors down, and then joined Omra in our room to work through a bottle of vodka. Amartugs would stay behind with the dead van, and we would be getting 2 new drivers with the new van. The new car was an hour late, which was fine, as it gave us more time to hang out together with Omra. We polished off two bottles before the new van arrived. We loaded up the van and were on our way. We wouldn’t be able to visit Bayanzag, the only sight I was really looking forward to, but this was ok. Kuri and I both agreed that we really just wanted to get back to to civilization. I dozed on and off as we bobbed along. We stopped briefly to see the ancient Ong monastery, which at this point is really just some adobe wall remains, and a few reconstructed temples (utterly missable, IMHO, despite the nice views over the river bend).
Our drivers, who spoke almost no English, had also apparently enjoyed some vodka or similar earlier in the day. I deemed them Drunk & Drunker. They kept us on the road, and I never felt in serious danger, but Kuri told me later he was really concerned. We were not amused when they pulled over to a ger high on a hill late in the afternoon to get some airag. The comedy of errors resumed when the van wouldn’t start after this stop. Thirty minutes of tinkering, and the engine fired up. But the sun was setting, and the van’s headlights didn’t work. Amazing. Kuri completely lost it at this point. He started waving his arms wildly and yelling in Japanese. This got Drunker worked up. Then Kuri punched the van, and Drunker responded by punching Kuri in the face. I jumped in at this point, trying to calm down all parties. Fortunately the family also joined in the peacemaking efforts, and after a few minutes everyone was tranquil. Kuri decided to spend the night in isolation in the van though.
I spent a fun night in the ger with the family. After yet another dinner of flour noodles with mutton, we shared a few drinks. A few of the neighbors joined us as well. The fathers thought I was an OK guy, so I was offered one of the daughters to “bunk down with” for the night, which I found amusing. I politely declined. I made my way out to the van to make sure Kuri noticed the amazingly clear view of the stars we were enjoying that night. Without no clouds the sky was amazingly twinkly, and large bands of Milky Way were clearly visible.
“UB city, go go!” was our mantra for our final day. We were ready to get off the road, and Kuri had a flight to catch that night. We were up and on our way at 8. And we broke down an hour later. Drunk & Drunker dismantled the engine while Kuri and I laughed hysterically and pulled our hair out.
The guys got the van running, and Drunk proudly poked his own chest and proclaimed, “Mechanic!”.
I endured several hours of “Mike!! Mike!! blah blah blah” as Drunk tried to ask questions, assert things, or play tour guide as we chugged toward Ulaan Bataar. After several unexplained, agonizing stops on the city’s outskirts, we finally arrived at Nassan’s Guest House at 7pm. Hallelujah!!! Nassan met us, and led me up to my new room. “Did you have a good trip?” she asked. Nearly choking, I told her “Not really, we had so much car trouble.” She replied, “I know. Gobi desert is very hard.” Kuri’s flight home was at Midnight, so we got cleaned up and headed out for some dinner at City Cafe. Vegetables! Flavor! Ger living isn’t for me, but I admire the spirit of the folks who make it work for them.
Wednesday morning I caught up with Nassan in her office, and she told me that they’d been able to get me a ticket for the Saturday train to Beijing. But I wanted to get there earlier, as Shannon had confirmed that she was going to arrive there on Thursday evening, and stay for a few days. I spent Wednesday recouperating and relaxing, with a little temple sightseeing thrown in.
Thursday morning I decided I was ready to get out of Mongolia and to join my friend in Beijing, so I bought a ticket for the 6pm flight to Beijing. The train gods won; I was ready to fly the final leg of the Trans-Mongolian. After a few hours at the impressive Gandantegchilen monastery, it was time to head to Chinggis Khan International Airport. I wore a big smile as I boarded the plane. I was ready to put the Mongolian saga behind me, and to see a familiar face in a new country.
I’ve met many travelers who loved their time in Mongolia. I think I just had bad luck there. Mongolia probably deserves another shot in the future, but for now I’m humbled by the Gobi. GoBigMike vs Gobi: Gobi wins.
- Mongolian must be the inspiration for the Klingon language in Star Trek. It can sound beautiful in song, but in everyday conversations it’s rough.
- If you’re going on a van tour of the Gobi, don’t leave anything in an open bag. Our groceries got tossed, bashed, and scattered all over the van because we didn’t think to tie the bags shut. Oh, and pack a shovel and some flares.
- General travel thing, further confirmed in Mongolia: People will wear any t-shirt that has English on it. Most likely the person has no idea what it says or means, and the English is frequently funny, too. I need to take more photos of this, but here’s a fave, spotted in a tiny, remote village in Mongolia: