Roadtrippin’ Mongolia

Part 1 – Yes or No

The clock confirms it’s something past 10pm. I’m sitting on a bed with a half broken mattrace and a pillow. The sheets with no linings are animated by stains having been formed there ever since the evergreen year of their purchase. The doors to the room are permanently open. There is some music flowing in from the corridor’s buzzing TV, men’s chat from the other rooms and an occasional girl’s giggle add up to the audio. The Kazakh hotel room where I am sitting is never empty. People come and go, enter, or peep in only, say something or nothing, smile or not, look around as if searching for their comrade chauffeur, wonder a bit and leave (me).

Nobody speaks any English here and only a few of many in the premise have some Russian palabras still lying somewhere deep in their memory, no matter how much dusted over the years passed since the 10th grade of their elementary school. We always seem to try using them in our favor to (try and) open up a short ‘knowing-me-knowing-you’ conversation.

It’s Tuesday and I am still in Ulaanbaatar. I was supposed to be on my way to the farthest west of Mongolia, the city called Olgyi, yesterday….Well, things did not go my way.. The whole roadtrip is to last 2-3 days; a 48 hour drive or so they say. The drivers I met at the Kazakh Hotel here in UB just a few days ago had evidently some problems with their license plate (papers) so the police did not let us leave on Monday as it had been planned. After numerous phone calls using strangers’ phones (I don’t have mine in practice) and understanding very close to nothing (my Russian is a mid class rust) I got the info we would be leaving at 2pm the next day, Tuesday, 15th March ’11.

When I got to the Kazakh hotel 5-6 hours ago today, I knew it was going to be all but easy to make it to Olgyi by wishful Thursday or latest, by Friday. Friday would actually be the only day of a week when I could get a plane from Olgyi to my next destination, which is Kazakhstan. Sitting here now and ashamed to take out my netbook  and play some music not to look too posh, I have got plenty of time to be clever and realize there is a massive challenge proportion lying on my plate and/or a very little chance for me to make it all the way to Olgyi in time, taking into the consideration the hard conditions that are surely awaiting us in the next few days.

Somehow, however, I am taking it mentally very easy. Originally I was not planning to fly at all and wished to get all the way (probably over 11k km) from Mother China to the Sweet home named Bardejov by land. I spent a day running around UB looking for the answers to my potential travel options from Olgyi to Kazachstan, and got 3 in total. The first, and the most exciting one (however, time consuming and in winter time less certain) was a 3 day drive by a shared taxi, including border crossing from the West of Mongolia to China (Urumqi) and 2 more days from there to Almaty (KZ). However, the borders are apparently open 2 weeks of the month only and the next two weeks these are closed, so things could get really complicated and you wouldn’t want to mess around and get stuck in the middle of nowhere when it’s averaging 20 to 25 below zero at night. The second option, an exciting and easy one, would be a 2 day drive to Kazakhstan via Russia. Nevertheless, I don’t possess the bloody Russian visas, and only the transit would cost me 70 euro, which is ridiculous, not mentioning a compulsory pile of papers and bureaucracy steps in UB to get all the stuff done. The third option is a double flight combo (Olgyi – Oskemen – Almaty), lasting around 4-5 hours and reducing my budget by $295. Well, I have always felt this trip would be more of an adventure, shaping up its own way in its own time and no mater what I do or how hard I try, it’s not going to help much, just cause stress or create unneeded disappointments.


I was just asked to move to another ‘hotel’ room, plans and things around change within an hour. First of all, and as I have said earlier, I should have been on the road for over 29 hours by now, secondly, I left the hostel at 1:50pm today to meet the guys and leave at 2ish. In Mongolia, patience is the key to success, since traveling here itself is by far not so easy and language barriers on both ends (me and the Russian speaking Kazakh-Mongolians) can create quite a lot of havoc.

All I do is trying to keep things simple and you bet that during my all 8 hours of waiting for the departure I was always ready to jump off in a first whistle.

I had another alternative, to be honest, and even said to myself earlier this Tuesday morning that if the guys did not turn up at the meeting point (The State Department Store) between 2 and 3 o clock, I would leave and take a 15 hour train ride to the Chinese borders down south and from there cross pretty much the whole of China from Inner Mongolia (Chinese province) to Urumqi in the western Sinkiang province. Adding 2 more days to get to Almaty would have resulted in a week of travel (about 55-60 hours net train time and 28 hours on a bus after as a bonus). Making decisions by my naturally given talent of time play & logistics, I found this way to be cheaper and safer, but would involve backtracking to China, from which I have just come. Needless to say, this trip would be by far less adventurous and would not offer me enough new things to experience, since I already knew what to expect from train transportation in China. On the opposite, roadtripping through frozen white Mongolia for 2-3 days in a Russian old-school jeep (gazik) undoubtedly sounded like an ultimate (crazy maybe) way to go and presented another proper challenge for me to add up into my traveler’s basket.

When my driver Zharghan did not come by 2:30, I used a near-by stander’s phone to see how the story was unfolding. Well, the near-by stander is, however, too busy and before I get any info from the receiver, I need to hand him the phone back. Dang. Sometimes I hate myself for being so (European) time punctual. It’s almost 3pm and I am still standing at point Zero.  I am entering the department store knowing there is an information desk. Lady understands English, dials the digits and finds out Zharghan has no idea where I am, why I am waiting there (and probably why I am and not at the Kazakh Hotel – this is only what I think for now). The outcome of the phone call works out well though. They are coming in 30 minutes and picking me up here. Well, a half an hour in Mongolia is, as a matter of fact, more Brazilian than UK based, so after standing outside for almost 41 minutes, half frozen, I re-enter the Department store and the nice information desk officer redials the number, doing me another big favor. Yeap, the boys are coming and I choose to wait for them inside now. Finally, the decision not to go back to China is confirmed.

My new room, where I choose to sit, just not having a choice other than one empty bed with used-up bedsheets, contains 3 drivers, all chain smoking cheap local ciggies. Everybody sits or lies on everybody´s bed. Hygiene almost none, privacy zero. All of the guys are friends or so-called brothers, have the same hard jobs with little money and heaps of worries, so why stress their pure lives by anything else?! Bed sheets have surely not been washed for ages, the rubber floor displays all kinds of spots and is burnt by dozens of previously dropped and crushed cigarette buds.

Time is ticking… But not here. By all means I am not feeling uncomfortable. Rather opposite, and safe. People are friendly in their own way and I am sure there will be no trouble. It’s too early (or late?) to think about my Friday’s plane that I will most likely miss. Luckily (in some way), there is no online booking of a ticket available, the flight can be purchased only on a place, which means locals will sort me out and find a way how to move me to Kazakhstan.

Que sera sera, I am feeling prepared for whatever Mongolia brings. I have been dreaming to „breathe the air“ of this unique country for over 9 years. The driver seems to be ready, he changes his oily clothes, rubs his leather jacket with his greasy pants to make it shine a bit, washes his hands and now we all seem prepared to hit the road…/

Something after 11pm I am stepping out into the darkness with  the kind of excitement I can hardly  describe…Just as if it was not -23’C outside and I was only to enjoy a few hour ride to a Disneyland….

Part 2 – The Drive

We are leaving the sparsely lit suburbs of Ulaanbaatar around midnight. It’s 4 of us in total, the 2 drivers whom I met already (Zharghan, Kenz Bair) and his sister-in-law. It’s really cold in the car and I am wondering if this “Soviet machina“ has any heating. There is a gap on my left window and bits of insulation seem to be missing. I take all textile I can from my carry-on (my big bag is stuck behind me, so I can only dream to have more things handy) and sticking my Slovak flag into the window gap, putting a towel and the Mongolian flag on my hip side not to touch and feel the freezing doors from inside, I whisper to myself : “Boy, this is gonna be fun !?“. We drive till 3am this night and turn the engines off at a moon lit place where 7-8 gers (Mongolian traditional rounded tents) stand. We step into one of them as if invited or visiting family or friends. We get a warm welcome, some hot tea and we lie by the inner side of the ger. I can’t really sleep, so I just lie for two hours practicing avoiding listening to fellas snoring right by my face.

Waking up at 5ish, a simple breakfast consisting of tea and some bread may start the true journey. It’s sunny, the sky is blue, I can see mountains shaping relief on the horizons, dark colored horses contrasting on white snow and occasional ger communities here and there..Holy smoke, now I am and I feel the true Mongolia. We make a few stops to see some horse/shaman pagodas that are on our way and also to fix the motor of our vehicle /wasn´t that too early?/, take a leak, some pictures, switch the driver or eat at Mongolian ‘motorests’.

The car is completely packed with luggage that can’t be properly attached to anything, so it flies around and pretty irritates the already squashed people on the back seats (me and the 51 year old woman) by falling on their heads and shoulders. The car is actually pretty cool, easy to fix (thank God), with lots of head space, less of the leg one though. It’s close to impossible on most of the way to do anything inside the jeep, not even a simple maneuver. You just have to sit still and be patient. I am still doing some reading and writing as much as my skills in moving objects on advanced terrains allow. A car radio is a forgotten luxury. At 1:30pm and after over a 19 hour ride today we stop at a ger to get some food and finally enjoy the lie down position. The next, third day of our trip, starts early. After less than 5 hours of sleep we move on. The weather is a killer and half of the scenery is just a no-snow, flat brown dead land with such strong wind you can’t even get out of the car. The doors push themselves to close and any attempt to pee takes really good practice. With my face full of sand after each involuntary break we embark gazik and move on. There was nothing spectacular to see out of a jeep window before we crossed the city of Altay. I noticed only blown-up tires, a few dead (possibly frozen) animals and empty oil and vodka bottles. At one ger in Altay, where we stopped to eat, one physically unattractive but a try-to-look-good local woman offered me to make her a baby and using her body language showed some other things she could do for me. I was a diplomat and said we were busy going, but perhaps on my way back from Olgyi to UB I will stop by. You know by now I am not heading that way.

I am starting to compare this adventure to my Caribbean Sea crossing when I left Colombian Cartagena to sail by a 10 meter boat to the San Blas Islands of Panama. The sail normally lasts about 2,5 days to reach San Blas. It took me 7 to get with my two South African captains to the southernmost San Blas island, which was 24 hours of sailing from the location where we intended to arrive. Some things are identical here, in some ways even harder. Nobody brushes their teeth and even my hygiene box is still stuck in a no-go gazik space. The only thing I can do is to skip this activity just like the rest of the crew. Using a deodorant would be an out of this planet act, since I already feel pretty strange using a tissue when blowing my nose instead of spraying it freely into the wind. Changing clothes?  Heh, a  no-way dream, just as long as are the days and nights.  Luckily I can dig out some socks from the head of my backpack on the third day.  That’s all in terms of changing clothes on this trip.

Smoking and eating while driving is normal and the harder you cough, the tougher you are. Putting a hand in front of your mouth is not a common practice. Toilets can be found only at villages and they are all outdoor, no-paper squatters, hundred or so meters in open space of stretchy frozen fields. When you get to one of them and it’s not full of snow, you enter it balancing yourself on a few planks, separated from each other by about 25 cm gaps. The deeper the hole below you is, the better – just make sure you have zipped up your pockets. The plank-gap-plank-gap floor is covered by a wooden box {size of 2×1 meters} with a few gaps to feel the freshness of freezing wind blowing at your naked bum. Toilet paper is as sparse as pigeon’s teeth, so you’d better come equipped. If you don’t find the toilet, you hide yourself behind the rocks or curtain of darkness when the night falls. Washing hands is also tricky since water is only inside of the ger (in a bucket, extremely rarely you see a sink) and soap is almost never available. 99.9% bacteria killer liquid solution is a must if you want to keep your stomach working as long as possible.

The night is falling and there is some hitchhiker asking for a ride. Zhargan offers him a spot between him and the shot-gun seat. The crew now consist of 4 Kazakh/Mongolians and one Slovakian. A few hours before sunset the scenery is changing dramatically and suddenly we are driving in a completely white country. It’s really cold but the heater inside finally started working. We are crossing a mountain in a terrain which brings the first “what if” thoughts to my mind… The hardest part takes almost 2 hours, first up, then down, very carefully, not doing even 10km hour speed. Luckily, we are on the other side and after a really uncomfy day affording ourselves some rest at another ger since 11pm. My butt cheeks hurt so much from all this jumping in the car that I can barely get out of it and when finally standing, the last thing I have on my mind is to sit again.

We leave the ger the next day (Friday) at 8am. It’s cold and cloudy and the white countryside sends shivers down my spine. We have crossed the mountains behind us and there is still at least another day to go. There are no roads, you just follow the path marked by the tires in fresh snow. The sunburnt faced Zharghan, our main driver, is an absolutely fascinating person. A 160 cm or so short, 53 year old man is a pro driver, who loves driving, the activity he has been doing since his age of 18. GPS is in his head and we never get lost. Ok, we had once a 360 degree experience and got out of tracks a couple of other times but that’s really all about it. He still keeps the good vibe going by being chatty, positive and humorous. He is also the only one who speaks some Russian. Kenz Bair is a tough guy, 32 of age, even though I was first estimating him something close to 40. He is a guy, who owns this jeep and is running a few businesses around Mongolia. Now he’s hiring Zharghan to drive him and his 50 year old, half deaf sister-in-law, to Olgyi. They speak only a few words in Russian and I sit next to the lady during the whole trip.

A few hours later we see some suicidal Mongolian maniacs driving a passenger vehicle Toyota here and soon we are giving them a hand (=chain) taking them out from being stuck in the snow. Less than an hour later we are stuck ourselves and we all try hard to push our GAZ back to freedom. (Not sure what will happen to the Toyota boys somewhere behind us this day).

Long hours sitting at the back are filled with eating, day dreaming, sleeping and if terrain permits, also by reading and writing. During the breaks when ordering some food, I am catching up with my diary and taking pictures of all the things around, the existence of which your brain can sometimes just hardly understand. (On the third and fourth days I am helping myself with the pink pill, as I can’t sit normally anymore. On the fifth my bum got used to it all (or found its way), so I am fine without any dope).

We arrive in a city called Hovd something before 1am and let the hitchhiker go his way. This is our final destination for the day. All I know we are staying at Kenz Bair’s family’s place. The welcome is intense, long, full of hugs with at least half a dozen of people. Family gathers, food and sweets follow. “National Geographic“ steps in and makes shots from all possible angles. Vodka and toasts are always available in between. I try a squatter toilet, the third time in 4 days and still unsuccessful. Is anything wrong ? /= toughen up, Tom, or so Sam once told me/. After downing about 7 shots it’s close to 4am. All of my companions share one of the two rooms in the house, I am getting the kitchen area,where we drank and ate. All the leftovers get swept from the floor, I get a mattrace and off we go to a tipsy dreamland.

Saturday welcomes us with blue skies, the sun and smiley happy family members. We have a massive breakfast (forget English breakfast or cereals, toast and orange juice) – a big plate full of meat joins the table. Mutton, cow and horse are served before 8am. Bread in Mongolia? No way, it just wastes space in your stomach. It’s a meatland! I am surprised not to see a vodka shot, but reckon at the same time, all the bottles were emptied only a few hours ago.

After heartly bye byes and wishes translated from language to language I leave the house and sit into gazik, still with pieces of horse between my side teeth. We have only six hours to go today. Everyone feels more relaxed, the golden sunshine travels with us during the whole journey today and we definitely enjoy the most beautiful scenery we have had on this trip so far. Snow capped mountains show up and disappear. We cross the hills and drive around frozen lakes, watch shepherds in their thick fur coats and hats, riding horses behind their livestock feeding on yellowish grass sticking out of white grounds. The colors change from waking up spring grasses to fascinating black&white naturally created images.

Unfortunately, stopping is not possible. The crew are target/destination driven, me more wishing to please the Lumix needs. I don’t dare asking them to stop more than once, so all the pictures taken are more from places where we stopped to eat, wee or fix the jeep. There was no need to have an openable window in a jeep in the Soviet era I reckon, so all I can do is at least keep some photodocumentary from behind the glass.

The whole roadtrip from UB to Bayon Olgyi through winter Mongolia lasted from Tuesday night till Saturday afternoon. We have crossed 1700 kilometers in a Russian gazik, out of which only about 450 (right outside of UB) are paved, and spent 62 hours net time driving, making an average of 27km/hour. The story written above is solely made by my perceptions and created by experiences and feelings I had had during those 5 days. The way I saw things or places I visited may be neither 100% correct, nor sufficiently described, just like me not being any writer. I truly wish and hope not to have offended anyone. Cheers for your support.

Story to come next – ‘Bayon Olgyi’.