Transportation is always an experience here in Mongolia for several reasons.
- Punctuality: You actually thought you were leaving at 6:00 pm because that’s what the driver told you?! Haha, you fool!
- Crammed quarters: Unless there are three people to a seat, the vehicle is not full.
- The roads, or lack thereof: The only roads that are paved in Mongolia are the major ones between aimag centers and within the aimag centers themselves. Otherwise most roads are dirt or gravel tracks. And don’t be surprised if your driver opts for a route free of roads all together. ‘Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!’
- Sharing the roads: Think roads are only for vehicles? The animals have a different opinion. Weaving through herds of horses, cows, goats, sheep, and camels is all part of the journey.
- The weather: Bad snowstorm? River flooded? You’re either not traveling or traveling on a prayer with drastic results. My condolences.
- Road rules: I’m at a loss for how more accidents don’t occur every year in Mongolia. Checking to make sure the way is clear before turning onto a road is rare. Instead of looking, drivers will listen for the honk of an oncoming car to know whether or not it’s safe to turn. Signaling, who needs it? Lanes, what are those?
With the above uh… charms of Mongolian transport, it’s no surprise that every volunteer has at least one horror story. My worst travel so far was the 14 hour drive back from Govi Altai after Special Olympics. About 12.5 of those hours were spent on dirt roads. At a particularly bumpy part of the road our vehicle became practically airborne with only the two right wheels maintaining contact with the rocky terrain. We also got a flat tire after dark in the middle of nowhere when it was below freezing. But the coup de grâce was waking from fitful slumber to a horn blaring and a semi truck driving at full speed towards us only to swerve at the last moment. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to have a travel experience that surpasses this nightmare in my remaining 16 months of service.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
There are flights to some of the Western aimags and a train line that runs from Russia through Ulaanbaatar to China, but I haven’t taken either of those yet so I thought I would focus on road transportation in this post.
Cars: It might not surprise you that Mongolia doesn’t have any domestic car companies. That isn’t anything special, but it means that Mongolia imports all of its cars and it imports them mainly from other Asian countries, including Japan. In case you weren’t aware, they drive on the left side of the road in Japan. That means that a lot of cars on the road have the steering wheel on the wrong side. Now I’ve spent a lot of time in Scotland so I’m used to being a passenger on the left side of the car on the left side of the road, but it is quite different to be a passenger on the left side of the car on the right side of the road. It just feels wrong.
Purgons: You can find many holdovers from the Soviet era in Mongolia. One of them is the Purgon, but interestingly enough they are only still used in the southern aimags. Purgons are what the VW bus would look like had it been designed for the army and not for hippies. Unfortunately, they’re not very reliable. Just ask my site mate Nik about the one time he had to save children from one that got stuck in a river.
Mikr: Mikrs (or micro buses) are Purgons’ swanky cousin. Of course, just because they’re a step up from Purgons doesn’t mean that they’re luxury on wheels. During PST we regularly took a Mikr into Darhan for our weekly meeting with the other PST sites. We quickly learned that the back of the bus is not a fun place to be, despite what your middle school peers would have had you believe. On these dirt roads there are a lot of bumps and you feel them the most in the back seats. Mostly, it’s just a light jostling, but every so often you are literally thrown in the air to land somewhere other than your seat – usually the lap of the person next to you or the aisle.
People who were suffering from food related discomforts were always given the seats nearest the door. It was only common courtesy. There was no way any of us wanted to be showered by their breakfast because their stomach had had enough of, what we called, ‘The Mongolian Roller Coaster.’ On the drive back from AmarBaysgalant Monastery I was sitting in the very back of the Mikr when we hit a particularly bad bump and my spine felt like it compacted. It was a few more days before I could carry weight on my left side.
Autobus: The buses, at least those on major routes, are actually quite nice. Most of them are old tour buses from Korea apparently. Thankfully, buses are an exception to the idea that a vehicle isn’t full until you’re sharing your seat with at least two other people. The bus trip between Ulaanbaatar and my site is roughly 11 hours and it makes one scheduled stop and usually two bathroom breaks. If the word bathroom break conjures images of tidy rest areas on the side of the highway you are sorely mistaken. The bus pulls off the road onto the dirt. Women and men walk out into the fields on either side of the road. That is a Mongolian bathroom break. On my first drive out to site we stopped during a very beautiful sunset. I grabbed my camera to take a picture, but soon discovered I couldn’t get a good angle without also capturing a sea of about 30 women squatting. Now I wish I had taken it anyways, but at the time I thought it might be strange.