All hope was lost, and I had to made the excruciating decision who to eat first: the Belgian or the Mongolian. The Dogs from Hell were guarding the only entrance leading to the plains which stretched as far as the eyes could see. Never knew I would be stuck in a tent in the Mongolian desert with barely any heating, contemplating life and the meaning of it, while listening to the howling wind sing the song of the soon-to-be-extinct Przewalski horses. Or maybe I’m just being a bit dramatic.. A series of extraordinary events did actually happen and I will tell you all about it while I take you on my Journey of Disasters.
In this article
Part one – What is an Ulaanbaatar?
Many travelers pass by Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia) to break up the exhausting 7 day train trip known as “The Trans-Mongolian Express”, stretching from Moscow to Beijing, or visa versa. Many travelers (let’s call them tourists) decide on an all-inclusive travel agency package, which often includes the train ride, a night in a Mongolian homestay, all local transport and a visit to one or two national parks. Often, the train ride comes with a few stops in Irkutsk (Russia), Ulaanbaatar and sometimes Ulan-Ude. The stubborn traveler that I am, I decided to book the bare minimum package which would alleviate me of some headaches such as applying for a Russian and Mongolian visa, getting a Russian invitation letter from the ho(s)tels you’re staying at and booking separate train tickets for every leg of the Trans-Mongolian. I made sure it was leaving me enough flexibility to do what I felt like at the time. In hindsight, I would have done the same again.
Our sense of adventure starts tingling when we see the ’78 Toyota Prado and find out, after driving it down a block to stock up on food, that the engine doesn’t start properly.
A quick look on the Couchsurfing website revealed that there were plenty (fun-looking) couchsurfers in the Mongolian capital. After writing a couple of requests, I got a couch offered by Chin, an Ulan Baataar born local. After a couple of excellent days in Ulan Baataar (which I will write about in another article) I meet a Belgian fellow explorer named Dominiek in a place named “Cafe Amsterdam” (what are the odds) and we decide to embark on a roadtrip together to a national park named “Khustain”. One of this apparently Dutch owned park’s attractions is the regular sightings of a group of beautiful and endangered Prszewalsky horses.
Leaving for adventure
We start looking for options for a 3-day trip, and we find out that there are couple of self-employed guides which could arrange transportation to the park, which is about 100 kilometers away from the city with no public transport heading there. I casually ask couchsurfer Chin if he knows anyone that organizes tours, but surprisingly he offers to help out himself. “I could use a road trip and we could use my parents’ jeep”, is his motivation. Done! We happily agree and decide to leave the next day. Our sense of adventure starts tingling when we see the ’78 Toyota Prado and find out, after driving it down a block to stock up on food, that the engine doesn’t start properly. “The jeep hasn’t been used for a while”, is Chin’s explanation. Let the adventure begin.
The fact that the Polish president planned an official visit the same day as we head off gives us a sense of severe importance; there are policemen in neon vests lined up every 50 meters next to the road which we pass on our way out of the city towards the airport.
The way to the national park is more or less how I expected all of Mongolia to be: a bitter cold yellow desert. After a couple of hours we come across a single sign telling us to leave the (single lane) “highway” and go off-road. We follow a narrow and snowy tarmac road which often splits up leaving us with hard decisions to make on the right direction every time. We seem to have taken the right road and see a park full of Gers (the traditional Mongolian tents) near the entrance of the national park. As we feel more adventurous than staying in one of them we turn around and head to the first “real” Ger we can find, where we knock on the door and ask if we could stay for a night. The tent is surrounded by horses (the non-Przewalski kind) and not much else.
Nobody’s home, but the few puffs of smoke coming from the iron chimney indicate that someone has recently been here. After waiting a couple of minutes a tiny old lady shows up with two vicious-looking dogs. Chin asks her if we could stay at her place for the night (in Mongolian, which sounds oddly similar to Dutch sometimes because of the hard g-sound), and after settling on a small fee for food and shelter she agrees. We decide to hit the hay early, as we plan to wake up early the next morning to have a full day at the park.
Getting a good night’s sleep seemed to pose a challenge. An average Mongolian is 1.66m (5’5″) in height, and so are their blankets. The fact that the lady we stayed with was quite short for a Mongolian resulted in the fact that I was facing a dilemma: which do I cherish more, my head or my feet? One of them was surely going to get frostbitten (frostbited? frostbit?). Mind you, it was -14 celsius outside and the fire in the heating stove / oven / bbq has died off long ago. Old lady didn’t mind; she was snoring away in her mountain of thick short-person-sized blankets.
A broken-down car and the meaning of life
After a night of hardly any sleep it was time to find ourselves the horses we coveted so much. We had only one little problem: the car wouldn’t start. During the night the car had been parked outside the tent and was given a treatment of wind, bone-chilling cold and snow. Still, it was too cold to stay outside for more than 5 minutes, even with multiple layers of clothing, thick gloves and a Chinese Red Army Winter Hat with ear flaps.
After considering our options over a breakfast of yak milk and old bread (which melted smoothly in the milk), we realize how screwed we are without a car. Luckily, old lady (let’s call her Emee) offers to jumpstart our car with her towtruck. Chin, being the bravest of us all, goes outside to assist her. Dominik and I defy the cold and find a spot near the car to provide moral support. Nothing. It seems that the battery has gone complete flat or simply froze up. What to do? We spend a couple of hours freezing our asses off and thinking of a new strategy. Little did we know that the adventure was far from over…
Part two – Stuck in the Mongolian desert
Emee (our little Mongolian grandma) has an idea. She grabs her ancient Nokia phone and presses one of the numbers for a couple of seconds. Speed dial. A loud voice bursts through the speaker. We receive a summarized translation from our friend Chin: two men from a neighboring Ger (Mongolian tent) will come over with their car and have a look at our car. Hurray!
The cat who couldn’t care less
The men seem to have prepared themselves much better for the excruciating wind that is still making Dominiek and me hug our blankets: they are wearing layers of raw furry leather and a couple of thick waterproof trousers. Some leftover old bread and solidified yak butter milk is presented to them by Emee. The old lady has an scruffy, old-looking cat which gets tied to one of the wooden poles holding the tent up at any occasion involving food. By the neck. This meal was no exception. Poor cat.
Chin goes outside and has a look at the current situation of the car, together with the two locals. They chitchat a bit and try to jumpstart the jeep with their own car’s battery. No luck. After ruling out a couple of other probable causes, thereby touching almost every part under the hood of our car, the men give up. “The car is dead”, is the verdict. “We have to take it to a garage, which we can do for a fee”. Dominik and I turn to each other and start talking Dutch to swiftly figure out what to do. We decide the fee is too high, and the men leave.
Several hours and several phone calls (by Emee, in fascinating Mongolian) later there is still no real outlook on a feasible solution. Meanwhile, Chin has been outside chopping wood. Dominiek and I have no clue why; perhaps he is helping Emee to start up the fire in the Ger’s heating stove?
An hour or two later (it might as well have been 4, as time didn’t have any real value any more) I take a peek outside again to discover the jeep covered in what seems to be dried animal skin. We decide to go outside and ask what the plan is. As I approach the car I see that a fire has been lit underneath the car. “Now we play the waiting game”, Chin proudly tells us.
Since we have plenty of time to kill, Emee decides to treat us. She goes outside to her shed and returns with a huge piece of meat which seems to be a sheep’s leg. She begins to strip pieces off it and fries the bits with some oil in one of her little pans. We all get a plate with some rice on the side. Delish! Perhaps it was because I was a bit hungry at the time, but I still clearly remember how tasty the meat was.
After our dinner, we go outside again to see if Chin’s grand plan has worked out. Chin gets in the car, turns the key, steps on the gas and.. EUREKA! The car starts on the first try, and Dominiek and I jump up from excitement. After a round of hi-fives we decide to get on the road again as quickly as possible before it dies on us again.
We head to the entrance of the national park, where we get told that a guide will join us in our car to make it easier to spot the horses. Unfortunately the guide doesn’t speak a word of English (or Horse for that matter), so Chin has to act as a translator once again. We drive into the mountainous park full of uneven, snowy trails. Chin acrobatically picks the right lanes which still have a bit of ochre vegetation on the surface. We slip and slide but stay on the road. Meanwhile our guide has taken out his binoculars to scan our surroundings. He askes us to stop. No horses, but a flock/pack/herd/intimate gathering of deer. We get out of our car to have a closer look. I notice how beautiful my surroundings actually are; it’s these moments that I love while traveling. I know pictures never give you the same feeling as if you were there, but please take a second to take them in.
Soon after we are on our way again. Since we drive quite fast Chin has to make light-speed decisions on which roads to take. We go left, right, taking side roads while tilting the car to unimaginable angles. Then, finally: BAM! Our car ends up knee-deep in a vast pack of snow. We can hardly open our doors, but we decide to go outside to look at the damage. We don’t know where to start. It looks like we will be here for another couple of hours and it’s getting darker every minute. Luckily, Chin finds a small shovel and two wooden planks in the trunk of the car, almost as if he had planned to get stuck out here. He gets out and starts digging.
Slowly but surely, layer by layer, we can see the tires of our car again. We put the blade of the shovel under one of them, and the pieces of wood under the others. Chin gets in, starts the car and accelerates fiercely. Nada, the car doesn’t move an inch. Two hours of shoveling later, the car begins to shows a bit of leeway. Dominiek, I, and even the park guide rock the car back and forth, meanwhile balancing ourselves not to fall face-first in the snow. “One, two, three, PUSH!”, we shout. We manage to wiggle the car loose inch by inch, when finally the car gets some grip and jumps forward. All of us sigh in unison. We decide that this trip is somehow jinxed, and decide to turn around and head home. On our way to the highway the night falls, creating an eerie atmosphere around us. We turn the music up and get a bit cheery. What an adventure that was! Soon, we will be home in our warm beds again. Right?
Part three – It ain’t over ’till it’s over
It’s pitch-black in the Mongolian desert and we’re on an improvised road made of tarmac and snow which supposedly leads us back to the highway. We have only our Jeep’s headlights to guide us, denying us any reference points other than the road 5 meters ahead of us.
A fork in the road appears. Left? Left we go. Another fork. Right? It starts to feel like a gamble; our chances of reaching the highway shrink with every intersection. Chin’s iPod is connected to the car’s cassette player (with one of those magical fake cassettes with a cable attached to it) and his selection of Trance songs from one of Tiësto’s albums is bursting through the speakers.
Our euphoric state slowly diminishes. We have dealt with having a flat battery and survived getting the Jeep stuck in knee-deep snow, so what was in store for us next?
Dominiek squints as he looks outside through the side window. “Guys, it’s a power line!”, he screams enthusiastically. Both Chin and I remember seeing a power line on the way to the National Park, so we decide to follow it. Surely it would lead us back to the highway? Our Jeep’s road-fixed headlights provide us with a second clue: car tire tracks. Without questioning their origin we decide that we’re on the right road.
When I see a tiny source of light slowly moving at the horizon I can’t contain my excitement: “a car, a CAR!”.
I sigh deeply.
It feels good having asfalt under our wheels again. We’re on our way home again, this time for reals. We’re driving 120 km/h (75 mi/h) on a dead-straight but unlit highway and we reminisce about our adventures from earlier that day, which seem to have happened much longer ago.
As I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat, it doesn’t feel like I’m being driven. I get the same feeling when I’m sitting in the front seat of a coach; I feel a shared responsibility with the driver, as if we’re both there to make sure the bus arrives safely. Since it’s still pitch-black, it’s hard to stay alert. At the horizon, however, a flickering dot arises. “See that light?”, I warn Chin. “Yup”, he replies.
As the light becomes brighter Chin slows down, and we both squint our eyes to assess the situation. As we draw closer it’s still hard to figure what’s going on. The fact that an oncoming car uses it’s high beams isn’t helping. Chin slows down even more and gets ready to overtake the mysterious flashing light when suddenly: BAM! Holy shit. Fuck.
We haven’t come to a full stop but, in a split second, we decide to pull over. “What the hell?!”, both Dominiek and I blurt out, almost in unison. We take a small moment to recuperate. “Everybody ok?”, Chin asks. Since nobody seems to have any injuries we get out of the car and into the icy coldness (again).
We see a car with a trailer parked in the middle of our lane. The flashing light we saw was the car’s (only working) rear left hazard light, leaving the trailer and most of the car unlit. Judging distances in this situation was absolutely impossible. We walk towards the car to check if the passenger(s) are ok. We find a mother with a crying baby sitting in the passenger’s seat.
A BABY! A goddamn INFANT! Luckily for us, neither the mother nor the baby are hurt, only very distressed. Chin finds out that they ran out of fuel and simply parked their car in the middle of the lane. The husband hitched a ride and was getting a jerrycan full of fuel from a nearby gas station. Or so we thought, as later we learnt that he forgot his wallet in the car.
I’m still astonished that the husband let his wife and infant child to sit in a practically unlit car in the middle of a highway lane. It turned out, later, that he had advised his wife not to turn on the light inside the car as the car battery was practically flat. I simply can’t even.
The situation gets even more absurd when the mother refuses to step out of the car, fearing her child will suffer from the bitter cold. She also refuses to take a seat in Chin’s car, which is parked more safely on the shoulder of the highway. Meanwhile Dominiek and I fear for the traffic in the lane where the broken down car is parked. Dominiek gets out his red and white bicycle lights, and we take a stand behind the car, waving our dimly lit arms as if we’re bringing in a plane. It seems to be working; the cars slow down and slowly maneuver past.
Finally a car stops, and a man steps out. “What the hell happened?”, I imagine his first words were. It turns out to be the husband. The conversation continued in Mongolian, making poor Chin the sole point of conversation (and eventually negotiation).
The man, a simple farmer, demands a million Mongolian Tugrik (roughly 450 euro) to settle the situation without involving the police. The metal on the rear left side of his trailer is a bit bent, and the trailer’s hitch has broken from the impact. Chin’s jeep is slightly more damaged. The left part of the front bumper is barely holding up, one of the headlights is broken and the door on the passenger’s side won’t open any more.
Chin unsurprisingly refuses to pay (not that he had that kind of money on him anyway) and decides to call the police. As it takes them 3 hours to arrive at the scene, I’m imagining them being in the middle of a Star Wars marathon and they “just want to finish this one”. While we’re waiting Chin tries to convince the farmer to move his car towards the shoulder, making the situation far less dangerous. He stubbornly replies that he wants the police to see the exact position of his car. Dominiek and I shake our heads in disbelief after receiving the translation from Chin, and we continue to wave our tired arms to the oncoming traffic.
After half an hour or so of chatting in Mongolian, Chin and the farmer decide that Chin will take his Jeep and pick up a bottle of fuel at the nearest gas station. The farmer’s wife and child were to come with us too, for safety reasons. Safety reasons. I kid you not. Maybe he should have thought of that when he left his wife and child in a dark car on a pitch-black highway.
When our car slowly gains speed, we notice how busted up the front bumper really is. Every little bump in the road causes the bumper to chafe the wheel, so we stop to bend the hardened plastic back into it’s place with a piece of solid wood. A bit of tugging does the trick, and we make it to the gas station. On our way back we see blue and red lights flashing: the feds have arrived.
To be honest, the Mongolian cops seemed quite professional and fair. They noted down the stories from both sides, made sure the traffic was properly diverted and measured the distances between the two cars. It took about an hour for them to finish everything up and send us on our way. Although both cars had just enough life in them to get back on the road, there was one problem: the broken hitch.
Looking at Chin’s tired face I can tell he’s quite fed up with dealing with the ignorant farmer. To get it all over with, he offers to transfer the barrels of horse milk from the farmer’s broken trailer to the trunk of Chin’s Jeep. It’s a nasty business, since the barrels are extremely heavy and hard to maneuver. Somehow we manage, and it’s time to get our horse milk smelling selves back to Ulan Bator.
It’s 1 am and the slow pace we’re keeping to avoid any risks makes me weary. I wake up around 4 am, outside the farmer’s house. The barrels have to be offloaded again, which required both Dominiek and my help. Chin and the farmer decide to settle things insurance-wise in the morning.
Finally we are able to drive off to Chin’s parents’ house, dropping Dominiek off on the way. What. An. Adventure. It still is one of the most absurd journeys I’ve been on.