With money in hand we were in a much better position, we asked the hotel staff where we could get get a van from. We were pointed to the end of the main road. We had been here the day before but Monday morning meant is was busy with people and the loud speaker was voicing a constant stream of announcements. There is only a small public transport system in Mongolia that serves the centre of UB and the trains to Russia and China. The rest is privately owned minivans, Russian jeeps or hitching. Larger towns will have a place, usually by the main market, where you can describe your journey to a person in a small booth, they will announce your requirements over a tannoy and then you have to hope that someone is going your way. So we got our message across using Liz’s pictures she had drawn the day before. A small group had started to gather around us anyway and we were ushered to different cars and people, hoping each time that we might get a ride. Eventually we were sat in one van and started negotiating a price.
Our issue was we had four days left on our visa or 14 if the exit visa gave you 10 days to leave the country. We could not be sure and did not want to risk a hefty fine or problems at the border that has also only just opened to tourists. The driver said he could take us and get us there in four days but the price was astronomical. We called our friend Dash in UB to double check that we had everything right. We did and Dash had also checked with a friend of his who confirmed the price was reasonable. The driver want fuel money not only for the trip there, but also to cover his costs for the way back – 1600km round trip.
It was a lot of money, but we decided to go for it. We did not know the exact date for the visa. Hitching rides could take a lot longer and Liz had some work to do in the coming weeks. This work relied on a good and fast internet connection, something that we had not had since leaving UB, so we needed to get to China.
We went back to the hotel and loaded up the van with all our stuff, then had some food. You never know how long something is going to take in Mongolia so its always good to embark on any journey with a full stomach and plenty of food for the journey. After lunch we got back into the van and in true Mongolian style we spent another hour driving around the town picking up parcels from different houses before setting off.
We drove across more wild country with nothing but grass and the occasional animal, stopping at a few small towns on the way. We arrived late at night to the city of Ulaistai, we did not really know what the plan was now, we told the driver we had camping stuff and hotels were expensive. They asked if we minded sleeping in a Ger, not at all but how much would it cost? We drove up to an apartment bloc, not a ger and were made welcome into a families home with tea and a place to sleep. Quite confused, we chatted with our new hosts who turned out to be the mother of our driver. She was very nice, with kind smiley eyes and made us feel very welcome. We were given food and then offered a place to sleep for the night, but not before game of chess with one of the children and some group photos. We rolled our sleeping mats out on the floor and settled in for the night. It seemed quite normal for some reason to be sharing a small room with our drivers mother and sister while Liz and I took the floor with our Thermarests. The next morning we were woken at 8.30 am and had a light breakfast before saying goodbye to the mother of the house. She was a kind smiley old lady whom we had felt at ease with.
It was 10 am before we set off, we didn’t know it yet, but it was going to be a long day. We left the city and the houses became less and then the gers became less until we were out in the open, as the day progressed it got colder and colder and there was snow all around us. The road varied between good tracks and really bumpy intothe evening where we were driving at night negotiating boggy tracks where getting stuck would have been all too easy. Our driver did a good job and we made it out the other side of the mud and back on to firmer ground. It was now almost 1am and we were not sure where we were sleeping. Eventually we pulled up to a ger in the middle of nowhere. An old lady welcomed us in. We laid our beds out in the ger and quickly got to sleep.
The next morning we had tea and soup and were back on the road in record time. It was a crisp fresh morning and i was missing the bike. I had really missed the bike over the last two days, the freedom of stopping on your terms and being in control were a far cry away from the van ride that i was not really enjoying. Partly because i wanted to be outside and not inside a metal box and also our driver. We had not really connected with him, and there was a certain amount of wariness on his and our parts. Normally spending a few days with someone you will bond, but here there was nothing. I don’t think i really trusted him and i was also resentful for paying all this money. The latter was a bit unfair as i had agreed on the price but we were paying for him to go back home as well which i felt was unreasonable because he could have easily filled his van with local traffic moving between towns. I think a few bad experiences in the week before the van ride had really made me wary of people. Still this was the last day of the van and i would be back on the bike soon enough.
A few hours into the first day and we joined the tarmac road that comes from China. It was built by the Chinese mining companies to provide good access to the mines in Mongolia. The riches in Mongolia are being exported to China helping fuel its industrial development. We stopped for some tea by the side of the road, we used the last of the water in our thermos for the driver, his wife and friend and us before the final push to the town of Bulgan.
We arrived there about 3pm and were surprises to find a large town with quite a lot of people shops and buildings. We unloaded the van paid the rest of the money and the driver gave a short wave before heading off. There was no emotial goodbye or farewell this was a transaction that had now ended and i think we were both glad. We got some food and cycled out of town on the road to the border. We found a quiet spot to check email and move some money into our current account so that we could get some cash out in China. While we were doing this a large group of kids came by interested in what we were doing, they had been fruit picking and offered us some of the fruit. They were excited and full of energy which was a pleasant change from how i had felt over the last few days. We accepted their gift and they told us we could get some more not far from here.
We packed up the laptop and set off a few more kms up the road and towards China to find a place for our last nights camping in Mongolia. We found a good spot off the main road, well hidden and Liz cooked up the last of our food. We reflected on Mongolia and our time here in general. I was a little sad but Liz reminded me to think of all the good things that had happened too. The time that we spent in UB, where we made some really good friends and met a lot of lovely people will stay with me forever and i hope that some of those friendships will continue to grow. Outside of UB though I had found interacting with people in the countryside to be hard. They were either super friendly, excited to see you and welcoming; drunk; trying to steal something from you, or asking to have something of yours or your money; or indifferent to your presence. On top of this our basic Mongolian was not enough. I think that having a better grasp of the language or travelling with a person that spoke Mongolian and English would have made things more enjoyable and interesting
I also realise that i could have been just unlucky, we have met people that have hated countries that we have loved because they had bad or negative experiences there, a lot sometimes comes down to chance. I still like Mongolia and i want to come back so don’t let me put you off, just be aware of some of the annoyances here as there are in any country in the world. I have already thought of a short expedition here for the future. It is quite a challenge and will probably be almost some of the hardest things i will ever do.
So with the reflections over we switched off our headtorches and had our last night in Mongolia, fee again.