A journey to the Gobi with public Mongolian transport can be quite the adventure. Especially when the drive is about 16 hours long and over night.
One of the things that I enjoy when being on the road is to just go with the flow of the journey. For me that means to let plans change in order to allow for new exciting experiences.
So, when I had a few drinks with the other travellers at my little hostel on my first night in Ulan Bateer and someone suggested going to the Gobi together, I slept a night on in and decided to not go to the East for now.
And so it came that I sat in front of the hostel with Christina and Sebastian, the two Germans I met on the trans-Mongolian train, and a Slovakian guy I had just talked to for the first time five minutes ago, to wait for the fifth of our group, a French man buying our tickets, called Ruben.
The bus was supposed to leave at four in the afternoon and we agreed to meet at 2.30pm in order to get there in time through the clogged streets of overcrowded Ulan Bateer. A city that was built for less than half the population it now hosts.
When it was after three and Ruben still didn’t show up we started wondering if maybe he had left without us since we were all a bit late. Nobody really got too worried. We can just take the bus tomorrow morning.
When Ruben finally arrived, panting from running the last bit to the hostel, I was less than prepared to leave. This of course is only because I should’ve gotten the last bits and bobs ready while waiting instead of sitting in the sun and chatting. Oh well, how important can the battery for your camera and your hat be?
How to fit five people of various body sizes with their gigantic backpacks into a taxi
Ruben told us that it was a really long way to the bus stop and that traffic was horrible. The consequence of this news and the fact that we only had about half an hour till the bus left, made us do the impossible possible. The five of us plus our back packs squeezed into a car so tiny that it didn’t even have a trunk.
To completely appreciate how tightly we were packed let me say that the Slovakian, who in the car introduced himself as Vladimir is not exactly small. He’s a well built big guy, on who my 20 litre travel backpack that when fully packed looks like another me appears like a normal rucksack.
Moreover our backpacks were all the size of teenagers, and Western chubby teens at that. Finally we had a few plastic bags with food and necessities such as toilet paper.
At one point I thought we might not make it to the bus without one of us suffocating (probably me, because I was squeezed between Vladimir (who at some point couldn’t move his left arm), Christina and Seb who sat on each others lap) and had three backpacks and food bags around me.
It definitely was one of the most hilarious and physically painful taxi rides. But, we made it in time.
An introduction to Mongolian long distance adventures… err bus rides
Of course by the time we were there our numbered seats in the front were taken. So we had squeezed ourselves and our chubby kids, I mean backpacks, into the way back.
I was the only one with a Mongolian seat neighbour, who the Mongolian couple in front of me suggested to move and sit beside a Mongolian girl. But he embarrassedly refused. I credited that with including him in the rounds of dried food and dried meat I handed out to my new travel buddies.
We were supposed to arrive in the early hours of the morning and had naively planned to sleep on the bus, thus saving us time and money for a hostel. After about half an hour it was clear that that was a Utopian dream that would never meet reality- as the ten-seater bus sped over the ragged Mongolian streets we were literally thrown up in the air every few minutes.
A road that’s actually a dirt path
Especially Ruben and Vladimir in the back were levitating two thirds of the journey. I fell of my seat several times, because my seat was just right over the wheel and therefore there was hardly any leg space. Oh well, only eleven more hours to go.. Or more..
Luckily, when you have good company these situations are not just painful but also fun. We had as good a time as possible and made the other passengers turn around several times with our loud laughter.
As soon as we left Ulan Bateer the landscape was amazing. The vastness and emptiness of Mongolia is breath taking. Small yurts or houses here and there, but else nothing much, except for the horizon in front of you. Funnily enough this emptiness feels incredibly fulfilling.
For a little while we were driving a paved road, that started as sudden and seemingly random as it ended. The road someone told us was being build by the Chinese who heavily invest in Mongolia in order to get a chunk of it’s rich natural resources.
After the empty skies of urban China, an ocean of stars and planets
Our first longer stop was on a small hill where the team of our bus had to change one of the tires. As the sun went down and a giant beautiful moon started to rise, girls went to the left and guys to the right to relieve themselves behind the few bushes that were the last ‘taller’ vegetation before the Gobi desert.
Our parking place was strewn with old broken tires, not surprising considering the condition of the dirt path and the speed of our driver (who at least wasn’t drunk, apparently a common problem).
When we started our journey again I moved to the front as per Vladimirs suggestion, who was quickly turning out to not only be very funny with an infectious laugh but also a true gentleman.
He was right and I was even able to sleep half an hour or so even though it was still a very bumpy ride. My new seat neighbour was a friendly old Mongolian who used to be a driver and now seemed to take the role of an advisor. Laughing away any minor problem, such as the ignition dying half way.
In the middle of the night we reached something that the full moon and an endless amount of stars lit up to be the most deserted place I’ve seen so far. Flat nothing with a tiny little bit of dry grass here and there, describes it best.
When I opened my eyes next and looked out of the now open door I first thought we had driven right into a lake. I was close. The last days had seen quite a bit of rain and somehow we had driven into something between a shallow lake and a ginormous puddle.
The wheels turned. Nothing happened. The guy who so far had had the job to help change the tire and hand 2 litre bottles of purple soda to the driver went to the back, took out a shovel and jumped into the muddy water.
Still we only moved a bit and got stuck again. A second car stopped and with the help of Vladimir, my first seat neighbour and some guys from the other bus our vehicle got pushed and shovelled out of the mud.
A few metres further the other vehicle got stuck and the whole bus burst out into laughter.
With only two hours delay we reached Dalanzadgad the entryway to the Gobi desert.
- A ride on the Trans-Mongolian Railway (vivianesview.wordpress.com)