The outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. An elongated, stout version of an early 90s style toyota mini-van stood courageously in front of me. Dark green in colour, and angry. This is no family vacation vehicle. It doesn’t know what the “school run” is. It has seen things that would make a lesser van turn and flee.
I climbed inside the musty interior of the Green Devil. Second hand pink and yellow car seats were bolted haphazardly to the floor. Engine vents were ready to belch fumes directly into the cabin. This was going to be Spartan. I was joined by six others, our driver and enough provisions to get us through any situation. It was D-Day.
I’m like any other budget adventure traveller, I have tales of discomfort. Of riding a 19 hour, hard seat night train in China or an over filled mini-bus with some girl vomiting metres from me. The air-con doesn’t work. A sweaty local, passed out, snoring in my ear.
I may love to travel but actually getting from A-to-B is not the glamorous, inspiring part. So why do I do it?
Surely it’s the destinations? Not the cramped local transport I put up with to get to them? I’d always felt like that. But Mongolia changed everything.
I’d scored a spot in a Russian military van. Although the name sounds daunting, these aren’t used for military purposes anymore. These relics of the Soviet Union now ferry tourists from one attraction to the next. The benefit of this cold war technology: it was built to endure.
Our invincible vehicle smashed through open countryside and mud at terrifying speeds. Leaping across the landscape like an overweight ballerina. There isn’t a wilderness driver in Mongolia who couldn’t crush any western rally driver. Ours is no exception.
Welcome to the frontier. The least densely populated, independent country in the world. In this wilderness it’s just us and the bumps. Always the relentless bumps, rattling my blood. Tire tracks lead endlessly into the distance, the only scar on this unworldly, epic landscape. Follow and hope.
As we cross each ridge I look for signs of civilisation. They never come. Just one or two “Gers” (Mongolian tents) and someone herding sheep on a motorbike.
That first 24 hours east of Ulaanbaatar is a movie location scout’s daydream. As I stare through the window, every mile brings a new stimulus. From the dusty, rundown city out to grasslands roamed by camels. High, rocky outcrops appear from nowhere and disappear as quickly. Then we arrive in sand dunes that would be more befitting a scene from Lawrence of Arabia.
Living in a landscape like this, it’s amazing that Mongolian poetry is so banal.
We visit a group of buddhist stupas on a hill. Six white, bell shaped pillars tapering to a sharp point skywards. The only permanent man-made structures we’ve seen in seven hours of off-road driving. As a giant red moon rises out of distant mountains, we camp down for the night.
The next day we head south to the Orkhon valley. Yet another landscape to absorb. Black Igneous rocks sprout from the ground unpredictably as our driver swerves to avoid them.
If we breakdown out here, there is no tow truck to rescue us, just the ingenuity of the driver and his finesse with sticky tape and elbow grease. Mongolian emergency maintenance.
We Saunter into the days’ main attraction. Finally, other people. The wide plain drops suddenly into a small valley revealing a gushing 30 metre waterfall – no water shortages here in Mongolia. After having much of the country to ourselves, it’s bizarre to be engulfed by nearly 100 tourists, mostly Mongolians, jostling to get selfies.
For all the hours of bumpy roads, this waterfall was nothing special. Maybe there was something else that made the trip worthwhile.
We return to our trusty vehicle, ready to be buffeted from side to side. Constant, nauseous movement. But as our van-come-roller-coaster traverses the wilds of Outer-Mongolia there is a realisation.
This truly uncomfortable mode of transport is not just a means to get between towns, cities, or tourist attractions. It’s not a Chinese night train, tolerated for the prize at the end of the tracks.
The van is Mongolia.
It’s wild, untamable, insane yet reassuringly robust. It has survived, never changing, part of a natural unity. When the Russians left, the vans stayed, like adopted children who have found their true family.
I’d never thought getting from A to B could be so exhilarating. Cocooned inside our dark green washing machine, the view through the tiny windows an ever changing landscape. The journey more inspiring than the destinations. I had discovered the essence of adventure travel.
It no longer mattered where we were going, just that we were going.
About the Author: Tom Williams blogs for the Five Dollar Traveller website. From riding a crocodile in Thailand to getting drunk and going clubbing with Muslims in Mongolia, Tom is living the dream… and then writing about it.
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