Destination: Mongolia

Jul 18, 2013 by

The following is a completely typical travel tale for me. This sort of thing always happens to me when I’m traveling. Sure, the day didn’t quite go to plan, but there’s more to it than that. Let’s begin.

Let us first start with Ross. On our last night in Ulan Ude, Russia, Sara and I met Ross at our hostel. We were already three large pints of Tuborg Black deep, and when we got back to the hostel we had our dinner there. Our system is that I do the cooking (because Sara hates cooking), and Sara does the washing up (because I hate doing dishes). Ross showed up and after the usual jovial travelers’ introductions, he says, “I should go get my bottle of whisky.” I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.

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We (Sara the Aussie, Ross the Aussie, Asger the Dane, and me the Canuck) proceeded to polish off the majority of that bottle and stayed up until 4:00 am shooting the breeze like only 4 strangers in a hostel can.

The next day came like a kick in the face. It was the day my Russian visa ran out, and we had to leave the country one way or another. And actually, two of the three possible options for leaving Russia were not available to us. Option one was take the train. Because of the 10-12 hour delay at the boarder, we would not be able to do this. We’d used that time in Russia instead of sitting on the train at the border. Option two was take the bus. This was supposed to be much quicker and through our research, we found out that we could book this once we arrived at our hostel in Ulan Ude. When we arrived and inquired about this option, we were informed that the bus was booked up until a couple days after my visa expiry date. This left option three.

So good morning and a kick to the face. Let’s go option three.

I was feeling pretty crusty, and we can blame the beer and whisky all we want, but I blame a lack of food. All I wanted when I went to bed* that night was something with some carbohydrates in it – crackers, a dry piece of bread, anything. Because we were in a hostel, we did not have this luxury. We didn’t even have the resources to order a late night pizza, which any self-respecting drunk would do. In the morning, there was no breakfast available, so we hit the road and got on our way. I had the thought that I may be able to buy some baked good at the bus station with my left over change.

[*as I wrote this, I typed “when I went to bread”… ah, if only.]

Our walk to the bus station (with all our bags) took us 20 minutes. When we got there, we waited in line to ask about tickets to Kyakhta, the Russian border town. We found out we had to pay on the bus (which was more of a mini-van) and that the price was 350 rubles, not the 250 we had anticipated. This drained our cash pool a lot more dramatically than we had budgeted for. Immediately I knew there was no bread or water in my future.

We were allocated seats on the bus. I was given the very back seat, a sideways facing seat beside the back door. Sara sat in the seat in front of me facing forward. It was a tight squeeze, and actually, we didn’t properly fit in there at all.

I tried to make the most of it despite feeling crusty and prickly, and my arm was rubbing on the back of Sara’s seat with every bump (and these are Russian roads!) so that soon, it began to feel irritated and raw. I put my iPod on and listened to some music. I watched the landscape roll away beneath the bus, I closed my eyes.

About two hours into the ride, as I was sitting there with closed eyes, quietly trying to rest and enjoy myself, I felt a sudden rush of air. All the reasoning that happened in my head was this: Wait, but the windows to this backdoor don’t open.

I opened my eyes and saw that the door beside me had flung open, the road peeling along right beside me. I had no seat belt on – there were no seatbelts. 

Let me just say (and I don’t know if I can properly explain this), but this is ACTUALLY ONE OF MY GREATEST FEARS. Next to heights, falling out of a moving vehicle is one of my other major irrational fears. But now, how irrational is it? I always wondered what would happen if I were in a moving vehicle and the door containing me in said vehicle just popped open. Would I get sucked out? Would the door close itself? Would I scream? Would my skin get peeled off on the pavement like grape skin? I was relieved that my instinct was to grab onto the headrest of Sara’s seat, and that I was clear enough of mind to have the thought, “I can do this for hours if I have to.” Sara reached around and grabbed my arm, holding me in the van.

The brave Russian man sitting next to me (and facing forward) reached out and grabbed hold of the door and swung it shut. I touched his arm in thanks and we continued on. I sat tightly and firmly in my seat, no longer trusting the vehicle. I kept my eye on the latch and sure enough, the door hadn’t been closed properly, and it popped open again. By then, thankfully, the driver pulled over to sort out the situation properly.

When the other passengers invited me to move up to the front of the bus after this trauma, I maneuvered my way awkwardly (and eagerly) through the bags and knees on wobbly, noodle legs.

The ride to Kyakhta was just over three hours. It started to rain just as we were arriving. We were stopped right before the town, and a Russian official checked our documents. Then we were dropped off in Kyakhta and Sara and I looked at each other, the rain pouring down. “Now what?”

We understood we could either hitchhike or grab a taxi across the border. The problem was that we were almost out of rubles. With no one seeming overly eager to pick us up, a taxi driver found us, and he said it would cost 150 rubles to take us to the border. We pooled our resources and came up with 100 rubles, and for some reason (probably from my recent trip to the Caribbean), I had 2 American dollars in a pocket in my bag. We gave this to our taxi driver at the border. We were confused, however, because we understood that we could get a taxi to take us across the border. This driver was not interested in doing this, so we got out of his car.

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There, we met 3 other travelers, a French brother and sister and a Brazilian guy they had met while traveling on the train in Russia. They managed to convince two different cars to take us across the border. The agreement comes at a small cost, and we were fortunate enough that the Brazilian guy had money enough for us too. We promised to pay him once we were in Mongolia.

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The border crossing was surprisingly smooth. The brother and sister and Sara and I piled into a mostly broken car, driven by an overweight Mongolian man with cakes stacked high in his back seat window. His windows had to be opened and closed by hand (I mean this literally, he opened the door, placed the window between his hands and shimmied it up or down), and not all the doors opened from the outside. Most of the knobs of the car were nonexistent and tubing and lining on various parts of the car were in the process of falling off. It was a treat, and it got us from A to B.

The first stop at the Russian side was straightforward. We all got out, removed our bags from the trunk and an official looked in the trunk and in the back and front seat of the car. I surmised that this was to see if we were hiding someone. There was no searching of bags and no question of drugs or value of goods we may have with us (not that we particularly looked like any of us were worth very much).

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The second stop at the Russian side was the passport check. We took turns standing at a window and handed our passports to the Russian woman inside the little office. She scanned our passports under a machine which illuminated numbers and symbols on the pages that I didn’t know were there. She scanned our passports in another machine and then tapped furiously at a computer. She studied our faces carefully, looking up and down from our passport photos to our faces 3 or 4 times, scanning our features. Each of our visits ended with a satisfying thunk of her stamp, showing we had left Russia.

We then drove to the Mongolian side. The first Mongolian official scanned over our passports and handed each of us an immigration paper. We filled those out and then entered the Mongolian immigration office. There, we waited for our turn to speak to the next official, sitting in little boxes like those at airport customs. While we waited, a lady took our passports and the immigration card and wrote a number on it – some sort of code? – and handed everything back to us. The Mongolian official smiled at me (a smile? from a border crossing official?), took my passport, tapped gently at his computer and thunk. Another stamp. After this, I sent my backpack through an X-ray scanner, and the Mongolian manning this station paid no attention to our bags as they crossed the screen in front of his face. “Finished,” he said to us, and we grabbed our bags, headed back outside and got back into the broken car.

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Once in the car, the third and final Mongolian official checked our passports one last time and then smiled. “Enjoy your journey,” he said. This alone surprised me immensely. Someone wants me to actually enjoy something? This was a far cry from the cold and firm Russians we’d come across, at least those in positions of “power”.

And there you have it. We were in Mongolia. And that’s precisely where our driver left us. He drove around the corner from the border crossing and told us to get out of the car. Before he drove off, his car broke a little more, and someone had to push his car to get it to a roll before he was able to start it up again and rumble off.

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Our three lovely travel companions were indecisive, and they had glorious ideas of catching a bus here or there or bargaining with cab drivers. Keep in mind, I’d had no real food or liquid since I woke up that morning, and by this time, it was 3 o’clock, the border crossing taking close to 2 hours. My brain was beginning to lose function.

After much delay and discussion, and tiny Mongolian ladies attacking us with stacks of Mongolian currency, trying to get us to exchange the money we didn’t possess, we finally agreed to hitchhike. I was the first one to throw out my thumb. But two vehicles drove past before one stopped. The five of us hopped into the back of this truck (with pebbles of some sort of animal excrement) and with the wind whipping our hair about, we were on our way.

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Sara and I knew we could catch a local bus to Ulaanbaatar, and this was our plan, but we had to get to the nearest town to do so. In going with these three travelers (who, keep in mind, paid our way across the border), we ended up in Sukhbaatar, which ended up not being the right town to get the local bus. We managed to find an ATM, pay our Brazilian friend, and then I was getting desperate for nourishment and fluids so Sara and I dashed into the first convenience store we found. As we struggled to not only communicate with the shop girl but also decide what we wanted, we heard a sweet little voice.

“Do you need help?”

“Yes,” I said, not hesitating.

The girl, a Mongolian, translated for us and helped us buy Cokes and bread (sugar! calories! carbs!). Then she told us she was taking a taxi to Ulaanbaatar and that she would help us arrange a taxi as well. As we’d found out, the buses were in fact not running from there at that time, so a taxi was our only option. In the end, we shared her taxi to Mongolia’s capital city. Our new Mongolian friend’s name? Onon.

Once in the taxi, I sucked back my Coke, ate a few pieces of sweet bread rolls, then rested my head awkwardly against the backseat and passed out for a while. I woke up later to catch the exciting performance of Mongolian highway drivers, weaving in and around potholes, passing the cars in front of them with little space to spare. I thought how sleeping was a much better way to experience this kind of car ride.

We stopped once for dinner.

It was stupendous.

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Onon and I chatted as we made the nearly 5 hour ride to Ulaanbaatar. She’s an incredibly lovely and kindhearted person. For this story, though, let’s skip to the good stuff. She informed me that this taxi driver was not taking us to our hostel.

“Where is he taking us, then?” I asked.

“To the edge of the city.” Onon answered. “But my mother is picking me up, so you can come with us. My mother will take you to your hostel.”

After I gushed thanks, I asked, ‘How would we get there if not for you?”

“You would take a taxi, but because you don’t speak Mongolian, you will probably pay more than you should.”

That, and it was after 10:00 pm and dark by the time we arrived. Plus I was burnt out from our long day, and from my (improperly cared for) hangover. Our taxi driver pulled into a parking lot full of people and cars next to businesses with neon lights flickering and flashing at us. If not for Onon, I might have been overwhelmed. Her mother and sister met us in the parking lot, we fit our bags into their trunk, slipped into the backseat, and they drove us to our hostel. Having seen the map and the address of our hostel, they assured us that they knew where they were going (and that they lived not much farther). Even with that, Onon had to phone the hostel three times to ask for help in finding it.

Once inside, we rinsed off in ice cold showers (rather, I had a sponge bath), and I hit my hostel bed like a bag of rocks.

I said at the beginning of this post, a day like this is not so weird, not so out of the ordinary for Traveling Colleen. This kind of thing happens to me all the time when I am on the road, where at the end of the adventure, I wonder how I got there, how I managed, how I survived. I said, there’s more to this story than the day not going to plan.

There’s more to it than that. There’s luck, a word that just doesn’t seem to cut it when I describe this story of how I arrived in Mongolia. It’s luck. It’s a stranger at the border with some extra cash. It’s someone like Onon.

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13 Comments

  1. wow, what an epic day!! crazy! mongolia does not look like i pictured it in my head (something about a snowy blizzardy place with reindeer…hmmm..not sure where i got that from).

    also, glad you did not get sucked out of the car. i had your worst fear happen once – no seatbelt on in a friend’s old truck, turned a corner and i leaned against the door and it popped open. i was lucky to get away with road rash…but the truck almost ran me over. so i’d say it’s a valid fear 🙂

    • Colleen

      Actually, that’s weird you should mention that. Mongolia has a population (albeit a very small one) of reindeer people in the north.
      And man, I’m glad you understand one of my no-longer-irrational (?) fears!

    • Colleen

      Hahaha… are you sure about that? I say this sort of thing happens to me very regularly. Although, I did just read about your train derailment story. We would either make a dream travel team or we would attract all the exciting and dangerous and perilous stories out there… Perhaps these go hand in hand…

  2. I’m with RIka, not at all like the mental photo I’d carried previously – Thanks for showing me how dynamic it is.

  3. Emy

    Wow. I’m glad you made it “safely’ to Mongolia! And you’re soooo lucky, Mongolia is one of my top destinations! I can’t wait to read about your adventures there!
    xx

    • Colleen

      You definitely have to go to Mongolia one day. I want to come back already! Let’s go together! 🙂

  4. cool informative story with beautiful picture gallery. written well.

  5. Great story, I always feel very constrained by the whole visa system! That bus sounded interesting as well!

    • Colleen

      Believe me it was ALL interesting. Haha! I know what you mean about the visa system…

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