I was able to travel a lot by jeep through much of Mongolia. Here are some of the impressions and obstacles we encountered along the way. These trips took place in 1996-1999. Much has changed since then, including paved roads, newer vehicles and better GPSs, but there are still ample adventures to be had in the Mongolian steppes!
Roads may not be great, but the Russian 4-wheel drive vans make great expedition vehicles. They’re built to take the punishment of the Mongolian roads, and can easily handle a couple of canoes and lots of gear.
Getting fuel to the countryside was not always easy in the late 1990s. All fuel was imported and then distributed by truck over very poor roads. As a result, fuel shortages were not uncommon then.
When leaving on any trip, the first order of business is to pay respect at an ovoo. These large piles of rocks can be found on every pass. One walks three times around the ovoo clockwise, each time throwing a few rocks onto the pile. Drinking and offering some vodka is often part of the ritual as well.
The absence of roads means that people often drive where they want, creating a new track whenever the last one has become too muddy. In some places this has resulted in major destruction. Due to the harsh, dry climate, the tracks don’t disappear quickly, so they are visible for many years.
Road conditions are not always the greatest, and one has to be prepared to get dirty from time to time.
Travel in the countryside is difficult at the best of times; many of the roads are no more than dirt tracks. Flat tires (fixed on the spot with a couple of tire irons and a bicycle pump) are all too common, and it is not unusual to see a crew of locals lifting an entire transmission or even an engine block out of a truck somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The ubiquitous Russian vehicles are simple and not luxurious, but at least everyone here can fix them. Important when you just tried to use one as a boat…
Our jeep lost… Finding water in the Gobi is hard enough, let alone getting stuck in it. Luckily we were close to a town, but when we tried to run for help a bull yak promptly chased us back! The weather wasn’t great either, 10 degrees, 100 km/hr wind and about to get dark. After three hours a tractor finally pulled us out. River water had gotten into the oil. We could not find new oil, so we boiled the oil, which evaporated the water. Problem solved! It took a day to dry out the jeep and contents, but the jeep was none the worse for wear.
Even if you do manage to stay on the road and the jeep doesn’t break down, you may not necessarily get to your destination. Roads are far and few in between, and in the endless steppe it is all too easy to get lost. Even a GPS won’t always do much good, as there are few good maps of the country to plot your location on. When we ran out of fuel in the middle of the Gobi once, we spent long hours in the one ger in the area debating our predicament. We knew exactly where we were with our GPS, but had little idea where we were going, as the town we had to get to wasn’t on the map… (We did finally find the town, though).
My most successful use of GPS in Mongolia was on a long trip from Ulaanbaatar to the far east of the country through the southeastern Gobi desert. This area is very sparsely inhabited, and roads are hard to find. So we used a GPS hooked up to a laptop equipped with scanned-in topo maps. This worked amazingly well; we were able to find our way, even in the dark, without a hitch.
Mongolians, however, are strong advocates of Mongolian GPS – the Ger Positioning System. They locate the nearest ger, ask where the next ger is in the general direction in which they are travelling, and there they ask again. Works most of the time, and one tends to get fed as a bonus!
It is not easy to get engines going in winter. At -30°C the engine oil has the consistency of yoghurt. The fact that they don’t use thinner winter grade oil doesn’t help matters. No electrical engine block heaters either. So a small wood fire on the front axle (yes those are flames you see on the axle!) is the Mongolian way to get going in the morning. Meanwhile you add some warm water to radiator. The fact that the fire could get out of hand and engulf the fuel line didn’t seem to face the driver…
In fact, many Mongolians like to drive at night, so then they don’t have to start the engine in the cold morning hours.
Once you are up and going, you have to deal with the roads… The roads are bad enough in summer, but absence of any markings, let alone snow clearing equipment, turns winter travel into a true adventure. The only advantage is that everything is frozen, so at least no big potholes or mud to get stuck in.
The Guanz is the Mongolian of a roadside café. These simple but very popular affairs appear throughout the country. They offer simple but tasty local foods – mostly salty milk tee and buuz (dumplings) and khooshor (fried dumplings).
In summer we camped, but in winter we frequented the local Soum hotels. Especially in the smaller towns service was often good, with simple but filling meals (provided you like mutton and salty milk tea) and basic accommodation. We never travelled without an electric water heater, and take a camping stove, in case local food is not forthcoming and there is no electricity. Demninsuren, Bum-Yalach and Jeff McCusker at supper in the Hangai Hotel.
The Mongolian is continuing to pave and improve roads, so gradually, travel in Mongolia is becoming easier and faster. But it will lose some of the adventure associated with driving randomly across the steppes.