Mongolia is one of the last great unknowns out there for travellers. The expansive rolling plains, nomadic tribes and horrific roads have left much of the country out of development’s reach. Driving through the vast country of central Mongolia is as close to stepping back 1000 years as you could imagine. The towns that do exist seem like something out of the Wild West. Yet the people you come across are some of the warmest you could meet.
The incredible Mongolian outdoors
Driving through Mongolia is one of the rare experiences where you actually feel like you’re driving on some foreign planet. The land in the far northwest of Mongolia is known as high desert, which means there are basically no trees and very few plants amidst the never ending mountains, hills and valleys. We were constantly mesmerised by the mountains flanking us in all shades of green, purple, blue and red depending on the time of day. It’s a true joy to drive through such unknown and uncharted territory, especially when you’re punting along in a 20 year old Corolla that really shouldn’t be driving these routes called roads.
Mongolia is also rich in large, crystalline lakes along the highway, many the size of a small sea. These would be fed by long winding rivers cutting through the landscape. These never ending vistas would be broken by groups of wild horses prancing around. You half expected Genghis Khan to come over the horizon.
Then dusk’s shadows would give way to night and the Mongolian stars would open up. By this time the cold was settling in and we had put on virtually every layer of clothing we owned in an attempt to survive, kind of like Sanka Coffie when the Jamaican Bobsled Team arrives in Canada in Cool Runnings. Every part of the Mongolian experience was a tussle between the hardship of travel and the insanely beautiful countryside we were surrounded by.
After the time we lost when our gear box died in Kazakhstan, we rolled hopefully up to the Russian-Mongolian border with expired entry visas, wondering how things would play out. As we forced our way through the Russian-Mongolian border, 14 hours and $200USD in bribes later, the smooth asphalted roads of Russia gave way instantly to the roads that aren’t really roads of Mongolia. National highways are a series of dirt tracks, with a central one that is usually the most destroyed.
Taking a Toyota Corolla, more heavily laden than a Bolivian donkey, through these roads is like driving a clown car into a Monster Car rally. We were reminded of the impracticality of it with each bone rattling crunch to the car as we hurtled over dirt, sand, rock, escarpment, and literally everything a car like this shouldn’t drive through.
As we drove along with yet another set of incredible vistas opening up to a lake, multi-colored undulating hills and a series of wild horses prancing in the background, someone would wake up and shout ‘sand!’, which would mean we need to floor the accelerator to avoid getting bogged. As we sped along, trying to keep a wheel on the ridge line, while the car danced frantically around in the sand, we began to understand why it was called a rally.
These sandy regions would give way to a steep mountain pass, where we would need to inch the car up near vertical roads avoiding rocks that could gash a nasty end to our car in the middle of nowhere. Breaking down out here would have been something else – we saw two people on the Western Mongolian roads a day. We would creep down the other side of the mountain, getting stuck on ridges, requiring us to jump out, push the car over, then jump back in and keep going. Next we would come upon a river that was impossible to pass and wait for a 4×4 to tow us through the fast flowing water to the other side. This would give way to swamps, with deep mud and bogs, which would require you to speed up and smash the car through.
The key to driving along these roads would be to pick a general direction, like East, and keep the compass pointed and leading the way. Roads would twist and turn, then veer off to only Bear Grylls knows where – meaning maps and GPS were only good as general indicators.
But through some form of divine intervention, we survived 5 days on these roads with only a snapped tail pipe, ripped undercarriage and 10 or so bogs. We came across the asphalt roads near the middle of the country like lost soldiers coming across an oasis in the Sahara and gunned our way to the capital, Ulaanbataar.
Amidst the treachery of the roads and the incredible landscapes, the Mongolian people are an amazing, intelligent and stoic people. They have wise faces which have probably been etched by the harsh environments over the years. It takes a tough person to survive out here.
In literally the middle of nowhere you would see a shepherd cruising along on a horse with his flock of goats milling about the countryside. Then later on you would see a yert, which is a round white tent that the Mongolian nomads live in. One evening we pulled up to camp near a yert, then down came the young male of the yert who proceeded to share our dinner and vodka, then hosting us for breakfast in the morning. Grandpa was in the corner of the room sharing with us his vodka distilled from milk. Although breakfasting on mare’s milk and cold offcuts of last night’s goat isn’t exactly our idea of a meal to start the day, the generosity and feeling of genuine warmth these nomadic people had was inspiring.
Broken down on the side of the road, with our sump guard in tatters, a group of Mongolian fisherman pulled up, jumped out, and proceeded to work on our car. They pulled out more milk vodka, shared it around, then gave us 4 fresh fish as they fixed our car and sent us on our way.
The Mongolian people were also as quirky as they were generous. After snapping off our tailpipe in Western Mongolia, we ended up staying the night parked out the front of the village mechanic. Seemingly every kid from the village surrounded us until rounded up by their parents hours later. As we awoke the next day, the village that was near a coal production factory, started emanating some oddly cheerful traditional Mongolian music really loudly. The factory was actually playing music to cheer the whole town into a nice hard day’s yakka. Seemed like something out of Orwell’s 1984. Musical inventiveness on the Mongolian plains extended also to their traditional singing style – called khoomei (which is so amazing it is listed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO). The music is truly incredible, the sounds that come out of the throat float beautifully between a husky singing to a high pitched whistle that seems to come from some other set of mystical lungs while the singer plays local instruments, such as this. We were lucky to see a throat singer work his magic in Western Mongolia amidst his house and with his family and enraptured children looking on.
The Mongolians are also an incredibly resourceful people. Out in the middle of nowhere, where it seems a desert shrub struggles to survive, a yert will be equipped with solar panels and TVs, while the nomads are texting on their phones. Incredible to see technology permeate so far into one of the most remote regions of Central Asia and the world. We were lucky enough to visit an eagle hunter in the West of Mongolia. He was dressed in a dapper coat, with some sparkling aviator sunglasses topped with a beret, at 65 years the 3 time Mongolian Eagle Hunting champion cut a fine look. When he went in to the aviary to pull out his bird, we were amazed by the giant, elegant and beautiful creature that emerged docile as a baby lamb. The reason for his docility was that they feed the eagles all through summer, then hold back on their food through October and November so that they are hungry enough to go after prey. It’s incredible to see nature and man work together in such harmony.
As our car rattled out of Mongolia, a broken shell of what it was, we were amazed that we had made it through, with only 3 visits to the mechanic and an incredible insight into how great people truly can be.
And 2 days later we arrived at the official finish line in Ulan Ude, Russia. We had somehow made the journey from one side of Europe to the other side of Asia in our ridiculously small car. We felt equally parts relieved and blessed to have made it relatively unscathed and to have witnessed so many inspiring communities, people and experiences along the way. The Mongol Rally is truly one of the greatest journeys on Earth.
Stay tuned for the next Roam Project …
We’re now en route to Berlin to begin work on the footage, and will be releasing updates for the documentary soon!