After having given up on our horses mid-journey, my adventurous acquaintance Will and I found ourselves standing alone on a remote dirt road in the Mongolian countryside. As we weren’t sure how long we’d have to wait, be it minutes or days, we were quite relieved when an old Russian minivan shortly came chugging around from behind a hillside and into view.
We stuck out our hands with our palms down, our fingers pumping air towards ourselves, as is the custom for hitching a ride in such corners of the world. The van skidded to a stop, but, to my dismay, it was completely full of people of all ages and their gear. Not to worry though; I guess I’d forgotten where we were. There still seemed to be a few cubic feet of unoccupied space in the vehicle, and so for a nominal fee, the driver wedged us in, cramming me in next to the window with my bag on my lap and me on the lap of a complete stranger. Will was not so lucky; his bag was thrown overtop of an old man while he was awkwardly positioned over the scorching metal of the engine cover.
The van pushed off again, bumping violently along the road at speeds that seemed incredible after nearly a week of travel on Mongolia’s two slowest horses. Before long, the grassy hills of the passing countryside gave way to the Hangayn Nuruu Mountains of Central Mongolia, stained blood red with the mosses of fall.
As we careened around corners and I glanced uneasily down into a deep gorge at the road’s edge, Will twisted awkwardly to glance uneasily at his bag. Mongolia isn’t the worst country out there in terms of petty theft, but people are people, and so it’s always unnerving to be separated so helplessly from your livelihood. The old man answered Will’s glance with a blank stare, then, without breaking eye contact, he casually probed his finger up his nose, fished around for a few moments, and withdrew a giant visible from across the van. As it was the closest surface available, the old man proceeded to wipe said giant across Will’s backpack, nonchalantly smacking his lips and breaking eye contact as though nothing out of the ordinary had transpired.
We emerged that afternoon in a little town called Tariat, a picturesque bricolage of small wooden houses and dusty alleyways nestled amongst the backdrop of the nation’s largest volcanic peaks. It was September now; back home my friends were starting classes again, but for the first time in 15 years, I wouldn’t be joining them. Such a shame, I thought to myself over the next few days, as I relaxed by the still waters of a volcanic lake, playing my travel guitar and admiring the fall colors.
Eventually though we moved on, pushing further west. A similarly crowded van took us to the regional capital of Uliastai, and from there we found a ride headed across the vast plains to Khovd. Things started off well enough on that trip, five of us in a small Jeep, headed west. But then things quickly deteriorated, as things are known to do.
Half an hour from Uliastai, we stopped at a fork. The driver and his wife yelled at each other for a time, gesturing frantically in opposing directions. The other fellow, in the back with Will and me, piped in, yelling and gesturing frantically first down one road, then down the next. Will offered his map, which the driver snatched enthusiastically to make his point. His wife then snatched the map from him, presumably to make a counterpoint of some sort. The fellow from the back leaned forward to contribute his bit, and soon the map lay in two pieces by the gearshift. Angrily, the driver jerked the vehicle into gear, and we sped off down the road of his choice.
This process was repeated an unsettling number of times throughout the day, and as we progressed through lush river valleys dotted here and there with gers, gnarled old trees and yaks, the roads progressively became less and less defined. Eventually, the thin set of tracks we followed vanished into the pebbly earth, and we entered onto the plains. From there we simply drove west, picking our way around obstacles and over hills as we went. For hours, there was nothing, no gers, no water, just us. To the south, we caught sight of the rolling dunes of the northern Gobi desert. Will and I glanced around the old jeep uneasily; there was only a small jug of water, and no extra gas, nor was there a needle on the gas gauge. The day wore on.
Finally, after having half-jokingly agreed upon the order in which we’d have to eat our companions in the event of a breakdown, Will and I caught sight of a small settlement, a group of gers around a small brick hut. And there was a river!
We stopped there for dinner as a thin sliver of moon chased the sun from the sky, and the eerie wail of an unseen group of camels drifted in through the gloaming on the cool desert wind. This, I decided, is what it must feel like to travel to another planet. Whether or not we’d make it back, though, was anyone’s guess.