When I decided to do take a 2 week trip around Mongolia, I did not expect a picnic in the Ardennes, nor did I expect to be end up upside down in ancient Russian van splattered in my travel partners blood. But when you like to travel as much as I do, you pays your money and you takes your chances.
After two uneventful days in Ulan Bator, my travel partner Danielle and I, board our van. Over the past few days we have seen many battered old Russian mini-vans around town and have become quite excited about the prospect of travelling around Mongolia in such a vehicle. Needless to say, we are both disappointed when we are herded into a rather modern looking Nissan. Little did we know that this luxury would only last until we got to the outskirts of Ulan Bator. A few days later and we would be begging for the plush seats of the Nissan.
Whilst we were waiting for the Nissan to arrive and be loaded, Danielle and I had the first glimpse of 2 of our new travel partners. The first, a young German girl by the name of Saskia, conversed with us for a while and seemed pleasant enough. Over the course of the next 10 days, we are to find out that these pleasantries do not extend to the sharing of the forward facing seats. The only luxury that one gets on a trip of such undertaking. Of course I had heard of, and witnessed for myself, the Germans laying their towels out on the sun beds at 5 am on the Costa del Sol. What I did not realise however was that this behaviour was a common German trait, to be displayed in any location outside of the Fatherland. Exchange the towels for an inflatable head cushion and a rather large bag (full of things, that were self consumed), and there you have Saskia, relaxing in her luxuriously comfy, forward facing seat, stuffing her face with the aforementioned goodies.
During breakfast, a commotion had broken out in one of the common areas of the Golden Gobi guest house. My curious disposition had got the better of me, as often it does, and I found myself witnessing a scene of great hilarity. A very aged gentleman of French origin, was stumbling around the place, closely followed by a legion of people, who were helping him search for his hat. It soon became apparent that the gentleman was of seriously impaired vision and hearing to match. His English, it would seem, did not extend to anything beyond "Oh no, no, no - oh, no, no , no , no , no , no", with a "C'est bon", thrown in at the end of every sentence of No's. After 2 minutes of hilarious observation, it became blatantly obvious that this was not just any old man. He was a stubborn character, with I assumed, a few stories to tell (to anybody with a knowledge of French). I never would have guessed that within the hour, I would be escorting him around the supermarket, helping him to fill his basket with cheese, red wine and any other French goody, he could get his hands on. - "Yes, yes, yes, yes , yes - c'est bon". Our search to find him a hat, is however in vain. This was to become my job for the rest of the trip.
So there, we have it -or so we thought. A luxurious Nissan, with a driver whose name I could never remember, a selfish (forward facing German), a fantastically stubborn Frenchman, Danielle and myself (you can make your own judgements about me and Danielle - we'll learn more about Danielle later). Oh yes, and our 1st guide - whose name I have long since forgotten and who we thought was amazing, until she turned weird on day 2 and disappeared without even saying goodbye.
Prior research for the trip had led Danielle and I to believe that we would be lucky if we only had 6 people crammed into an ancient Russian van. Our cosy little party of 5, stretched out in our deluxe Nissan people carrier, felt too good to be true, and that's because it wasn't. Within a day there would be 8 of us packed like sardines into the most decrepit mini-van in the whole of Mongolia.
Mongolia, let me tell you, is the 4th least densely populated country on Earth, only preceded by Western Sahara, the Falkland Islands, and at number 1, Greenland. With land mass of 1,564,116 km2, and a population of only 1.7 million people, one would expect better movement than a Jane Fonda workout. This, we were to find out, is not the case. Leaving, Ulan Bator is by no means a pleasant experience. Whilst being the only truly nomadic country in the world these days, with people dwelling all over this vast and pleasant land in their gers (which I will discuss later) - it's capital city, does not share the rest of the country's spatial harmony. A mass of vehicles fight to get out of the place, with the blaring of horns, shouting of expletives and general mayhem, making for a positively uncomfortable experience (especially when you need to take a piss). Our driver, whose knowledge of the city, we wrongly assume, is second to none, decides to take a short cut over the most bumpy terrain a man is likely to encounter in his existence on this planet. Maybe a moon buggy, could have conquered this environment, but our Nissan is certainly no veteran of a lunar lanscape and consequently we were thrown around the van like a bunch of pinballs. It does not take a cartographer to lead us to the conclusion that we are lost. That's right, less than an hour into our trip around the 19th largest country in the World and our driver does not appear to have a clue where he is going. In retrospect, we should have seen this as a sign of things to come.
Only 5 percent of Mongolia's roads are paved, mainly in and around Ulan Bator. We are now lost somewhere within the city's limits and there is not a sealed surface to be seen. Although, we can see green rolling hills in the distance, which by the way remind me of the Sound of Music, the immediate landscape is more reminiscent of an apocalyptic wasteland. We've already seen enough gers to satisfy our gerosity, and our patience is running thin. But hey! we have only another 10 days to go.
By the time we reach our first destination, somewhere on the outskirts of Ulan Bator or U.B as the locals like to call it, we are battered and bruised and have seen more used toilet paper than a peep show cabinet floor (more on this later - the paper, not the peep show). Rather than pity him, I am beginning to envy Gerrard's (French guy)visual and aural impairments. And then we see it! The Green Goddess, the Russian Rattler, The Soviet Sausage - call it what you will, it is now that we see our chariot for the next 10 days and it would not look out of place in a scrap yard. With reluctance we exit our luxurious Nissan Wet Dream, and as we enter the new vehicle, our destiny's are sealed. I offer to assist Gerrard to the best seat, but before I am able to do so, Saskia has pole vaulted him and landed facing forward in the proposed spot. "Gerrard, are you ok"? I ask him in my attempted best French accent. "Oui, oui, oui, oui - c'est bon", he avidly replies. Our journey begins.