"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Mongolia, A Report from the Field: The Adventure of Driving in Mongolia

 Everything has changed.   We aren't going many, many miles south to the Gobi Desert after all.   Instead, we're taking guide Yusef's suggestion and going many, many miles north/northwest to
the lake."

A conference takes place in  my room with Cap and Patti and the Genco manager on the line with Cap's phone.  Tentative plans are made.    We leave Monday morning for "the lake."

The red star is Ulaanbaatar.    The red province is where we will go.

The Gobi is warmer; "the lake" is colder.   This is Mongolia and it's winter, a most unseasonably warm winter though, with temperatures in the 30s and 40s rather than near zero.   I have been ruing carrying the small duffel bag filled with cold weather gear.   Perhaps now I'll get an opportunity to wear that stuff.

Map showing location of the Gobi desert.   Ulaanbaatar is above the 'B' in Gobi.   The distance is a three day drive, according to one traveler. 

I am finding out that, with Cap, there's no such thing as sticking to an itinerary.   He abhors guided trips, much preferring to travel as the spirit moves and there seem to be multiple spirits all demanding their own separate directions.

vacationI, on the other hand, love guided trips because I don't want to worry about things like where I'll stay for the night, or how long it takes to get to the airport from the hotel, or not speaking the language.

As far as I'm concerned, I have two responsibilities on guided trips:   a)  Show up on time, and, b)  Have fun.


Also, he tells the Genco manager that he and Patti do not want to participate in the meals program of the trip.   They will bring or buy their own.

Not me.   I don't want any part of preparing my own meals.   Not only am I lazy, but sampling the local cuisine is part of the adventure for me.

So, we have the weekend the get ready for a six-day trip  that includes two days to get there and two days to get back.   And driving in Mongolia.....

Don’t even think about renting a car in Mongolia.   You wouldn’t have a chance.  Driving in Mongolia—whether in the city or in rural areas—is best left to the experts:   the Mongolians themselves.

This truck decided to make a u-turn iin front of us, with no signal, no room, no sense.

Painted traffic lines are a suggestion only, best used by straddling them so you can force your way in any direction as the spirit moves, and the spirit usually makes Mongolian drivers zip to one side or the other to cut off other Mongolian drivers.  

This is a secondary street parallel to Peace Avenue, the main drag.   Note the vehicles trying to enter it at right.

A little bit of snow helps thin the traffic.   This photo was taken in the same place as the one above.

Lane changes?  May the bravest man win, the one with the least concern for the structural integrity of his vehicle.  Needless to say, there is a lot of force involved in changing lanes.  You would think this was a land of beaters, right?   No such thing.   There are expensive autos on these street--Lexus, BMW, high-end Toyotas, Land Rovers, and so on.

Traffic jams?   Peace Avenue, the main drag, constantly and forever and ever, amen.  

Speed limits in Ulaanbaatar (the capital city with a population of almost 1.4 million) aren’t necessary.   No vehicle can move above a crawl anyway.

There are traffic policemen sometimes seen in the middle of intersections in UB, as it’s commonly called.   They’ll be out there in uniform, waving around a baton as if to direct traffic, but I think it’s really so all the drivers see them and at least make an attempt at not running them down.

Pedestrians walking into traffic against the lights.

Peace Avenue--a "parking lot" that is the main drag in Ulaanbaatar.

Street sweeper in the early morn.

Speed limits in the country?   The common one on rural roads is 80 kph, or 50 mph.   That, too, is a suggestion offered on a tiny sign about the size of a volley ball.

Maybe I got it wrong.   Maybe that’s a minimum speed on the country’s rural “highways.” 
Once out of the city is where Mongolian drivers come into their own.   Through some form of alchemy, the gasoline or diesel in the fuel tanks transmutates into high octane testosterone and the drivers into Mario Andretti wannabees, and, yes, I know that dates me.  

An icy highway does help slow things down.

 Almost all the rural roads I was on are in dire need of upgrading.  I felt like I was home in Alaska in the 1960s, when driving north of Anchorage near Glennallen was like riding on a roller coaster as the road was so deformed by frost heaves that either the front or rear bumper hit the surface between waves in the asphalt.

And the pot holes and just plain deteriorated paving?    A far-off dream.  There are toll booths in every province, and the populace complains that the roads should be fixed before they have to pay tolls.

I have no idea how the logs stay in the bed of this truck.   Magic, I guess.

Following a dump truck filled with coal.   The smaller pieces of coal are falling through the bottom of the tail gate and bouncing all over the highway.

High beams, low beams, it’s a game of who can blind the other driver first.  Common practice seems to demand your high beams come on just as you reach the front bumper of the on-coming vehicle.  If a vehicle approaches from behind with high beams on, your manhood demands that you slow to let him pass and then do the same to him.  

Railway crossings, toll booths, speed bumps all slow down the traffic.

I recently read that, because the Soviet yoke kept Mongolians too poor to purchase vehicles, driving in Mongolia is relatively new to the populace and has not yet had time to develop an unwritten system of courtesy to other drivers.   The high beam/low beam thing falls into that black hole.

So, just hire a driver, buckle up, and don't look.

(to be continued: the most effective traffic control)


  1. Many .. maybe MOST .. of the vehicles are right hand drives. The driver is on the right side of the vehicle because at one time the traffic was like Europe with cars driving on the left side of the road ways. NOW Mongolia has changed to a right hand lane driving country like the U.S. So here you are .. people driving on the right side of the highways yet the drivers are also on the right in their vehicles (NOT on the left as we in the U.S. are) and thus very unable to see whether it is safe to pass. That is why I assist the driver as to the safety of passing. Changer bought his car in Los Angeles so it is proper for the new Mongolia. Saina (your Joe by name) not the case. Saina the fast driver in the bunch is sitting on the right yet having to move to the left to pass. I like being in front with Saina because I want to know that it is safe for him to pull out to pass. Great post. Smiles .. Patti and Cap ..