Petrodollars and patience

Funny how quickly human beings adapt their environment to them or themselves to their environment.

By way of example, we have named the positions in the jeep. The passenger seat is the “hot” seat, for simple reasons – most of our journey so far as been south, into the sun. The middle seat in the back is the “jump” seat. The padded roof, at first an object of mystery, has demonstrated its life-saving function numerous times.

Mishka’s patience with his jeep is the stuff of legend. It breaks down several times a day. He calmy stops safely, gets out, opens the bonnet (hood) and fixes the problem. Always the same problem.

Back at the ranch he told us (via an interpreter) that it was too hot and some part or other was malfunctioning. We were also told that these jeeps are designed to break down frequently and be easy to fix rather than break down seldom but for real. I would rather option (c) – never break down at all. Clearly that is beyond the production possibility frontier, as an economist might say. In fact, as an economist is saying.

It has some other idiosyncracies as well. The doors do not close so easily. The left back door really needs to be slammed. Hard. Harder. Come on, you can not hurt this Russian built monster. The passenger side mirror broke off on the first day. The lock on one of the windows followed soon after (the little triangular windows – the big ones do not open at all).

I think we are lost today. Or at least looking for something Mishka is unable to find. It might be gas. We must be running low. We are starting to get used to not knowing where we are, where we are going, and why we are going there. It is a strange situation indeed to be a customer with absolutely no control, and having opinions that we are unable to express, except to each other and that is no help at all.

Our guidebook describes today’s route as “unforgiving and rugged”. That means a lot in Mongolia. Holy. An amazing variety of terrain in 130kms. From sand dunes (careful not to stop the car), through steppe (rolling farmland, rocky, uninhabited), across swamps (we got bogged down and thought we were stuck till death), through winding river gorges (fresh water springs, red rock walls on either side), over and around hills (more grass, rocky outcrops) and back to steppe again.

Mishka is asking lots of people for directions. We just paused at possibly the most desolate ger of our trip. On a cold, windswept, rocky, plain, its dirty felt walls hardly seem enough protection against the cold. The horses, tethered together, keep their heads down as they face into the stiff breeze. The dog, sheltering beside the ger, could hardly move less if he were dead. And yet still they have the requisite number of cute children (two – girl more precocious than boy), and they invite Mishka in for tea and a bite of cheese (ex horse – yuck).

This is the first place where I have ever seen a fence (of sorts) around the back yard. Admittedly just a line of rocks, but still, a big change in a land mostly without fences at all. This fence does not keep anything out or anything in so, as the LuckSmiths have it in their excellent eponymous song about Wyoming, its use I do not understand.

Useful directions indeed. We race off across the plain. The plain starts getting steeper. We cut uphill following a goat track. Steeper. Steeper. Soon a trail than no self-respecting goat would lend his name to. Soon so steep that I feel like an astronaut waiting for blast off. T minus two minutes.

Eventually even our trusty beast is unable to continue straight up. We pause for breath. Or for long enough to put the jeep in special mode (some adjustment to each wheel, and a pull on the special lever). In special mode it seems to be able to go absolutely anywhere. The only reason we are here at all and not still mouldering in this morning’s bog is because of special mode. And sure enough it works out this time too.

We teeter precipitously on the side of the hill, wondering how our day will turn out if the jeep slips backwards on the rocky path or falls sideways and we roll and tumble down the hill. I feel naked without a seatbelt (an unnecessary hindrance, the designers of this vehicle seem to have thought).

But no. Our faith in Mishka continues to be justified and a ragged cheer leaves our throats as we emerge onto a flat plateau and find a well-used track, the ger we were at 15 mintes ago a speck far below us in the distance.

Not long afterwards we reach Bogd. One hundred and thirty kilometres. Five hours. Even our minimal Mongolian is enough to understand from Mishka that we need gas. But it is not to be, at least not yet. There is no gas in Bogd. There is the usual crowd of raggedy people, more hopeful than expectant at the gas station. But no gas. Perhaps tomorrow. There is chocolate for consolation in the miserable shop.

The telephone place is closed. Maybe it will be open tomorrow too. Tomorrow will be a big day in Bogd, because for sure there is stuff all going on today.

Eventually we find a phone (dodging an enormous dog to get to the place – a girl lies on it for our protection), find our tour leader on the other end, and find out that there is gas in Bogd, but the price is twice the normal. There might be cheaper gas tomorrow, or there might not be.

I have visions of endless purgatory in Bogd. The ritual trip to the gas station each day, the hopeful look, the unvarying shake of the head, the heavy-hearted return home with the usual news and another dinner of pasta with tomatoes. Even chocolate and beer lose their power to boost our spirits.

So we agree to pay whatever it takes to get home. In the end it works out to about $5 more each.

Downtown we go. Well, at least to the intersection of the two biggest (but otherwise indistinguishable) dirt streets. Mongolian towns are weird to look at because every house is fenced off, mostly with six-foot high brown wooden fences. The street is just an unbroken line of fences. Behind them shelter gers, houses and normal life. But on this side every town looks the same; its unwelcoming face always on show.

For downtown is where the petrol mafia hang out. Jeeps with big drums of gasoline in the back. It transpires that when gas supplies get low, these people buy a tonne and then, when the gas runs out, they double the price and make a killing. It is never entirely clear why the gas station does not do something similar (or even better just smoothly raise prices to ensure that there is always some gas).

Nevertheless, 50 litres later we are on our way. Happy, nay overjoyed to find ourselves not trapped in Bogd as we had feared. Not entirely sure where we are going, but somewhere. Which is far better than any of the alternatives at this point.

I can see now how different sorts of animals react when our jeep comes near. Horses always want to stick together. This is so even if they have to run right across the road in front of the jeep to join the fleeing herd. So take care when driving through herds(?) of horses, for they will run in front of your jeep. Sheep will flee more randomly. They often try to flock together, but not at the risk of getting too close to the car. Goats are much cleverer. Often they will not move terribly much at all, although they do sometimes suffer from being mixed in with the easily startled sheep. Camels will frequently act like the cows do, just stand (or sit) and watch as you go around them. “Why should I run?”, they seem to say, a game of chicken that they always win.