The path of least resistance

Roads are interesting in Mongolia. There are apparently only 1,500kms of sealed road in the entire country (and, take my word for it, it is big). I used the word “sealed” advisedly, given that even on those roads it is often necessary to take off-road detours to get around road works, cattle, or other miscellaneous obstructions.

Most roads are just tracks where other vehicles have been before you. The terrain is such (a lot of flattish steppe) that people can easily vote with their feet. Most of the vehicles in Monglia are four-wheel drives (in fact, I don’t know why you would buy anything else). So if you don’t like the current road you can make your own. Not quite sure which way to go (there are almost no signs)? Follow an existing path. It is bound to lead somewhere. And even if it is somewhere you don’t want to go, you can always change your mind later on.

So existing roads incorporate a lot of information about the best route from A to B, conveniently summarised in a physical form by the people who have been here before.

Navigation is a question of finding a track that looks like it is going in your direction (or somewhere near it) and then making a choice about how trust-worthy it is. Is the track well-established or overgrown? Are there many tracks side by side (a sign of extensive use) or just one lonely path leading off to the horizon?

Roads are most important when you can not see the ground underneath. Like when it is dark, or when you are crossing rivers and swamps, for instance. In these cases, just jumping on in and following your nose could be a trip-limiting move.

You have never experienced frustration until you have travelled across a Mongolian landscape studded with swamps and rivers. This is not a place to be in a hurry. First, drive along the shore in not-your-direction for a while until you find a track that goes across. If you see a friendly local riding out to meet you, ask him for advice. Stop the jeep. Get out and adjust the wheels into special mode. Get back in the jeep. Drive across carefully. Then stop. Get out and adjust the wheels back. Repeat four times in two hours and in between times drive at 30. This morning we averaged 15kms per hour. Rather less than ideal.

Even outside of rivers and swamps roads vary wildly in quality. Some of sealed (when the truck gets to 80kms an hour we all cheer); some are straight, mostly-flat, but occasionally unexpectedly bouncy (head injuries are likely to be worst in this case, because you get lulled into a false sense of security by the flatness and drive much more quickly); others are straight but seriously pot-holed (bruising is common, but nothing more serious since the jeep goes very slowly); and the others can be anything from winding goat tracks to dried out river beds (hold on tight, but injuries are rare, the main problem is chronic frustration at the snails’ pace of progress).

I have this strange thing where every day I forget what it is like to travel. Each day I get in the jeep expecting a smooth ride. My expectations usually last about 10 seconds, and then a spasm of dread goes through me as I remember the endless shuddering and bouncing that typifies the standard day. The jeep suffers somewhat from a lack of things to hold on to.

We met up with the Korean group again today in the middle of nowhere. I am not sure whether it was just a coincidence. It seems pretty unlikely given how much empty space there is. Perhaps there are lots of roads that all go to the same places. This makes more sense. Maybe it really does not matter what road you choose (so long as it is heading in vaguely the right direction) because they all go to the nearest big town anyway.

The is the the second to last day. We are returning to civlisation (if by a rather uncivilised route). About 300 metres before the biggest town we have yet been to the road is sealed again. Very window dressing, given that the previous 1,000kms have all been unsealed, but still.

To celebrate the moment (we are happily much further north than we thought or feared), we run out of gas and break down again. Nice work. Thank you to the random person who stopped to help us out.

Then we turn off the highway (sealed, high-speed comfort) to what I guess is called the lowway (unsealed, pot-holed, windy, submerged in places, but far more scenic).

And we make a great discovery. I overheard Mishka speaking Russian! So I ask him, and he says, yes, he speaks a little. Sigh. All our days of non-communication were pointless. If only we had known, all our uncertainties could have been resolved. Although perhaps it was for the best anyway.

I drank some New Zealand/Mongolia milk at breakfast time. UHT, so it is not supposed to go off. But I was betrayed by my country. I ended up feeling sick all day, and eventually throwing up outside Mongolia’s first (and most famous) Bhuddist monastery. At least the local dogs were very excited about it (I had to fight them off while still being sick – one of the highlights of my trip for sure). And thank you thank you three times thank you to the German or Scandinavian woman who gave me some chewing gum and a smile to make me feel better.

And I was so overjoyed to be drinking milk as well. I remember happily asking if anyone else wanted it, and then skulling back the last half-litre with a smile. Sometimes life is so unfair.

A friend of mine told me to look out for Tuvan throat singers while I am here. My response focused on the distance from Tuva to Mongolia and the low likelihood, therefore, that I would meet one. So imagine my surprise when, at our guesthouse tonight, the proprietor announces that a Tuvan throat singer lives next door and would like to come over to give us a performance of his art. Weird how stuff like that happens.

He was magic. Transporting everyone inside the yurt from the dingy suburbs of a middle-sized Mongolian town to somewhere deep in the steppes. The combination of home-made instruments, self-taught voice, and the other-wordly sound of the throat singing has to be heard to be appreciated. Spine-tingling.

The couple who own this place have an interesting attitude to work, and non-work. She works the summer (at the monastery as a guide, and in this guesthouse), and has the winter off. And he works the winter and has a long holiday in the summer. Ideal really (although even better if they both worked one season and then had time off together in the other perhaps). I guess it helps that tourism in Mongolia is so seasonal (no one much comes here when there is snow on the ground and it is 30 degrees below – I wonder why not). Probably the roads.