Mongolia – Never Bores You

The route that we are following is called the “Southern Route”. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about it, from boring with a good road to dusty, truck infested hellhole.

After our Gobi to Bayankhongor trailblazing, i thought to myself: “finally, some nice pavement, a good audiobook and coffee sipping time while driving”.

Nope, nope and nope.

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This has to be one of the better parts of the route…if you dont believe me i’ll prove it to you. First of, you can see that it is sandy, so there is good traction in the rain. Second, there is some water, but you can see that its is not deep at all. Third, recent tracks show that people frequent this path, which is a good thing….trust me.

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Plus guys, this is Mongolia…nothing is ever boring here. First you are following some people, then when they go off a river bank a bit too fast and crack their oil pan. We got our strap out and started towing him. Maybe i dont know how to tow or more likely the guy doesn’t know how to be towed, but this dude kept the strap on the ground the whole time, drove onto it a few times. He wanted us to go to the nearest town, which was about 40 miles away. On a paved road this would have taken long, but possible if he learns to keep it tight, but on mongolian roads this would have been an adventure on its own.

We towed him for a few miles, luckily there was a gas station, little ger camp, truck stop and left him there. At first we felt bad, but after another hour and just another 10 miles on the road we realized that this would have been impossible. And officially stopped feeling bad.

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Another day of offroading we were told that at some point before Altai, there is supposed to be asphalt…so far nothing. Around 10pm we stopped for the day, exhausted but happy.

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There is absolutely no wind cover outside of the towns, but we drive around in our own wind cover. We just have to slum it for the night in the downstairs of our mobile home and put up a regular camping tent.

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This is about 100 meters from the “main” road. Went driving off into the wild, first make sure the ground is solid enough.

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The food situation in Mongolian grocery stores is not the best…or more likely, we just dont know where to look. Tired after a long day of driving we usually would have had some nice food and a tall glass of beer to relax.

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No, i’m just realizing that i didn’t drink in Mongolia a single drop of beer, except for one time in the hostel in Ulaanbaatar. Maybe it was the stress and i wanted to be absolutely 100% when dealing with these roads? Anyway, our dinner for the night, some rye bread, cream cheese and pickled vegetables, the only kind of vegetables we found outside of Ulaanbaatar.

Wind howling a bit outside, but we are warm and safe inside the car, munching on our pickles. After such a long day, my eyes are still restless, unable to focus on any particular spot for more than a moment. The brain is foggy and i close my eyes, all i see are puddles, dirt and two tracks about 10 feet in front of me. And if you do happen to look off into the far off steppe, you peripheral vision is moving, like you are flying through a tunnel. So, if you kids want to do some drugs but afraid of their legal and health repercussions, just come and drive a car in Mongolia for a day…you’ll be tripping all night.

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In the morning while we were getting our breakfast ready, we saw three buses roll by. We smiled, this confirmed that we are still on a major road and didn’t take a wrong river crossing somewhere and went about our business. About an hour later we packed up and got on the road.

Went around a hill and immediately stopped. The buses were all still there and about 150 people were walking on the side of the road.

First thought…shit! There is a huge river, but then the people? Must be a little foot bridge.

Calm down…everything is okay, lets not forget that this is a “major” highway here, the boring highway.

Upon closer inspection turns out because of the recent heavy rains the valley flooded, creating a huge puddle at the bottom.

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We carefully watched as one by one the buses navigated the dirt bath, especially noting the depth of mud and water. At some points it seemed to come up to 60-70% of the buses’s wheel.

Damn…thats deep.

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Picked a line, got a bit of speed, held our breath, started the gopro and went in. Shoot, there are still people walking on the side of the mud pit. They see me coming, and start running away from the road…they know they are about to get a free mud treatment for their whole bodies. I think the water missed them, if not i’m sorry.

Not only was it deep, it was also very long. Not just in and out kind of a puddle, we had to steer, then stop on a little island to catch our breath before moving on.

The water didn’t just splash the sides, the splash went COMPLETELY over our car, wetting the tent and repainting it a shade of mud-brown.

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And then out of absolute mud and dirt comes asphalt. We happily washed the windows thinking to ourselves that this is it, we are good to go all the way to Russia.

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In the town of Altai, we met the three french couples that spent the first night with us in the “oasis” in Ulaanbaatar. High on adrenaline, tired from the roads it was like seeing and old friend, we got out of the car and literally ran to them for a hug. The stress of travelling completely by yourself in this kind of environment really gets to you. They had actual break downs and cars getting stuck, something that would have incapacitated us for days. But there is safety in numbers, they figured it out without too much trouble.

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So the people didn’t lie, there are asphalt roads, but for some weird reason you are not allowed to drive on them.

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Some roads are paved right in front of your eyes. Do you know the feeling you get after driving on absolute shit for the last 2 days, you see a brand new road next to you and you cannot drive on it?

No you probably dont, but just imagine that it is frustrating….just frustrating.

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And then you see this and realize that there might be a reason the road is closed. The did the pavement, but the bridge washed out. As you pass the little creek at the bottom and think to yourself, why do you need such a massive bridge here…

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Then you remember that you are still in Mongolia, land of freedom and endless possibilities.

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Where the rivers are free to roam, wherever they please.

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Even if its through a small building.

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We slowly drove up to a bunch of cars parked on the road. Everyone was out, shooting video, while the people in gers tried to save their belongings.

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Later we learned that a mudslide up in the mountains somewhere caused the river to divert its course, spilling into another lake or river and causing them both to swell beyond any regular capacity.

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We found another advantage to a ger, if there is a flood you can just roll up the walls and let the water go through your house. Just make sure to pick up small objects from the floor…no don’t worry about the furniture, the water will just do under.

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Remember me washing the windows? Really a pointless exercise out here. Make sure you can see out of the front and dont worry about the rest.

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Dont think of it as dirt on your precious car, its more like sunscreen and rust protection.

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After about an hour of standing around twiddling our thumbs, while waiting for the one brave soul to try the water, a little Lexus without hesitation went in.

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Everyone watched holding the breath, either hoping for a safe crossing or for a show. Slowly and without major problems they crossed the first part of the underwater road to a gas station just beyond these buildings.

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You can see the water level has started to drop off by the marks left on the building. I thought that we would watch the complete destruction of this little outpost.

The man in the photo above, walking through the river, his ger was in the direct path of the river and we managed to not only see in action but actually time the complete disassembly of a ger and loading it on the truck. Took a total of 20 minutes.

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More and more cars came over, people got out and gathered at the edge. Watching, thinking.

All of a sudden everyone got in their cars and started crossing. We have some video of this that we will post later, but no photos.

We were somewhere behind six or seven cars when we started. A few of the little sedans got stuck on some invisible underwater gravel piles and were left there by everyone.

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We followed a line behind a Toyota Highlander and a Russian UAZ, if they made it, we will be okay. What you saw in the above photos is not even the main river, that is just the top of the river spilling over the road. Behind that gas station was the real, the scary crossing. Since this time we were not alone, it seemed my safe and more doable than the stuff we have done on the way from Gobi.

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In comparison the rest of the drive was pretty uneventful, the same shitty roads, the same brand-new asphalt that you can’t use. When i mean shitty, i dont mean just no pavement. A dirt road can be beautiful, smooth, silent and pretty. These roads were not like that, they were destroyed by the construction trucks that were building the new road, many places were flooded and muddy.

So, once again, nothing boring.

For the night we stopped somewhere in the western Mongolia. Climbed up on a hill and once again had bread with cheese and pickles, this time it was because of the mosquitoes. They are in millions here, for some reason they are white and their bites swell…a lot, so make sure your face is not too exposed.

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In the morning the wind was just strong enough to keep the mosquitoes away and give us some peace and quite, long enough to make a proper breakfast, boil some eggs for lunch and even wash our dishes.

Do you know that we only recently, maybe about a month ago realized that we can hard boil eggs and have them for lunch? Thats like the simplest, best way…you can eat them on the go. Yeah 8 months to realize that….

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The eggs were not enough today. Hyein, probably because she is smaller, realized that we are getting a little hungry and cranky.

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We stopped and had some ramen. Many times i think i’m not hungry, moody, cranky or upset, then i just eat a bit and realize that i have been all of those things. The offroad driving requires a lot of concentration and you literally forget or dont even need to it. So if you do this type of trip, create a really good food plan, don’t skip meals, you are not in a race. Stop and relax for a moment, take in the views and refuel your empty belly.

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Especially, since you have to go through that…you will need all the patience you can possible get.

Tashanta border crossing, Mongolian side 8pm. We drove to the border because we were already close by and had nothing to lose.

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Turns out that because of the week-long Naadam holiday, the border has been closed for the past 5 days. It is going to be open tomorrow, just for 1 day and let through only 100 cars.

Shit…what number are we? Quickly walked back from the front of the line and counted, we are 65th, we should be okay.

Now we just have to wait for 14 hours for the border to open. No problem, we got everything we need with us.

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This guy has also been waiting, but didn’t make it.

At night, we opened the tent after having yet another dinner of bread, cream cheese and pickles, and went to sleep.

All of a sudden I hear people running, engines starting i know the line is moving.

Shoot, did they open the border at night? I get down as fast as i can, but it still takes some time. I see that there is about 30 meters of open space in front of me.

Getting in the car as fast as i can, but too late a semi that was in the back of the line is full steaming and i would crash if moved.

I move up, get out of the car, bang on his window and tell him in no uncertain terms that i am very displeased with his actions.  He says nothing and spits in my direction as a turn and walk away.

Politely, i take my car and park it across the road, open the rear bumper for extra length and proclaim that no one will move until this asshole give me my spot back.

They get mad…tell me that i was too slow…i just sit in the car and wait. Soon they find a translator and in Russia tell me that I am not a nice man for blocking the road…anyway about 10 minutes of this, they come to their senses and let me park in the correct spot.

All this bullshit because the locals park their cars at the front of the line and then sell them to anyone. Once they are done, they leave creating empty spots. Cars move and some people cut the line.

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At night the wind became so strong and the Mongol drivers so annoying that we decided it would be best to just sleep in the car.

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In the morning a few “cool guys” tried to just cut the line. The night was long and uncomfortable, no one in the line was going to agree with it. Even the border patrols came out and told this guy to beat it.

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You know last night escapade with the Mongolian truck drivers? Hyein got a mosquito bite right on her eyelid, a bit of an allergic reaction and swelling. She took some anti-histamines and was high out of her mind, in the roof top tent while i was driving around and arguing with the Mongols. She told me the next day that this was an interesting experience but not something that she wants to repeat. Although we never moved really fast, there is no traction in the tent and every time i would break she would slide around the tent…while high. She stuck her hand out and held onto the roofrack to steady herself a bit.

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Standing in line at the border is like being a private in the army. My friend served a few tours and he said that everything is done according to the principle of “hurry up and wait”. Same her, you frantically try to close the gap so no one squeezes in between you and then wait for an hour.

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Never forget that Mongolia is a land of magic. In the morning we met Chris, we have met him initially in Irkutsk and sort made plans to travel Mongolia together, due to shitty cell reception and missed connections we only managed to meet at the border…on the way out…by accident. Still counts, we traveled Mongolia together 🙂

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As we got closer to the Mongolian border the weather and our spirits turned for the better.

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Made some new friends, a Korean husband and wife couple and their friend travelling down the Silk road. We quickly made plans to meet again…that means for sure, somewhere along the road we will see them, even if its just at another border.

In total it took us 20 hours to get through the border. Its not the longest record in the world, Karin and Coen of LandcruisingAdventure had a 2 day record for a while and recently it went up to 14 days. Some people coming from the Russian side told us that they wait for 5 days…hmm, 20 hours doesnt seem that bad in comparison.

And the same Mongolia drivers that were generally dicks in Mongolia, started respecting their place in line and personal space once got to Russia.

A wee-bit of summary:

If you have ever written about the Southern route of Mongolia is boring then:

  1. you have never been on the Southern route
  2. you dont have imagination to go find your own adventures off the route
  3. we took some other road and NOT the Southern route

Dont listen to anyone, even us, go have your own adventure.

1 Comment

  1. max says: Reply

    да это вам повезло что вы как раз к концу пятидневного перерыва в работе пограничников приехали а не к самому началу!

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