They have these cool Russian vans in Mongolia. Like the icecream, Mongolians think that anything from Russia is superior (excepting of course, occupation and nation wide hunger. Eighteen years later, the youth of Mongolia don’t really remember.)
We expected such a van when we emerged, bags packed, from our hostel. We were leaving Tsetserleg for the Great White Lake 180kms away. Instead we found a really dodgy brothers van, whose boot didn’t shut. We piled in, along with three others sharing the costs. Then two people introduced to us as ‘the driver’s brother’ and ‘the driver’s mother’ roll started it. Uh oh.
The first 2 hours were sort-of on bitumen. We stopped at this magnificent gorge and stretched our legs. We passed gers and sheep and goats and horses and lush green hills.
Then the road got bad. We bounced another two or three hours til we reached the great white lake.
We passed the luxury Eco ger camp, ($35 per person per night) and met a local family renting out their home, for 25 000 T/($15). We rented the whole ger for the night. It was clean and tidy, and smelt faintly of meat. They fired up the stove and Baby Boy was his usual charming self.
Being well after 3pm, we went for a walk to a small restaurant for lunch. It was closed, but the universal eating charade got us beckoned over into another ger. Sure enough, inside were a few tables, and a chest freezer. Chris, being both theatrical and uninhibited, did his usual ‘mooing’ and ‘baaing’ caper, but it turned out the lady knew the word ‘pish’. We ordered ‘pish rice’. And about an hour later, ate fish, chips, rice and mayonnaise with a bit of carrot in it.
But this time it was 4:30 so we walked around the lake and climbed rocks. There were dozens of rocks pillars that people had made
Meena, of course, couldn’t resist a swim in the freezing water. Baby Boy, Snowy and I headed back to the ger and got the fire roaring. We had bread and jam for dinner and made tea on the fire.
My intrepid Mum had joined us in Ulaanbaatar a couple of days earlier, this was her first night in a ger and our 8th.
We knew to keep the baby in the sling at all times! His burn from our ger stay at Terelj had only just healed. Many Mongolian children have scars from ger fire burns. Not as many as there would be if parents didn’t tie them to the furniture when they go out to do a day’s work. Harsh. Just like the winter weather. And the diet. And the life.
Our children name everything. This goat was named ‘Chessie”
Chris arranged one final horse ride for our die-hard riding fans, Meena and Tintin. They just loved it. The three of them headed off early next morning after yet more bread and jam. Mum and I took the two small boys and and Sparky to hike up the valley ridge, it was so pretty. Little mountain streams ran across the field, and there were wild flowers everywhere.
It was the end of the season, very few people were camped about. I started to think again how cool it would be to have our own Russian motorhome or truck and camp across the country side in this lovely weather, catching fish in the lakes and riding horses and watching the northern stars at night.
I must have been getting carried away, even my husband the optimist reminded me of the harsh weather and bad roads and totally unappealing food. And his lack of diesel mechanic prowess…..(not to mention mine)
Knowing we were on to a good thing, we ate pish rice again washed down by copious tea. Despite the recent rain, we felt dry, our skin and lips needing moisture and our hair was full of dust.
Our 2 pm van arrived at 3:30, things didn’t look good. The tyres were still bald. We took off to the first little town, and our driver spent maybe an hour visiting people, dropping things to other people and collecting random heavy sacks of who-knows-what and strapping them to the roof. There was no way we were getting back to Tsetserleg before the restaurant closed at 7. We texted ahead asking for some food to be saved.
It was tricky. We try to be as safety concious as we can, and driving at night in Mongolia with a dickie van with dickie brakes was not part of the plan. But what to do? We had no other option, and had to be on the bus back to the capital at 8 the next morning. The 4 hr trip stretched to 6. We got in late and had an awkward translated discussion with the driver as to why we would not pay the full rate. The full rate, we said, was for a good safe Russian van, on time, with brakes that worked. Not a dickie van with you and all your mates, running late, stopping for numerous visits, and going down every hill using 2nd gear because the brakes didn’t work, just like the starter motor. And a bit of tread on the tyres wouldn’t have hurt either.
“Oh”, he said, “I was only late ‘cos the van broke down in the river and I went back to the town to fix it.”
Indeed. Our point exactly.
So, are we spoiled westerners with an over developed sense of entitlement? Are we snobs to demand the best? Are we stingy? Are we unrealistic? Or is it reasonable. Actually, it’s really hard to tell in the moment. We withheld money to make the point that his service was unsafe, not to rip him off. And there are risks to being on the road at night: drink driving is rife in Mongolia, as is turning the headlights off to save electricity. Wanting our kids to be safe is not unreasonable, in fact, it’s our job as parents. Of course, we should have said something when we first saw the van and had it roll started. But again, its hard to tell in the moment.
So we had a late night, and early morning. The whole thing was repeated the next day with the bus to Ulaanbaatar. The tyres were bald, including the spare they put on when one blew. The whole bus overheated and they tipped 20l of coolant into it. We were another 2 hrs late. Hey, the horns worked really well!!
We washed the dust out of our hair and and went out on the town to eat spicy Uzbeck food. This time we walked everywhere.
Mum dreamt all night that she was in a bumpy bumpy van.
It seems that the more beautiful the location, the harder the journey to get there. Is that profound, or am I just in a really bumpy country?