Tuesday, January 25, 2011

traveling Mongolian style

Like so many other things in life here in Mongolia, traveling around is a whole 'nother experience.... As in my youthful days of riding the Greyhound bus to and from Ohio State, I am enjoying and even at times, savoring the "autobus" as an inexpensive, though not exactly time saving method of transportation.
People here do not own cars the way we Americans do... They accept that riding the bus or hiring a car or meeker (van) to go where they want or need to get to is part of life. I recall seeing a PBS show on Mongolia prior to my arrival where it was stressed that to travel here, you need lots of time or money. A truer statement was never spoken.
With failing infrastructure, the "roads" are not so good and to many places there are no roads, and drivers must know the way. A well paying and fairly prestigous job, driving for a living must be extremely tiring here!
At one of the major bus depots in Ulaanbataar, Draegen station, individuals set up small stands and sell snacks and beverages for the long rides. I have even seen women get on the bus selling heavy duty long underwear, in case you are cold. The buses I have ridden to and from UB are very pimped out with curtains on all the windows as well as some nice storage spaces, and a big screen dvd player. You can count on seeing many Mongolian music videos and usually a movie on the 6+ hour trip. Not too shabby for a bus! The cost one way is the equivelant of around $12 US, affordable even on my PC living allowance.
Fortunately the road all the way from Arvikheer to UB is paved and fairly smooth. The disruption on the ride is usually the driver honking the horn to either chase livestock from the road, warn a motorcycle or when passing the slow moving heavily laden trucks.
On a recent weekend trip to Buyankhungor to visit some PC friends, it was a totally new bus experience. First of all, though only about 200 Km away at most (UB being being 450 Km away) it takes a minimum of 5 hours for the trip. The "road" is not paved, and reminds me of the narrow roads of my country childhood. Winding, narrow and rutted, the bus spent much of the time in low gear climbing.
Another interesting matter was that I could not actually purchase a ticket from here to there. My town is a stop in between Buyankhungor and UB, so I had to go to the petrol station on the highway (where the bus either passes or stops for fuel) and was given a 1 1/2 hour time window when the bus would pass by. Hhhhmmmmmm.... So my friend Uugnaa took me there, asked the two men waiting for the same bus to help me out and show me which bus... always an adventure. So after just a few minutes, 2 buses whizzed past the station, then a 3rd bus came and went and the attendant yelled at the men, who in turn, motioned me to follow. One of the men ran to the road and flagged down the bus, which then pulled over several hundred feet ahead. Oddly enough the men stopped to chat with two women in a car who pulled over and I rushed ahead to the bus.
The driver looked at me, pointed to a seat and said "bish", which is no... I was totally prepared for this, smiled and dragged my sleeping bag and half full backpack down the aisle, over several others seated there to find a spot to sit. I plopped down on my bag and coat in the aisle. It was surprisingly not so uncomfortable!
During the next 5 hours we stopped twice for bathroom breaks. Now a bathroom break here means in this case, we stop in the middle of nowhere (no electric poles, gers, anything in sight)... men go off to one side of the bus and women to the other, everybody just popping a squat out in the open. My parka comes to my knees so my bare cold ass is not showing to everyone though. Amazing what becomes common place after awhile as this practice has for me! We arrived safely, not frozen and within 5 hours.
On the way back I was fortunate to get a seat by getting to the bus depot early, and it was much more comfortable. These buses were not nearly as plush as the previous ones I'd ridden on, with no dvd player, a broken clock, but there was music. The stop we made was in a tiny soum, with gers and buildings around. When we got to Arvikheer the bus stopped at the petrol station where I got off. I had not paid for my fare and had to approach the driver to give him my money. One additional tiny difference here is that PC advises us to always carry supplies, especially in the brutally cold winter, such as sleeping bag, extra layers of warm clothing, food water and matches in case of the bus or vehicle breaking down and being stuck. I have a much longer journey planned for next month, to the far north of this huge country to witness the ice fest and see the reindeer people. I can only hope that journey will be as safe and pleasant as this most recent trip.

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