I have taken many buses in the past, but none compare to the most recent from Ulaanbaatar to Bayan Olgii.
I am not sure exactly how far it is, (even Google fails to know! ) but somewhere between 1400km and 1800km, depending who you get your information from. The bus was rumoured to take between 48 hours and 5 days, non stop, which averages at best 35km/hr and at worst 11km/hr. With stories in our ears of bad weather and breakdowns, Jordi and I expected it to be closer to the latter and came prepared with litres of water and bags of food. We were, however, very lucky, managing to make the journey in exactly 48 (somewhat torturous) hours.
If you have read my blog in the last you will already know about Type 1 (the kind of fun that is actually enjoyable) and Type 2 fun (the kind that at the time is horrendous, but afterwards becomes a much relived and enjoyed story)… This bus journey was without doubt a mixture of both.
The bus itself was incredible. If it had been in England I think it would have been on either a scrap heap or in a museum years ago, I’m not quite sure which, but certainly not on the road. It was only small and the first two hours was spent rearranging the inside to accommodate 18 people plus their luggage, plus numerous other packages and parcels to be taken on route. It was quite a feat, seats were dismantled, and put back together again with additional luggage stuffed into and under them. The floor of the corridor (if you can even call it that) between the seats was lifted up, luggage stuffed underneath it until it was level with the seats themselves and then the corridor flooring was put down again on top. Extra seats were made out of cushions to accommodate more people and finally we left Ulaanbaatar, all squashed up and so laden down that the bus could barely get up the gentle slope leading out of town.
Sure enough our first stop to fix the bus was only an hour or so out of Ulaanbaatar. We drank the first of many salty milky teas while the driver clanked and banged under the bus. It was worth the stop though as when we got back on the bus the heating was working.
With minus temperatures guaranteed this was alleviated by everyone in the bus and spirits were high as we listened to Mongolian music and drove through the night. Condensation froze instantly on the windows and we were so tightly packed that I could barely move, but the bumpy bus ride somehow rocked us all to sleep and I woke up at 6.30 the next morning surprisingly fresh. We ate breakfast on the bus and except for a short stop on the side of the road for petrol and pees, we kept going almost the entire day. It was a bit like a dream, brief snatches of stunning scenery out of the windows before being rocked back to sleep by the movement of the bus. It is rare that I sleep in, but strangely I couldn’t seem to do much else for most of that day on the bus.
The landscape was incredible. We drove for hundreds of kilometres on dirt roads, or sometimes no road at all, without seeing a single sign of human life. Steppes with the infamous wild horses, cattle, sheep and goats grazing. The unending plains of the gobi desert, rocky ground as far as the horizon, scattered with snow and a cutting wind. Herds of camels grazing the barren landscape, an Eagle or two and vultures hovering over carcasses. It was amazing.
We drove through snow and ice and the drivers hardly seemed to notice, driving the bus over all terrain and even through a river without slowing down or stopping. A father and son who took it in turns to navigate the path of least resistance whilst the other slept on a bed where the passenger seat would usually be. The father had also brought his small child, an adorable girl of 6 or 7, with french plaits and a bright pink cardigan. She was as good as gold and sat quietly or slept the entire journey. I’m not sure many kids in the UK could do that!
We stopped once a day for food and suu-tey-chai (the salted milk tea) in small roadside gers and stone buildings and occasionally for a toilet stop in between. At best there might be a squat toilet, perhaps sheltered from view by a few planks of wood but more often it seemed there was just the wilderness. The men and boys would stand in a line on one side and the women would shuffle off about a hundred yards before squatting in the open ground. There is no space for modesty in such landscape.
The people of Bayan Olgii speak kazakh, not Mongolian and with Jordi’s turkish he was able to communicate to a small extent, much to the enjoyment of everybody on the bus. There was much laughter and food was shared between everyone. Every now and then we would ‘Jordi’, ‘Low-ra’ interspersed in their chatter (Jordi had introduced me in his Spanish accent and it stuck). Sometimes followed by fits of giggles and kind laughter, people smiling at us the whole time.
Last night we heard our names repeatedly and excitedly until we found ourselves dropped off on the edge of a small town. Soon we were drinking more tea in the home of four medical students from Bayan Olgii who had moved away to study. Their home was built into what looked like and old converted garage, a simple and draughty room decorated with brightly coloured posters and fabrics. Four girls shared one small room with two bunk beds, a table and a kettle. Somehow they managed to squeeze the whole busload in and served us tea in rounds. We felt privileged to be included.
This morning we woke up to another breakdown, this time in the middle of nowhere. It was still dark outside so we all just huddled inside under our blankets to keep warm watching the glowing sun rise over the mountains around us. The drivers and a few of the other male passengers all pitched in to help fix the bus and an hour or so later it was fixed and we were on our way again. The skill of the drivers and patience of the passengers was amazing.
The scenery has steadily got wilder and more remote today and it literally felt like we were leaving life as we know it behind. It is not difficult to see why the nomadic lifestyle has remained so intact in this part of the world, with no mobile signal, no roads and so little contact with the rest of the world.
Now we wait to hear back from the families of Eagle Hunters who might let us stay with them for a few weeks, so that we can really experience what it means to live life in some of the harshest elements of the world. I just hope they get back in touch soon!