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Driving at Night in Mongolia: Part One

by Tyler

It is already wearing on us that we can't get anything accomplished with our writing. This doesn't bode well; we've only been in Mongolia for three days. Even though we've decided to throw ourselves into this new adventure without writing about it immediately (the dynamic of traveling with a group of people is not conducive to how we work), it is proving difficult to break this cathartic and rewarding daily habit.

In addition to our now neglected daily journals, there is one more project weighing on our minds. A few days before we met the Mongol Ralliers, we were commissioned by Rough Guides to write a few travel pieces. They, unlike our entries, cannot be postponed indefinitely. The due date is rapidly approaching, and we've yet to make the time to work on them.

It would be foolish to pass on this opportunity, but the decisions required of us not to are a hard pill to swallow. We need to be away from people and distractions. All we want is to be a part of this team, but right now, we need solitude and time. So, as the group prepares to leave around 2PM, we reluctantly choose responsibility over fun, and say farewell.

Once we've collected the things of ours which have strayed into communal ownership (potato peeler, pots and pans etc), we head to the nearest restaurant to work. It takes four solid hours of writing, a pair of beers, and a few mutton dumplings before our respective editorials are complete. We're both elated, feeling as though a heavy weight has been lifted from our shoulders.

In the midst of our enthusiasm, we decide not to spend the night in Ölgii. Throwing caution and better judgement to the wind, we set off, inadvisedly choosing to chase after our friends. It is 7PM by the time we hit the rocky roads of Mongolia. Night is fast approaching.

Mongolian Traffic

We are making good time, speeding confidently over the corrugated mountain tracks, our trusty LRC leading us deeper into the heart of Mongolia. As we pass Nazir's lakeside ger at sunset, we feel bad for passing on his generous offer to slaughter a goat for a feast in our honor.

While I drive, we have a long "check-in", talking about being a couple in a group of people. We are surprised to agree that we've been feeling disconnected from one another. This seems a little ludicrous given that we've hardly been out of earshot for more than a year, but we have grown used to being one another's sole company. It isn't bad by any means, just very, very different.

Mongolian Washboard Road

Night is upon us, and the terrain is worse than ever. We are climbing, and there are sheer drops on either side. For the briefest of moments, I think about the mountain scenery we're missing, about how this is not going slowly, and about how this is a bad idea. I don't have time to dwell on it though, our safety requires that my focus rapidly returns to its rightful place: directly in front of us.

The sky is fading to an inky black. My eyes are peeled for rocks and holes in our path. Both appear from the distance as shadows on the ground, but I can only see a few meters ahead of us. I am repeating a single word to myself, like a mantra: vigilance.

My concept of what constitutes a road has changed drastically since entering Mongolia, but now, by any reckoning, we're no longer even following a track. At best, our guide has become a faint depression in the Earth's surface. There are no streetlights out here. There doesn't seem to be a moon, either. Every ounce of my concentration is inexorably focused on the land before us, avoiding rocks, avoiding potholes. I am silently cursing our LRC's dim headlights.

Despite my best efforts, sickening crunches, scrapes and clunking noises ring in our ears. I can feel it in my feet when the rocks hit our car; we grit our teeth and continue onwards. I am frustrated and exhausted. Why are we driving at night in fucking Mongolia? I feel suddenly that I've bit off more than I can chew, and that I am letting Tara down because there doesn't seem to be any way we'll find our friends tonight.

Why is the road we're on heading north, when its meant to be heading southeast? I am almost certain we're going the wrong way now. There is fork in the path, barely visible. I hesitatingly choose the rightmost branch, but we're soon waylaid by what seems to be a lake, or a fjord, or something impassible. God, I can't see anything.

It is around the time I get out of the car with our headlamp to orient myself that I start to feel firmly lost. Back in the driver's seat, I stop to examine our GPS. Our friends were making for the nearest large city: Hovd. This is our destination as well. As I read the little screen on our Garmin, I discover two Hovds! One is north of our location, the other is southeast. Neither seems to have a clearly defined, or even passable road.

The impact of this discovery requires that I forcibly restrain an urge to hurl our GPS out of the car window, into the Mongolian night. I am incensed. There are like five towns in this whole country! Why couldn't they call them different things?!

Tara is practically catatonic, silently trusting I will solve this problem. A palpable sensation of fear is beginning to broil in my stomach. We're in the mountains of Mongolia in a 20 year old economy car. We have no idea where we are going. I know we aren't in any imminent danger, but this is not a situation I want to be in. I am acting calm, but paranoia is about to take hold.

Recognizing that now is not the time to lose it, I dig a long forgotten litany from one of the deeper recesses of my mind, and being to recite it to myself, over and over.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

Calm and perspective return. I realize that the solution to our problem is a simple one: make camp. Travel in the daylight. I decide we will do so near the fork in the road. Hopefully we'll be able to flag someone down in the morning to point us in the right direction.

It is so difficult to navigate out here that I have a hard time getting us back to the intersection. I feel like I am playing some terrible video game when I am forced to use our GPS to aim our car, trying to move the arrow on the screen (us) towards the winding track showing where we've come from. (Seriously, click on Show Map & Statistics and zoom in a bit to see how turned around we were.)

At length, we find ourselves at the crossing once more. Just as I am about to unpack the car, I see headlights in the distance.

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It looks like the Mongol rally guys were bad influences - but briliant fun! On the rally website there are lots of warnings about death and destruction on Mongol roads so I think your experiences are definitely valid.It looks such a beautiful country thankyou very much for sharing. Could it be a good country for cycling, in the right season of course.
Posted by Simon Cross on October 6th, 2010 at 9:41 PM
Good luck in Mongolia :).....dont be like these 2....
"Two Mongolian sheep herders happened to pass by and quickly repaired the cycle, laughing at the fact that McGregor and Boorman had such a variety of high-quality tools and no idea how to fix the bike."
Posted by Eli on October 7th, 2010 at 3:22 AM
Oh my gosh -- another cliffhanger!
Posted by Jean on October 7th, 2010 at 7:43 AM
Looking very much forward to part 2!
Posted by Mia on October 7th, 2010 at 6:37 PM
Yay! Dune reference! This adventure is so kick ass. I'm spellbound. Instead of grading exams I'm huddling under our inefficient heater and reading this all night!
Posted by Jeremy on January 6th, 2011 at 3:45 PM