Part Five: Traveling in Mongolia
Budget traveling in Mongolia is a combination of rag tag English speaking (yet strangely well educated) travelers, a non-English speaking driver and his son, a 1950 circa Russian UMZ-455 (number?) van, lots of pasta, bottled water and a very, very rough itinerary bolted together at the last minute by the guesthouse. Each traveler came fully equipped with all of the essential traveling gear, although we opted to borrow a larger stove from the guesthouse, given that my stove was useless (proper fuel was unavailable in UB) which left 9 people with two small camp stoves. Food was purchased in large quantities at a local container market (a series of shipping containers selling an array of goods at bargain basement prices. For example, a massive watermelon would go for 1500T ($1.50), although the toilet paper was of a lesser quality. A total cost for fourteen days amounted to about 270 USD per person, with fuel prices constituting half of that price. A bargain, and more importantly, every dollar I spent, was injected directly into the local economy. Even the guesthouse was run by a Mongolian. Similar tours operated through foreign run tour businesses were going for as high as 2000USD/person. Obviously these tours were offering a few more amenities, yet the itineraries of visited places were similar if not smaller in comparison to the trek that I went on.
Transportation infrastructure in Mongolia is lacking considerably. I’m not a stranger from poor roads, having spent most of five summer seasons navigating some nasty forestry roads. Previously, I had decided that the roads/seismic survey lines blasting through the marshy environment of the Dawson Creek Forest District were possibly the worst tracks I would probably experience. That muse was quickly destroyed within five minutes of travel outside of UB (UB doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in road engineering skills, either, but it wasn’t the worst I’ve seen). Based on my limited travel experiences in country, I would estimate that Mongolia has approximately two levels of road conditions. Bad and worse. The road conditions are most likely the result of classic Communist unsustainablilty, environmental conditions, and Mongolian nomadic instincts. Back in the day (no exact date available) the friendly Soviets began to invest in Mongolian infrastructure, creating what at one point in history could be referred to as a ‘network’ of paved roads extending from UB out to the provincial capitals. Unfortunately, Mongolia is a poor country, and the Soviets turned out to be poor business partners, causing the roads to languish in disrepair and in some places (actually a large number of places) have actually disintegrated. In these places, maintenance and repair funds being short, Mongolians have created their own network of tire-built trails navigating around and through these problem regions. Over the years, these cat tracks, in some areas resembling a braided river system, have evolved into highways supplying the outlying areas. If you would like to destroy your vehicle in the quickest and most efficient method possible, take it on a trek through the Mongolian ‘highway’ system. Fully loaded semi-trailers and even the odd coach will navigate this transportation nightmare, often at high speed. During the last days of my travels in Mongolia, I did experience what I could describe as a ‘real’ highway. A road beginning in UB and ending in the mining city of Erdenet in the north. While only two lanes, this bad boy was a highway, and we moved without effort, although our driver appeared somewhat bored at this prospect, and we soon found ourselves moving overland on an almost parallel cat track. This road is presently being extended to the provincial capital of Moron (Muron), the rough and ready gateway to Hovsgol Lake in the Central North regions of Mongolia. Funded in part by Kuwait and Korea and built by a Chinese company this road is going to be gorgeous upon completion. While passing through the construction zone or driver kept mumbling “Chinese, Chinese” definitely with some bitterness. Mongolia has an incredibly high unemployment rate, and like most developing countries with little assets (in machinery, expertise and experience) and as such, is being denied the value added component of international aid.
Further complicating this macabre of roads is the absence of road markings and directions. Upon entering and leaving a provincial city, and even UB, one is presented with a multitude of road options, all similar in appearance and all equally undesirable. To the common traveler, this presents a big problem, and after discovering this, I wouldn’t recommend solo travel in Mongolia, unless one had significant amounts of time to waste on making navigation mistakes. To the Mongolian drivers, this poses little or no problem as they blast through the cities and along the roads with little fear of becoming lost. And hey, even if you do get lost, no problem, just go overland, find a ger, drink some vodka/airag and you will soon find your desired road.