The Long Road To Nowhere: A Hitchhiker’s Tale from Outer Mongolia
On the third day, I made a sea-change decision: I thought, if I ever get out of this miserable desert, I’m going to write my first postcard ever. “Sunny Greetings from the Gobi!” it will say, happily scrawled over a stark, grey purgatory of pebbly sand and death. On the back I’d write:
Dear Mom and Dad,
Greetings from the Gobi!
I hope everything’s going well.
I’ve been trapped in the cabin of a truck for the last three days with two mangled sheep carcasses and a fat, Mongolian trucker named Bold. Every morning, I awaken to find Bold smiling over me with a foldable hunting knife in one hand and breakfast in the other—a metal bucket filled with several-days-old, boiled, unrefrigerated sheep parts. Every meal it’s the same metal bucket. I hate the metal bucket.
It’s a complicated story how I ended up here, but basically: never go hitchhiking in Mongolia when you’re plastered drunk—or ever, for that matter.
If Bold spoke English, I would ask him, “Why (and how) have we been driving through the desert for three days?”
I would ask him, “Where are we?”
I would ask him, “Where are you driving us to, you big, strange Mongolian man?”
But I already know the answers.
We’ve been driving for three days because I am in Hell.
We are nowhere.
I don’t know where we’re going, but I do know that it doesn’t matter; I’ll never make it to Ulaanbaatar; I’ll never catch my ride to Bayan-Olgii; I’ll never get to visit the Kazakh nomads for their Eagle Hunting Festival. I am doomed to forever rove this harsh, featureless expanse of sand in the smelly cabin of a truck.
Bold doesn’t have a radio, so sometimes he sings to me. I hate Bold’s singing too.
Mongolia is real nice.
The border town of Zamyn-Ude is a hyperbolic shithole of a village, straddled along the Chinese border like a nightmarish welcome mat to Mongolia. Other than its signature tourist attractions, such as “Garbage-Filled Concrete Fountain,” and the solitary bar, creatively named “Bar,” the village is nothing but three gloomy, dilapidated streets of hideous, Soviet-era buildings. Beyond that, the three streets abruptly vanish into sand, and a lone dirt track trudges north into Gobi wasteland. It is the last place on earth you want to hear the words, “The next available train ticket isn’t for three days.”
But such is my luck.
The Trans-Mongolian Railway was booked solid and I was now stranded in a place so depressing that even Mickey Mouse would have been clamoring for a Xanax.
Under normal circumstances, such a setback wouldn’t faze me. But this was not normal circumstance. I was on a quest, racing a tight clock: I needed to reach Bayan-Olgii on the fringes of Siberia before the first weekend of October. That is when the Kazakh nomads host their incredible Burkit Eagle Hunting Festival—my Mongolian side trip’s raison d’etre—a showcase of traditional culture, equestrian games, eagle hunting, and something resembling a fur-heavy, nomad fashion show. For the grand finale, the top three eagles are unleashed against a wolf.
In case you miss what I just wrote, again that’s THREE EAGLES FIGHTING A WOLF.
I needed to reach Bayan-Olgii at all costs necessary.
For that to happen, I would need to catch a ride with one of the old, Russian cargo buses that ply the 60-hour route west from Ulaanbaatar, and I needed to do it before October 1st—a challenge when you’re marooned in Zamyn-Ude with three days remaining.
Sitting by the garbage-filled, concrete fountain, it seemed like I had no options left.
There were no public buses, jeeps, or vans traversing the Gobi. I didn’t have time to wait for the next train, nor the money to afford staying in Zamyn-Ude’s hotel. I had a tent, but was afraid of camping in the desert after an American traveler warned me about olgoi-khorkoi, the Gobi Death Worm—a big, territorial invertebrate that’s faster than a snake and capable of emitting a highly venomous, acidic spray, as well as shooting a deadly electrical discharge from its rear-end. (Though, to be honest, I’d never heard of such a thing and the guy who warned me had a few too many crystal necklaces and lip-rings to warrant credibility. Furthermore, he repeatedly employed the term “positive vibrations,” forfeiting whatever authority he had left.)
But still, I wasn’t about to risk it.
Without any further options, I hatched my horrible plan:
I was going to try to hitchhike across the Gobi.
“Ha Ha Ha, this is very stupid, impossible idea,” laughed Aagi, pouring another round of Genghis Khan vodka. “Ha Ha Ha.”
“Ha Ha Ha,” agreed the other Mongolians, and Aagi doled us the shots.
I had wandered into “Bar” to formulate a plan—due to my lack of Mongolian language skills, I figured I could hand write a plea-letter explaining my situation then get someone to translate it for me, so that I could hand it to anyone who pulls over.
After scrawling down a couple paragraphs, I approached a table of young Mongolians who were ripping shots with a Russian expat named Aagi. Immediately an extra chair appeared, and while the oldest of them, Dorj, scribbled away in my notebook, the rest of them plied me with shot after shot of vodka.
“There is no one driving to Ulaanbaatar from here,” said Dorj, handing me back my notebook with his translation. “It’s eleven hours without roads. I think you’ll be waiting a very, very long time.”
“You will need at least two more shots,” smiled Aagi.
I warily slid him my glass; I could tell it was going to be a long day.
The desert sun bore down on me as I stumbled away from civilization on the dirt track, giggling drunkenly to myself. As soon as I felt sufficiently in the middle of nowhere, I dropped my pack, checked for any signs of Gobi Death Worms, and sat down to wait for my ride to Ulaanbaatar.
And I sat.
And I sat.
And I sat.
Occasionally the rumble of a truck would break the silence, and I’d jump to my feet as they barreled towards me through the emptiness. I’d then wave and smile as they roared past, kicking up clouds of dust in my face.
After 1PM, I managed to get a few jeeps to pull over, and quickly realized that there was something terribly wrong with Dorj’s translation. Two separate drivers frowned upon reading the letter, before pulling out their wallets and thrusting money in my face.
“No! No! Ulaanbaatar!” I cried.
To which they shook their heads, “Oh, no, no,” and drove off.
Finally, around sun down, I heard the purr of a motor and looked up to find a small, white sedan blazing towards me, off road, out of the desert. Approaching the dirt track about fifty yards away, it suddenly slammed to a halt. The car then shifted into reverse, rolled backwards about ten feet, and then stopped again. The engine went dead.
Through the open passenger window, two Mongolian men inquisitively stared at me.
I stared back, equally curious.
After a very long moment, the chubby man in the driver seat silently waved me over.
“Ulaanbaatar?” I asked, handing them my notebook.
“SSSttteeeevve!” the chubby man smiled, scanning the letter. He then pointed to himself, “Mongko!” then to his friend, “Walter!” before gesturing me to get in.
“Bayarlaa,” I thanked him, opening the back door to a waft of vodka fumes.
Before I could settle in, a blue, plastic cup appeared in my face. Walter was holding a freshly opened vodka bottle with a mischievous grin, signaling for me to drink it.
I accommodated his demands.
Next Mongko took a shot. Then Walter. Then quickly it was my turn again.
It’s interesting to note how much easier it is to communicate with hand gestures after a few ounces of liquor; where the spoken word fails, alcohol somehow magically transcends the language barrier:
Through gestures, they explained to me that Walter was visiting Mongko, but lived in Sukhbaatar (I think). Walter was a truck driver (I think). Mongko hated children (I think).
Another car arrived, parking next to ours. A Mongolian couple piled out—with another bottle of vodka—and they opened my door and climbed in with me (it turned out they were friends of Walter) (I think).
Mongko displayed me to the couple. “Steve!” he boomed and handed them my letter.
“Steve!” they grinned.
More vodka. So much vodka.
Suddenly the Gobi was a warm and magical place, a place where everyone smiles and liquor falls like rain.
Then a truck pulled up next to us and the Mongolians started to hug. Walter gestured for me to get out. This was our ride.
Hopping onto the truck, Walter and I waved to our friends as we rumbled forward, striking north into the Gobi, leaving the town of Zamyn-Ude far, far behind.
I was shocked to learn that I wasn’t the only hitchhiker brazen enough to tackle the Gobi. Wedged into the truck’s three seats with Walter, the driver, and I were two young Mongolian hitchhikers, a boy and girl about my age. The boy chuckled something in Mongolian as they read from my notebook. Then abruptly he frowned and reached for his bag.
“No money!” I stammered.
Out of his bag came a large, silver, traditional bowl, adorned with dazzling carvings and semi-precious stones. He placed it in my hands.
Before I could protest, the boy reached back into his bag and out came a bottle of vodka. I cringed as he poured, nearly filling the bowl.
“Drink,” he said.
“You speak English?!”
Half way down the bowl, I nearly vomited and stopped to catch my breath. The bowl then went to Mongko, then (to my horror) the driver, who knocked it down with one hand still on the wheel. I wondered if he’d been drinking beforehand, but realized that it didn’t matter. In the empty expanse, there simply wasn’t anything to crash into.
The cabin started to spin, but I was euphoric nonetheless. I was triumphant, heading north, defeating the desert against the odds.
“How long till Ulaanbaatar?” I grinned, gesturing to my watch.
“Ulaanbaatar?” The girl said.
“Ulaanbaatar,” I stammered. I looked to Walter, but he was passed out.
“Ulaanbaatar, nooo. We go to Baruun-Urt,” said the boy.
“WHAT,” I shouted. We were going east—about thirteen hours in the wrong direction.
“Baruun-Urt, Baruun-Urt,” chimed the driver.
The girl frowned. “No one drives to Ulaanbaatar across Gobi. Only train.”
We were already in the middle of the Gobi; there was no going back. I didn’t see the use in getting worked up, as there was nothing to be done.
Shortly thereafter, I passed out.
“Steve! The driver wants you,” said the Mongolian boy, jolting me awake.
We had parked near an ovoo (a shamanist sacred rock pile), next to a large cargo truck. Our driver was standing outside, speaking with the other truck’s driver, and frantically waving me over.
“Is he going to Ulaanbaatar?!” I cried.
The Mongolian couple shrugged.
I climbed over Walter and hopped out of the truck.
“Ulaanbaatar?” I shouted as I stumbled towards them.
The two men blabbered off in Mongolian, gesturing me into the cargo truck.
I took this as a yes…
Bold was a smiley, sausage-fingered man with a booming belly laugh, the singing voice of a toad, and a tireless affinity for boiled-sheep-parts-in-a-bucket.
“Sain bain uu!” I greeted as I settled into the cab.
“Sain bain uu!” screamed Bold, giving a thumbs up to my language skills. He then mumbled something else, which I perceived as him asking if I could speak Mongolian.
“Bayarlaa,” I said, reciting the second of my three Mongolian phrases. Thank you.
“Ahhhh!” Bold shrieked, clearly impressed.
I laughed, flattered, still roaring drunk, before repeating a third phrase I’d picked up at the border. “Which way is Mongolia?”
Bold stared for a minute before nodding his head confusedly and starting the truck.
Shortly thereafter, I passed out again—comfortable under the assumption that I would shortly be in Ulaanbaatar.
I was in for a sore awakening.
After days of driving through the vast, tedious nothingness, I started to understand why explorers dreaded the Gobi, and why Mongolians drink so much vodka:
There’s something deeply affecting about the crushing emptiness of the steppes. There’s something narcotic about its solitude, when the only thing you have is a musical trucker named Bold, and beyond that—nothing.
In the footprint of the largest empire the world has ever known, all that remains is sand and wind and dust. Only the passing blur of a camel or an isolated yurt suggests that time is still moving. It makes you feel small or ephemeral. You start to long for human contact. Also, vodka. Vodka seems to mute the maddening silence of the steppes.
I only maintained my sanity because of the makeshift bed assembled in the back of the cab. There I could stretch out comfortably and lose myself in thought. However, this bit of comfort was torn from me on the second afternoon, when we pulled over to that fateful, lonely yurt. I watched curiously as Bold disappeared inside, reemerging a minute later with two tanks of milk—and two deteriorating sheep carcasses.
“Khonyny!” smiled Bold, and I tried not to scream as he tossed the corpses onto the bed space.
I sat in my seat for the remainder of our journey, hoping each time that over the next hill I would see something; something that never came.
I am in Hell.
I am nowhere.
I don’t know where we’re going, but I know that it doesn’t matter; I’ll never make it to Ulaanbaatar. I am doomed to forever rove this harsh, featureless expanse of sand in the smelly cabin of a truck.
At four in the morning, I awoke to Bold loudly singing at me.
“Ulaanbaatar!” he hailed.
I wiped the sleep from my eyes and peered out the window. To my shock, it was true. Or, sort of. Bold had brought us to a freight lot in the industrial, grey hinterlands of Ulaanbaatar, several miles from the city’s downtown.
He gestured to the door. This is where I got out.
“Bayarlaa!” I thanked him. I pulled out some money for the petrol and boiled lamb, but Bold violently waved in refusal. Smiling, we shook hands and Bold drove off, leaving me alone in the dark, post-apocalyptic ghetto of concrete high-rises and smokestacks. At the very least, he had been considerate enough to drop me off at a bus station—neglecting the fact that buses don’t run at four in the morning.
If I wanted to get downtown, I would need to hitchhike.
I hesitantly walked to the curb, raised up my thumb—and thought better of it.
I would rather walk.
I would rather eat a big, metal bucket of day-old, boiled, unrefrigerated sheep parts.
In the flickering streetlight, I could just make out my map, and so I threw on my bag, tightened the straps, and determinedly stalked off into the darkness. I was on a mission.
It was the morning of October 1st. I had an old, Russian cargo bus to catch.
For more travel stories, check out Backpackology’s shiny, new “Travel Stories Index“–the fruit of several hours of determined procrastinating.
For another epic road trip, check out the Photo Travelogue to one of the world’s best kept travel secrets: The Karakoram Highway.
For reflections on the beauty of stressful, nerve-wracking travel, read “The Backpacker’s Manifesto”