I had landed in Ulgii (Ölgii) airport for my trip to the mountains. I saw a van approach the airport and a man exit from it. The vehicle started rolling backward. The man quickly found a rock to place under a wheel before coming to the building and holding up a sign. I thought to myself that I hadn’t yet learned Cyrillic but it was just my travel agency’s name, upside-down.
The vehicle called to be described. It was a dark-green Russian-made UAZ like the one that I had travelled in in the Gobi desert a few days prior. There were differences. My Gobi trip vehicle had gleamed and was in really good condition. This one was a rustbucket. There was a hole in the windscreen that looked as though someone had forcefully thrown a pebble at the driver and had been on target. Pieces of cloth and tape held together the gears and the steering wheel – as though we lived in a Mad Max-style world of scarcity. The wheel creaked when it was turned. Even the man holding on to it had a bandage on his palm. The tinting was peeling off the windows. The man drove me to the travel agency where I would plan the trip.
After figuring out that I would head to the Khökh Serkh mountain range, I was joined by another driver and cook for my trip. The driver, Canat, spoke just a few words of English. The cook, Baku, could handle a few phrases and did most of the translation that was necessary. I learned on the way that they were married to each other and came across at least one other driver-cook couple who took tourists around. On this drive I picked up from Baku my first few words of Kazakh. “Hello” could be “Selim” or (if the speaker were a man) “Aslam alaikum”. We used pointed questions in simple English phrases to learn more about each other and about the trip itself.
Canat’s vehicle was a UAZ identical in colour and shape to my airport pickup. It had many of the same problems as the pickup. Many pieces were held together with tape. Canat would periodically open up the engine lid and either take out or put back a piece of cardboard next to the fan. I was unable to fathom what purpose this served. There were miniscule holes somewhere in front through which the cold air entered the vehicle, making it just slightly unpleasant to sit inside. After a few hours I realised that I was getting cold and one pair of jeans were seriously inadequate.
We set off through 4-wheel drive terrain for about ten kilometres. Then we had about 50 Km of smooth roads. We passed herds of horses, sheep and goats on that lonely road. The horses had manes of hair and tails that brushed the ground; the sheep let their fluffy tails bounce on their bottoms as they ran from us; the goats would try to run as a herd and cross the road every time the vehicle approached (instead of staying on one side of the road in safety).
I started observing some figures of mystery and adventure in the distance. These were solitary black-clad men riding on black horses far from anything else (always too far away for pictures). Naturally I took to thinking of them as “black riders” and the mystery deepened with every new sighting. On occasion I got the feeling that they were watching over cattle quite some distance away, perhaps even a kilometre away. The mystery of these romantic figures was solved a couple of days later when I went for a horse ride with the eagle hunter. Canat put a black fleece over me that kept me seriously warm against the chilly winds and as I rode over snow. I became the black rider.
The good road eventually ended and we were back on four wheel drive territory. Canat asked the locals for some sort of directions. I was told that he was asking about the location of the eagle hunter whom we were planning to visit – or something. The terrain got extremely harsh. We crossed streams that occasionally got more than 30 cm deep; there were some very steep climbs up and down would have challenged a 4WD; we ran over stones that stuck out in odd angles. The van was a rustbucket, but it did the job.
I was supposed to stay with the eagle hunter for two days and with the park inspector for one day. The plan eventually changed, so that I’d stay with the inspector for two days and with the eagle hunter for one day. One has to be flexible in the mountains. These experiences are documented here (inspector) and here (eagle hunter). We then headed back to Ulgii.
I had been hearing bad news about Ulgii since my arrival at the inspector’s hut. The military were about to conduct an emergency drill in the town. People were required to practice getting out of town quickly. I wouldn’t have believed that Ulgii could get any more dreary than when I first found it but I did. Any people that I came across were hurrying to their destinations; even running. The military were directing the locals in certain directions. They ignored me – an obvious tourist. The shops were all closed. I was forced to have my meals at my hotel.
I was hoping to do a bit of walking around the next day prior to my return to the capital Ulaanbaatar. Then the news got worse: my flight was cancelled. My travel agency, which was the picture of incompetence upto this point, sprung into action. They informed me that the flight was cancelled, negotiated with the airline and eventually found me a solution. They had Canat take me to the airline’s office in the town. The airline arranged a driver to take me and a bunch of other stranded tourists to the town of Ulaangom, 300 Km away. There was a flight from Ulaangom to Ulaanbaatar which we could board.
This meant another six hours in a UAZ. I did not get to see if this particular van had its steering wheel held together with tape as I was at the back. It seemed to work generally well. I shared the vans with a trio of French girls, an American journalist and a few locals. We passed some varied and beautiful terrain again – desert and mountain, dry, moist and snow. Eventually, at 7PM, we arrived at the airport. The plane was late.
I spent a huge amount of time in UAZs in Mongolia. The vans that I came across in western Mongolia were generally much more dilapidated than the ones in the Gobi, nearer to the capital. I would not have been surprised to learn that parts were hard to come by in this remote borderland. Despite everything that the terrain and the freezing weather threw at them the vans did their jobs, conveying us to our destinations, never needing repairs in the time I spent travelling.