I feel like I say that a lot. I enjoy the travel part of travel so long as it’s moderately comfortable. I can read from a comfy bus seat for a couple days, listen to music and watch towns come and go.
But not this day. Not speaking Mongolian and equipped only with about 20 words of Kazakh, which is equally useful in the western wedge of the country, I got up early to try to find a vehicle to Ulgii—the Wild West, Altai-edged out city. I figured out where minivans leave from after about a half hour of broken language skills and mime (thank god I brought my unitard and white makeup). An hour after that, the first minivan showed up headed that way. This was at about 9:30am. We departed when full, which finally happened around 4:30pm.
So, hum dee dum seven hours sitting in one of the back seats, with a break for lunch. We were only on the road about three hours when we stopped amid light snowfall at a small building where the road turns to summer mud ruts now hardened. And there we learned that there was a storm ahead and so we might need to stay the night.
As this news went around, the 13 of us looked at each other as though this were a Hercule Poirot tale in the making. Or maybe they were all just suspicious of me (see photo at top).
After about 20 minutes, a car pulled up and the driver chatted with our own. Next I knew we were back on our way. One young Mongolian college girl spoke some English and told me, “We will go.”
Snaked around a sack of something lumpy and my back jammed into something metal and hard, I was wedged so tightly in my seat that I was unable to remove my left arm from my coat pocket. On my lap was a little boy’s head, the rest of him placed across the altar of our knees. He looked like a diminutive, napping crowd surfer.
A couple more hours in and we had to get out to lighten the minivan as it dashed across a short, frozen stream. Successfully, I’m happy to say.
But shortly thereafter the men were requested to get out and push the vehicle, as it was stuck in about a foot or so of snow. As I got out past the sliding door, I could see in the headlights a thrashing wind blowing a rush of snow like a sandstorm but only up to about waist level. I wanted to grab my camera, but that would have been shirking my duties and I felt like I was the weird foreigner already, so I stowed it in my brain instead, where it’s probably a more romantic image anyway.
Ten minutes of rocking and pushing and our ride was on its way again. Although we slipped about a bit and drove at some awkward, gravitationally unfriendly angles for me, that was the last we had to get out of our grumbling tin can as it made its way across the midnight steppe.
At about 2am we arrived into Ulgii. The driver dropped me off last and communicated a question of whether the hotel I’d named and he’d found was okay and if I was going to stay there. I did my best to assure him that it was.
As I prepared to go to bed, there was a knock on the door. It was my driver. And as soon as I saw him, I realized that he’d been asking earlier if he could stay in my room with me. And I’d agreed. There were two beds, so yeah, sure, why not.
By morning he was gone. They always are. And once again I was enthusiastically alone in a strange new town far from anywhere but there.