Mongolia is a unique country in every aspect; a country often associated with isolation and remoteness, a country with a very extraordinary inimitable stark landscape.
It is not all nomads and yak though; due to the recent discovery of copper and gold deposits it is developing at an extremely fast rate. The country that Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman visited on their ‘Long Way Round’ overland trip, with just 80km of paved road, has been superseded. Over the last 3 years an infrastructure has started to develope in the form of roads to make the movement of minerals easier.
Not to panic though, it is still impossible to drive across the country border to border on anything that resembles what we’d consider a decent road. In that regard I would argue that Mongolia is still one of the ultimate destinations for overland travel.
Due to the large distances and small nomadic population, much of the driving is still fairly remote. What look like main roads on our map are often no more than tyre tracks in the dirt. These tracks often divide into multiple lanes that cut through the least obstacle-strewn route in the landscape only to reunite again a couple of miles down the line. The transient nature of the ‘roads’ coupled with the virtual lack of road signs can make navigation challenging. One saving grace that can help direction is that the main routes will often follow telephone lines between larger villages.
Some careful route planning is recommended, as some smaller towns still don’t have fuel stops and ATMs. In stark contrast, any town of significant size will have at least 10 brand new fuel stations all strategically placed on the same stretch of road. Despite displaying credit card logos and having brand new credit card machines none of these fuel stops have phone connections and the attendants have no clue how to use the machines; so hard cash is recommended.
Travelling around the country, traffic typically consisted of small minivans used by locals as buses between towns. On the steppe, cheap Chinese 125cc motorbikes are the vehicle of choice; it is not unusual to witness 4 family members and a sheep riding on one. The motorcycles are a perfect option for this terrain and can be used to easily navigate the potholes and puddles as well as herd sheep and goats across the grassland. Motorcycles are also much more economical in a country where fuel is fairly expensive (expect UK prices). Helmets are not used out on the steppe but in the larger towns road safety is of higher importance and so the rider will wear a building-site hard-hat whilst the passengers (often including children as young as 2 years old) still ride without one.
The nomadic way of life means that fences are non-existent and you can drive virtually anywhere you like. River crossings are commonplace, occasionally you’ll find a bridge, but be warned, driving through the river is often safer. The driving is generally tough on the vehicle and driver and you are going to encounter some mechanical problems. When you do encounter difficulties the locals are generally resourceful and can often resolve most hitches without having to call out the AA. Like in Russia, everyone has extensive mechanical knowledge and so it is no surprise to see people fixing cars at the side of the ‘road’. The country is full of Landcruisers, Pajeros and UAZ 4x4 vans, mainly used by the rich and tour companies; due to the financial divide most Mongolians drive battered old Japanese hatchbacks.
The locals take the demanding landscape in their stride with a unique ‘gung-ho’ attitude born out of necessity; this coupled with extensive driving skills enables them to manage just fine. Embarrassingly, standing thigh deep in a river checking for large stones, a Honda Civic with 6 people in happily drove through windscreen deep with absolutely no trouble at all. Having said this, with 21 river crossings under our belt (some bonnet deep), the suspension lift and 4x4 on Bee-Bee was invaluable.