The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Mongolia (Another Way Not to Do It)
The thin silver moon disappeared below the horizon, pulling with it the last hints of light from the barren Mongolian grasslands. Behind us, an unseen electric lamp cast a weak glow out of one of the ten or so rounded tents clustered together on the banks of the Zavkhan River. A jeep roared to life, blinding us in the flood of its headlights before they cut off abruptly, leaving us in darkness again. Over the din of the engine we heard our driver swearing in Mongolian, followed by the somewhat less harsh sound of a hammer panging on metal. The lights came back on.
My fellow adventurer Will and I piled back into the jeep along with several other Mongolians. We had been driving across the inhospitable landscape since dawn that day, seeing few dwellings of any sort and even fewer roads. At last, though, we had found a road, and we were making our way west over its washboards and potholes at a considerable pace.
Then the headlights cut out again. There were screams as we hurtled forward through the darkness, and our stomachs pressed up into our throats as the ground dropped out from beneath us. At last the driver brought the jeep to a halt, and, after a reaming from his wife, he went outside to pang with the hammer again. The lights came back on. We’d dropped off the road into a flood channel.
The night pressed on. We continued slowly at first, but as time passed our driver’s confidence grew. I managed to doze briefly between the jarring potholes and the vibrations of the washboards, but I came flailing back into consciousness to a dark vehicle and more screaming as we careened into the unknown once again. This process repeated itself until the first light of dawn pierced the sky behind us, and at last we rolled into the town of Khovd.
That day we were trapped in a quaint little tavern by a dust storm, and by the next day we were ready to leave. After deciding that some camping was in order, we found a ride to the next town, making it known that we’d like to be dropped off at a particular mountain, Tsambagarav, in between.
The ride took us into the Altai Mountains, which overlay the borders of Mongolia, China, Russia, and Kazakhstan. We wound our way up steep canyons and through sage-covered hillsides reminiscent, or so Will reminisced, of the high deserts of Bolivia. At last we came to a wide plateau where we veered off the road and continued in such a manner for some time. Then we stopped.
“Tsambagarav,” the driver said, pointing in the distance to an ice-covered peak. He got out and threw our bags on the ground; we followed. I didn’t quite know what to think. “Gol?” I asked, looking around at the parched landscape. He nodded, and then through a series of interpretive gestures he made it known that there was a river two valleys over to the east. That was that. He climbed back into the jeep and drove off, leaving Will and me standing with our bags on a desolate hilltop, in a frigid wind. Huh.
As there was little else to do, we made our way to the river. Our bags were packed largely with the instant noodles we’d found in the last town, so as long as we could find water, we were set for quite a while — or at least that was the general consensus at the time. We camped that night, unintentionally, amidst a herd of yaks, and I slept lightly for fear of being trampled in my tent. I fell asleep after I thought they’d moved on, though the yak snot smeared around my tent fly in the morning proved otherwise.
By the next evening we’d climbed the foothills and reached Tsambagarav, finding a small lake at its base. As we cooked dinner, a storm drifted in and we were forced into our tents for the night. I didn’t sleep, choosing instead to keep my body temperature up through a simple pattern of violent shivering and various dolphin-like movements within my sleeping bag.
The next morning, we emerged to a different world: the landscape had been transformed by a shining carpet of snow. What had seemed dead and discouraging the day before was now bright and alive, or, well, still dead but considerably brighter. Quickly forgetting the tortures of the night, we spent the day playing in the snow and exploring the mountainside, hoping for a glimpse of a rare snow leopard or some other such beast. But all we saw were eagles, circling ominously overhead, and, in the far distance, just a single vehicle making its way across the vast, empty expanse.