Home > Cities traveled > Day 15: Crossing into Mongolia

Day 15: Crossing into Mongolia

April 30th, 2011

Yesterday was surreal – like something out of those dramas that my housemate used to tell me about. I’m glad I’m not sleeping in an over-turned bus. Read on…

I’m not used to eating breakfast as soon as I get up and I’m definitely not used to the heavy breakfasts that my Ulan Ude hosts like to eat. Even though I would have a long travel day ahead, at 05:30, I couldn’t bring myself to have any of the spaghetti and meat sauce (liver, actually). I had a piece of bread and jam and tea, I think. It was early, I don’t remember well.

06:30 Got on wrong bus at the bus stop in Ulan Ude. Some passenger introduced himself as Edward and said, in English, that I was on a bus going to the mountains and that I probably wanted the next bus going to Ulaan Baator. (No one checked my ticket when I got on the bus and it was much warmer inside than standing on the curb outside so I had gone in the bus.)

07:30 Correct bus for Ulaan Baator departs

08:30 See sprinkles of snow outside

09:00 There is black ice on the road, bus slows

09:30-11:00 Snow storm develops, can’t see much outside the windows. At some point, we stopped at a pee area which is when I realized how much snow there was.

11:13 Pick up 2 new passengers at some stop in the middle of the snow storm. One of them is pretty loud.

11:15-11:30 We’re at the Russia-Mongolia border. Step 1: Russian female border officer enters bus and checks each passport.

11:30-12:05 Step 2: Russian customs – we have to take our bags off the bus into a building where they take them through an x-ray and check our passports again. One of the new passengers (the loud one) passes out slowly. She’s fighting her friend and doesn’t want to leave the line, even as she slumps to the ground. My EMT training kicks in as I help carry her to some chairs. She has a slow but strong pulse and is breathing fine. She is not responsive. People around keep saying epilepsy but I’m sure it’s not. One of the Netherlands backpackers comments that there are 8 people standing around her watching but no one knows what to do. By this point, I’m already standing back as she seems to be in a drug-induced (or possibly diabetic) stupor. Someone has called an ambulance.

12:10 We’re back on the bus with our bags put back underneath in the luggage compartment and we cross the border. The new passengers are back on the bus too. I guess the loud one regained consciousness. Some man (passenger) hands me his phone and tells me (in Mongolian) to talk to the person on the other end. It turns out this is my Mongolian couchsurf host’s, Meg’s, dad! How interesting. He is taking this bus to visit his grand-daughter (Meg’s daughter) who has been ill for days.

12:15 Step 3: Mongolian female border officer enters bus and checks each passport

12:20 Step 4: A Mongolian male soldier enters bus and hands out immigration forms to be filled out for Mongolia

12:22-13:00 Step 5: Mongolian customs and immigration – we have to take our bags off the bus again and through Mongolian customs. I realize that most Mongolians don’t form queues so I hold my spot better and stop letting people cut. It’s like being in my grade school lunch line again. I’m sent away by the customs official to fill out some form I can’t read only to go back to find he’s been replaced by someone else. Meg’s father and the bus driver helped me fill out the form and now it’s stamped and in my passport. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it.

13:10 Our bags are back in the luggage compartment and we’re back on the bus. Three men enter the bus holding wads of cash. My seatmate explains that they’re exchanging Tugriks (Mongolian currency). I get some. I’m told by some Mongolians around me that it is a good deal (they also exchange money).

13:20 We’re back off the bus (again). This time it’s lunch break. The storm is pretty fierce by this point so I’m happy not being on the road. The restaurant is called “A HOT TAN Restaurant” or something like that. I eat a light lunch of salad olivieh (like potato salad) and pick out the meat. We’re informed there is a 2 hour delay because the roads are closed. I take the opportunity to talk more to some people from the bus who speak a little English (or are willing to try speaking with me). I find out that Tsyrma, a Buryat living in Ulan Ude has to catch a plan to Tokyo early the next morning to go home (her husband is Japanese). I walk around and ask the bus driver, who is talking to Meg’s father, how much longer and he motions 4 fingers in the air. I think Tsyrma is going to flip. I talk in length with another lady, Syren-Dulma, who speaks Buryat, Russian, French, and English. She studied language in school and is an English teach in a small Buryat village in the Tunka Valley. I start interviewing her about what she likes about her Buryat hometown but we get cut off because we’re told the bus is leaving.

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17:22 We’re back on the bus but without the 2 late-entry passengers. I saw them enter the restaurant but had lost track of them during our stay there. There were some people who were drinking and playing cards in the restaurant and they insist on taking over the back row of the bus. I move down 2 rows. I have a better window seat now. I see lots of birds outside. I think I’ve seen more birds on this road trip than in all my road trips ever, combined. I also see cattle, camels, and horsemen.

18:20 We crawling through the snow and we get stuck. The bus driver puts on his gloves, hat, and boots and gets the shovel. Meg’s father and another 2 men on the bus also go outside.

18:41 We’re finally clear of that patch after almost slipping into the ditch off the side of the road (if I could see the road). We clap for the driver and his helpers.

19:59 We’re traveling at about 10km/hr I think. At least it’s warm. We get stuck again. There are other cars also stuck. Lots of people are outside pushing cars around in the ice. Our helpers on the bus help everyone else because if they don’t move, we don’t move.

20:09 We’re unstuck and moving

20:29 We’re stuck. A couple of the women have also gone out to help. There are only 2 shovels. I hope the bus doesn’t slide into anyone standing outside as it grinds over ice.

21:26 We’re unstuck but moving very slowly. It’s getting dark and there is a line of cars stopped ahead.

21:49 I think we’re going to spend the night on the bus. Tsyrma has managed to get a hold of some airline information and finds that her flight is also delayed. She is biting her nails. One of the passengers takes his luggage off the bus and jumps into a car that has stopped for him on the road. I have no idea who anyone is.

22:01 We’re stuck for the 3rd time and the boys and Meg’s father are out shoveling. Actually, he is directing and they’re shoveling. He’s got that big boss air about him and he’s taking care of business.

22:09 They’re getting good at this because we’re unstuck

22:19 The bus driver pulls off into a town, which I later find out is Darkan. We’ve traveled around 385 km (240 miles) in about 14 hours. We’re only about half-way to Ulaan Baator. All roads to Ulaan Baator are closed and there is state emergency. There is one train leaving for Ulaan Baator just after midnight which is to arrive at 06:10 in the morning in Ulaan Baator. The bus driver takes us to the train station and waits with our luggage while we all get tickets. He’s still in good spirits, amazingly. Meg’s father takes charge and groups 8 of us together, assigning people to watch over the bags while he and another woman fight to keep their spot in the throngs of people crowding around the 2 ticket counters. It has to be more than luck that my couchsurf host’s father was on this bus and making sure I got a seat and a way to Meg’s house.

23:31 We’re on the train, all split up into whatever seats were available. Though I’m not sure it matters because in my little compartment area there were 12.5 people (one child) in a 4-bunk compartment. There were people sleeping in the top luggage shelves all over the place. Meg’s father comes around and checks on me.

00:00ish The train departs Darkhan. I close my eyes, sitting up, and hum a mantra (thanks LR).

06:11 The train arrives in Ulaan Baator

06:30 Meg has sent a driver to pick me up. Meg’s father is going to go eat and probably stay with another family member. The driver gives me the keys to Meg’s apartment and shows me where things are. Meg is still in the hospital with her daughter. What an amazing host to take such good care of me when I haven’t even met her. I’m hopeful for the rest of this Mongolia trip.

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  1. jason
    April 30th, 2011 at 17:27 | #1

    I love reading your updates. Every time I travel, I’m amazed at how small the world is and how much in common decent people have with each other. I say decent because there are also scum everywhere and they have as much in common with scum elsewhere. But I love meeting other good people and I love reading your stories of these people. It reaffirms my faith in humanity that you’re meeting so many of these people.

  2. from SD
    May 1st, 2011 at 05:14 | #2

    Holly Molly! Many things happened in one day!
    I’m so glad that you are safe and your host’s father was with you and helped you.
    I hope Meg’s daughter is doing OK.
    I see some Korean writing on the bus steps. It’s hard to imagine a Korean bus in Mongolia!

  3. Tim & Irina
    May 1st, 2011 at 06:39 | #3

    XOXO!!

  4. May 4th, 2011 at 01:06 | #4

    It is hard for me to imagine here in sunny (& hot!) Los Angeles that you’re somewhere still very much in the throws of winter! Furthermore, your pictures of camels in the snow is so very surreal to me! I do not think of camels living in such an environment!

    It would be interesting to me if you could give a sense of what it was like to be in Asia at the time of when Osama Bin Laden was killed by US forces — did the news get conveyed? If so, what was the perception?

    • xg
      May 4th, 2011 at 14:39 | #5

      I can’t speak for the rest of Asia or Mongolia, but here in the capital of Mongolia, it is actually kind of big news. There seems to be a common view here that people like Obama better than Bush and didn’t think that Bush should have gone to war in Iraq and they’re glad that Obama is ending the “war against the muslims”. I’m not sure how that terrorists and muslims got connected but that is how it was translated to me. Mongolia is primarily a buddhist country but I got the feeling of some tension between the people from here in Ulaanbaatar against the Khazaks in western Mongolia who do have some muslims.

  5. jasper’s mom
    May 4th, 2011 at 18:41 | #6

    Wow….this is awesome. So happy for you that you are experiencing all these adventures. Greetings and travel safe wherever the wind take you. You are making the history of your lifetime. Thanks for letting us follow you in your trip. Sorry, I was not able to respond your email before your departure from LA. Look forward to see you back in LA and enjoy every minutes of it. You will never experience this again and if you do, it will be completely different one. Have a safe journey.

  6. Laura B
    May 5th, 2011 at 19:33 | #7

    All I can say is “Wow!!!” Sandy! That is quite the trip. And meeting the father of your couchsurf host on the bus is amazing!

  7. Andrew
    May 6th, 2011 at 01:37 | #8

    SANDY!!!!! I finally tuned in today and am blown away. I love this travelogue. Keep it up please.

    • xg
      May 6th, 2011 at 17:50 | #9

      Thanks Andrew. It means a lot to me that one of the greatest critics (good ones) of all time actually thinks I have something worth reading about. ;) I have more interesting stories to post as soon as I get all my thoughts together. -x

  8. May 7th, 2011 at 01:56 | #10

    So fantastic!! Can’t wait to read more!!! Keep ’em coming!

  9. May 7th, 2011 at 01:58 | #11

    Wow!! Those pictures of the women in high heels helping to push the car! Crazy!!

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