Mongolia is one of the most challenging countries for any road trip. It didn't disappoint this time.

June 18th, 2014, 4pm

We met up with Haldi, our new Mongolian friend over the weekend. He was on the road with us for two days arranging a new air-conditioning for the car. This included a stop at the ‘Car Doctor’, where we did a thorough test of the car which it passed after changing a battery again…. the Auto Plaza and the ‘Black Auto Market’. He also helped us to get a local SIM-card with 3G-service and translated anything for us whenever we needed it. He did an amazing job - we just couldn’t get him to accept our invitation for dinner. Now there is the reason for a third visit to UB in the future.

So now the Beast had been checked by Chinese (numerous) and Mongolians over the past days and weeks and everything seemed to be solved - three new batteries, a new generator, a new radiator, a new fan-coupler, fresh oil, a new air conditioning and a new tire…. I think we learned a lot about this car and besides the fact that everything works now, we’re getting more comfortable knowing what to do ourselves if anything happens again on the way.

So there we are…. the Beast and us were very ready to leave UB and enter ‘the wild’.

We left UB in a western direction where fortunately we still had paved road. It took some time driving out of the city (like it was driving into the city), but once we left the outskirts behind, the emptiness started again. It is amazing - so much space, blue skies, green hills and herds all around. The road had quite some bad parts, meaning we had to leave the main road and drive off-road besides it - testing our Beast if it was really ready for it. And it was… almost…. as we noticed we were loosing air from one of the tires. In a little village along the road we stopped and asked a friendly local Mongolian if he could maybe repair the tire. Of course he could.

We were quickly on our way again, realising that bad roads actually have great influence on the amount of kilometers you can drive in a day. Where it took us an hour for 100-110 km earlier, it took us double now. That’s why we decided to deviate from our initial plan to drive to Tsetserleg in one day and stopped at the very first Ger-Camp we saw along the road. It looked like a fairytale.

‘The Bright Rock’ it was called. Lovely, friendly people that spoke English. There were hot showers, a restaurant and the fire in the Ger was lit. It felt great staying in a Ger again, we also enjoyed that a lot last time we were in Mongolia. The views and surroundings were breathtaking and we slept like babies.

Rise and shine on Wednesday June 18th after the hot shower (which was hot, but hardly a shower) we left to Tsetserleg where we read about a hotel managed by foreigners. The road to Tsetserleg was getting worse and worse, but views getting better and better. On the way we passed by an old monastery, got fuel and made a coffee-stop. In the beginning of the afternoon we arrived at Tsetserleg. The hotel was not really what we expected (we found two bibles on our room and yeah…. we knew enough) - no TV, no beer, no happy people.

But hey, we’re on our way to the far west of Mongolia. We don’t complain. Three days ago we saw the last stretch of paved road and since then it has been all gravel, dirt, sand, rock, steppe, pot holes, mud and more pot holes that we have to conquer.

It’s very hard for us to estimate driving times each day, since it completely depends on the road conditions. Just outside Ulaanbaatar the road conditions allowed us to drive 90 or even 100 kilometers an hour, but that was three days ago. Now we’re forced on off road tracks through sand or grass if we’re lucky and on rocky roads if we’re not. Our average speed has decreased to maybe 30 km/h.

Grass and sand tracks are the best, since they are mostly fairly smooth, but the worst roads imaginable are the washboard kind of roads. I don’t know how they were created, but they are the true killers of our car. Every nut and bolt has been shaken loose and everything in and around our car now rattles. Our dashboard already gave up and is falling apart rapidly. It really is terrible.

Today we went to the garage to check some worrying sounds we’re hearing while driving, but we can not fix it here in Uliastai, since they don’t have the spare parts here. We have to repair it later..

We knew about the bad ‘roads’ before we headed for Mongolia of course, but actually driving on these ‘roads’ is nevertheless killing for our car. But until now, after driving 3800 kilometers the Blue Beast is still surviving and the views we get after each turn are breath taking. Especially the flocks of eagles circling above and flying over our car are spectacular. Just like the thousands of cute squirrels that are running and hopping around. The best part though was a group of about six vultures preying on what looked like a sheep or goat next to the road. I only saw this kind of scene on television, but never in the wild. When we stopped to take a picture they quickly dissapeared..

After surviving some of the worst stretches of roads ever we stayed in a very small truckers hotel in Tsahir, a kind of wild west village. No shower, running water or toilet, but hey, they had a bed at least!

Last night after driving for 13 hours we stayed in Telmen, another small village. We were looking for a ger camp called Zambaga, but couldn’t find it. Only at about 10 PM (when it’s still light here in Mongolia) we found the camp about twenty kilometers outside of Telmen, but unfortunately it was closed, so we drove back to Telmen again.

Normally we would have camped in the wild, sleeping in our car, but decided against it this time, because of the large number of drunk Mongolians we encounter. This country really has an alcohol-problem. At night everyone seems drunk and is very intruding and physical towards foreigners it seems. We didn’t like the prospect of some drunk Mongolians waking us up for some more booz, so we drove back to Telmen.

We arrived just before darkness set in and asked around for a place to stay. Soon we were brought to a English speaking Mongol, who happened to be the owner of Zambaga. He told us the camp was still closed but would be open in a couple of weeks. Too bad for us!

But as an alternative he asked us to stay with his family in his family ger. We decided to not intrude in his life and set up our own tent on his piece of land beside our car. We had a nice chat at night and in the morning when he offered us some really great food. Such a nice and hospitable guy!

Today we drove from Telmen south to Uliastai. Here we stay in a hotel. After a couple of days without a shower we need one badly now. Hot water is only available after 6 pm, but that’s of course no problem. We’ll spend our time here cleaning and fixing the car and getting some good rest ourselves before we set off for a two day drive to Olgii.

Despite the challenges for our car, we are both so happy driving in Mongolia. This country is extremely beautiful, we love every second of it! If you ever have a change to visit: GO!

After only a little over two weeks since our departure from Shanghai we crossed the 5000 kilometre milestone. It happened on a steppe in the far west of Mongolia in the province Bayan-Olgii.

Before this trip I anticipated the whole road trip back to Amsterdam to be around 15.000 kilometers long. But I guess our trip will be a bit longer now….. We’re very okay with that, since until now we have been treated with some of the most spectacular landscapes and experiences we’ve ever had. Especially during our drive towards west Mongolia.

After we stayed overnight in Uliastai and went to the garage again, were they couldn’t help us with our rattling car because they didn’t have the spare parts, we drove further west. We read about a beautiful lake, called Khyargas Nuur were in the middle of nowhere a ger camp should be.

This camp was really hard to find and we almost gave up, but just before that crucial point we found it. What a spot it was! Just beside the lake, eight white gers were lined up. We slept in number 1 and took a hot shower again. The rocky shore line was filled with wild life. Just after we arrived at about 8 pm, they told us we could have dinner, but only fish. No meat.

About half an hour later, while we were enjoying the sunset in the salty lake, we saw two guys with fishing poles and one big fish on a motor coming back to the camp. It turned out they just catched our dinner. We could taste the freshness and tenderness of the fish’ flesh. It was so delicious.

The next day we chilled a bit near the camp, cleaned and reorganized our car and climbed on the rocks to see some wild life. Lots of big fish circling in the water beneath, while two eagles were chased away in the sky above by two small birds who tried to protect their nest. Also lots of cormorants feeding their young in their nests on the rocks.

Late afternoon two other cars arrived filled with nine Mongolian bankers, one of whom is also a member of the Mongolian Olympic Committee, all dressed in soccer shirts. One of them showed me a picture of his baby son, wearing the all orange-tenue. It was great to talk to them, and drink a glass of Vodka at night together. Also present was a guy who climbed Mount Everest twice and apparently is very famous in Mongolia. We had some great fun with them.

The next morning we set off again, but not before our car was blessed with milk thrown on the car and tires by a beautifully dressed Mongolian girl. It helped, since we survived what was by far the most agonizing day yet. Our goal was to drive to Olgii, around 350 kilometres away. The day started extremely well, because we found a brand new stretch of tarmac, where we could speed up.

Troubles started though around 100 kilometres north of Olgii, where we had to cross a couple of rivers. Not by bridge, but by car. We already crossed some rivers, but this time we didn’t dare. We found the river to be too deep. And since we were in absolutely the middle of nowhere, we decided not to risk ruining our engine, especially since we were already very worried about our car’s condition. It’s hard to describe the hits and shocks and terrain our car has to plough through. We had to use our low gear a couple of times to get us through some really sandy areas and rivers. So we decided to drive back around the nearby lake to avoid the river crossings.

That was easier said than done, since we almost got lost. Imagine a moon like landscape of rocks with no roads and only some faint tracks. With the help of our GPS mapping device we eventually found our way back. The last hour and half we had to drive in the pitch dark though and arrived around midnight in Olgii.

Here we found a great ger camp in the city with friendly English speaking staff. We were exhausted, but feeling great we managed to reach the far west of Mongolia. Olgii is the provincial capital and has a distinct Kazakh atmosphere. Of course, the next morning we immediately drove to the garage where we were told to come back at two o’clock to get our car fixed.

But again something came in between. This time it was the sad news that a family member of the garage’s manager had died this morning. The garage is now closed for at least two days, so we have to wait in Olgii a few more days. Or we might decide to drive to Novosibirsk in the weekend. The worst roads of our trip are behind us we think, so our car should be able to make it.

A couple more days and we’ll leave Mongolia. This country always will have a special place in our heart. True, the ‘roads’ in this country are the worst in the world and the shocks and thick layers of dust really put our car to the test, but the views after each hill, the emptiness, the beautiful blue skies and the endless plains of steppes make up more than enough for all of that. This country makes you breath again and feel alive.

It also challenges your navigation skills. Without a GPS-system, compass or good old fashioned map it’s nearly impossible to drive certain parts here. We’re happy we brought along a satellite communicator, called Inreach SE which, paired with our iPhone, saved us more than once from complete disorientation.

The point is that there are so few anchors to which you can cling on to. Driving on a plain of rocks, resembling a moon landscape, without any roads whatsoever and without any human being or mountain around is sometimes quite scary. Crawling forward with 20 kilometres per hour, what if the car breaks down now with no tree, wood, human being or water visible within 10 kilometres…

The best way to handle this challenge we found is just to keep going and not think too much about what can go wrong…. For us it worked.

And then there is the other challenge: river crossings. Because driving in Mongolia means driving completely off road, it also means crossing rivers without a bridge. The first time we found it very scary, although the pool we had to cross was just a foot deep. Slowly we got more confident, but as rivers got deeper and with stronger currents, we got our scare back.

Our strategy now is to wade through the river by foot first and then decide whether our car can do it as well. Until now we’re fine, but we skipped some rivers that we found to be too deep, which meant driving an extra 100 kilometres off road. But hey, better safe than sorry.

We’ve been on the road now for about three weeks and have seen so may garages already that we lost count. It’s the one and only main frustrating bit of our fantastic journey so far. Ever since the Blue Beast came out of the container on May 30th we’ve had to deal with big and small problems.

So, where are we now with the car, you might wonder. Well, the engine still works perfectly, but we hear all kinds of cracking sounds coming from near the wheels. We suspect it’s the little reminder of the Mongolian roads… We plan to visit the local Toyota dealer in Novosibirsk to get a proper check-up of our car.

From now on, the super bad roads will no longer hammer our car, so we’ll think we’ll be fine, but I don’t want to be the one that maybe one day will buy our car.

David Wade, John and Aaron said thanks.

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Bert van Dijk

Former China correspondent for Het Financieele Dagblad and De Tijd, the leading business newspapers in The Netherlands and Belgium. Now back at work in Amsterdam as a journalist after driving from Shanghai to Amsterdam through China, Mongolia, Central Asia, Iran and Eastern Europe.

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