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Pete's Trip

Mongolia by bus

MONGOLIA | Saturday, 12 July 2014 | Views [319]

We took a bus from Ulaanbaatar to Moron- a town presumably named after the people who catch the bus there. The bus reportedly takes between 15 and 30 hours, that's Mongolian consistency for you. We arrived at 1pm to buy tickets, only to be told the 2pm and 4pm buses were full and we managed to grab the last couple seats on the 6pm bus. We waited around and ate the time away before the driver turned the engine on at five to six. Woah, was the bus about to leave on time? We jumped on and found our seats- we were assigned the very back corner. Our seats sat above the rest of the bus, our knees at the level of the heads in front of us. Everyone's luggage was stored behind our heads and wedged in the gaps between our headrests. The window was shoulder to bum level and even my shoulders were too wide for the seat. As I had the window seat, the roof of the bus had a nice curve meaning I had to sit with my head constantly tilted to the right.
The bus left just before 7, apparently the engine needed to run for a while before we left, and headed straight to the petrol station, had no one thought that they might need to start with a full tank before this big trip?

Before too long we were off along the highway. This route is one of the most popular roads in Mongolia, many locals travelling from the capital to the picturesque lake for their summer holidays. Less than an hour into the main highway trip we hit a bump big enough to make the back row airborne. As I was leaning forward, due to lack of shoulder room, I was thrown into the guy in front of me. He took it pretty well and joked about us getting to know each other better.
Another bumpy hour in and the driver had to slam on the breaks to slow down before a massive pothole (all the others hadn't worried him and had become quite a joke between Kelsey and I as we realised we wouldn't be getting any sleep that night). The sudden change again caused the whole back row to be launched off their seats. I was lucky in the way that I had to constantly lean my head to the right as it meant only my shoulder was thrown against the roof. Kelsey hit her head on the roof above her seat hard enough to leave a 10cm crack (in the roof, not her head, don't worry) and came down with such force that landing on the armrest drew a drop of blood and left an impressive bruise. It was at this point that we all scrounged around to find seat-belts. After every stop I had to help the old Mongolian man in his traditional clothes do his up.

The fun of the bumpiness got old pretty quickly as soon as you wanted to sleep. We had a lot of fun with it though, you just need to get your iPod out and put on some good hip hop and it feels like you're having a great
dance party.
We pulled into a rest stop for dinner at 9pm. The sunset was turning the clouds above endless plains and mountains a beautiful pink and purple. The temperature dropped rapidly and I started to wish I'd brought more than my one thin hoodie. The toilets at the rest stop we just like any other in the world. Except the toilet part. There was a block of six doors and a line of people waiting around. I opened one door to discover a brilliant type of squat compost toilet. There were two planks of wood with a gap the size of another plank of wood between them, and a six metre drop in between. The doors didn't quite close, leaving a gap big enough to let light (and any determined eyes) peep in.
We ordered dinner at the rest stop the same way we'd grown accustomed to over the few days before, we pointed at what looked like good words for a reasonable price. We ended up with what we expected, a variation of mystery meat (generally salty mutton), potatoes and some form of side salad, usually carrot or cabbage.
Somehow everyone knew when they had to start eating quickly and jump back on the bus so we followed suit. Another half hour of enjoying the most amazing views, green fields and mountains as far as you could see, before darkness brought frustration. It was clear our driver was trying to get us there at the 15 hour end of the spectrum and didn't let bumps or other cars slow him down. Nor the absence of a paved road. Kelsey managed to fall asleep around 10pm when the bus left the road and headed along one of the many dirt paths. Around midnight, just after our pee stop, I decided to lay in the aisle of the bus, reasoning that anything would be more comfortable than my seat. I was right. A lady tried to warn me saying the ground was very dirty but not having to bend my neck made laying in the spare metre with my legs curled around someone's cardboard box feel like a luxury hotel bed. After a little while I had to sacrifice my hoodie pillow for warmth.
Laying on the ground was more comfortable but not any easier to sleep. I was directly above the engine and could hear it threaten to fall off with every gear change. The failing suspension provided a loud squeaky soundtrack to the pain each time your head hit something.
Whilst laying against someone's cardboard box, I became a pillow for them. The man laying on top of the box inched his pillow onto my shins before realising his box had ended. He eventually figured out I wasn't made of cardboard but in the darkness couldn't tell what exactly his new bed was. He touched my pants gently to feel the material and when this didn't provide any clarity he poked my calf and gave my thigh a little shove. He seemed ok with the result, deciding to sleep on the bottom half of my legs for the next hour.
When the sun rose (at 4am!) we pulled into a little petrol station on one of the 12 side by side dirt tracks that had replaced the paved road the night before. At every other stop in the wide open plains there seemed to be some unwritten rule about one side of the bus being for men to pee and the other for women. Early on this hadn't been obvious enough for two Spanish travellers who began to follow us from a distance until they saw Kelsey and my pasty white butts squat in the field. Apparently this stop was different. I pulled my pants down behind the little shed of the petrol station only to have a man standing on the roof come and yell some form of "no no no, what are you doing crazy white girl? Do you not know there are toilets just over there?" In Mongolian while gesturing to a little wooden structure 200 metres away. I blushed and pulled up my pants, heading for what was in other peoples eyes obviously a toilet block. This structure had the same wooden plank squatting idea as the ones before but with a few minor changes. Doors, for instance, were a frivolous option they didn't care for. Instead, there were wooden walls up to waist height between the three 'stalls'. Instead of doors they'd built another waist height stack of wood (with ample gaps) a metre in front of the stalls to stop passers by being able to see you squatting. This was a pretty great privacy barrier in theory except that to see if any stalls were empty people had to walk between the wall and look into each stall. This meant that you got to have awkward little 'sorry, I'm still peeing' waves and smiles, making eye contact with people as you were squatting and they peered in.

At 8am we got back onto paved road and Kelsey and I slept for two hours with jumpers between our heads as pillows.

We arrived at 10am, only 16 hours after we left. At the same time as the bus that had left two hour before us.

If the overnight bus in China that we'd taken a week ago, with it's lay flat beds was the most comfortable I've ever taken, this bus was competing for a title at the other end. It was definitely not comfortable but was a great source of type two fun. You know, the type of fun where you look back at it and it's a great laugh but you don't want to have any more of it that day.

I'm catching it back tomorrow...

Tags: bus, mongolia

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