UB40 hours: A Hellish Journey from Khovd to Ulaanbaatar
Many see the city of Ulaanbaatar as a scar on the beautiful face of Mongolia. An ugly place filled with traffic and people in a hurry, and covered in a layer of black pollution. But, for us, after a week in remote western Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (or “UB” to its friends) was an oasis of comfy beds, hot showers, and pizza.
My partner Adam and I had flown to the far flung town of Ulgii, in Western Mongolia, to attend the spectacular Golden Eagle Festival, after which we had been lucky enough to stay with one of the eagle hunters and his family in a traditional ger. And now, after our incredible time with nomads in one of the remotest parts of the world, we were returning to the capital. Unfortunately, as our budget wouldn’t stretch to a round-trip flight, we decided to catch the bus from the city of Khovd back to Ulaanbaatar. Discovering that tickets for shorter journeys weren’t available, as the drivers would only sell seats to those willing to make the entire trip to UB, we gritted our teeth and accepted that we would have to cover the entire 1,556 kilometres to the capital in one horrendous 40 hour trip.
Taking our tiny seats, right at the back of the rickety, worn-out bus, we made ourselves as comfortable as possible. The bus filled with people and their luggage. Cellophane wrapped boxes lined the aisle, broad shouldered men spilled out of their narrow seats, and women sat with children perched on their laps. Just as we thought the bus had filled to bursting point, others squeezed their way in, lining the aisle with their boxes and bags. Even when every seat had been taken, others still piled in, reclining on the luggage mountain or sharing two seats among three.
We set off just an hour later than planned- practically punctual by Mongolian standards. The first evening passed smoothly. The road was paved for the first three hours, and we sailed easily along the tarmac through the barren landscape. Of course, it wasn’t to last, and soon the road was replaced by a dirt track. We bounced along, thrown about by the undulating route, at one point taking to the air and landing with a smack on our seats with a yelp and a curse. Rows of Mongolian faces turned to smile at the rookies as we gave a wave, laughing at how inexperienced we looked.
Endless desert stretched before us, punctuated by the occasional herd of camels, goats, or stout-legged horses. Adam and I turned ger spotting into a game; the first person to spot one of the traditional round tents got to punch the other in the arm. We attempted “I spy”, but once “ger”, “desert” and “endless stretch of nothingness” had been used up, the game dried up.
Day turned to night, and, as the sun went down and the bus grew chilly, we bundled up and tried futily to get some sleep. Tossing and turning and contorting myself into every possible position, I failed to drift off, and spent the night staring miserably out the window, jealous of Adam dozing peacefully beside me.
Morning eventually appeared, and the bus came to a stop at the side of the road. We gratefully clambered off to stretch our aching limbs in the sunlight. Some good news came when we were told we’d be arriving in UB at 11pm, earlier than we’d thought.
After everyone on the bus had relieved themselves in the desert in full view of each other, we climbed back on to continue the journey. The trip from Ulgii to Khovd had been a beautiful stretch of land, with glistening rivers, snow-covered mountains and colourful scrub. We had consoled ourselves with the notion that this journey, while it would be tough, would at least be scenic. Alas, this was not the case. Miles of plain earth stretched in every direction, and the sky was a dull grey.
After what felt like an eternity, we stopped for dinner. As usual, the only dish available was meat, though thankfully, this time I was able to buy a pot of instant noodles. After my meagre meal, I stretched my legs by strolling through the ger camp and watching a puncture being repaired, before I heard the call of our bus horn, a sound I’d come to dread.
At last, the final stretch of the journey was upon us, and Adam and I curled up in our seats for the last time. It grew dark, and started to get cold. Really cold. Icy air drafted in from the window, and I had to pull my feet up rom the floor to try to keep my toes from going numb.
The journey continued. Eleven came and went and there was still no sign of Ulaanbaatar, not even a light on the horizon. The window next to me had iced over, and I could see my breath in the air. Hours passed, and I began to whimper, moaning at length about how I was cold, how I was tired, how I was achey. But mostly about how I was still apparently nowhere near my dream of pizza and a warm bed.
After an eternity, the torture came to an end. With numb feet and stiff joints, we stumbled off the bus, as other passengers pushed and shoved to unload their luggage. And finally, at the ungodly hour of 4 am, after a total of almost 40 hours on an overcrowded bus on a bumpy dirt track, we were curled up in bed. Blankets pulled up to our chins, feet wrapped up in clean socks, and dreaming of anything but a bus and a desert.