We wanted this trip to be full of adventures, and traveling Mongolia was definitely one big adventure. Though sadly not always the good kind of adventure… A story of knifes and extortion.
For those of you not familiar with Mongolia, traveling by yourself in Mongolia is difficult to nearly impossible. Public transport is limited to buses and minivans between ‘big’ cities*, making it impossible to visit the countryside, which is where the true beauty of Mongolia lies. Renting a car to drive around the country by yourself is also difficult. First of all, it is difficult to find a car for rent, and second, Mongolian ‘roads’ are often not much more than little bumpy dirt paths cutting through the endless steppe with of course no road signs indicating where you are or where to go. Adding on top of that the incredible emptiness and remoteness of the country and the very harsh climate (even in summer), and driving through Mongolia by yourself is like a Russian roulette of badly getting lost, running out of petrol before encountering any petrol station and getting stuck in the middle of nowhere because of a punctured tire or engine breakdown. While most Mongolians are quite friendly, helpful and hospitable people, none of those characteristics are useful if there is no living soul to be found in kilometers and kilometers.
So to see Mongolia, we were left with the option of joining an organized group tour or renting a car with an experienced Mongolian driver. As we like our independence and wanted to visit some non-standard tourist places, we chose the latter. We talked to some people, asked some price quotations to different companies, and in the end we ended up getting a driver through Travel Mongolia, a travel agency that many travelers we met recommended to us.
We met the driver the day before leaving, discussed our plans and itinerary with him (and the travel agency who was helping to translate) and took a test ride in his Toyota LandCruiser. The next morning, the driver picked us up together with two other girls we met that would join our trip. Everything seemed great, and we were excited about our trip. Sadly, that feeling wouldn’t last…
Fast forward to day 6 of our trip together. So far the trip had been great, we had seen lots of amazing places in beautiful Mongolia, and our travel buddies turned out to be great company. There had been some tension with our driver at times, but we thought this was because of misunderstandings due to his limited English and our non-existing Mongolian. Getting ready to visit the 300m tall sand dunes of the Gobi desert, our German travel companion Ina wanted to discuss the route we would take with our driver. Though he had seemed to like her so far, somehow he exploded (we are still wondering about the reason). The situation escalated very fast, and he started shouting things in Mongolian.
The lovely Mongolian guide of a group of Korean tourists that were staying in the same ger camp as us saw we were in a bit of a situation and offered to translate. Soon we started to understand that we had a big problem. Our driver refused to continue driving with the four of us in his car as apparently he didn’t like our two travel companions. He only wanted to continue driving with the two of us. Calling the travel agency and asking them to mediate didn’t help. Even though they told us before leaving that we could call them any moment for help with translating or anything else, that clearly turned out to be an empty promise. Explaining the situation to them, we got a lecture on how badly we were treating our driver and how disappointed they were in us instead of help.
Talking to our driver through the guide of the Koreans who was translating, we started to understand the underlying problem little by little. Apparently the agency did not tell the driver we would be four people instead of two, and he had been unhappy with this from the start. He hadn’t want to start the trip with all four of us, but when he contacted the agency, they convinced him to go with it. Of course no one told us any of this. The longer we were traveling, the grumpier the driver got with the situation, until he exploded. Confronted with an ultimatum – continuing without our travel companions or not continuing at all and losing the money of the rest of the trip (we had to prepay the whole amount) – we chose the first option as we thought the driver would be happier and the rest of the trip would be nice.
We informed the driver about our decision and our travel companion Nancy went to take her stuff out of the car. Apparently she closed the door of the car too strongly, after which the driver got even angrier and lost his temper completely, slapped her in the face and kicked her in the leg. She returned crying to the ger where we were getting ready to leave, and the driver followed her, taking out a knife, pointing it at her and Ina and shouting: “Where is my money? Where is my money?”. (It is surprising how people that speak very little English all of a sudden remember how to speak English using full sentences when they need something.)
After calming down the situation, we called the travel agency again, explaining them what happened. Again they were no help at all. “So if I would have taken out a knife and we would have killed each other, you wouldn’t mind?” “No, it’s your problem, not mine.”
Not wanting to lose the money of the remainder of the trip, and having Manolo’s sister join us on our trip two days later, we decided to continue our trip with the driver. What a mistake that was. After saying goodbye to Ina and Nancy, we drove into the Gobi desert 200 km, to see the Khongoryn Els or singing sand dunes and spend the night there. Randomly, we ended up in the same ger camp as the Korean tourists we met before. Their very nice guide informed about our situation, and we updated her on what happened after they left. We decided to cut our trip short after she told us the driver had been complaining about us to the owners of the ger camp and he was still very angry. Together we tried to figure out our options.
Our options quickly turned out to be very limited. As the agency didn’t want to help, we had to cut a deal with our driver. He proposed to drive us back to the capital Ulaan Bataar, but this would take two days and we had to keep paying for the petrol ($100). Or he could drop us off in the nearest city from which we could take a bus to the capital but this would cost us $100 (on top of all the money of the rest of the trip that we would not get refunded). His final proposition was that we would pay him $100 and he would just leave us there. All three options seemed outrageous to us, as it seems normal to us that you don’t have to keep paying for a service after the person providing the service threatens your life… As we didn’t want to spend another two days in the car with him (and we weren’t sure he would actually take us back to Ulaan Bataar and not drop us off somewhere in the middle of nowhere to ask for more money), we were forced to choose the second option. Just leaving the place and getting rid of the driver without paying was not possible, as it was impossible to find anyone who would drive us to the city, thanks to the lies the driver told everyone about us. Walking to another ger camp where no one knew us also seeemed dangerous, as chances of the driver realizing what we were doing and driving over us with his car were not small (it is difficult to hide when there are zero trees or buildings around and the terrain is completely flat, making it possible to see a person from tens of kilometers away). It became clear that we would either have to pay or we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the place. We slept very badly that night.
Still trying to come up with a better solution, the guide of the Koreans told us the next morning that they had to leave soon and that we should make sure not to be the only tourists in the ger camp, as the family owning the camp turned out to be friends of our driver. Being the only ones there together with our driver and his friends would put us in a dangerous situation where they could ask for any amount of money and there would be nothing we could do about it (law enforcement is a hollow word in a country where the closest police station is probably 200 km away, mobile phones rarely have reception and the closest neighbor lives only 3 km further if you are lucky).
Choosing our lives over our principles and money, we hopped in the car with our driver, making it seem like we would pay the extra money he wanted once we would arrive to the city 200 km further. The car ride was hell, but once we started approaching the city we sometimes had a little bit of cell phone coverage, allowing us to WhatsApp our family and ask for help. Sophie’s dad contacted the Belgian authorities while Manolo’s sister tried to contact the Spanish ones. Meanwhile we arrived to the city, and after taking our stuff out of the car, our driver started asking for his money. As if it had been planned perfectly, we then got a call from the Belgian consul in Mongolia. Our driver understood that we were not going to be extorted and held hostage without putting up a fight, and he called the agency and went to sit in his car as he knew this might take a while (maybe this wasn’t his first time playing this game?). The consul called the travel agency and tried to sort out the situation. All of a sudden they changed their attitude from ‘this is not our problem’ to ‘let’s make a deal’. After lots of phone calls back and forth between us, the consul, the travel agency and the driver, a deal was made. The driver drove away without us having to pay extra and we could finally breathe freely again.
* Note: the second largest city of Mongolia only counts 83,000 inhabitants, giving the concept of big city a new meaning.