Mongolia – amazing landscapes and knifes

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…

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Excited about our trip, before we had any idea of what was coming.

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.

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When we still had a normal, happy driver.

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.

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Though Mongolia turned out to be a tricky mistress, it is still the most beautiful country on earth.

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.

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Even though we were a bit unlucky and we saw an ugly side of Mongolia, the thing to remember from Mongolia are the very wide smiles, kindness of strangers and absolute beauty.
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A to do-list for the Trans-Siberian

This post is a bit a contradictio in terminis as the whole point of embarking on the Trans-Siberian train is not having to do anything. But even with that, some useful suggestions for what to do on the train during those many many hours.

1. Have a cup of tea. And then have another cup of tea. And then have another cup of tea. Every wagon is equipped with a samovar, providing an illimited amount of free boiling water. Pro-tip: boiling water is not only great to make tea, it also allows you to make (3 in 1) instant coffee, instant noodles, instant mashed potatoes, oatmeal or buckwheat porridge, etc.

2.  Explore the train. Whether you are traveling second or third class, one of the most fun things to do on the train is to walk around in the different carriages and have a look at the people around. In second class, every carriage is divided into nine compartments with each 4 beds, and when walking in the hallway connecting them and lurking inside, you will see life unfold in front of your eyes. From an old babushka unpacking her carefully assembled lunch pack and savouring every bite, a couple of friends playing a very entertaining game of cards, and a mother reading bed time stories to her children, to lots of people napping, a fat half-naked angry-looking guy playing games on his phone, and two very bored soldiers lying in their bunk beds counting the time until they are arriving. Be prepared to have people stare right back at you, though. In third class, one carriage is shared with 52 people and the lack of privacy generally results in a slightly more convivial atmosphere. Pro-tip: do this around lunch/dinner time, and you will see the most inventive packed lunches/dinners, such as a plastic container filled with fried fish or fried chicken with potatoes, a cooking pot containing some kind of stew, lots of boxes with bread, tomatoes and cucumber and lots of little plastic bags with random assortments of sweets and cookies, etc.

3.  Withstand the random temperature changes. This might come as a surprise to some, but yes, it does get hot in Russia in summer. While a lot of carriages have air conditioning, there are carriages without air conditioning (and even some with windows that will not close without the help of a screw driver), and when it is available, there is no guarantee that it will actually work, as with everything in Russia. Moreover, air conditioning only works when the train is in motion, so the carriage will heat up quickly during the day when stopping in bigger stations. Finally, the temperature and settings of the air conditioning for the whole carriage are controlled by the prodzvonita, and so you might be sweating on some trains while you might be wearing thermal underwear on others (true story).

4.  Look up the schedule of the train stops. Not only is it nice to know when there will be a stop that is long enough so you can get of the train a bit and walk around (and maybe even score some extra train supplies or food), it is good – or even vital for people with small bladders such as myself – to know when the bathroom will be closed. Most trains in Russia still use the very sophisticated system of dumping the contents of the toilet pot straight on the tracks when flushing the toilet, so toilets may be closed up to 30 minutes prior to arriving to a train station until 30 minutes after departing again.

5.  Look out the window, and contemplate life. While it is exciting at first to look out of the window and discover the Russian countryside, the countless kilometers and kilometers of repetitive taiga with only very once in a while a sign of life will soon make you get lost in your own thoughts. When is the last time you let your mind wander freely, anyway?

6.  Play a game of cards. Even in the age of smartphones, playing cards is still a popular pastime on the train. Pro-tip: learn how to play Russian card games before leaving. It is the easiest way to socialize with your neighbors when you don’t speak Russian. It is however difficult to figure out the rules to their favorite game by just observing them play. And of course, don’t rely on meeting Russia s that speak English. They are still today difficult to find once you cross the Urals.

7.  Offer some sweets to your fellow travelers. Russians don’t understand the point of drinking tea without eating sweets and sharing your food is an easy way to socialize. Be prepared though to be offered plenty of sweets and other food back. This is especially true when your neighbor is an old Russian babushka, who will make sure you are so full you will explode by the time you leave the train.

8.  Count the number of wagons of the cargo trains passing by. Especially in Siberia, you will see an impressive amount of trains transporting oil passing by. It is difficult to say what is more impressive, the number of oil trains passing by, or how incredibly long they are.

Russian train adventures

127 hours or 5 full days and nights and a bit. That’s the total amount of time we spent in Russian trains during our 27 day stay in Russia. During that time we traveled a dazzling total of 7,557 kilometers. That is more than traveling from Brussels to New York.

 

We started of our trip in St. Petersburg. We decided to kick of our crazy honeymoon in style in this amazingly beautiful city and allowed ourselves some luxuries. A nice hotel, breakfast in bed, a ballet performance in the famous Michailovskii theatre, the occasional glass of champagne, etc.

After that, the real budget backpacking began. The nice hotel turned into hostels, cheap guest houses or a crappy hotel outside of the city. The occasional nice restaurant turned into Soviet-style canteens or cooking ourselves. And the champagne turned into water. Sophie is still moping about this last part.

 

 

The first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey was quite short, with a four hour train ride from St.Petersburg to Moscow. After that, the fun really began: a 21 hour train ride to Volgograd. And what a train ride it was! Somehow we ended up in what must have been the oldest train in the whole of Russia. The train was headed all the way to Tajikistan, where it would arrive 4 days later, so the train was filled with people from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who would be living in this train for days. Luckily, we could get off the next day.

 

Trains adventures

 

We had booked a ticket in platzkart (third class), meaning we were sharing our train carriage with 50 other travelers. The train didn’t have any airconditioning, which can be tricky when it’s 30 degrees outside but luckily the two windows next to us were open when we arrived in the train. When it started raining and we tried closing the windows, we understood why the windows had been open when the train was still in the station. One of the windows couldn’t be closed, while the other window was missing a part. While Manolo was having visions of having to sleep in a cold, wet bed, we tried to figure out the situation with our fellow passengers. While that included lots of hand gestures, miscommunication and laughter, it was still raining inside. Finally, the prodvnik (the train carriage responsible) came to assess the situation, and after calling some technician with a screw driver, window number one was fixed. Fixing window number two involved a treasure hunt for the missing part, but once we found it, it was easy enough to fix the problem using some of Manolo’s engineering skills.

 

 

After visiting Volgograd – where Manolo could pay his respects to the millions of Russians that ensured that today we don’t speak German in the whole of Europe or even the world – we embarked on another train ride with destination Kazan. Air conditioning, a continuous supply of toilet paper in the more or less clean bathroom (we will spare you the details of the bathroom, but it suffices to say that the bathroom in the other train was absolutely horrifying), properly functioning windows, and the occasional cleaning session by the prodvonitza who even spoke a tiny bit of English, etc. Compared to our previous train ride, this train was like a luxurious five star hotel on wheels.

After enjoying Kazan and its mix of Russian and Tatar culture, we hopped on the train again, this time direction Siberia (Omsk). By now, the train started feeling as a routine. We were getting pretty efficient at buying food and supplies for the train, and the whole get-on-the-train-make-your-bed-and-get-yourself-and-your-luggage-organized procedure started to feel natural. In Omsk, we took a regional train to Moskalenki, a small village in the middle of nowhere, where a friend of Sophie and her family lives. The 1h45 train ride felt a bit like a joke. But it was nice to experience real Russian/Siberian life in the countryside and be away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities that we had been in before.

 

 

After 4 days in the countryside, our 41 hour train ride to Irkutsk passed by surprisingly fast. After spending one night in Irkutsk in a bed that for once didn’t  move, we then suffered through a 7 hour mini-bus ride to Olkhon Island – the only inhabited island on the Baikal Lake. This was a perfect preparation for Mongolia, as the last hour and a half we were driving on very bumpy unpaved sand roads. Returning back to Irkutsk after four days, we then slept through our last Russian train ride of 9 hours to Ulan Ude, from where we took the bus to Mongolia.