“Ok guys, you have to get off, it’s not looking good…”
This phrase, accompanied by the low hum and strain of the engine as it finally gave up, became a regular occurrence during the three weeks I spent in Mongolia. Getting dirty in Mongolia is a given, but I never thought on my travels that I would push a truck out of thick, stodgy mud, build a road complete with a dam or wade knee-deep through a river to get to the other side. Bruce Parry, Simon Reeve and Michael Palin, eat your heart out!
In Mongolia, aside from the small handful of roads available, you will take the path less travelled; one that hasn’t been used for days or worn in by other vehicles for an easy pass. You could call it bad luck or you could call it reality but travel comes with its challenges and getting stuck in Mongolia is by far the most common. While I wasn’t expecting huge bogging incidents on this trip, I came to embrace them when they did happen. Afterall, the locals have to face these situations regularly and so it simply became a part of what Mongolia is and what it means to cross her lands.
The drivers of the truck were responsible for assessing each situation when it arose. They were the first to get dirty, walk through the water and determine the outcome. At times it put you on edge wondering how long you would be stuck somewhere with no one passing by for hours, at other times it simply meant us having to walk a short distance in order to lighten the truck.
Either way, the result was a massive whoop and roar for our truck, Archie, when he made it through. It felt good and we then knew the next stage of the journey could begin. These are the times I’ll always remember.
Building a Road
It had been raining on and off for a few days, mainly in the evenings and not for too long and we were bumping along the dirt tracks just fine. But when the truck stopped and we saw that two pools of water had filled two road tracks, we knew a bogging incident was imminent. The drivers walked, pondered and walked through the water. Could we drive through it without getting stuck?
This was the usual scenario – drive through it or find hard enough ground around it. Except this time it was different. We were not prepared for the words “So, we need to empty this road of water and then let the ground dry out so we can cross over it.”
Cue the mad dash to empty our camping gear in order to find our plastic washing up bowls and any other form of plastic container to begin the removal process. The ladies rolled up their shorts to squat right in there and start scooping out the water, the men began digging to create more of a road and everyone built a dam by hand on each side of the tyre track grooves so that the emptied water wouldn’t flow back in.
It was hard work but we became a team, a great team. The sun was shining that day which meant we only had to wait a couple of hours while the heat dried out our creation. We ate, we played, we sang and we marvelled at what resourceful people we were. It was a scary moment when Archie made his move to cross our road (our beautifully crafted road that could be crushed in seconds and have to be rebuilt) but he made it in one successful run and our road was left to the land and in nature’s control.
The Big Bogging
Grassy, muddy areas are hit and miss – you can never tell exactly how hard the ground is beneath it. After sporadic rain the ground had certainly softened and even through there were times when the truck had to work a little harder, it made it through.
We had just had a fantastic afternoon checking out a local Nadaam festival and were in high spirits, which we needed knowing that we would be driving for the rest of the day. Except we didn’t – we were soon stuck in thick, sticky mud and no amount of pushing and revving was going to change it.
Our Mongolian guide walked to the nearest ger to get help and the locals later returned on a motorbike to check out the situation. In fact the whole family came out – we regularly became a source of fascination or amusement en route through the country. However, they kindly decided to use their huge tractor to help pull the truck out of the mud – a big, industrial tractor… that too got stuck.
With two vehicles out of action and night starting to fall, we decided to set up camp on a drier patch of land nearby and the drivers worked relentlessly with the locals throughout the evening. We got bogged around 5pm and the truck wasn’t released until after midnight. It was a day wasted but yet another example of how unpredictable travelling in an untouched land can be.
The River Crossing
When the truck stops dead at a deep area of water you know the situation isn’t going to be resolved quickly. Can a truck this size pass through a river without sinking or getting stuck? Although we enjoyed paddling in the cool water, we didn’t know whether we could have to completely re-route to get around it and thus lose more time.
The conclusion was that there was a distinct lack of knowledge amongst everyone about alternative roads around the river and that somehow we would have to find a way to get through it. With a small truck already stuck right in the middle, it was a scary prospect.
The drivers identified the most shallow and hard ground area in the water to pass but unfortunately we couldn’t be on the truck. You can imagine the chaos – a group of locals trying to rescue their vehicle and 20 non-locals trying to navigate through the water, knee-deep and screeching, scared of falling in!
My heart skipped a beat watching our truck splash through the water and wondering whether it would stop dead in its tracks and slowly swim in a sea of mud taking all our belongings with it. But Archie made it and this time, he got the biggest cheer… and the biggest sigh of relief.
Mongolia: where your hands get dirty, you get stronger and everyone gets stuck in. Quite literally.