Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The failed ride

Tumur's cousin takes us back to Tsagaanchuluut. The big question is: is there a car. We are not even trying to find a free car, just a car. It is a luxury to get our of here. After new year, a bus is going to take the children back to school, to Ulaistai. I don't get to choose my destination; I wanted to get to Altai which seems to be on a closer road but I only got Ulastai. At least it's a big city, I can get a bus to Ulaanbataar from there if everything else fails. But will I do that? Will I confirm the rumour that Mongolia is a country that you cannot hitch? You might be able to hitch Ulaanbataar but you cannot hitch the countryside. I'd rather debunk that myth.
Tumur paid for my bus and here I go direction Uliastai. Here is go is a bad expression because we don't really go anywhere.
We just drive all around the village trying to fill our bus with schoolchildren and several random people. Mongolians are not really good with deadlines. The bus was supposed to leave Tsagaanchuluut in the morning but we are way into the afternoon and everybody is happy, nobody is stressed, as always in this country.

The only stressed person here is me. I need to arrive in Uliastai before nightfall. What the hell am I going to do there? Damn.
We finally leave at half past three in the afternoon and I sit in between two annoying children who try to communicate with me but don't know a word of english. There is a girl who is more mature and can speak some english worlds so I talk only to her. Not because of the language, just because she is more mature. I really think that they should not put 14 year old boys and 14 year old girls in the same class. A 14 year old boy has the mental age of a 9 year old girl, so they should shift everything by 5 years it would make everybody happy.

The bus drives through the void I can't tell weather there is a road or not, we are just going somewhere through the snow; how the hell do these people orientate themselves? We pass a lonely yurt from time to time and we also stop at one to take some passengers. There are some people catching horses with a lasso and a ton of horses running everywhere.
The bus stops at a horse farm

We arrive in Uliastai at nightfall. The driver drops me at the end of the city and drives away. There is nothing but a yurt and I have no place to sleep as always.
Knock knock knock.
No answer. The guy is busy calling someone on the phone. I knock again.
"Come in."
No chinese fuss here, I am going to sleep in there, it is automatic. I don't even have to ask. Mongolian people understand the simple equation freezing "cold + no money = death", they have sufficient deduction skills to figure out that no money implies no hotel and so on.
That guy lives alone in a yurt. He offers me a lot of food, some great horse meat and soup. His yurt is richly decorated, it has medals and trophies of his achievements as well as several types of jewellery. He was a former police officer, no idea what he does now and he is also the first mongolian gay that I meet on my trip. He is dating his korean boyfriend who lives next door and they don't seem to have any complexes about it. So I guess being gay is more feasable in mongolia than other countries like Kyrgyzstan.
Happy colors in our yurt
 Everything is fine except that the guy drinks a lot of vodka which puts my guard up everytime but he is one of the harmless drunks that I've ever seen. He doesn't force me to drink, he just goes to sleep.
Everybody told me how mongolia has a problem with alcohol, I really don't see anything alarming so far. I'm not saying it hasn't but if it has, it is at a whole different level than Georgia or Armenia. At least in Mongolia, people are aware that Alcohol abuse is a bad thing.
Drinking vodka is a ceremony too

In the morning the good former policeman decided to help me: he will find me a ride to Ulaanbataar. Are all my worries over?
It seems like this. He tells me to wait until 10AM his friend the chief of police will come and will find me some car to the capital. Easy. I show him a note that Tumur has written me. It is a hitchhiking note which I have no idea what it says but it is supposed to help me get rides. It should be obvious from it that I am going for free. Me, the guy and the chief of police drive towards the city center to see some family. We eat breakfast, the father of the family counts us his days as a wrestling champion. My host tries to set me up with his daughter.
My host's friend is a wrestling champion

 We go further in the city, I don't like this, it almost seems as if they are taking me to a bus station. And that is exactly what they do. The bus demands 50,000 Tugriks which is a fair price, 30 dollars for more than a thousand kilometers of hard terrain; the french train would take three times as much.

Of course I refuse and I am angry that I trusted this guy to help me, I should have insisted on my initial plan, that is hitchhiking in front of his yurt. Now I have to walk all the way from the city center to his yurt again and hitchhike from there. All cars to the capital leave in the morning and it is already 10. I was up at six, I have wasted so much time! Now I'll  be lucky to catch anything at all. The road is empty and I walk on it for hours. I am not hoping to walk to the next city several hundered kilometers from here but at least to the middle of nowhere where every car which passes by just has to take me because it would just be too dangerous to leave me there. Mongolian people have good hearts and a sense of humanity, therefore I am not really putting myself into danger here although it would not be wise to try the same stunt in china. you could be left where you stand with your stupidity as only companion.

There are cars on the road from time to time but always going towards Uliastai and never my way. I am starting to wonder weather the preferred road to Ulaanbataar from Uliastai really goes north, weather most cars don't just go through Gobi-Altai because the road is just easier.
But it is too late to try the other way, if I don't get a car today somewhere, I'll have to get on that bus tomorrow. If I don't do that, I will not only be putting myself in danger but Janela too. She will arrive to mongolia underequipped and without money, she will freeze.

At last, a car stops. They are going to Tosentsengel, 180 kilometers from here. It is the closest any car can go but I gladly take it. They drive fast, or as fast as you can on these roads. They average 60km/h and it's not even a jeep. At first, the road goes through the mountains. Steep snowy slopes. Sometimes the road is not so bad, it is a newly constructed dirt road, you don't have to have a jeep to drive on it. Sometimes we just drive through patches of desert losely following some tire tracks.

Landscape between Uliastai and Tosontsengengel
Tosontsengel, it is 4 PM. I can still hitch something, maybe to Ikh-Uul the next city 50 kilometers afar. I am in the coldest place in Mongolia during the coldest month of the year, am I not lucky. Not a good time to be there, not a good time to sleep there. On the other hand, if I survive this, I just might survive everything. Locals talk of temperatures of -50, sometimes -60. Crazy. Today is obviously warmer but the cold is still quite bad.
The only thing is it is already late and there are no cars on the road. I walk to the end of Tosontsengel wondering where I will sleep tonight. Outside is obviously not an option. There is a gas station, some yurts, a hotel also. But my motivation of negociating a place to sleep is low, I would welcome if the situation could solve itself without me doing anything.

I got dropped off in the coldest place in mongolia in the middle of winter

I could pray to god of course but that would be cheating and also I like not to bother people and godunless it is really necessary. Anyway the situation kind of solves itself.

"What are you doing here? Do you need a hotel?", asks a tall, strong looking guy. He speaks in mongolian but I manage to make out the sense. They all ask the same thing.
"I don't need a hotel. I am going to Ulaanbataar."
"By foot?"
"Yes by foot."
"I am also going by foot. I have a yurt 22 kilometers from here. My car is broken, I am bringing oil from the city. If we reach the yurt, we can sleep there."
"What do you mean if we reach the yurt"
"The region is dangerous. Wolves and bears everywhere. And temperature is dropping fast. But it is a little bit less dangerous if there are two of us."
I guess that guy must have some kind of survival instinct, he doesn't look suicidal or utterly stupid and he solves my housing problem only requesting a 5 hour walk
"Let's go"
The tread of my right shoe has unglued itself and fallen down. The cold is too strong for the glue to hold. The only shoes which seem to withstand the cold are the mongolian traditional snow shoes made of sheep wool.
Anyway, even with the broken shoe I can still walk and we start our long way into the wilderness.
The main road running through the cold, 20 km east of Tosontsengel
I am starting to wonder weather or not this is a little stupid, maybe I should turn back while it is still time, pull myself together and negociate some free housing, I am good at it damn I managed it in China, why not here?
But another idea goes through my mind. In the countryside, it is hard to get free rides; it takes a lot of explaining and persuading. It would be way easier to convince the mongolian drivers to take me for free if I put myself in a situation where not taking me would seem like condemning me to death, something like in Uliastai but more extreme. I need a thousand kilometer ride, the appearent despair of my situation must be equivalent to that distance.
I will walk to that yurt, I will sleep there and in the morning I will appear to the dirvers, in the middle of nowhere, in the coldest place in mongolia, hitchhing for a ride to Ulaanbataar. It is a psychological trap but I never ask for anything, I do not activly force anyone to help me; it counts as hitchhiking.

We would never have covered the 22 kilometers through the snow. Not on foot at least. Behind us I hear the roar of a car. A minibus is going through the snow in our direction. I stop it, the driver seems to say it is going to Ikh-Uul. We both get in. I have a choice: I can continue to Ikh-Uul, a little bit firther and my next ride in the morning will be at worst to Tetserleg, the next city, very far away. From this city the road is likely to be paved or at least better and many cars going to Ulaanbataar. I can also stay at this guy's yurt which saves me the trouble of finding a place to stay in Ikh-Uul and play my poor freezing guy's stunt in the morning. I also risk getting stuck in this yurt forever.

I decide for the latter option and I exit the minibus with my newly found friend. Everybody in the car is looking very surprised.
"You really want to come with me?," asks the guy
"Yeah, why not?"
"But car go Ulaanbataar"
"Yeah, there are cars going to Ulaanbataar but not tonight, it is too late, I'll catch a ride tomorrow"
"Car go Ulanbataar"
He is pointing at the minibus
"This car? It is going to Ikh-Uul"
"No! Car go Ulaanbataar!"
Oh my god. I have just traded a ride going straight to the capital city for a night in the middle of the mountains in the coldest and most wolf-infested place in mongolia. I just didn't understand what the people were trying to tell me! I thought we were going to the next city, I was so stupid! Why didn't I communicate more, why didn't I make a bigger effort of learning Mongolian? It is my faul and my fault alone, I should have learned the language, there is no excuse for that. And now I am paying the price for my laziness. I could be riding to my fairy's arms, all my worries over; instead; my head is full of them and I am in the middle of mongolians mountains for god knows how long.

"Hey! Heeeeeeey!" I scream at the bus but not even the echo answers. The landscape is too vast for echo. The bus fades away into the white darkness.
"Yeah, you screwed up," says the guy who obviously has some empathy, "want chocolate?"
"Yes, thanks"
"Come one, we have a long way to walk."

We walk silently through the deep snow, eating chocolate. My morals are as down as ever but at the same time a new emotion appears: curiosity. How the hell am I getting out of here?

The yurt is far, far into the mountains and there is no road going there from the main road. Actually, even the main road isn't really a road. The yurt is barely visible; from here, it could be mistaken for a rock. Perfect place to stage my appearent suicide. So perfect actually that I should be careful not to stage a real suicide.

It takes us an hour to get there, I realize how unrealistic it was to plan these 22 kilometers on foot. We are now exactly in between tosontsengel and Ikh-Uul, at some yak farm because ordinary cows would die in that cold. Yaks, with their long hair survive and thrive unless a wolf attacks them.
For the latter case, my new friend owns a gun which he says is very good except for the aiming system which is "chinese shit".
"The place is infested by wolves," says my host

My host owns a Yak farm
He lives there with his mother and sister and the sister likes me very much. They all try to up my mood as much as possible. I get chocolate, horse meat and everything the small farm can provide bit there is no substitute for a ride to Ulaanbataar.
"There will be cars to the capital," they reassure me, "everybody is going there"

In the morning I get a bottle of Yak milk and wishes of good luck. The sister takes my hitchhiking note, intially written by Tumur and writes a lot more of stuff in mongolian language. I have no idea what she writes about but judging by the expression on her face, she probable begs the good drivers to take me to Ulanbataar and swears to every corner of the world that I am a good person.

The bottle of yak milk freezes before I reach the main road, the temperatures are crazy. I look to the sky and see the reason for this: the sun doesn't go up. Or it does but it rises behind a thick cloud, I can barely see it and it doesn't heat anything.
My feet are frozen before I start hitchhiking.
It is 10 AM and now I wait. For how long? An hour, two? The road is empty, the landscape is silent. Is there anyone going there? How can I know? How can I know what the people are thinking, how can I know who wishes to go to Ulaanbataar? Do even people dare to go in this weather? The road is bad, it goes through the mountains, it is not wise to drive in these conditions. Maybe there will be no cars on the road today. I should get back. The sky gets cloudier and cloudier.
I'll wait a while; I'll get back only if it starts snowing. It starts to snow. Just a little bit. My feet are too cold now, I should do something. I can't cover the distance back to the yurt. It is only 3 kilometers but in this terrain and weather it takes an hour to get there, maybe one and a half. I put out my sleeping bag and put my feet in there. It will keep them warm. It works fine, I am not cold but the snowflakes are falling on my sleeping bag faster and faster. It is very cold so the snow doesn't make the sleeping bag dry but still, I don't like it.

Hitchhiking in temeratures nearing -40°C inside a sleeping bag
I make a final decision: if the weather doesn't become better before noon, I am going back. In extreme situations, we should know how to make hard decisions.
And there I see a car. It goes my direction, it goes towards me but never reaches me. It passes in front of me, about 100 meters further and I realize that I am not on the main road. There are several snow paths that look more or less the same and one of them is the true main road. I leave my stuff behind and I start running towards what appears to be the road taken by that car and that's when I see it: a small white car makes it way through the snow. It has lost its way somehow and has ended up on the same alternate road as me. It stops.

"Do you go to Ulaanbataar?"
"Can you take me for free?" I show them the hitchhiking note.
They don't like it. "Do you have dollars? Yuan?" They examine my hitchhiking note from all sides, they shake their heads in surprise.
With my sleeping bag and mattress, it appears as I have spent the night there, in the snow, in the middle of nowhere, in the coldest place in Mongolia. In this weather the Yurt is completly invisible, they just don't understand how did I manage to survive.
And they are right. I wouldn't.
"I don't have money. You take me for free or not at all."
"Just get in."
They ask me for 50,000 turiks, they tell me they are going to take me only to Ikh-Uul but they come to the conclusion that if they do this, I'll probably walk to Ulaanbataar and freeze somewhere.
Turns out there is a second car. There are 8 people in total, divided in two cars. The second car got stuck in the snow and we have to push. My feet freeze instantly as they touch the ground, my shoes are really bad for this. The people from the second car are really nice, nicer than the first ones. The driver gives me a pair of traditional mongolian shoes, I feel the difference at once. My feet are frozen but they are not freezing more.

The people who took me to Ulaanbataar
We drive to Ikh-Uul, I wonder if they are going to leave me there. They don't. If they don't leave me here, they won't leave me anywhere. The next city, Teserleg is too far, we will arrive there at night and they will not leave me at night.
Instead, I get free lunch in a restaurant in Ikh-Uul and we continue our way.
First mountains, then desert, dirt roads, no roads, different types of terrain. Overall, I think I just found a country with worse roads than Kazakhstan.
Our car overheats one time, we change tires four times

Overheating car, it cools down pretty fast though
The tires don't actually break, they just lose their pressure very fast because of the difficult terraint and many bumps. Everytime we change a tire, we drive to the nearest settlement, find a tire repair facility and fill the tires with air there.
When the new tire goes flat, we replace it with the old one and we switch tires that way all the time.
Those kind of repair facilities are common on the roads, as common as flat tires, people are used to it.

The road is long in front of us
We drive, we drive, for a long time, we eat and then we drive again. The guy next to me, the one who asked for the 50,000 dollars keeps trying to get money from me but it becomes more or less a joke as time goes by.
"And can I get your camera? And your computer?"
"Yeah, just give me your car"
We drive through the night and arrive in Ulaanbataar in the morning. I am frozen again but I have made it. We disembark in west Ulaanbataar, in their yurt filled with many happy people and get food and more food. Everything is fine.

These are good shoes for this weather
So I pack my things and as soon as the sun goes up a little bit, I make my way to Tumur wife's place. It is the nearest home I know to the train station and tomorrow, Janela is coming. I just hope she makes it. She has to. I took some risks to get here, I don't want them to be for nothing.

Back in Ulaanbataar, pollution ahead