Traveling by car in Mongolia can be quite an interesting experience (or ordeal, some say) for those not expecting what is to come. Most routes from villages (soums) to city centers are unpaved, often rocky and bumpy, and can last for several hours at a time. Mongolia is building more paved roads between major areas of travel (such as the paved road being built from Bulgan to Khuvsgul, to account for travel during the summer and the ice festival). The lack of infrastructure can be quite difficult on your back and legs, but there are certain aspects of travel that one should know when traveling in Mongolia.
Mostly men are drivers, especially for long hauls. He is the king of the car, I have been told. Most men become drivers because it requires a relatively easy to acquire skill set and it pays incredibly well. Not all drivers are created equal, of course. Some of their mikirs, which look like vans, are not very nice on the inside and often break down on the road. Getting stuck in ice or mud during the fall and spring months are a common problem. Most that I have been in, however, and pretty decent inside. No one really uses seat belts, and they are often tied up behind the back of the seat. Drivers are supposed to only hold about 12-14 in their vehicles at any given time, but to turn a higher profit, they’ll stuff the mikir with 20-25 individuals. I have been in such a situation, and I can say, it’s not very pleasant or comfortable. The driver is king, however, so there’s not much you can do.
These are little shrines usually made of sticks and rocks that scatter the countryside and roadsides that offer protection for travelers. The basic ceremony at the ovoo is as such: throw an offering onto the pile (a single rock will do; some people leave vodka or tie khadag (scarfs) onto the shrine as well), and walk around the pile three times. That’s all there is to it! This summer, while traveling to the taiga, I encountered a very impressive set of ovoo.
Everyone has their own epic travel story, depending on how long the trip is. My record was about 14 hours overnight (about the same time it would take me to fly from LA to Seoul). I find overnight trips the worst, as I cannot sleep as the vehicle tosses me about like a rag doll for long stretches. The day trips can be grueling in their monotony, but you get used to meditating quietly or chatting with your neighbors. To get to the Western provinces, there are buses, but the trek is one of the longest I’ve ever heard of: anywhere from 40-70 hours, depending on weather and the condition of the vehicle. My hat’s off to those who take these journeys. I don’t think my poor knees could take it.