A Fine and Pleasant Misery: Mongolian Bus Travel

Greyhound, the Great American bus company, has a rotten reputation—and it deserves it. My recent, first and last, experience with Greyhound was a 16 hour nightmare, that I spent sandwiched in between a 300 lbs parolee and a jittery little man, whom I would guess was schizophrenic based on the rather hostile conversations he was having—with himself. It was miserable.  But nevertheless, some good did come from the experience. The seemingly endless ride jolted my memory of some of the finer bus excursions I have had, and of one in Mongolia in particular.

On this trip I would be traveling from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to the country’s second largest city , Darkhan. To give an idea of the driving styles and road conditions in Ulaanbaatar; my Mongolian friend, who was seeing me to the bus station, got car sick on the 15 minute ride to the station. This was an ominous sign, but I was assured that I wouldn’t have to worry about good roads or bad roads on the bus, because there weren’t any roads—only well traveled dirt paths, Yee-haw.

At the station, I got in the ticket line, bought the ticket, and asked about how long the trip should take. The cashier said 16 hours. She said 16 hours for the simple fact that “How the heck I’m I supposed to know how long it will take? You could end up there tomorrow or in two years! Now get on the bus, you’re holding up the line!” doesn’t translate as easily.

I found the bus, and a fellow traveler, and asked foolishly if there were assigned seats.

“Seats? Oh dude, is this your first time?” he remarked.

The bus itself was an old Soviet clunker. In its heyday it could have probably transported around 20-25 fully equipped Soviet soldiers—we counted 57 passengers. And we were sat in the front of the bus, facing the rest of the passengers. The other traveler was put in the luggage area, in between the driver’s seat and the first row of seats. I actually got a seat.

I sat next to a pretty Mongolian lady; I smiled at her and was about to try and start a conversation when my knees were knocked to the side by a huge Mongolian man, who sat to my left. He had to have been a sumo wrestler. I was sandwiched, but it wasn’t terrible.

Next, two elderly women and a middle-aged lady sat directly across from me. We all negotiated leg room, until we were locked in, and our legs formed a human zipper.

The two elderly ladies each carried a sleeping child. They both looked at me and smiled. Then one of the ladies put one of the kids in my lap, and started to giggle. The kid didn’t wake up, so the other lady did the same. Now I was sandwiched on either side, legs were zipped up, and both my shoulders had become pillows.  And the ladies were giggling.

Then came the rest of the luggage and the late comers, who really would have no seats at all. The luggage filled up the rest of the space we had around the upper bodies, and the stragglers filled in the space around our lower. One man, with one blue eye (apparently Cataracts are common in Mongolia), sat in the door-well, and smelled of Vodka.

Now that we were packed in and unable to move, we were ready to go. We bounced along through the city and unto the unfinished cross country highway. The highway was smooth, and too good to be true. After ten minutes, we barreled off it and unto the dirt path. I couldn’t see the other traveler, but I knew he was behind me.

“The lady at the counter said this would take about 16 hours.” I shouted.

“Ha, yeah right dude! That means 16 hours not including all the times we get stuck in the mud.” he yelled back.

While the sun was up the scenery was a fine distraction. The steppes are vast and wide. The mountains in the distance seem to be days away. We passed the occasional yurt, some herds of horses, and camels, but when the sun went down there was nothing. Nothing but the constant bouncing and the tingling of sleeping limps.

When you are on the road in a situation like this sleep doesn’t come, though you are not really awake either—it’s more of a trance state. You have reflections of your past and projections of your future, but they are more like hallucinations than dreams.

In between one of the trances, I peered over to the blue-eyed fellow down in the door-well. He had been bounced around and shaken up worst than anyone, and now he didn’t look well. The other passengers noticed also. Someone tried to get a bag to him, but it was too late. We were all introduced to both his breakfast and lunch.

We stopped to air out and take a restroom break, only there were no restrooms. In fact, there weren’t any buildings, or bowls, or holes in sight. We all just spread out along the path and had at it; all together, men and women a like, out there on the open plain.

After that, we somehow piled back into the old beater in the same manner as before, and continued on for another several more hours. We stopped again for some food late that night, but then got right back on that old road. Still no sleep, but after awhile you stop caring.

The sun would be coming up soon. We’d been on the road for a hard 14 hours. We were on the downhill, when the inevitable happened—Mud.

“Ha, I told you dude! Never fails.”

We were sunk. So, everyone filed out and stretched, while the driver and crew got to working on the rut. They worked for over an hour, until they conceded that it wasn’t moving—but perhaps it could be pushed.

The passengers surrounded the sides and back of the bus, and altogether started pushing. This ended in failure too, actually we probably made it worse. But the good news was that many of us were now very near completely covered in Mongolian mud–and I felt good about that.

The bus had been stuck for over three hours when the sun began to rise. We needed help, but of course out in the middle of Mongolia you can’t just call up a tow truck, so we waited. They radioed another bus that was on route, and they agreed to stop and help. When it arrived, the buses were strapped together. Engines roared, tires spun, and people pushed, and low and behold, as sure as day—the other bus got stuck too.

So now, we all waited. Our band of intercity travelers had grown into a small tribe. And our tribe waited patiently for another several hours, for another bus to come to the rescue. Two finally arrived, and were able to pull both buses out. We were back on route.

When we finally made it to Darkhan, a full day and a half had passed. I was muddied, sore, and sleep deprived, but my spirits were high. I felt like Jim Lovell stepping out of the Apollo 13 capsule. I was glad to do it, and hope to never do it again.  I had just had one of the those experiences that writer Pat McManus would call “a fine and pleasant misery.”

Good Journeys!

Published in Asia, Things to Do

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Meet the Author

I'm a traveling teacher, musician, and writer currently living right in the middle of Taiwan. I've lived in Asia for much of the past 5 years, traveled through much of it, and hope to hit Eastern Europe, and get deep into South America in the future (ASAP).

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  1. jennifer choban

    Great story, Nate! I consider any bus ride where no one barfs directly on me to be a success! And I concur, I would rather have one of these memorable adventures than the misery of a Grey Hound any day.

  2. Tiffany

    HAHAHA omg Nate I feel so bad after reading this because I couldn’t stop laughing at those horrible moments you were having. Glad you can look back and appreciate all that was going on around you, just hope that never happens again. Happy Travels to you as well!

  3. Larry Harper

    Thanks for sharing the story. When I was young (pre-teen) I spent four summers in a row riding a bus from S.E. Tennessee to Atlanta, GA. to visit my sister. In those days I was excited about the ride but scared I would miss my bus as I could never understand the station announcer. Also, I was afraid I would fall asleep and not get off at the correct stop/destination. Those trips were always covered by Trailways Bus Lines. Nothing like what you experienced of course. Thanks again and I love the reference to Pat McManus…As usual, I enjoyed traveling with you through your writing. Excellent!

  4. margaret edwards

    Nate, great story and I enjoyed reading the experience you had riding the bus. I don’t think I could have endured the ride and you didn’t tell us about the trip back but I hope it was better than the trip going to Ulaanbaatarr. Take care, Aunt Margaret

  5. Linda Sayne

    Hey Nate! Enjoyed the story and felt your misery. I myself took many bus rides in my youth from our home in Copperhill to Marietta, a trip we now make in less than two hours. Take care and good travels. Aunt Linda

  6. Nate Harper Post author

    @Jennifer–thanks for the comment, and I agree, you know I don’t understand how Grey hound stays in business, they’re aweful. But I don’t really mind piling in on some old bus and barreling through Cambodia or something like that. good times

    @Tiffany, thanks for reading, and I appreciate the comment. but I’m not sure about it not happening again, bus and train travel is sort of my thing, I love it.

    @Dad (Larry)–haha, I thought you’d like that. I was just reading from They Shoot Canoes, I tried to record the reading to see if I could make it through with out laughing–I couldn’t do it. He’s crazy. Did you read his story about the Ultra-light backpacking crazy? If not I’ll give it to you.

    @Margaret–I’M STILL HERE, I”M STUCK, haha, no just kidding, the trip back is another story altogether, I’ll get to it, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, I appreciate it.

    @Linda–thanks for reading and commenting I appreciate it, GO OWLS!

  7. Jennifer Choban

    I think Grey Hound gets away with being so lame because there is a lack of competition and because we are a culture which so loves the car. Basically, I think there is an unspoken judgement that if you don’t own your own car you’re loser and don’t deserve anything better than Grey Hound.

    FYI – intercity buses in Mexico are fantastic.

  8. Nate Harper Post author

    Yeah, it’s a shame the culture is like that, but I think it’s changing, last time I was living in the States, I went carless, just hopped out a bike, bused, and Marta’d around, and it was great. We’re moving towards it hopefully, no car no cry, btw, buses in Taiwan are awesome too! but Scooters are the big thing here

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