A Trip to the Airport…Mongolian Style?

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We started off at 7:30am to reach the Ulaanbaatar airport from our homestay on the Tuul River. Normally, this is a one hour trip, but with recent flooding, we had to go the long way – a four hour trip. Everything started according to plan. That plan lasted roughly one hour.

Next thing we knew we were stuck in the mud. Deep mud. We clambered out of the van and slogged through the mud to dry land.  Lucky for us, a man on a motorbike drove by at precisely the moment we reached solid ground. Our guide hopped on the motorbike and was off. A few minutes later she arrived back in a truck driven by Motorbike Man. Alas, the truck was not suited as a tow truck. On to Plan B. Our driver and Motorbike Man shortly reappeared with a tractor. The tractor was able to move the van…deeper into the mud.

Our guide determined the van was a lost cause. On to Plan C. We left the driver with his van and all hopped into the truck. We jammed the kids in the storage space behind the seat. We approached some fishermen with a minivan and asked to borrow their car for the trip to the airport. We were assured that this type of hospitality is completely normal amongst nomadic herding families. No dice. These men needed their car to get to a job. We drove onwards.

We came to a small river that we had safely crossed with the van earlier in the morning. Motorcycle Man was noticeably agitated about attempting the crossing in his truck. Under the avid encouragement of our guide, he boldly drove into the water. Halfway across, we were stuck. Completely.

We were now sitting alone in a truck in the middle of a river while our guide and rescuer waded in knee deep water to the nearby gers. They came running back (literally) with two men and a large truck. A towline was affixed and towing commenced. Until the strap snapped and the towing plan was brought to an abrupt halt.

Motorcycle Man gallantly offered to carry me across the river on his back. I decided on the “more the merrier” approach and waded the frigid river with our luggage. The kids took the piggyback ride. Andrew was disappointed no one offered him a piggyback. Leaving another stranded vehicle and owner behind us, we piled into the larger truck and headed back to our homestay.

Needless to say, our homestay host was surprised to see us again so soon. Luckily, she is a woman of action. She piled into the truck along with us. Clutching her satellite phone in her lap, she made arrangements for a taxi to meet us upriver. We located her truck and swapped vehicles. Falcon was excited to ride in the front seat of a car for the first time. I was relegated to the truck bed to provide ballast against further boggings.

Our host could rival Lewis Hamilton on a dirt track. We reached the upriver settlement in 20 minutes. The truck screeched to a halt and we started a march through a village and across small, temporary bridges. Thank goodness we carry backpacks! We never would have made it with suitcases.

The taxi driver was ready and waiting in his Prius. We wrote before about the used Prius imported from Japan and their right-hand steering wheel. When your taxi driver is under instructions to get you to the airport under any circumstances (at least that’s what we surmised from the tense Mongolian discussion), you notice how difficult it is to pass large trucks with a steering wheel on the right side. Several times Andrew had to shout “no, no!” to avoid head on collisions.

The good news…we made our flight. It is a testament to the cooperative and collaborative nature of nomadic herding families. We were incredibly impressed by the effort everyone we met (and stranded!) extended to get us, complete strangers, to our flight.  The bad news, we left two stranded vehicles in our wake. We were told that plans were underway to rescue them. We hope that others have a less eventful journey to the airport!