Next stop: Mongolia's Wild West
Degi had made the buttock-bruising journey just once before – a mistake he wouldn’t be repeating anytime soon. ‘It’s too far to travel by bus’, he insisted. ‘Why don’t you just fly?’
Driven largely off-road and all in one go, the 1,600km bus ride from Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii cuts across Mongolia’s central steppe, before hugging the Altai Mountains heading north. It connects the nation’s capital with the end of the line: a frontier town in Mongolia’s remotest, most westerly province, sandwiched between Russia and China, just down the road from Kazakhstan.
I ignored my guide’s warnings and, buoyed by a naive, just-landed spirit of adventure, parted with 80,000 tugriks (about 20 pounds) at the bus station on the outskirts of town. ‘Don’t worry. It’ll be fun!’
The elderly vehicle charged with carrying me most of the breadth of the country looked like it hadn’t only seen better days but had forgotten them long ago. Built to seat around 15 people, it was crammed with closer to 25, most of whom were heading all the way to Ulgii. A round, flush-faced man who couldn’t find a seat stood awkwardly in the stairwell, clinging to the handrail. A young girl lay flat across a pile of coats and bags between two rows of seats. A two-litre bottle of beer was passed back and forth as Kazakh music rasped from lo-fi speakers.
The bus crept reluctantly across the vast network of dirt tracks that cover much of Mongolia's countryside – a child’s scribbles on a page, heading in every possible direction to connect nomads' gers (yurts) and dusty little towns. Stones rapped on the vehicle’s ribcage and its frame rattled to a violent crescendo, shrieking as if it were made of tin. At a petrol stop, a pretty girl with light brown hair slid down the steps and out through the door, before quietly emptying the contents of her stomach onto the ground, too exhausted to emit even the faintest groan.
Trying to sleep was like catching sand. Frantic attempts to relax were doomed to end with an inevitable pothole launching me out of my seat, or another passenger’s arm swinging like the boom of a boat and thwacking me square in the chest. But, jolting abruptly into consciousness, I was often greeted by the most mesmerising scenes. Our driver weaving through a herd of 50 or 60 cows, or edging us over a frozen river on a desolate plain. A Bactrian camel jogging past my window, its pointed humps flopping around like jelly towers.
After 40 hours, almost all driven by one exhausted driver, we finally saw the the distant lights of Ulgii – Mongolia’s Wild West. For travellers strong of stomach, the bus ride from Ulaanbaatar can produce some wonderful surprises. Just don’t say you weren’t warned!