'The tree where you take a left': driving in Mongolia
Updated: Feb 28
Long-distance driving in Mongolia is part adventure, part murder mystery.
In such a vast yet sparsely populated country with relatively few roads, directions are usually ‘turn left before the hill’, ‘turn right after the hut’. While the rest of the world reclines in satellite-navigated comfort, Mongolian drivers perch on the edge of their rattling seats, inspecting the horizon for clues, detectives assembling pieces of a puzzle from a dozen roadside witnesses. In Britain, men consider stopping to ask for directions a failure. In Mongolia, it’s an opportunity: to have a natter, to pick up a bottle of airag (fermented mare’s milk), to exchange a few flirtatious glances with a herder’s daughter. Although not conducive to getting anywhere fast, this stop-start approach to navigation is reflected in the vehicles people drive. The off-roader of choice is a 4x4 or van made by UAZ (a Russian manufacturer based in Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Lenin). Never have I been in another vehicle that either breaks down so often or is so quick to fix. With every malfunction, its spartan, low-tech torso – unencumbered by onboard computers, AC or any discernible suspension – makes it easy to spot the problem. In this photo, on a winter road trip to northwest Mongolia, my driver, Dogdirkhan, slips beneath our vehicle to gently rub its belly. It spluttered to life in no time, ready to deliver us to our next road sign: ‘the tree where you take a left’.