The Long, Bumpy Road: Tosontsengel to Har Termes Uul, Mongolia

View from the Truck over the Dirt Roads West across Mongolia

Dirt Roads West
It’s a long drive west across Mongolia, and for much of the way, the roads are more of a “suggestion” than an actual motorway.

It was a long day.

Long, bumpy, and noisy.

I’ve said it before: Cross-country travel in Mongolia is not for the faint-hearted – or for those who are weak of bladder! The Russian UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) four-wheel-drive vehicles that are tough enough to negotiate the matrix of mud, rocks, dirt and potholes that pass for a road network across the expansive steppes of Western Mongolia are not designed for passenger comfort.

We – a small group of photography enthusiasts organised by Within the Frame and managed by local guides G and Segi – were on our fourth day driving west from Ulaanbaatar (see: Gandantegchinlen Monastery). Our ultimate destination, the annual Golden Eagle Festival in the far-western province of Bayan-Ulgii Province was still a few driving-days away. In theory, we were driving so that we could immerse ourselves in the local landscape and culture. In practice, we saw the land from the windows of our 4x4s and mostly stopped well away from any settlements: our evening camps were dictated by the few accommodations open as the tourist season waned, and our lunch- and “comfort-breaks” took place wherever we happened to be.

I spent a lot of years on the Canadian prairies, so I have an affection for open plains with dustings of snow and mountains in the distance. I reflected on those days of driving across the winter wheat fields as I sat watching the steppes bounce past outside my UAZ window. The difference was that the prairie highways were smooth and straight; Mongolian roads pitch worse than a bad-tempered camel or a small boat in a storm.

We had been warned: it would be a long drive from our ger camp at Tosontsengel to our “hotel” on the shores Khyargas Lake

And it was…

… with its own unique beauty.

View through fog and snow over open barren Mongolian steppes.

Snow and Mist on the Steppes
We weren’t long out of our ger camp at Tosontsengel before the view out of our UAZs disappeared into snow and fog. (iPhone6)

View from a UAZ windscreen over a snowy dirt road in Western Mongolia.

Snowy View from the Truck
It amazes me that our drivers could keep track of the vaguely marked-out dirt roads under the falling snow. (iPhone6)

Rocky Piles on yellowed grass, Zavkhan, Mongolia

Rocky Piles
Much of the landscape is open and empty; a pile of rocks indicates it is time for a comfort stop!

UAZ Vans on an empty dirt road, Zavkhan, Mongolia

UAZ Vans on the Empty Road
It is low-season; we have the roads pretty much to ourselves.

UAZ on the Flat grasslands, Telmen Lake,, Zavkhan, Mongolia

UAZs racing on the Flats
Our drivers amused themselves on the long drive by taking up impromptu challenges with each other. As we came alongside Telmen Lake, they fanned out three across and made their own paths. Bumping, pitching, and curving, they dodged giant holes and herds of cows and sheep. We started singing the theme to the TV show Bonanza as our driver raced the other vans across the flats.

UAZs on the dirt road into Nomrog, Zavkhan, Mongolia

Bridge to Nomrog
We were going to have our lunch at the side of the road, so we passed through the small town of Nomrog without stopping.

Snow on the Steppes, Zavkhan, Mongolia

Snow on the Foothills

Yaks on the Steppes, Zavkhan, Mongolia

Yaks on the Steppes
With their shaggy coats and bushy tails, the herds of domestic yaks are a sight!

Yak in dry grass, Zavkhan, Mongolia

Yak on the Steppes
Their short legs disappear into the tall grasses …

Yak running in dry grass, Zavkhan, Mongolia

Yak on the Run
… but they move pretty quickly when they want to!

White Mongolian pony on the steppes, Zavkhan, Mongolia

Horse on the Steppe
I was excited to see a fabled Mongolia pony through my UAZ window. (iPhone6)

Mongolian Nomad horseback with a herd of sheep on the Steppe, Zavkhan, Mongolia

Mongolian Nomad on the Steppe
Nomads on horseback herding their sheep and goats are dotted all over the open landscape.

Potholed dirt road, Zavkhan, Mongolia

The Road Ahead
As we continue westward, the road deteriorates further.

UAZ on a dirt road, seen through the windscreen, Zavkhan, Mongolia

UAZ on the Road Ahead
Sun and rain alternate as we continue to aim for – but never quite reach – the mountains.

Mongolian Ponies in the afternoon sun, Zavkhan, Mongolia

Mongolian Ponies
The afternoon sun shines on the herds of well-fed ponies that I watch through my truck window.

UAZs on a dirt road, seen through the windscreen, Zavkhan, Mongolia

UAZs on the Road
Snowy mountains float in the distance as we drive into a landscape … 

Strange landforms and mountains in the Distance, Uvs Mongolia

Landforms in the Distance
… that makes me think of prehistoric times and Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series.

Large truck on a new stretch of roadway, Ulsv, Mongolia

New roads are being built – but not in time for us! The contracts for new highways have been won by Chinese contractors who bring in their own construction crews.

View from a UAZ windscreen over new road-works in Western Mongolia.

View from the Truck
We drive a short stretch of gravel road-base before being tipped back out onto the dirt. (iPhone6)

Silhouetted people photographing a sunset, Western Mongolia.

Sunset Quiet
The sun dipped below the horizon before we reached our destination; it was a good excuse to stretch our legs and momentarily escape the noisy vehicles.

It was dark before we reached our hotel – which was possibly just as well! The old Russian building (called by one French blogger “an ancient Soviet (Internment?) Camp”) looked like a high school, but lacked internal plumbing or any other creature comforts. The toilets were holes over pits at the petrol station next door, and the washing station was a walk in the other direction, at the cold-water tank. I thanked my lucky stars for my headlamp: otherwise, I would have had no chance of  negotiating the rocky, obstacle-laden paths in the dark.

As chance would have it, the one person in our group who saw a mouse is deathly afraid of them. She was persuaded that mice don’t climb stairs, and that she’d be safe on the second floor. Those of us on the ground floor tucked into our beds with hard and lumpy horsehair mattresses and crunchy barley-filled pillows, and took our chances with the mice.

Text: Happy TravelsStill, it was warm.

May all your roads be less bumpy!

Happy travels –

Photos: 25Septembery2016

  • Gabe - June 8, 2017 - 3:39 pm

    The views are like going back in time.ReplyCancel

  • sidran - June 9, 2017 - 6:40 am

    Surreal landscapes.Like seeing the ponies and sheep in their natural settingsReplyCancel

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