We decided to go to Northern Mongolia through an organization called Ger to Ger, which aims to connect travelers with local nomadic families. In an effort to give us the real local flavor, Ger to Ger makes you take an overnight bus to get up to the main city in the North, Murun. They likened them to Greyhound busses in the States, which I suppose is sort of true of the bus itself, but the experience was like no Greyhound we’ve ever been on!
The Boarding Process
The boarding process is crazy. We arrived at the bus station extremely early, found our bus, showed the driver our tickets and they loaded our big backpack on the bus. We saw locals go on and off the bus, but when we tried to get on, we were always turned away. We didn’t understand, so we just continued observing the chaos.
We watched all sorts of random things get loaded onto the bus – an electronic keyboard, a giant square piece of glass the size of a dining room table, a huge sack of potatoes, etc. This is how most people get between towns and apparently move goods as well!
When the driver was preoccupied, we snuck on board. We found a huge bag under our seat and a big box under the seat in front of us, essentially giving no leg room. The seats are closer together than a normal economy seat on an airplane. We soon realized that they use every inch of available space for peoples’ things. Items are placed under pretty much every seat as well as in the aisles.
We were quickly reminded we were still in Asia because, true to form, there is no sense of personal space; it’s every man for himself, pushing and shoving to get where they want to go on the bus.
The bus was supposed to depart at 2. It eventually pulled out of the bus station around 2:30, but drove around for the first hour stopping at places here and there, basically running errands like getting gas and stopping at the auto part store (not sure if he found what he was looking for!).
To make matters worse, the guy in front of me immediately reclined his seat the whole way, making me smushed for the entire ride…awesome.
Add onto that what seemed like half the bus coughing and sneezing. People here don’t make any attempt to cover their mouths when they cough and sneeze. We’re fairly certain I got a cold from the bus on the way there and Jan got one on the way home.
The driver sometimes played music over the speakers, which slightly masked the occasional horn from the bus scaring the livestock off the road so we could pass.
We had about four hours on a paved road until it turned into the familiar bumpy roads we were used to from the Gobi. It wasn’t quite as jarring as in our Russian van on the Gobi Desert trip, but we still felt each bump!
The bus stopped every few hours for a bathroom break and once for an extended stop for dinner at a “roadside” cafe. The pit stops usually had an outhouse, but sometimes did not. Tip for women I learned from the Mongolians – tie a long sleeved shirt or jacket around your waist for modesty!
With the help of Tylenol PM and earplugs, we managed to sleep as well as expected on a bumpy bus! Due to the non-existent roads and affect weather has on travel times, we were expected to arrive anytime between 8am and Noon. We got in at 7am, which meant we had to wait on the side of a dirt road for a couple hours until our ride picked us up. When in Mongolia, just roll with the punches…
The Way Home – Vodka & Veterinarians
We thought we knew more or less what to expect for the bus ride home, but it turned out to be a totally different experience.
In Murun, we thought we would head to the bus station, but instead our driver pulled up to what appeared to be someone’s house. He started taking our bags out of the van, which confused us. Then he opened the gate to the house, and we saw a giant yellow bus with Mongolia emblazoned on the side of it parked in the driveway! It was the driver’s house and this was apparently the first stop on the way to UB!
We were pretty excited to get VIP boarding since we were the first ones on it. We drove around town picking people up along the way. The premier feeling wore off quickly because being the first one on the bus just means that we were on the bus longer. The 2pm bus didn’t end up leaving until after 4pm! Plus, we still didn’t get any more leg room after everyone else boarded with all their assorted household goods and food.
The last stop before hitting the road was at what we found out later to be a veterinarian clinic. The majority of the people on the bus were going to UB for a celebration of being veterinarians for 20 years.
This made the feel of the bus much more jovial than on the way to Murun. Shots of vodka were passed freely around by one guy who was clearly the ringleader of the group. He really wanted Jan to take a shot. It did not look that appealing to take a shot from a disheveled paper cup. Jan didn’t want to lose his man card, so he took one and it was strong! They loved that we spoke a little Mongolian, so we had fun with him.
On the second round of shots from a new vodka bottle, Jan really didn’t want any. He said no, he was feeling sick, but the guy really didn’t back down.
We remembered from our Ger to Ger orientation that there are several ways to graciously turn down vodka (we were thinking we’d have to use this in a ger with a family, not on the bus!). We were taught 4 ways, but the one that stuck out in our minds was essentially the trump card that no Mongolian can say no to, which is to bow your head, touch the vodka to your head and then pass it back. Technically, you are supposed to use that only after the other three methods aren’t effective because this one will blow their minds that a non-Mongolian knows this.
We knew the vodka guy would get a huge kick out of this because he loved to joke around, so Jan went for it. He accepted the “shot glass” (now upgraded to the top of a plastic bottle with a jagged edge) and triumphantly held it up high and told the rest of the bus what Jan just did.
The bus erupted with cheers and laughter. It was awesome.
At one point they asked for volunteers to get off the bus to cross a bridge that had a 10 metric ton weight limit. We remember this from the way there, but we crossed it in the middle of the night when it was really cold out and we were drowsy from being awoken from our sleep. We stayed in the bus that time. Seeing it in the daylight made us realize very quickly why most of the locals opted to cross the bridge by foot. There’s no way this bridge would exist in the States!
As the sun sank behind the mountains, the group sang traditional Mongolian songs, which was quite a beautiful soundtrack…until about 11:30 when we wanted to sleep!
Strangely, we stopped at around 3am for another meal stop. We ate dinner early, around 5pm, so I guess some people were hungry, but it definitely interrupted our sleep.
We arrived into UB at about 9am. We were so excited to be back in the city because we knew a shower, electricity, and internet were just a short drive away!
Although we would have preferred taking the flight from UB to Murun, the bus definitely provided some interesting memories and experiences. I can’t imagine taking that bus back and forth between cities on a regular basis, but you gotta do what you gotta do!
What’s your most interesting local transportation experience?