Adventure, excitement, forging forward into the wilds of the Mongolian Steppes, making your way to your own destination without being limited to pavement. You imagine that your are seeking wonderful exotic spots like these...
... don't you like how I managed to slip in a few more shots of my favourite Owoos? In any case, off roading Mongolia is a legendary pass time ( look up the Mongol Rally - their tag line is "fighting to make the world less boring"!) and is as much a part of Mongolia's lure as Chinggis Khan ( That's Genghis Khan for those of you who don't know that the transliterated version of his name was just not quite correct...).
Everyone longs for those wonderful trips out to the countryside where you are as likely to find yourself driving across a swollen river as you are to be on pavement, if you really want to get where you are going.
And when we moved here, we had exactly the same expectations and desires as most of the half million or so tourists who come through the country every year. We were so excited to discover that it was legal to drive with just your Canadian Driver's License and your passport! I could even drive! This has not always been the case in our overseas postings, and I was thrilled to be able to have the freedom to be completely spontaneous and do what I want , when I want. And there were all those wide open pastures to conquer! So, of course, the first step was to get a car. It took about 4 months, but finally we got our hands on our wonderful Land Cruiser.
White to remind us of our Freeport Land Cruiser for those of you who have lived in Tembagapura. Chelvan was tempted to paint black numbers on the side!
Toyotas of all descriptions, but especially Land Cruisers, are wildly popular here in Mongolia as they have such a great reputation as a reliable off road vehicle. We have always loved our Toyotas, so we were prepared to wait to have one ordered in. When we first went to the dealer, they literally did not have one single vehicle at the dealership as they were not only sold out, but had sold out all of the vehicles they had coming in for the next two months! This one was originally destined for Saudi Arabia, as you can tell by the lovely Arabic writing on the mirror. I have it on good authority from a friend from the Middle East that it says " Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear".... although I have to say it was much more fun imagining what it might say .....
So, now we had our car, our legal permission to drive, and I ( oh, so fortunately) had had 4 or 5 months of riding around with the company drivers to figure out the rules of the road. All that was required was a little gumption and a lesson on how to actually start the car ... it doesn't have a key, just a "push to start" button. It took a while to get used to that.
At first, it very much appears that there are no rules. As you get into the whole driving experience though, you see that the basic premise for driving here is that you have to be aggressive enough to get respect from the other drivers. If you do that, then it pretty much flows like clockwork. Well, maybe not precisely clockwork, but at least with a predictable order of operations. Of course, driving in the countryside is wonderful and airy and stress free. In the city - not so much.
Yes, that car is squeezing between the buses - what you can't see from the still shot is that the bus was not stopping..it was turning whether the car liked it or not. Eventually, it did have to stop - about 2 inches away from the passenger door. But, here - that is about the normal "safe" distance to keep between cars. There are lots of little bumps and scrapes in day to day driving here that people more or less ignore.
There are often traffic cops who help direct traffic. Looks like a fun job doesn't it?
... but from time to time you do get to see interesting and strange sites on the road. Like this one - has the UN really started wearing circus / parade costumes? I guess it is still a secret - hence the "closed" transport. You think they are wearing seat belts?
And yes, this is crossing at a crosswalk - see the little guy up in the middle of the right hand side of the photo? People don't stop for pedestrians. Again, something you can't see from the still shot - these cars were still moving and the pedestrians were just doing their best to dodge bumpers! I think this is how I knew I actually lived here - when I stopped looking for a Mongolian person to cross the street with. One day I found myself standing on the yellow line of a major 4 lane road, waiting for a break in the speeding traffic so I could dart across ....and I wasn't even worried about it. Mongolian for sure....but it does present a challenge when I am back in Canada - I just want to run across the roads regardless of that pesky "walk" / "don't walk" signal.
Of course, like any big city there are unexpected road hazards. This one is my favourite. They are serious about you stopping for the train. These barriers lie flat in the pavement when there is no train and pop up when one is approaching. I really don't know what happens when you are stopped on top of it when that happens....people sit bumper to bumper (literally .. often only one or two inches apart) waiting for the light at this particular intersection and there is always someone on this barrier as they wait. Maybe one day I'll be lucky enough to actually see the barrier being raised. In the meantime, it is only one of the many things I wonder about regarding Mongolian driving! My other favourite barrier ( sorry no pics of it) are the missing manhole covers in the road. You can really wreck your suspension by hitting one! I have seen small cars stuck in them - which is pretty funny looking, but not terribly fun if it is you I imagine! Personally, I have only hit it once....no apparent damage to the car fortunately, but believe me, you do know that you have hit it as one corner of your car dips down into it...
Other, less predictable hazards...
The famous dust storms that wreak havoc on the country all spring. They say that the dust clouds from these storms have been tracked by radar all the way to North America!
So in a nutshell, that is driving in Mongolia ... sort of. You really need a video to truly appreciate the craziness of the city drivers as well as the beauty of the off road experience. Both of which I hope I get to keep on with.
You see, as of March 29th it is apparently no longer legal to drive with your Canadian License and passport. You need a Mongolian Driver's License...and the Mongolian Government has put a moratorium on issuing licenses to our company- which may just make it tricky for us to actually get a license! We are working the system though - next week I will try to get one on my own at the local DMV. This will be lots of fun I am sure. I think that this will be a little beyond the reach of my language skills so I am going to round up a friendly helpful Mongolian friend to come and help me through it. Apparently, there is a sliding scale for "service" fees from $50 - $150.00. I guess I will have to go in looking poor!
Oh, one more thing that could, if I let it, just frost me off a little wee bit... ( I like to look at it as an opportunity to practise patience!)... if you are from a country that is a signatory on the Vienna Treaty on International Driving Reciprocation then I could be using my international Driver's License. But guess what....CANADA is NOT a signatory on the treaty. Which is good - I want to practise my patience...I really do..really...seriously....
So today I will be doing my volunteer teaching at the Catholic School, tomorrow I am heading up to Dave's Cave to check out the new equipment that IWAM has purchased for him, then on to a small leather making firm run by a leader in the Handicapped Association here.... and all of it will be with me NOT at the wheel of my own car. My car is resting comfortably in the garage waiting for this all to be resolved. I am pretty sure that the company driving service is hoping at least as much as I am that it gets resolved quickly, because regardless of my license situation, I will NOT be sitting at home! I've got things to do, after all.
Driving is for me a critical function here in Mongolia in order to be able to maximize what I can do to help those struggling in the community... and have a chance to see all that there is to see out there on the road. Here at the end of the earth, it is really true that you NEVER know what you will see next...out there on the road!
Thanks to Ernst & Kendle Leitz for some of these pictures. The trek we all went on was quite a drive, wasn't it?