It seems absurd to be in remote western Mongolia and say to yourself, “I’m going to hitchhike!” but I tried it around the town of Olgii and then a little out of town, and after 10 or 12 rides, I gave it a go. Hitchhiking around Mongolia! I did over 1000 miles (1600km). The waits can be long as traffic is very light, but the rewards are worth it—if you are the hitchhiking type. Otherwise, you might find it time wasted, too risky, too lonely, or a potent combination of all three. I like the interaction. It’s fun, for example, to get picked up by three policeman in a Toyota Prius(!) wanting to help you out.
The policemen in the Prius were busy so I couldn’t take their photo, but here are some pictures of others who picked me up hitchhiking (and then I have three quick stories):
Three quick hitchhiking stories:
1) Consider this: a family of five is in their Toyota Land Cruiser and they stop to take me, a hitchhiker, for free, for seven hours across the hot desert, over five of those hours on bumpy dirt roads.
It means that we are now four in the back seat, which is a squeeze. I have to sit with my backpack in my lap while the two girls and the mother are tight together. The woman closest to me is sitting hard against my body for seven uncomfortable hours. They don’t argue with the father about picking me up, and they continue in their good spirits. An hour later the woman is sleeping on my shoulder.
2) I was on the edge of Bayankhongor at a toll booth waiting for cars to come. There’s not a lot of traffic, and by now I am seeing a pattern where Mongolians take their time starting out on long drives. I don’t understand that. You’d think if they had a mechanical problem or because of the heat they’d want to get going early, but no.
At the toll booth a Land Cruiser with a family of three pulled up. The toll taker told the guy I was going to Arvaikhher, about four hours away, and then I don’t know if he told him to take me or he asked, but it was a very short conversation. The family drove me for six hours, it turned out, because I was going farther, and though we didn’t have more than three words of a common language, they were content to have me in their car for so long. Isn’t that remarkable?
3) The roughest ride was from Khovd to Altai. I had been standing for hours when yet another Land Cruiser stopped—it really is the best vehicle for these roads—so I ignored the fact there were eight people already in it, quickly bargained, and got in. The driver was strangely cautious. On perfect, paved roads he never went more than 80kmh (50mph), saying something about not wanting to exceed 2000rpms, which makes no sense and was completely maddening.
We were nine in a car meant to seat five, and then we were ten. We came across someone they knew with car problems, so he came along and sat on a guy’s lap for hours. It was truly miserable, but there was one funny thing. They fed him some food, and some of it got stuck in his teeth. He casually ripped some thread off the upholstery from the seat in front of him and used it as dental floss. No one was bothered by this. So cool.
It’s impossible to think that any of this would happen in America. If only we had a president that would fix everything and make America great again.
On long distance rides, I can only think of one instance where it would have been possible to manage if I was traveling with someone. There’s just not enough space for two people plus backpacks.
I can think of three times where it was obvious that I would need to pay for a ride, and I always bargained or made clear what the price was before I got in. The gesture to stop a car is not to put your thumb out, but just your hand extended, or like dribbling a basketball.
A motorcyclist gave me a ride, once. In Mongolia it’s easy to forget seat belts exist, but it was terrifying to zoom around on sandy roads at 80kph (50mph) without a helmet. Sorry, Ma. I’m still pursuing my dream of a garbage truck, a hearse, and an ambulance picking me up.
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