The People You Meet Hitchhiking Across Half of Mongolia

mongolia plate

     The stylish Mongolian license plate. They use the Cyrillic alphabet here.

     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):
mong hitch2

     These people didn’t know it, but they were a test to see if I could hitchhike out of town, this time to a viewpoint in Olgii. It was super-quick, so I decided to go for Khovd, the next town south 220km away.

olgii hovd hitch

     Standing here, the second car didn’t come for an hour after the first one, but I was never concerned that I might get stuck. Sure, there was a village 5km away—I wasn’t going to perish—but I was supremely confident that it was all going to end up OK, even when it started to rain and I had no shelter. I made sure I had enough water and dry food to last me the day. I changed all my clothes in the middle of the road when it began to rain, gobbled sunflower seeds, and I took that second car.

mong hitch1

     This rosy-cheeked woman was one of 11 in the van that took me from the point above to Khovd. She insisted on a selfie when we made a toilet stop (i.e. the middle of the road. See below.)

mong hitch uaz

     This is was the toilet stop. As you can see, there is nowhere to go, so there is everywhere to go. People just walk 20 meters away and drop their pants. You have to admire their insouciance about it. I haven’t seen this many bare butts since (fill in your joke here. I was going to go with “a Rolling Stones concert in San Francisco. Kind of weak.)

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.

mong hitch3

     This is the family from hitchhiking story #1.

mong hitch4

     See the Subaru behind these guys? It’s not made for Mongolian roads. We bottomed out countless times, the wheel well screeching loudly over and over, a dreadfully unnerving sound for me, no big deal for them.

mong hitch5

     This man saved me from a mess of a situation when I get let out in a village and not on the main road, and he went out of his way to put me in the right place.

mong hitch6

     Getting in a van with three shirtless, tattooed guys might give some pause for thought, but I’m very at ease with Mongolians by now. Solid people.

mong hitch7

     More shirtlessness. People are very comfortable with their bodies. It’s admirable.

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     This was in Olgii town just to go a few kilometers, but it’s so dusty and and windy that I gave it a try. Easy peasy. They must still be marveling at how lazy Americans are.

mong hitch9

     I have no recollection of this guy.

     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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The People You Meet Hitchhiking Across Half of Mongolia — 5 Comments

  1. Just a friendly reminder not to let this give you any ideas about Jordan. I promise I’ll try hitching once if you come to Tanzania, though.

  2. Nice post 😉 The dental floss anecdote is so Mongolian! A friend of mine was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Khovd, living through one of their winters. When the central heating stopped working the Mongolians diagnosed a dodgy radiator. To his surprise, they soon came back with a replacement and fitted it. Only later did he realise that they had simply ripped the radiator off the wall in the stairway, with pipes erupting water, which immediately turned into an icy death trap. Mongolia is great.

  3. That last paragraph gave me horrific flashbacks to when I was riding on the back of a motorcycle in Cambodia. I spent several hours driving north from Siem Reap to Preah Vihear in a ‘taxi’ on the Thai border. But the catch was that the only way to do the last 2km was on this crazy switchback road that was only accessible via 2 wheele vehicles. The guy giving me the ride up was a madman. I had no helmet, and he was super uncomfortable with me holding onto his torso. So instead I was holding on for dear life to the edge of the seat as we’re rocking side to side as he was banking the switchbacks. I really thought that I was going to end up with my head splattered across the road. Somehow, going back down was nearly as bad as going up. Never again.

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