So, I have a friend who lives out in the Gobi. He’s never had a visitor in the year and a half he’s been at his site; I’ve never been to the Gobi and would like to see it. And I have a 3-week semester break in January. So far, the math is pretty simple.
But upon investigating the logistics of thing, I’m beginning to understand why he’s never had a visitor. Govi-Altai, like much of Mongolia, is unreasonably difficult to get to. How far a distance are we talking about, and what makes it “unreasonably difficult?”
Do note the fun bit to the left: Google can’t calculate directions to Govi-Altai, even from Ulaanbaatar. But that’s not actually all that surprising; Google uses roads to calculate directions and distances, and most of Mongolia doesn’t have roads.
Not kidding. Those yellow lines aren’t just the main roads – they’re more or less the only ones. There’s a paved road from Darkhan to Erdenet that isn’t shown, so you can drive between Mongolia’s three cities pretty easily (yes, there are only three in the entire country). You have to go from Erdenet to UB by way of Darkhan, though; there’s no road straight between the two. But outside of what you see on this map, most roads are just ruts in the ground.
These are not fun to drive, let me tell you. They are wind-y and bumpy and uneven – patently bad news for someone with a long history of car sickness. And driving on such “roads” is excruciatingly slow going. Even in summer, you can’t really go above 20 MPH. This means that Khovsgol, the big lake to the northwest of Erdenet, is a 12-hour drive away from me; Govi-Altai would be at least 24.
To make matters worse, you’re not spending those 12-24 hours in a comfortable vehicle. In all likelihood, you’ll be stuffed into a mikr (Soviet microbus) with almost twice as many people as there are seats. That’s not an exaggeration – they’re built to hold 13-14, and the last time I rode in one, it was with 22 of my new best friends. Or if not “best,” certainly “closest.”
It makes for a journey that is hot, cramped, and loud if there are little kids packed in there with you. All of these exacerbate my car sickness and help to make for a thoroughly miserable journey.
Now, the good news is that Altai has an airport. Two hours in a plane instead of twenty four on the road, not counting the inevitable delays and breakdowns? Done.
… or it would be, if I could actually find any information on ticket costs. Aero Mongolia has a website, and some of it is accessible in English – including a flight schedule (albeit one that differs from the one all the travel websites seem to think it runs on). What it does not have is any information about actual tickets: how much they cost, where you can purchase them, etc. Байхгуй. Ditto for the travel websites. There is a telephone number, but given my nearly-nonexistent Mongolian language skills, that sounds like a good way to waste нэгж (phone credit) without actually accomplishing anything. Time to enlist the help of my Mongolian friends, methinks.
And now y’all know why I haven’t done very much traveling, even though I’ve already been here for four months: it’s complicated. And frustrating. And, above all, time-consuming.