Guessing games in a sacred river

Tuul River, Jalman Meadows, Mongolia

The Mongolian driver looked at me and emphatically gestured at the river in front of us. He cracked a smile, wrinkling his old, sunburned face. He was clearly confident we would be able to ford the river. I looked at the small Daihatsu pick-up we were sitting in, and at the more-than-capable Toyota Land Cruisers on the other side that had only barely made the crossing before us. I was not so confident. But the driver gassed up the engine, and we took the plunge.

It was a number of coincidences that led me to that crossing of the river Tuul, several hundreds of kilometres upstream from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The first was: I got sick on arrival in Ulaanbaatar.

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar by bus, a well-known backpacker’s alternative to the more expensive and lengthy train journey from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar. Our stay in Mongolia would be the second phase in the Transmongolia journey, after we had been traveling for a month in Russia, primarily in Siberia. And that month didn’t sit well with my digestive system. It communicated to me in no uncertain terms that it was not going to put up anymore with changing time zones, weird substances, irregular bathroom breaks, and generally unhealthy diet. So my digestion was on strike, and we were left with twiddling our thumbs for a week in the city, rather than exploring the beautiful countryside.

The taxi driver collected a record-breaking one honk per twenty meters

It turned out that week was still useful to arrange our Chinese visa and get to know Mongolia’s capital a little better. The first impression was: chaos. Traffic is beyond jammed in rush hour, with many drivers honking and edging their way forward in a mad dash to get out. The taxi driver that took us from the bus station to our hotel was adept at this game, and collected a record-breaking one honk per twenty meters for his efforts. With the roads bursting at capacity, pedestrians don’t really get any space: expect to yield to any car driving through a red light while you’re walking on a crossing with a green light. You’ll have to try to stare down the driver to be able to pass. We applied this with mixed results, and found that it’s better to weave through the traffic as it – inevitably – slows down at some point.

The other part of the chaos is in the number of constructions sites to be found around town. A western visitor with a fresh perspective might first see a dusty and greyish town. But our perspectives had been warped after seeing weeks of grey and depressing Kruschyovska architecture, a.k.a. Soviet block houses. So we saw a city with much communist architecture that had been freshened up in the last years, and partially replaced by modern glass-and-steel offices and apartment towers. We were actually relieved to see a bit of life and color again.

View on Ulaanbaatar from Bogd Khan
View on Ulaanbaatar from Bogd Khan

On the way back from a day outing to Bogd Khan park we were given a ride by a friendly lady, who explained some of our observations. She mentioned that whereas Ulaanbaatar was initially designed to house 500,000 people, currently 1.2 million people live in the city. Many of the newcomers are former nomads who drew the short straw in reallocations of the state-owned cattle herds in the ‘90s or lost their herd after a particularly severe winter. And many of them (80% of the capital’s population in fact!) still live in Mongolia’s traditional tent, the ger. Combine steep demand for housing with a large influx of foreign capital due to privatisation and new mining operations in the Gobi desert, and you have yourself a building boom. One that will last for years to come, with ‘only’ ten thousand new homes completed every year. Interestingly, it was this building boom that led to the second coincidence.

We found out that this particular building had been victimized by the building boom

By the time my sickness had faded, we had little more than ten days left before we would take the train to Beijing, our final destination on the Transmongolia route. We therefore looked for an agency that could assist in one or two short trips in the vicinity of Ulaanbaatar. We found one and decided to visit their office rather than trying our luck with English on the phone. As we arrived at their supposed office location we found out that that particular building had been victimized by the building boom and was no more. Coincidentally, we had spotted another tour agency up the same street; Nomadic Journeys. We went back there and were received by a friendly youngster called Nara. He told us enthusiastically about their ger camps, and one in particular: Jamal meadows, somewhere up north along the Tuul river, far away from the city and on lands still worked by nomads. Convinced by his genuine enthusiasm, we decided to go for a four day stay.

Although we didn’t quite know what to expect of the camp, all our subconscious expectations were blown away: incredibly warm and friendly staff, comfortable warm and spacious gers, multi-course varied meals (hundreds of kilometres away from any food market!), a 360-degree unobstructed view on the valley, and a clear view of the Milky Way at night. We gradually came to understand Nara’s comment that we were lucky to find a spot in the camp, as “many people book our camps a year in advance”. To top it off, exploring the wild was simply a matter of grabbing a daypack and heading off by foot from the camp in any direction you fancied that day.

But I was restless, and decided I should try some silly physical challenge

On one of these day treks, we found ourselves having lunch on the banks of the sacred Tuul river. It was beautiful sunny weather, and the river rushed by pleasantly, flanked by copses of trees in their yellow-and-green autumn colors. It was a pristine and peaceful spot, and Roos looked happy to spend some time there relaxing in the sun. But I was restless, and decided I should try some silly physical challenge. I was going to climb a rock and enjoy a nice birds-eye view of the valley. And of course the rock had to be on the other side of the river. A river of 50-meter wide, strong rushing knee-deep water. But there’s no fun in it if it’s easy. So I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and stepped in.

Tuul River, Jalman Meadows, Mongolia
The Tuul river – clearly 50 meters wide!

Damn that was cold. After ten seconds, flashes of pain started shooting up my legs. Another ten seconds later the pain was forgotten as I had to give my full attention to keeping my balance in the current. I navigated over slippery wet stones from bank to bank and found myself at a quieter arm of the river. It was just one step across .. and suddenly I was up to my crotch in water. So much for my careful navigating. To add insult to injury, I noticed when clambering up the bank that I could have simply avoided the whole arm by crossing five meters upstream. Oh well. I walked towards the rock and started climbing. By the time I had scaled the rock, I was completely dry and decided that the view had been worth the journey.

From my vantage point on the rock I could see there was a ford just two hundred meters downstream from our lunch site. Two Toyota Land Cruisers, large off-road jeeps commonly used in Mongolia, had just crossed there. Since that part of the river looked friendlier than my original crossing point I decided to cross there instead. As I walked down towards the ford, I noticed a small pick-up truck stopping and the driver waving me over. He indicated he intended to cross the river, and if I wanted to join. How friendly! I looked a bit dubiously at the small truck and wondered if that would ever cross the river, but decided I would either wade the whole or just part of the river on foot. So what did I have to lose?

Between me not understanding Mongolian and him not speaking English, this was going to be a guessing game

Admittedly, the little truck got us further than I had expected. We were about halfway the river when we got stuck. But even more surprising, the driver was able to reverse the car back up the river bank. I got my hopes up – with one or two tries we might actually be able to choose the right spot for crossing. The next attempt got us closer than the previous one.. by 5 meters. And this time we were really stuck. The driver gestured to me I should take off my shoes and get out of the car to help him dislodge it. Obviously.

Once again I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, and opened the door. Water came rushing in, and as I jumped out the water reached my calves. The strong current almost pushed me back in the car. I walked gingerly towards the back, expecting to have to help wiggle the car out of its current spot. The driver however, had other ideas. He shouted and gestured towards the back. I climbed out of the water to see a trunk with a number of random items. He indicated he wanted me to fetch one, and shouted some Mongolian words. Between me not understanding Mongolian and him not speaking English, this was going to be a guessing game. I proceeded by elimination, picking up one item at a time. Which was still harder than expected, as I had to figure out by non-verbal cues if the driver’s response to an item was a positive or negative one – I didn’t even know the Mongolian words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Tuul River, Jalman Meadows, Mongolia
Tuul River, Jalman Meadows, Mongolia

After trying a few items, I found an old steel cable tucked away under a tarp. Between the driver’s changing response and one of the Land Cruisers backing up towards us I suddenly understood the point of the whole exercise. Of course! Rather a better solution than using my frankly unimpressive muscle power. So now to attach the cable somewhere to the front of the car. Unfortunately, the lower part of the front bumper was already submerged, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where to attach the cable. I went around to the driver’s side of the car, and he gestured for me to take over his seat in the car. He had been revving the engine continuously and wanted me to do the same. Finally something that required little communication. I was happy to play my part, even if I wasn’t sure why. I kept the revs more or less on the level the driver had and watched him attach the cable to both cars.

The engine was slowly dying

While he was halfway this process, I noticed the engine gradually slowing down. Oh oh. I figured the exhausts or air intakes must be partially submerged, and the engine was slowly dying. I quickly put the pedal all the way down and hoped the driver would make haste with getting the cables to work. But it wasn’t working, the engine kept slowing down. I was about to signal the driver when finally the engine started spooling up again. Pfew.

With both ends of the cable attached, the Land Cruiser edged forward, pulling the rope taut. The old man signalled to the other driver to stop, and lost his footing in the process. In he went, backwards, into the river. Fortunately, he emerged without injuries. Water dripping from every extremity, he waded back to the car, got in and off they went. The Land Cruiser pulled the small truck along like it was happily gliding over smooth tarmac, leaving me conveniently stranded alone in the middle of the river. I looked at the scene and couldn’t keep a smile from my face. Where else on earth will you find people that will get themselves soaking wet to save you half a river crossing?

Now, best to make haste with the remainder of the river, before the guy drives off with my shoes…

Submit a comment