Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Driving as Art

A maze of countryside roads
Travel by personal vehicle in Mongolia is not like any other place I've been. City driving and countryside driving are different for sure, but both require skill and confidence. Before moving I predicted that I'd miss driving (and the freedom it offers) the most. That has NOT proved to be true. While I'm sure I *could* learn to drive here, I have no interest in doing so (at least not yet). I'm happy to leave that stress to someone else--whether it be a bus driver, a taxi driver, or the Driver we've hired for a countryside adventure. 

In this post I want to focus on the Driver, or жолооч (pronounced Jolooch) in Mongolian, that one hires for getting around in the countryside. More often than not these guys (I'm sure there are gals--I just haven't hired one yet) are far more than drivers. They are problem solvers, mechanics, map makers/readers, and I'd argue--artists. Zorig refers to fly-fishing as a type of Art; in Mongolia, driving can be Art. 

The best vehicles for countryside travel are the Land Cruiser (what we traveled in last summer) and the Russian Van. The Land Cruiser offers more comfort; however, there is a feeling of being indestructible and that one can go ANYWHERE in a Russian van. I'm happy to travel in either. For this summer's countryside trip, Enji and I traveled in a Russian van with an experienced driver (10+ years) who knew all the places on my self-made itinerary. 

Last summer, crossing a river in a Land Cruiser, GAZ-44 ahead
We covered over 2,200 kilometers (1400 miles) in 8 days. I suspect about half of that was off-road, which here means unpaved roads. This is a network of endless miles of two track roads that spread across the countryside in clusters of spiderweb-like connections that can take you anywhere you want to go. Assuming you have the Driver, of course. While tourists and travelers can purchase maps, I've yet to see a driver have or use one. They carry maps in their heads. Not like the maps you and I know or learned how to use. Their maps are memories and images of landscapes, landmarks, and the relief of the terrain on the horizon. There are very few, if any, signs when one is off-road. Drivers travel the roads, know them in their minds, in their bones, in their blood. They feel the landscape and move through it--connecting what they know with their instinctual knowledge of the land. It's beauty in action. 

I spent a lot of time watching our driver do his Art on this last trip; and I also wondered what Drivers think about for so many hours--both while they drive and when they are stopped at locations while travelers tour and explore on foot. I don't have an answer to that question. But I did come to the conclusion that while driving, a lot of energy is used towards the actual work of driving. When leaving the paved road, a driver has to select the correct two track. Sometimes they start out on one, go a ways, then pause, scan the landscape, and then juke over to the next two track to the east or west. Sometimes they go over two or three two tracks. But eventually they hit the one that they *know* is right for the destination desired. These two track roads can be on wide open steppe, on desert dunes, on mountainsides, along and through rivers and creeks, or over land littered with boulder-sized lava rocks. Or any combination of those. Once the path is selected, there are any number of things to traverse. Unexpected dips and turns, ground squirrels, the intersection with other two tracks, herds of livestock, creek and river beds of varying depth and bottoms, rocks or trees to climb over. Then there is the weather--sun, rain, wind, fog. So very many variables--each location and moment in time offers a unique equation to be solved.

Big rivers require bridges (Orkhon)
I was impressed by our driver's comfort with every terrain and obstacle. We would crest a steppe top, he'd sometimes pause and take in the landscape, looking for landmarks that weren't discernible to me, then shift into gear and drive on. When we came down to a river crossing, the same thing would happen. He'd scan the terrain, taking in the path of the moving water and assessing all previously made two tracks and single tire track paths made by single vehicles. I'm sure he was evaluating any number of things that I don't think to consider, as I'm not a Driver. Then, he'd shift into gear and with full confidence drive us through the water. We never once faltered or hesitated--we just went across the river to the other side and were on our merry way. 

Drivers are also mechanics. They are monitoring the condition of their vehicle and all of it's systems. After traversing the lava rock fields on the way to the Orkhon Waterfall, our driver spent part of the evening under his vehicle--tightening screws and ensuring everything was in great condition for the next morning's ride out over those same tough rocks. They know when and where to stop for fuel and carry an extra filled gas can, just in case. 

If a driver is traveling a new landscape or feels off-course, then they use the Mongolian GPS--Ger Positioning System (thanks to my sister-in-law for teaching me this phrase). The driver rolls up to the next ger they see and confer with it's inhabitants. They converse while often pointing across the land to the horizon and everything is quickly sorted out. Sometimes a driver may stop a time or two along the way at other gers to ensure you are yet on track. Dad and I experienced this a lot the summer of 2014 as neither our driver nor Zorig had ever been to the Onon river previously. We got there just fine, as you know. 

I have nothing but respect and awe for these people we know as Drivers in Mongolia. I'm sure there are bad ones--but thankfully I've only traveled with good ones. Shoot--the driver we had last summer (for our fishing trip and then a camping trip) had taken third place in a Toyota Off Road Challenge competition here in Mongolia just weeks before. I confess that instilled great confidence in me as we drove over fallen trees that were easily 12-16 inches in diameter and through swampish, soft ground and fairly high flowing rivers.

Yes, I am in awe of what Drivers can and will do on this great Mongolian landscape. And the truth really get to experience and see this beautiful land--one HAS TO HIRE a Driver. Countryside adventures in Mongolia are not like anything else you've ever done. So get out there and see it, do it.....and let me know if you need a driver. I can recommend a couple. :)


  1. Lovely post, as per usual. How affordable is it to hire a driver for an extended vacation? It seems like such a luxury to be able to do so in the United States.

    1. In my experience, you can expect to pay 60,000 to 70,000 a day for a driver, plus fuel. That translates to $30-35/day.

    2. Sorry....that's $30-35/day plus the cost of fuel. :)