Getting Started in Mongolia

I had wanted to go to Mongolia for years. When you travel around the world, you rarely meet Mongolians, but you’re always running into things they did. In the Middle East, it’s a massacre here, a ruined fortress there, and now and then a few captured swords and bows. In Beijing, a giant stupa covered in Mongolian writing. In Northern India, all the really great buildings, including the Taj Mahal, were built by the Mughals, who were descended from the Mongolians. So, what is this place, this Mongolia? Who lives there? And where did they all go?

The fearless Miki

It was time to get on the trans-Mongolian express and find out. Joining me on this trip was Miki, a Japanese pal who shares my taste for travel without planning and who, thanks to years of meditation, has no capacity to feel fear. Case in point: While learning to drive a motorcycle, Miki once drove us both headfirst into another vehicle. As we lay on the pavement, I asked if she was OK. “Tanoshikatta,” she said, “That was fun.”

Arriving in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, with no plans but plenty of time, we went looking for a way into the outback. The bulletin boards in cafes where travelers hang out had some interesting ideas. “DRIVING OVERLAND TO MOSCOW. CAN SPLIT GAS.” “CYCLING TO TIBET.” “GOOD HORSE WITH SADDLE FOR SALE.” Some reflect a certain one-upmanship in the independent travel world, where the more primitive your locomotion, the better. “So, you cycled across Morocco?” you might overhear. “Well, my wife and I took a donkey across Antarctica.” If you want to, Ulan Bator is a good place to start that kind of adventure.

Unfortunately, we lacked the time for a trek to eastern Pakistan via dogcart, so we started checking out slightly more modern options. If the dogcart was too unpredictable, however, there were also too many tours with too much organization for my taste. There were many minibus tours, catering to backpackers, which I am sure are fine—but they follow a fixed route that, when we happened to cross it, lacked the magic of the unexplored Mongolian outback.

More than anything in travel, I love the freedom to make my own mistakes, which you might also call independence. We soon figured out what that means in Mongolia: your own jeep and a translator. That, plus the magic formula: the desire to go where no one else goes.

We found what we were looking for one afternoon when we wandered into a backstreet tour outfit. The office was equipped with nothing but a giant map of Mongolia, a desk, and a young woman with sharp green-blue eyes and an attitude to match. She pointed at the outskirts of the country. “Go here,” she said. “You’ll like it, and no one else has been there for years.” We were in.

She knew a good driver with a jeep, she said. And for a translator/guide, did we want a man or a woman?

We hesitated.

“Get a woman,” she said flatly, “She will cook better.”

We nodded.

“I have a girl. She is very beautiful. You will like her. She speaks good English and Japanese.”

The next day, right on schedule, a light-blue Russian jeep showed up at our apartment, driven by Bimba. Bimba, a bearlike figure, was a retired nomad who had shifted careers from herding sheep to herding tourists. He certainly remained in touch with his roots—sometimes to a fault. He liked to drink (after driving, usually), wrestle, and make large fires. His method for making firewood, we would later discover, was to hoist a giant boulder over his head and fling it at a pile of wood.

When we met our translator, Tula, we were in for a surprise. Sweet and kind, she introduced herself in fluent German. “Guten morgen!” Thanks to a last-minute switch, Tula spoke German, decent Japanese, but not a word of English. Miki seemed pleased. I decided to pretend I was living in an alternative future where we’d lost World War II.

Tula, Bimba, Miki, and I boarded the jeep laden with food, gasoline, and water, and we set our sights on a mountain about a week’s drive away, in an area unblessed by roads. Whether or how we’d get there wasn’t completely clear. There was certainly some chance of being abandoned in the Gobi desert and eaten by camels. But those kind of thoughts didn’t stop Genghis Khan, and they certainly weren’t about to stop us.