Last weekend, at the end of our term break, another PCV and I went to visit a friend in a soum about two hours from the aimag center.
Public transportation is interesting in Mongolia. Although the vast majority of the roads are not paved, there are a bunch of ways to get around.
For long distance:
– Planes fly from Ulaanbaatar to some aimag centers. It only takes three hours to fly from Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii center, but it costs about 200,000 tugriks one way — a round trip is more than my monthly stipend. PCVs generally only take plane trips when someone else is paying.
– Bus routes run through major population centers and theoretically operate on a regular schedule (though breakdowns are regrettably frequent). Visitors to Bayan-Ulgii take the bus from Ulaanbaatar along the paved road west, which hits most of the southern aimag centers. This is the cheapest way to travel long distances, although for us it would be a two- to three-day trip.
For travel within the aimag, or to nearby aimags, you go to the square where drivers congregate, pick a vehicle you like the look of, and chat with the driver to book a seat. Drivers often have a routine destination and departure time, for which they charge a fixed price, but if you have a big group and are friends with a driver, you can sometimes hire them for special trips.
– Mikrs are the most common transport, in most parts of the country, for daylong or weekend trips. The word mikr comes from the Mongolian cognate for microbus. These are vans (usually silver) which seat around 8 people.
– In the west, the roads through the mountains are a little rough, especially in winter. So we have purgons, which are like mikrs except Russian, uncomfortable, and virtually indestructible. Private drivers often own Land Cruisers, and some public drivers use the indestructible equivalent, the Russian jeep.
– Taxis are usually used to get around within an aimag center or a city. You can drop by a taxi stand or hail one on the street and pay a couple hundred to a thousand tugriks. People don’t usually take taxis long distances, although it’s theoretically possible.
In my aimag, drivers come to the aimag center around midmorning and leave in the late afternoon. Jake and I agreed to meet at the drivers’ plaza in the market at noon to claim our seats.
When I arrived at the market, Jake was already waiting next to a powder-blue Russian jeep. “I like these,” he said, and since I had no preference I agreed. Jake got the driver’s attention and asked, in Kazakh, when he was leaving. The driver held up — I thought — four fingers.
“Үш,” Jake said. Three.
The driver put down his hand and nodded enthusiastically. Jake checked that the driver charged the usual price, shook hands, and prepared to go.
“Үш ме?” I asked, just to be sure.
The driver nodded again and held up three fingers.
We returned to the plaza at three and, predictably, sat around in the jeep for forty-five minutes. Finally a third passenger embarked and we drove off…only to pull over a one-minute drive down the road, so the driver and the other passenger could spend twenty minutes trying to call people. Finally the other passenger got out, and we left again…only to stop at the supermarket, where he loaded some packages into the trunk of his jeep.
Then he crossed the road, hopped in a taxi, and left us.
Meanwhile, the third passenger returned. He asked Jake where the driver had gone.
“Білмеймін,” Jake said. I don’t know. At the other passenger’s puzzled look he added, “Такси.”
Eventually the driver returned. He pulled a jacket out of the engine of his jeep, which he used to blanket a big chunk of scrap metal that he tied to the back of the vehicle. Then a woman got into the jeep and we were off…to drop the woman off at her home.
Jake asked the other passenger when we were leaving, and the other passenger laughed and said we were sleeping in the aimag center tonight.
We drove to the edge of the city and stopped in front of a хашаа. The driver got out, and Jake asked the other passenger, again, when we were leaving. The passenger looked at his watch and said, “Бір сағат” — in an hour. Then he said, “Сегіз, тоғыз” — eight, nine — and gestured to the seats.
Jake asked, “Төрт, төрт?” and indicated that there would be four people in the front, four in the back.
The man laughed and gestured that there would be people sitting on our laps. “Кем жоқ па?” No big deal?
“Кем жоқ,” Jake affirmed.
We collected a few people from the хашаа, and then the driver stopped at a gas station. He got out, talked to the station operator, then returned to the door and stared at me.
I stared back.
Jake passed over money for both of us.
I had a brief moment of hope that, finally — around 6:00 — we were leaving. But then the driver pulled into another хашаа and loaded up two more people. I was wedged between Jake and the corner of the jeep. And then, at the next хашаа, three more people lined up outside the door.
The driver opened the door and stared at me.
I asked, “Німіне?” even though I knew what was coming.
Jake edged me out of my seat, and, resigned, I sat in his lap.
Finally, at 6:30, well after sunset, we began our trip down an unlit dirt road.
Within fifteen minutes, one of my legs had gone numb. Despite the height of the jeep’s ceiling, I had to bend my head to keep from bumping it, and eventually just rested my chin on the driver’s seat.
“Кем жоқ па?” the third passenger asked Jake after about half an hour of this.
“Кем жоқ,” Jake repeated.
The passenger — who also had somebody on his lap — laughed a little and said, “Маған кем жоқ емес.” It’s not nothing to me.
“Менде,” I muttered. Me neither.
“Сенде кем жоқ емес па?”
The whole jeep started laughing, and everyone brought out their favorite adjective. “Жаксы емес па? Жаман ба? Өте жаксы ма? Тамаша ма?”
“Жоқ! Тамаша емес!” No, it’s not excellent!
Shortly after this, the driver stopped in the middle of the steppe so that we could all stretch our limbs. When we got back in, I arranged myself so that I was fighting to stop my knees from bruising against the door latch instead of fruitlessly attempting to maintain feeling in my legs.
Now, there is a soum approximately halfway between the aimag center and our destination. We knew from our friend that it was not uncommon for people to be dropped off here. I figured that was why there were so many people in the jeep — surely the driver didn’t intend to torture us for two hours straight? — and was excited when we got into cell range and one of the passengers placed a phone call describing his location.
We approached the line of lights that marked the soum’s existence. We drove into the lights. We drove through the lights. We drove over a bridge, and though I strained my eyes, I could see no further lights in the distance.
As the soum receded behind us, I gave up hope of even a moment’s comfort on our journey.
We finally reached our destination around 8:30. Our friend met us at our dropoff point. She’d been worried, since we’d taken five and a half hours to make a two-hour trip and had been out of cell range for the majority of it.
“Oh,” she said when she saw our vehicle. “You took a Russian jeep. You never take the Russian jeep!”
Suffice to say that I had learned my lesson.
 Out of those of us working in the Kazakh region, Jake has the best grasp of the language. This is partly because he goes out of his way to make small talk in Kazakh. People mostly addressed him on the trip, rather than me, because he chatted with them and made it clear he understood what was going on.