In December, my sitemates and I took our first twelve-hour bus ride to Ulaanbaatar. Traveling to a Peace Corps in-service training, we were originally supposed to fly. But shortly after Peace Corps staff booked us on the 90-minute hopper, Hunnu Air canceled all flights to and from Bayankhongor, without explanation or indication as to when, or if, the route would be reinstated. ‘Maybe in the Spring,’ they said, ‘when tourist season resumes.’ Such is life in Mongolia.
So, pre-dawn on a Thursday, we assembled at the bus station: a rocky, abandoned-looking dirt lot, lit only by the headlamps of the 8 AM coach and a few arriving taxis. We found our seats and the 8 AM coach left promptly, by Mongolian standards, at 8:07.
Let me stop for a minute to say: This won’t be a tale of thirty people plus chicken coops and livestock on a minibus built for twelve. On the contrary, while those may exist in Mongolia, the ride from Bayankhongor to UB is downright luxurious.
First, the buses on our route have been imported, practically new, from Korea. They’re sleek 45-seaters, made homey with floral magenta mini-curtains that frame the windows with scalloped edges and pom-pommed tassels. As for the windows themselves, they’re caked with ice, on the inside, even with the engine running and heat on. This is winter in Mongolia after all. But you can still lean up against them to sleep if you have a good down-filled, fur-lined hood, and almost everybody does. At the beginning of the ride, though, you mostly just hear fingernails scratching out keyhole views of the sunrise outside.
Every passenger gets their own pre-assigned seat—a treat in a country where the equivalent of a Ford Fiesta is thought to seat up to eight (five in back and three up front; ask me how I know). There’s the elderly man in his sheepskin-lined deel. The mother in belted fur accompanying her toddler, mummified in camel wool scarves with only her eyes peeking out. The college kid in high tops and a hoodie branded with the name of a non-existent American university. Oh, and of course, the drunk guy. Everyone always forgets about the drunk guy.
Every seat in the house has a decent view of the 46-inch flat-screen TV mounted above the driver, with its endless loop of Mongolian music videos, variety shows, and movies.
The nicest part of the ride by far, however, is that the road from Bayankhongor to UB—a single groove in an endless carpet of dust and frozen, unwatered lawn—is (almost) completely paved. A treat in a country where, outside the provincial centers, few roads exist and most people simply forge their own, setting their trajectory by the nearest mountain and adjusting along the way. Here, SUVs do honest work. But so do Ford Fiestas.
Along this road we stop three, maybe four, times for food and bathroom breaks. The places we stop are tiny outposts—patches of life housed in five or six single-story, concrete-block-and-plywood buildings, with nothing else around for miles. Usually just a delguur where we can stock up on juice or peanuts or wafer cookies, a few saloon-doored pit toilets, and a canteen where we congregate on benches at long wooden tables with plastic tablecloths, and warm up with a few thousand tugriks worth of tsuivan (noodles with meat and vegetables) and bowls of steaming milk tea poured from plastic thermal carafes.
Traveling this road, I begin to understand the historic necessity of Mongolian hospitality, in which families stand ready to welcome you into their gers—even strangers and especially travelers—for a hot meal or a place to rest. Not so long ago, this same path was traversed on horseback. I bet it still is every now and again. But without the kindness of strangers, it would have proved impossible.
So even today, in an affluent town like Bayankhongor, you can visit someone’s home without a moment’s notice, and they’ll ask you to sit for sweets and tea while they prepare you something more substantial to eat. If you’re keeping them from something—household chores, an appointment in town, their favorite TV show—you’d never know it. Mongol time can be confounding for Westerners, but the flip side is that it’s extremely forgiving, with ample room for human connection.
I wonder if a similar sort of hospitality once existed in the States, back when the vast land was likewise sparsely populated, and before every town was part of a daisy-chain of highway and fast food joints. Before you could travel twelve hours by private car and avoid all but the most transactional encounters with other humans. Before ‘I’m busy,’ replaced ‘Fine, thanks,’ as the generally accepted, reflexive answer to ‘How are you?’
We spend ten days in UB. Long enough to see the hustle of the capital city and to discover how the cult of busy has, in fact, begun to invade Mongolia, parasitic, riding shotgun on the back of modernization.
When my Mongolian friends talk about UB, their comments tack to two themes: First, the city is exciting, offering all the goods and services your heart desires. And indeed, I spent the duration of our stay pretty much drunk: on department store items and espresso and blue cheese and bookstores and—sweet Jesus—free WiFi, everywhere! I ate my Round Table pizza with gusto and never asked if it was truly worth the 45-minute cab ride through the congestion backing up Peace Avenue. (Although the second time we got smarter, and just had them deliver to the hotel). There wasn’t a single moment when, if I so chose, I couldn’t find some diversion, some dopamine-producing activity to distract me from the banality of my own existence. It was fantastic. It felt like home.
But my Mongolian friends also say they can feel the pressure in UB, and a constant, low-grade irritation created by the hurried pace, the traffic, the pollution, the petty crime. People are more impatient, and short with one another. The city’s not as friendly as the countryside, they say. It’s more dangerous and people don’t spend as much time together.
As a volunteer focused on development, I have to ask: Is it possible to have one without the other? Can excitement and commerce exist without stress and hurriedness? Or is busy-ness the inevitable handmaiden of economic growth, a leading indicator of progress, along with the arrival of Starbucks and KFC? Is it in fact the rushing that gives us the rush, and the busy-ness that enables business?
I’m probably being idealistic or naïve—or worse, simply uninformed. But I really want to believe there’s another way. I have to think that somewhere, people are thinking about the cost of development, not just to the environment but to communities, and about how to improve physical living standards without sacrificing emotional ones. So far though, I unfortunately can’t see much evidence of it.
My time in UB was wonderful in so many ways. But when it ended, I was surprised by how relieved I felt. How happy I was to get to Dragon Center, the main terminal for bus travel to the West, and to hear our driver calling out ‘Bayankhongor! Bayankhongor!’ On board the night bus, I scanned the faces of the passengers. None of them looked familiar but still I thought, These are my people. I was ready to get back to my quieter life.
A woman got on the bus with us, carrying a plastic tub full of sandwiches and kimbab (sushi-like rolls of rice, egg and vegetables wrapped in dried seaweed) for sale. People bought a few things for the road, and then we rolled out. It took about thirty minutes to leave UB completely behind, and to slip back into dark nothingness.
Later, at the 10 PM dinner stop, after we’d finished our milk tea and tsuivan, the waitress at the restaurant asked if she could get her picture taken with my sitemate and me. This would never happen in UB, a town teeming with expats. But on the road to Bayankhongor, an American—especially a blonde one like my sitemate—is rare. The driver already had the engine running and was ready to go, but we agreed to the photo. No sense hurrying, we thought. This is Mongolia.