How we left Russia and started drinking Vodka

Zamiin-Uud Mongolia, August 2016

To our delight, we dodged all vodka bullets in the 2 months we traveled through Russia. Our superpowers weren’t as strong in its surrounding countries though, and just before we left Mongolia our vodka shield got shot to pieces…

It happened on our way south, from Ulaanbaator to a Buddhist temple near Sainshand in the eastern part of the Gobi desert, close to the Chinese border. It didn’t take long for the first car to stop in Ulaanbaator…. and then the second…. and then a third. All taxis, all not what we were after. We failed miserably in explaining our intentions to the three taxi drivers and when we finally gave up and walked off to find a bus to take us out of town, taxi driver no. 1 didn’t take no for an answer. He went in slow-speed pursuit. Shaking him off on a straight road into the desert with our backpacks stuffed with food and water turned out to be about as difficult as expected. The taxi driver kept tailing us and instructing us to wait. He got a friend on the phone, to whom we could finally explain we really weren’t looking for a taxi. To our surprise the friend told us that we could simply hop in, at no charge… We did not see that one coming and after scratching our heads for a second and assuring ourselves we heard it right, we happily obliged.

Our driver proceeded to call all of his English speaking friends, including the ones that didn’t speak any English, while handing us the phone. Most of the time his friends had no idea who we were or what was going on, which made for interesting conversations. Our driver kept pulling up at various places, to get gas, to buy cigarettes, to get gum, to drop off something, and even there, a random person would turn up with a phone and an English speaking friend. It was all a little surreal, but with good intentions and before letting us go, our driver even wrote us a note in Mongolian that explained our way of traveling. We could immediately put it to use when an older Mongolian man friendly nodded us in after reading the note, he took us further south to where he left the road to his ger. At this point we decided to take a small lunch break, which was abruptly ended by Kurdle who brought his truck to our screeching halt: whether we might be in need of a ride? We looked rather dumbfounded at each other, hitchhiking in Mongolia started to feel like cheating. Shouldn’t there be some waiting and waving involved?

We laughingly packed our stuff and climbed into the cabin of the truck and while Linda got comfortable on the bed in the back (taking a rest from the strenuous waiting and waving), Kurdle happily chatted away in a mix of Russian, Mongolian, English and sign language. Kurdle was an apt communicator and pointed out an awful lot of Russian aerial bases, which we suspect to be an old defense line against China. When we stopped at a ger along the way with a big “airag” sign outside, we knew we would be in for another treat. With the lingering aftertaste of the fermented horse milk carved in our membrane we kindly refused. To our pleasant surprise it hat its desired effect, we got off with only a single small courtesy sip. Kurdle did insist on having a parting meal together in his truck, which we happily accepted. We shared all kinds of bread rolls, snacks and sweets before Kurdle broke out the vodka, 5 liters of it. Linda poured a hefty glass to Kurdles instructions and after we both took a compulsory sip, Kurdle threw back the entire thing. We took comfort in the fact that Kurdle was only a short dirt road ride away from home and after a small photo shoot with the three of us inside the truck, next to the truck and in front of the truck, we said our goodbyes. Kurdle let us know he would check our blog as soon as it was winter. Then he would be in Ulaanbaator, where he would have internet.

Halfway to Sainshand we camped out in the steppe with an amazing view of a full-moon-rise and woke up with a herd of horses on our way back to the road. We didn’t have to wait long for the friendliest Mongolian couple to pick us up. The car seemed completely packed, but the back seats were quickly cleared to make room for us and our backpacks. We were brought straight to the city centre of Sainshand and stopped only once: to walk three circles around a stone Buddhist structure. Apparently to guarantee the safety of our journey. We walked along, yet “naively” buckled up later anyway.

From Sainshand we got picked up by another friendly older Mongolian, who drove us out to his family in the desert to collect what we can only guess was horse milk. He floored his transporter van across the not so even desert plains, and as we were sent flying up and down in our seats, Linda laughingly referred to our driver as “Schumacher”, which he took with a smile and an encouragement to drop us off with lightning speed at the Buddhist temple Khamaryn Khiid in the Gobi desert. Here we decided to take a breather and a peanut butter sandwich, while staring in awe at the near by camels, face to face “in the wild” for the first time. A few Mongolian kids were staring at us in a similar way, when all of a sudden a joyful Spaniard came racing by on his bike. Javi had been lovingly taken in by the Mongolian family that was running a tourist ger camp next to the temple and shared much of his time and energy with us, as well as some of the breathtaking views of the desert sunset. Javi had biked through the Gobi desert and strongly advised us not to try and hitchhike the same route. There are almost no cars and the cars that do go there would be heading out to a far away ger, not to the next nearest village. We couldn’t boast too much survival experience, so it sounded like solid advice. Although we weren’t fully convinced until that one evening where we couldn’t find our way back to our tent. It was cloudy and raining, and in the pitch dark night we only had the far away lights of the ger camp and our memory to go on. We would hope to catch a glimpse of the hillside when a car in the camp would turn around and its headlights might reveal a hint to the location of our tent. We even tried listening, to maybe hear the rain dropping on the cover of our tent, but of course we only heard the rain coming down on our ponchos. After a good 30 minutes (it felt like an hour and a half) of aimlessly walking around, we started wondering what we would do when the lights in the camp would finally go out. But before we started spooking ourselves too much with possible horror scenarios, Linda miraculously discovered our tent, we were saved!

In the temple we met a young monk who not only answered our many questions about Buddhism, but also explained how even animals would be able to reach nirvana: “when a horse is standing in a meadow with its eyes closed, you don’t know whether its sleeping or meditating”. Hard to argue with that 🙂 The monk that started the temple in the early 19th century was a free spirit as well. His only fault was that he enjoyed his vodka a bit too much, so to this day visitors will grace the temple in his spirit by emptying bottles of vodka on its holy grounds. That they just as easily leave the bottles and any other rubbish behind is one of the weird dual things we experienced in Mongolia, similar to the Jeckel and Hyde style of their driving. You would find them stretched out on a supposedly energizing piece of rock on the grounds of the temple, meditating with some relaxing chanting in the background, while at the same time blasting horribly loud music through their smartphone speakers. We experienced some duality as well. Linda totally felt the vibrating spiritual energy while lying stretched out on the holy rock, while Jeroen wasn’t in touch with his inner chakras as much, as he only sensed the little stones piercing in his back…

On one of our last nights we met a small group of friendly Mongolians who were celebrating that Elka and Jackies daughter had passed her drivers license that day. Their way of celebrating was drinking large amounts of vodka, while kindly pouring us equal amounts. We did our best to decline, but happily accepted their offer to come visit them later in Zamiin-Uud, a Mongolian-Chinese border town. Hitchhiking down there was another journey in itself, with a memorable ride in the backseat of a car that screamed in agony on every small road bump (there were many), due to the weight of 3 people and 2 big backpacks coming down on the completely worn out shock suspensions of the car. We offered to get out and find another car, it really was that bad, but they nonchalantly waved our concerns away. A police officer that stopped us along the way didn’t seem too bothered by the three of us cramped in the back with no seat belts, but did want to check our papers and our bags. We took out the contents of our backpacks while the officer was meticulously studying our passports. He had a rather serious look on his face and we thought there might be some kind of problem. When he discovered our bread knife, he started making stabbing motions with it while looking sternly at us, before bursting out in laughter. The guy was bored and decided to have some fun with the foreigners… we were relieved enough to laugh along 🙂

In Zamiin-Uud we were picked up by Bayra and his cousin Mega. They invited us to a Chinese hotspot restaurant, where we enjoyed some of the best food we had in a long time. We did our best to express our gratitude while navigating the minefield of alcohol on the table. None of the usual tricks seemed to help, not even turning our glass upside down. Linda was let off the hook after three shots, but Jeroen was getting progressively drunk. He decided to pull out the method of last resort: shotting the vodka and spitting it out into an empty soda can. The other guys were drunk enough to not notice and when the third bottle of vodka was empty, our hosts looked drunkingly satisfied. We tried to convince them to allow us to sleep in our tent, but they didn’t want to hear any of it and arranged us a hotel room. We picked up the bill the next morning, to which our hosts angrily demanded our money back from the unsuspecting hotel staff, as the room was an arranged deal with the befriended owner of the place. After our hosts took their morning-after recovery-hit of vodka (we kindly declined) they escorted us across the border in record pace. We felt like secret agents, jumping from one car into the other, hastily saying our goodbyes to Bayra and Elka, being guided through different security checks by an alien woman that kept appearing and disappearing, but was somehow always in complete control and kept popping up every time we thought we got lost. And then, suddenly, we were there, we were in China…

Buddhist road ritual
Bird in Gobi desert near Khamryn Khiid
Camels Gobi desert
Gecko Gobi desert
Jeroen in cave near temple Khamaryn Khiid
Linda on magic rock near temple Khamaryn Khiid
Buddha in Khamaryn Khiid
Camel Gobi desert
Jeroen sunrise Gobi desert
Javi and Jeroen sunset Gobi desert
With Mega, Bayra and his wife in Zami Uud