An Impromptu Trip (in a Ridiculously Crowded Purgon)

During last Saturday’s “Mongolish” night (which also featured interesting conversations from a random German dude who works at the local polytechnic college and nonchalantly referred to white people as “white noses”) , one of our Mongolian friends mentioned that she was leaving to go to Govi-Altai aimag the next day for a training. One of my M24 sitemates, Virginia, hadn’t been to one of the Gobi aimags yet, and since she’s leaving this summer, she mentioned wanting to go. Our friend said she could come with her and asked if I wanted to go too. So I said, sure, what the heck?

We were supposed to leave at 11 the next morning, but nothing ever happens on time in Mongolia, so we really left closer to 2pm. Virginia and I had gone to our friend’s home to wait for our ride, but when the purgon pulled up, we could see it was already overcrowded. At first Virginia and I thought we wouldn’t be able to go, but the driver managed to rearrange everyone so there was “room” for us. And by “room” I mean whatever miniscule amount of space you have to squeeze your body into when there’s 16 adults and 5 children in 1 van. You may remember the purgon as the vehicle we took on our trip to the horse festival:

This, but filled with 21 people

Like this, but filled with 21 people

Yeah, those things are meant to seat 8-11 people, but they’re a common mode of public transportation here in Mongolia, and obviously the drivers want to make as much money as possible, so they shove as many bodies as they can inside before going anywhere.

So the trip to Altai (the capital of Govi-Altai aimag) was about as fun as you’d expect a 6-hour journey over mountainous, unpaved “roads” in a severely overcrowded vehicle to be.


After we crossed the Zavkhan River (the border between the two aimags)…

Which is, y'know, still frozen

Which is, y’know, still frozen

…the road immediately turned into a dusty hellhole. We had the windows of the purgon open, as it was hot and stuffy in the van, but this enabled so much sand and dust to blow in that women started wrapping scarves around their faces. We finally arrived in Altai, where Virginia and I went to a local PCV’s home while our friend went with her colleagues to their hotel. Then we ordered a pizza, because they have a place that makes and delivers pizza in their aimag center, lucky bastards.


Oh, and our PCV friend had a cute kitty:

Chilling on my sleeping bag while I'm trying to go to bed

Chilling on my sleeping bag while I’m trying to go to bed

The next day, we wandered around the city, with all their fancy roads and sidewalks:


their fancy Youth Center:



and their fancy statues:


We also visited the Govi-Altai Museum, but we weren’t allowed to take our cameras in with us.


So here’s the outside of the museum!

The next day we walked to a monastery up on a hill.



The monastery had a great view of the city…


…but being up on a hill exacerbated the wind that was already blowing like crazy.

It had been very windy the whole time we were in Altai, and being in the desert meant the wind was blowing up tons of dust and sand. And then later in the day, there was a legit sandstorm where we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us, the wind almost knocked me over quite a few times, and we all ended up with sand and dirt in our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, hair, etc. And then even later, it started to rain, which prevented the sand and dust from being blown around but just turned everything cold and muddy. So while Uliastai might not have as nice infrastructure as Altai and lacks pizza delivery services, I’ll take its beautiful scenery (rivers and mountains within walking distance) over the flat, perpetually brown, sandstorm-prone desert setting any time.

We ended up leaving that Tuesday evening, although we were originally supposed to leave on Thursday. But the purgon driver was going back to Uliastai on Tuesday, and given that there aren’t exactly frequent rides between the two cities, we didn’t really have any other options. Luckily on the ride back, there were only 14 adults and 1 child in the purgon, and a few people were dropped off in soums along the way, so there was considerably more room. We arrived back in Uliastai a little after 1am, I ate a quick meal (we hadn’t eaten dinner, and it’s an unspoken rule that any food you bring onto the purgon is to be shared among all the passengers, so I didn’t bring any food with me), then slept until late morning. The end.


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