The journey from Ulaanbaatar to Olgii is a one hour flight or a 50+ hour bus journey that traverses the vast Mongolian Steppe. Whereas the flight can save you a couple of days the idea of traveling overland through Mongolia's winter wilderness was an opportunity too intriguing to let pass.
Arriving in the Mongolian capital in February you are welcomed by the harsh freezing temperature and ice that acts like a warning not to venture into the countryside ill prepared. The next warning came in that it took five days of waiting in the capital before the bus was cleared to depart due to bad weather across the route.
Once the bad weather cleared the bus set out from the capital late in the afternoon. The bus was packed full of goods, from car windscreens to textbooks. With just a few passengers on board everybody got to know each other in the hour it took to leave the capital's congested road.
As the bus slowly navigates it way out of the city you come to realise that the seat you are sitting on will be your home for the next three days. The realisation of this thought increases dramatically as soon as the bus bounces off the last piece of the city’s tarmac onto the frozen land and you feel every bump vibrate through your spine. Despite the conditions the passengers seem un-phased as if to expect nothing less.
The only planned breaks along the journey are for meals. The bus will typically stop at Ger’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner - although the time of these meals is dependent on how far the bus has managed to travel and the availability of hospitality.
After the evening meal the passengers prepare for the cold night ahead. They naturally move around and sit even closer together to concentrate the warmth, sharing blankets and sugary snacks with each other. It felt like watching an act of nomadic instinct of relying on each other, there was no passenger acting as an individual. The next scheduled stop would be for breakfast in around 12 hours.
However, a few hours later it was well into the freezing night and everyone is already off the bus trying to help recover a van stranded in a ditch of snow. There was no hesitation to help with everyone improvising shovels and looking for rocks to create some traction under the wheels. It took around an hour of digging, pushing and pulling before the van was recovered and everyone could set out on their way again.
The next day it was the bus that became stuck after running into loose land covered by snow. Everyone was again off the bus looking at how it could be recovered. After some time there seemed to be a realisation it was not going to be easy, the weight of the bus making the van feel like light work.
It was then by chance a bus heading in the opposite direction appeared. It took just a moment for it stop before the passengers came running out to help push the bus - completely un-phased by the freezing conditions.
With the help of a tow and the power of fifteen Mongolians the bus was out of the ditch and on its way to its destination of Olgii.
It was with relief that after the tiring, spine shattering journey spanning three days was over as we were finally rolling into Olgii. However, it's after watching the locals interact, helping strangers without hesitation, a window framed view of the rolling Steppe, spotting a nomad with their herd in the distance after driving for hours without any suggestion of civilisation, that you realise you are immersed in Mongolian culture in a way that can’t be matched by in-flight entertainment.
I would spend the next couple of days in the town of Olgii recovering from the journey and preparing for venturing into the Altai mountains on the search for the famed eagle hunters - before taking the bus back to Ulaanbaatar.
Read about the eagle hunters in the story: Free Spirits of Mongolia.