As Mongolia has the honor of being on Jalopnik's hardest countries to drive across list, I usually don't do any driving while I'm there visiting the in-laws. Actually, the real reason I don't drive in Mongolia isn't because of the road conditions, it's the other drivers themselves. Ulaanbaatar is an overly congested city with far too many cars for its poorly conceived infrastructure. Add to this that there seem to be few traffic rules and, well, Mongolians don't tend to follow rules anyway. Driving in the city is a stressful experience that I try to avoid.
One day last June my wife decided that we needed to visit Khamariin Khiid in the Gobi desert for a kind of pilgrimage. But unlike our previous visit, this time we would be driving rather than taking the train. Riding the train is a fairly straight forward trip from the capitol to the southern city of Sainshand but it takes about 8 hours due to the train's slow speed and the frequent number of stops. As it is only a distance of 450 Kilometers (280 Miles) we thought it might be faster to drive.
The car we took was my father in law's 2004 Honda HR-V. His is the 105 horsepower (yakpower might be a better term) 1.6 liter automatic transmission front wheel drive version. Not much use for four wheel drive in the city, but as we were to find out it's a must have if you are going to drive in the desert.
The HR-V is a great little city car due to its small dimensions. It's easy to get around in thick traffic and parking is also a breeze. Although it's small on the outside it has plenty of trunk space and doesn't feel too cramped inside. We managed to fit 5 adults and one toddler inside (no child car-seat laws in Mongolia). The HR-V also has great ground clearance for dealing with Ulaanbaatar's numerous potholes.
My father in law did all the driving leaving the city. He drove for about the first two hours as the road conditions remain quite poor (lots of potholes) until you get about 100 kilometers out of the city. From Ulaanbaatar to Sainshand the highway consists of a two lane (mostly) paved road. I took over driving where the road is relatively new with few potholes. But there were still occasional potholes and I found driving to be mentally exhausting. Basically you are just constantly scanning the road mindful that you may have to brake or swerve suddenly. Coming from a part of the U.S. where we just don't have these types of road conditions it really tired me out quickly. I've driven 14 hours in a single day in the U.S. but all I could manage here was about 2 hours.
Maybe I should also note that like most Mongolian cars, ours was imported second hand from Japan's huge used car export market. Around two thirds of all the cars in Mongolia are right hand drive. No big deal except that Mongolia drives on the right hand side just like in the U.S. It takes a little time getting used to being on the wrong side of the car especially as you have to rely on the person in the passenger seat to let you know when it's clear to pass.
So about 4 hours into our trip we were about 100 Kilometers from Sainshand when the road came to an abrupt end. There is a beautiful new road almost completed, but you just can't drive on it yet. All cars have to take the well worn dirt/gravel roads right beside the main road. We went from averaging about 90kph (54mph) to about 35kph (21mph). I'd like to point out that I had never driven on anything but paved roads before and driving off road was my favorite part of the trip. By the time we got to Sainshand the sun was setting so we stopped for the night.
From Sainshand to Khamariin Khiid there are no paved roads, just a 25 kilometer (15 mile) trek through the open desert. The northern part of the Gobi desert where we were is not soft sand but more like hard packed gravel with lots of well worn paths to follow. Easy, right? Well there were heavy rains all week before we arrived and now large parts of the route were flooded. Seriously, heavy rainfall in a desert. The rain turned everything to mud and against the advice of some of the locals (who had only seen four wheel drive vehicles venture out that morning) we decided to try our luck anyway.
It was actually pretty easy going at first. The wet mud had a darker color than the dry gravel and all we had to do was drive around it. Piece of cake for the first 10 kilometers or so (which took us about 30 minutes to drive) until my father in law missed a patch of mud and we slid right in. Front wheels stuck in the mud 10 kilometers from the nearest city with no other vehicles in sight. Ankle deep in mud we pushed and rocked and pushed until we were able to back up the little HR-V. No panic yet, but we realized this might have been a stupid idea and decided to head back to Sainshand.
No photos of the stuck Honda. Taking pictures was the last thing on my mind at that time.
The problem was that we couldn't find our trail back. Somehow we found ourselves stuck on an island of dry ground about the size of a football field (American or European, take your pick) surrounded by mud. We literally drove in circles for about 30 minutes slowly getting more stressed and worried. I noticed we only had half a tank of gas and 3 bottles of water.
So we stopped the car, got out, and started walking on the tracks in the mud. Most of them were soft and we would sink right down, but some of them were hard enough to drive on. And that's what we did at least a dozen times as we slowly made our way back to Sainshand. Stop, get out, walk. Drive a little way. Stop, get out, walk. It was tedious but it got us out of our mess without getting stuck again.
The rest of our trip back to Ulaanbaatar was (thankfully) uneventful. The HR-V is a great car for long trips and in the city. It's fun to drive on dirt/gravel roads, and can handle potholes with ease but if you plan to drive in the Gobi after a rainfall bring a four wheel drive. Also, taking the train might be faster.