Diary – Mörön to Tsagaan Nuur – A Journey From Hell

What is a Russian Van?

When you travel large distances, the journey is just as much a part of the adventure. The journey going from Mörön to Tsagaan Nuur was no different and was full of the mishaps and misadventures that you come to expect when travelling in remote or developing parts of the world.

Organising the Car…

With two whole days reserved in Mörön, a dusty town in Northern Mongolia, we thought that it would be ample time to get supplies and organise onward transport. However, we used faulty Western logic and we foolishly expected for things and processes to just work and be as advertised. Here are two examples of the casual chaos that Mongolia exudes.

First, we found out on Monday that the army had run out of permission forms to allow us to go up north. Luckily, we were allowed to write our details on a scrap piece of paper and then provide completely different bits of information to what was requested online, so this was easily sorted with a lot of help from our translator Akjol. Getting a car to go north, on the other hand, was a lot harder.

On a dusty street corner near the market, two drivers wait in Russian vans opposite men sitting on piles of untreated sheep skin. They wait to enlist passengers heading on the bumpy 12 hour ride towards Tsagaan Nuur, the last village before roads turn to tracks and cars change to horses. We found that the drivers were running a bit of a racket, charging exorbitant prices and giving us a pile of misinformation about public transport available. They charged almost double for foreigners and had the cheek to ask our translator for her Mongolian ID card as she came from the ethnic Kazakh (but Mongolian-speaking) minority in the west. Needless to say, we weren’t keen on handing over money to a loud racist and borderline bully. Whilst failing to haggle them down, a man stopped his car and told us that he too had a Russian van and could make the trip to Tsagaan Nuur that day. His prices were fairer and didn’t discriminate between foreigners and locals. The drivers then hounded him and began talking over our translator, telling him not to deal with us and to up his price. We managed to strike a deal though and had arranged transport to leave at 5 PM later in the day, a lot later than we wanted (we hoped for a morning ride) but we were pleased to have something agreed upon.

After a lot of waiting, 5 PM came and went. The driver who was responding to questions just a couple of hours before had turned off his phone and seemed to be uncontactable. When we were debating options we had a phone call, from the racist man that was hounding our driver before. How had this man gotten our number? He informed us that the other driver had cancelled his trip and we should go with him. We asked our translator to phone some other drivers we knew of in the area as we didn’t want to go with him. We were told there were just two vans going north now that the day had mostly passed. One was the driver we didn’t like, the other was a van that charged a little more than the racist man. With little choice due to tight timings, we haggled a tiny bit off the second driver and organised a 6 PM pick up. The van turned up on time and we were greeted with the racist driver we had tried so desperately to avoid. The other van, it seemed, was also cancelled due to low numbers. Nevertheless, we had a ride and reluctantly accepted our new companion. We would arrive in Tsagaan Nuur on Tuesday morning now, so we would still be able to take horses on Tuesday, but we would miss out on the good night’s sleep we had hoped for.

A Slow Start…

The idea of an early morning arrival gradually faded. The car waited in the centre of Mörön seemingly endlessly. We waited for an extra passenger, then another, then another. It had been well over an hour of sitting in the hot-box van and we realised we’d be there a while. If only we had been told this, we would have waited in our hotel room and continued writing this blog! Instead, when I needed the toilet during this eternal wait, we realised that nearly all the restaurants and businesses were closed on account of the local market being closed on Mondays. We went searching for a cess pit to use. Our translator asked a couple of small shops if we could use the toilet, but they lied and said they didn’t have one. I saw another shop close by and decided it was worth one last try. A child excitedly screamed, “yes, we have a toilet!” and the parents showed Sarah the way, through a giant dog flap and round their backyard. At least something was going right. Back in the car, time continued being eroded and by the time we left Mörön, almost two hours had passed.

We made a pit stop at a petrol station just outside of Mörön. Our translator told us that another person was to sit in the back with us (one more person than there were seats), so we told the driver that we wouldn’t pay if we didn’t get at least one seat each. The driver accepted, and the Russian tourist that we waited another 45 minutes for never came. Approaching 9 PM, we set off, on dirt roads from the off.

It was hard to get to sleep. The driver had rammed so much luggage behind our seats that you could almost feel the shapes of the boxes and bags behind. A rope to stop the seats being forced too far forward was hanging a few inches in front of Sarah’s headrest, so she couldn’t put her head back at all. And, the road was so bumpy that you had to put your hand in the air sometimes to stop your head hitting the roof (seatbelts were unfortunately lacking). Nevertheless, we did somehow manage to go to sleep and we woken for a food stop in the middle of nowhere. Getting out of the bus, you could instantly see thousands of stars. The restaurant itself was quite bare and lacked any lighting for the first ten minutes we were there (it was long past sunset). The restaurant had two dishes, the standard mutton noodle dish you find everywhere and something that could be likened to a deep-fried Cornish pasty and looked similar to an empanada. I ordered the former and had something warm and somewhat satisfying. Sarah ordered the latter, had it served cold and then blamed it for the bad stomach she later suffered from.

Time to Slow Down…

We woke up a while later to a stopped bus and I (Will) woke up to an anxious Sarah.

“Will, we’re stopped.”

“Will, we’re in the middle of the forest.”

“We’re stranded here.”

“I think the bus is broken down in the middle of the forest, are you not worried?”

I wasn’t, I saw a few Mongolians who had broken down on the way to Mörön and every driver seemed like a capable engineer. I joked that any Mongolian was probably able to fix a car with just string and duct tape. I also pointed out that we had 3 days of food and drink in the car, so we were more prepared than we ever would be. Then Akjol, our translator, spoke.

“I think there is a problem with the brakes.”

Now I was a little more anxious. We went outside and found ourself in a forest clearing. The roads here were nothing more than tyre tracks with grass in the middle and it was hard to see any trail that we were on. There was a low moon and tons of stars. As Sarah tried to get a picture of the stranded bus, she missed a super bright shooting star streak across the sky. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for us millenials about being in the moment versus recording the moment.

The driver couldn’t fix the brakes. In many cases, I would be hesitant about getting back in the van, but if you saw the terrain then you’d see that brakes weren’t exactly needed. Every metre there would be a two foot deep crevice and then a two foot high bump. If a car had the foot off the accelerator, it would stop almost immediately. From then on, we would stop every time a Russian van came the other way. Both drivers would attempt to fix the brakes and then fail. This would be repeated every hour or half an hour. We would stay still for an hour whilst the drivers attempted to fix the problem. Though bumpy, there was an absence of steep hills or mountains. Passengers, including ourselves, walked down the only sizeable stretch of downhill road. It was dark and cold. When morning came, we realised that we weren’t even past halfway.

The car got fixed in Ulaan Uul, most of the way there and the last village with supplies before Tsagaan Nuur. The village was typical of Mongolia, with colourful rooves and wide muddy expanses that doubled as roads. The driver had his brother in law help him fix the van, though it took hours and we could even go and find a restaurant to eat breakfast at. The restaurant wasn’t the cleanest, and had raw meat sitting on the counter. This wasn’t unusual, and we ate here as we knew the alternative was going hungry. We were going away from civilisation after all, and didn’t expect hygiene to improve. Even in the mini-mart attached to the restaurant, we found a large carcass just lying on a counter. To the locals, this was completely normal.

From this point, the drive became pleasant. We were driving on the open steppe and mountains started to line the horizon. We forded streams and saw wild horses galloping past us. As well as the usual cattle, I saw two large black vultures and I saw marmots for the first time. A groundhog (also called a woodchuck) is a type of marmot that will be familiar to our North American readership. To me, they looked like a cross between a beaver, a squirrel and a meerkat, if you can imagine that. They are beaver like, with bushy and long squirrel-like tails and pop up in the grass and dart off in a meerkat like manner. It was beautiful scenery, and helped make up for the past misadventures that we had.


We arrived in Tsaganuur 21 hours after we started and all in one piece. We had to arrange to do our horse ride the next day. We were greeted by Borkhuu, an old Tsaatan man whose name meant ‘brown son’. He seemed very pleased that we’d arrived and brought his cute granddaughter Naraa. Neither he nor the other guests spoke English, so we relied heavily on Akjol, smiling and miming. We had tea, were shown to our rooms upstairs and even found out that the place had a working plug socket and lighting (the outdated information online suggested that only very basic supplies could be bought in Tsagaanuur and that the centre we were going to, the Tsaatan Community and Visitors Centre, or TCVC, didn’t have any electricity.) Along with two other guests there, who were Kazakh-Mongolian like Akjol, and Borkhuu, we cooked a mutton rice stew and played a Russian card game until late. We were all excited to meet the reindeer herders the next day and glad our journey to Tsagaan Nuur had ended. Though, I also appreciated that the moment a new highway is built to serve Tsagaan Nuur, the charm of this secluded place will start to fade.


Next, we will go and visit the reindeer herders. Click here to find out more.



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