5 Tips for Driving Mongolia’s Wild West

With so much preparation to do we have yet again delved into the knowledge of ralliers past. Below are some tips on driving through Mongolia’s wild western steppe. Thanks for the pointers Reid!

5 Tips for Driving Mongolia’s Wild West

Photo & Story By Reid Standish

1) Follow the power lines

Mongolia’s road system is mostly a series of winding dirt paths that sometimes converge into one large dirt path and even more rarely, a paved road. Apart from the area surrounding the capital and some major mining areas, most roads are not paved. In fact, out of some 40 000km of marked driving routes in Mongolia, only 2600 km is asphalt road, although this number is increasing. This makes maps virtually obsolete, as there are hardly any road signs and fewer landmarks to use out in the steppe. Your best bet to reach the next city is to simply follow the power lines. In a country as empty as Mongolia, if there is power going somewhere, it is somewhere important.

2) Pick up some local culture

Driving the world’s least densely populated country can get repetitive. So, when you see something interesting happening off the road, pull over and check it out. On our journey, as we stopped for a refill in one of Mongolia’s few villages that actually has gas, we saw a large grouping of cars and motorcycles in the distance surrounded by a massive plume of dust. As we approached to investigate, we found a local horse festival underway, complete with horse races and horse catching competitions. In Mongolia, horses are a cultural institution, with a long-standing tradition dating back before the days of Chinggis Khan. Moreover, the horse to person ratio is 13:1, so they’ve got to do something with all those horses.

3) Bring lots of spares

There was a time when I thought that driving with two full spare tires was excessive. Needless to say, I no longer think that. Within an hour of entering Mongolia from Russia, we had already completely destroyed two tires and were crossing our fingers that we could make it to the next city. On our journey to Ulaanbaatar, flat tires were our greatest obstacle, having twice had so many flats that we had to hitchhike into the nearest city and spend several nights in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia.

4) Duct tape and Imodium

Driving Mongolia will pummel both you and your car mercilessly, so it’s best to have a temporary fix. Even then, the options available in the next city might not be any better. For us, duct tape was our one-size fits all car solution, for everything from keeping our spark plugs firing to keeping water from entering into the car when crossing a river. Also, a diet of ramen noodles and mutton isn’t too kind on the digestive tract and you might find yourself making more trips with a shovel and roll of toilet paper than you would ever care to tell. So, it’s best to be prepared.

5) Embrace the wildness

Mongolia isn’t the easiest place to travel by car. The roads are horrible to non-existent and being foreign is an invitation to get robbed, but there isn’t much you can do about it other than just roll with it. Whether its greedy mechanics, a lo0se engine in the Altai mountains or being broken down in the Gobi desert with limited food and water, Mongolia will beat the shit out of you. Still, it’s a wonderful kind of beating, so try to enjoy while it lasts. When you come back home and are waiting in line at Starbucks listening to some chick order a drink that is twelve syllables long, you might find yourself missing the simplicity of driving Mongolia’s wild west.