Mongolia is a vast country–13th largest in the world–with a small population–3 million. Of interest to the driver, is that it has fewer kilometers of road per person than any country in the world, and some of the worst urban traffic.
Until the 1990’s virtually all vehicles, and there weren’t many, were of Russian manufacture. Now those old and patched-up Russian vehicles have migrated to the far corners of the country.
They have been replaced in most places by foreign, mainly Japanese-made, vehicles…often driven by people who are more comfortable on a horse or camel on the steppe than driving a vehicle in city traffic. Most of the auto mechanics in the country are, interestingly, Vietnamese.
Traffic in the capital, Ulaan Bataar, is the absolute worst that Fred has seen anywhere in the world. It is not just the press of thousands of cars trying to navigate a city of 1 1/2 million people with no freeways…but it is also the lack of awareness of drivers more at home on wide open steppes than on clogged city streets. Many drivers believe that traffic lights are advisory only, and no one thinks twice about driving down the wrong way on a one-way street.
Walking to town one day, Fred watched a driver on a crowded street decide to do a U-turn on the middle of a crowded two-lane bridge. His efforts to change directions, of course, caused chaos. There was remarkably little horn-honking or anger from the other drivers…probably because they saw nothing odd about such a maneuver.
The traffic police in Ulaan Bataar must have the most stressful job in the world. On several occasions, Fred saw police cars chasing drivers who blithely ignored all demands to stop their cars. The police have begun to use “French boots” to immobilize parking violators, and even that has had limited success. Fred witnessed an SUV driving down the street, showering sparks and rubber from the “French boot”-immobilized front tire.
Other than some paved roads connecting major cities, the country has virtually no roads at all. Not dirt roads…no roads. With vast steppes consisting of often quite smooth grasslands, no one has seen the need for roads. If you want to go to visit a neighboring town, you just take off in that direction across the steppes just like your ancestors have done for centuries.
The gas stations just sit on the grassland. There are vehicle tracks that meander across the steppes between towns. If the ruts become too deep for your vehicle, just move 10 feet over and begin a new track. When that gets too rough, move over another few feet and begin again.
The one place where those tracks tend to come back together is at stream and river crossings. Some ofd the bigger and deeper rivers have rickety wood plank bridges built across the, but most smaller rivers and streams are crossed by driving your vehicle through shallow sections.
Fred was usually in a four-wheel-drive Toyota Landcruiser SUV with a huge plastic snorkel running up the side of the windshield to bring air to the carburetor from above the roof of the vehicle. With such a rig it was quite easy to ford a river of two to three feet of water…if you were careful.
One thing a tourist immediately notices in Ulaan Bataar is a large number of Toyota Prius hybrids which look just like those in the U.S. These vehicles are frequently seen out on the steppe too…which was puzzling at first. Then while getting ready to ford a river far from any urban area with our massive SUV, a Prius with a Mongolian family drove down the opposite river bank and stopped at the water.
As Fred thought, “Boy, has this guy made a mistake!” the driver got out, walked to the water’s edge, gauged the depth of the water (about two feet), got back in his car and drove it slowly but successfully through the river.
As Fred gaped in surprise, our driver explained that Mongolian Priuses are all manual transmission vehicles. In first gear, the car runs on its electric motor rather than its gas engine; Mongolians have discovered that the batteries are sealed well enough that it can be immersed in water for short periods of time.
Watching that Prius push through the water with a bow-wake of water up to the windshield was certainly one of the most unexpected sights of the entire trip. But, folks, don’t try this at home!