How many people can you cram in a Russian van?

So onto the 2nd week away, Hovsgol Nuur a lake in the North of Mongolia, surface area 2760Km2, depth over 200m and age over 2 million years old. How to get there, either fly or choose the cheap adventurous option, 2 days in a Russian van, we chose the latter. We began as we meant to go on nearly 2 hours late on a freezing Monday morning and with 3 seats missing in the back. This was rectified by stopping in the city somewhere to pick up a row of back seats from a building, obviously they didnt have to be attached to the van floor as the amount of luggage packed around them kept it from moving about. So now we had 9 seats in the back of the van and 10 people which helps when it is so cold that the inside of the windows are frozen solid and there is no heating, great just 48 hours left to go, better get comfortable!!!

Our Russian beast of a van

Off we went with a driver, 2 guides, 8 of us foreign friends and a random, or the stow away as we called him, for the 2 days we were in the van we had no idea who he was and probably never will know! Happily waving goodbye to the smog again we set off and a mere 4 hours later arrived just outside Darkhan for lunch at the Lotus cafe. A semi vegi cafe run by a VSO volunteer who presented us with our last vegetables for a week on a beautiful pizza and allowed us to use the last sit down toilet for a week, bliss. Another 5 hours later we arrived in Bulgan city for the night, we had a wander round the town which took a minute and as we were on holiday we headed to the local supermarket to stock up on wine, vodka and water, the 3 necessities, my wine was obviously for kalimotxo the popular Mongolian drink!!

Chinggis in Bulgan city

Bulgan City

We entertained ourselves in the evening with cards and games then awoke early the next morning to board the ice van again, ironically heading to an ice festival and thus began day 2. Now i cant really describe how we filled 2 days in the van entertaining ourselves but with the precious ever changing views, the name on the head game, sleeping and general gossip we did and it brought us to our 1st stop of the day for lunch in a lost, far away Soum somewhere!

After lunch we re-shuffled ourselves as we did everytime the van stopped and then began the van problems. Problem 1 the back doors kept un-hinging, not opening but when you are on a seat at the back of the van that is not attached to the floor you do begin to worry if you will at some point we lying on your back on the snow track in the middle of nowhere. Problem 2 flat tyre, now the speed at which they changed this tyre was amazing, the van was jacked up, wheel off, wheel on, back in the van. It may have been speeded along by the siberian wind that was thrashing through the land, it was icey!!!!!!!! There was a 3rd break down somewhere but i cant remember at which point but it involved having a poke around the engine which is located between the driver and passenger seat and involves taking out the passenger seat. Russian van drivers can fix almost anything wrong with the engine right there on the side of the road, i think they were built this way so as not to need a mecanic.

Driving through nowhere

A decent track

Road-side facilities

Our guides aka Batman and Robin

We arrived in Murun just an hour late, not bad considering at 5.30pm to greet another bunch of volunteers who had decided to fly up North, they looked considerably better than us. Then we stopped off at a mecanic i think to pick up a new wheel and then dinner in town. We boarded the van again at 8pm with 2 more Russian vans now in tow with the other volunteers and headed into the snowy dark wilderness and towards Hatgal the town by the lake. We had decided it was time to open the wine by now and i can proudly say that despite the bumps and bangs not one drop was spilt. However our adventure was not yet over as the track we were on every now and then would end with a huge pile of sand and we’d have to go off track in the dark and usually into snow drifts. I cant remember how many times this happened but it was many times and i began to understand why it was best there were 3 Russian vans to deal with it. Every 10 minutes or so 1 of the vans would get stuck in the snow and they are big vans so we all got out to push the van out of the drift it was stuck in, then the other 2 would have to get through, followed by a wander round with a torch trying to find some sort of track and then all back in until the next time. It was very funny and the starry sky, again was beautiful, despite how it sounds getting stuck in the snow hours from anywhere in the freezing cold not knowing where we were or if we’d have to sleep there, it was a thoroughly funny evening. By the time we reached Hatgal at midnight the novelty had worn off and we dropped some of us off in town at a Ger, their home for the week and the rest of us headed off up, over, down, under a mountain, who knows, for 45minutes to arrive at grandmas cabin, our home for the week. It was now 1am, grandma was asleep in bed, sharing with her grandson and also there were 3 or 4 uncles in tow, im not sure where they came from but there we all were. Myself and 2 friends took our beds on the floor between grandma and another single bed where the 2 guides slept. I think im not sure but the uncles may have slept there too around the stove as when we awoke 7hours later and sat up on the floor and they were still around the stove.

Looking my finest i quickly learnt how to change my underwear inside the sleeping bag while wearing thermals and pj bottoms. I washed my face in the bowl in the corner of the room using melted snow water, cleaned my teeth and sat down to breakfast of butz and salty tea with grandma and family.

Grandmas cabin

Our view from the cabin

Grandmas sheep being herded out

Grandmas inquisitve goats

Grandmas sheep

We made it to the Ice festival late of course, what is time anyway? and had a look around. I discovered that my Mongolian boots despite being warm where not for walking of ice, i moved like a snail for 3 days to try and avoid slipping over, i was walking on a lake, sounds bizarre buts its true we did actually spend 3 days walking about on a lake as well as driving on it of course too. It is frozen several metres down but full of suspicious cracks, i fell many, many times.

Cabins by the lake

Ice sculptures

Skating on the lake

More sculptures

The ice slide

Me on the ice slide

Standing on the lake

Folk on the lake

Fellow visitors to the festival

A magnificent man on a horse

Maybe father and son

It was also pretty damn cold, maybe not the coldest we have experienced but with the wind and also we never usually spend time outside, just between buildings. But here it was just lake and the odd Ger where they served the best frigging Hushuurs in the world i can bet. I ate 5 a day and i hate hoshuur, i think its the psycological, if you take 2 days of driving and breakdowns to get somewhere then even hoshuur takes great. The day was spent between watching certain events on the lake like family competitions, ice skating marathons, going down the ice slide, traditional clothing competition and then trips back to the Hoshhur ger to get warm again. At dusk though the real fun began in the back of a beer lorry opened up to reveal a stage where they had dancing competitions and singing, bad dancing and bad singing but you won a bottle of vodka so what the hell.

Watching the singing competition

Then there was a bonfire, all of which was on the lake of course, before the bonfire there was a shaman performance, quite amazing, then dancing to the usual suspects, Rhianna, Keisha and the Beaver i mean Justin Beiber.

Our night by the bonfire

The warm, much needed bonfire

It was a really great evening and best of all we were warm for the first time all day from the bonfire. But it didnt end there, we still had to get the van back to the cabin and anything that involves the van involves adventure. We had been driving over the mountains for quite a while when we started to slow down to a complete halt, um petrol baxgui it seems, we asked if he should get out and walk, we were told to wait, so we did and the driver found a canister with a thimble of petrol under one of the seats and off we went again for 2 minutes and again, slowing down to a halt, this time we did get out and walk, thankfully with the guide and we were walking to his grandmas house so he knew where he was going, turn left at the snow then straight on until you hit the snow etc. We only had those silly lights you get at the end of lighters to guide us but we weren’t too far away so we made it and straight to bed again between grandma and the guides.

Following day we were no fools, we knew the drill, 20minutes outside watching ice tug of war etc then 30minutes in the ger eating hushuurs.

Tug of war on ice!!!

Traditional clothing competition

More ice sculptures

In the afternoon we were dragged away from our ger to another ger in town to eat, wait for it, hushuur, then after to the town hall to watch wrestling. Our guide it seems was a wrestler and there was a mini competition which some of the whiteys got involved in also. It was very up close and personal, they fell on the audience frequently but it was also most atmospheric to be so close.

The wrestlers

Close to the action

We spent the late afternoon/evening hiking up a hill around the town then ate dinner at the ger in town, fried fish from the lake, yum, yum what a change from the mutton.

Hatgal from the top of the hill

Us girls cold on the hill

Then as we were being picked up to go back to the cabin we ended up back at the town hall where we had recently been to see wrestling and it was now a night club, well dance hall. Most of the people we had seen the last 2 days at the ice festival were now waltzing  around the hall or trancing around the hall, depended on the song. I had a few waltzes with a couple of locals, including an older woman in a beret who was a very strict dancer and didnt put up with any messing about.

Day 3 was spent on the lake and we so far had not really seen the extent of the lake, the festival is based at the Southern point of the lake and so we took a Horse sleigh ride around the mountain to the other side to see the vastness that is lake Hovsgol, the sleigh ride was really beautiful, bumpy and windy but quite an experience.

Horse sleigh ride

On the sleigh

Racing on ice

Our horse had bells and so it felt almost Christmassy. It wasnt a long ride but we enjoyed it and raced along with the other horse and sleigh along side, and again you forget you are on a lake and pray you dont break the ice but thankfully we obviously didnt. Later as the ice festival had already finished we amused oursleves by climbing another hill around the town, the one with an Ovoo, it was almost dusk and we lit a fire, drank vodka from a hipflask and made ourselves comfortable for the imminent sunset, however all of a sudden a man on a horse appeared from the other side of the mountain, obviuosly wondering what these white folk were up to and i guess from what we could understand he had thought we were setting fire to the ovoo, smoke had been seen at the top of the hill from the town and he had been sent up to investigate. We promptly put the fire out and then watched the sun set before heading back into town for our final evening in Hatsgal.

Ovoo on the hill


The next morning we awoke early again to begin our 2day drive back to Ub, we knew what to expect this time and i have to say i was looking forward to it. We boarded the van and went to the petrol station in the town, which was closed at it was 7am, but there was a second, also closed. We really needed petrol, the drive to Murum takes 3 hours and there is nothing in between so the only solution was to wake up the petrol station worker who thankfully lived in a Ger next to the petrol tank, he appeared 5minutes later in his reflective uniform and filled us up and we headed off. This time the drive was much easier and took no time at all as it was day light and we could see the tracks available and didnt get stuck in snow drifts. In Murun we stopped at the mecanic again, loaded up on snacks then the long, long ride to Bulgan city began. This ride had quite a few breakdowns, i lost count how many, in total the whole week 10, but this day held the majority of them; the seats come out, ice is kicked off the bottom of the van, we get in again, then repeat. The days drive was 14hours, we arrived in Bulgan city after 9pm and set out to find a restaurant, it was tsuivan again but this time with beef, it makes the difference, a few bottles of vodka were consumed with the guides and drivers, it was a nice evening getting to know them all. That night in the hotel we had the best nights sleep ever i think, usually  beds here are pretty hard but the hotel had comfy beds, no showers and communal loos but soft beds. I was quite happy not to have a shower as i was determined to complete the week without one and to truly appreciate my own shower when i got back home.

Now we were in the final day, again “the last camel carries the heaviest load” saying proved itself, we were up early at 7 but departed i dont remember when, but it was a few hours later. The van was missing in action, we believe it was at a mecanics but we kept being told it was in the garage, we hung out in the foyer of the hotel all this time and the other residents, all Mongolian took great delight in taking photos with the foreigners and us with them, there was an adorable little boy in cargo dungarees who had popped into our hotel room earlier, it is not only at work in the office that people pop their head in, it also happens in your personal hotel room, you have to learn to lock the door as there is always someone looking for their friends room.

Other hotel residents

Hotel foyer


Really crammed in the van

Crammed back in the van

Breakdown #10

Almost back in UB

Finally we left and before we arrived in UB at 7 in the evening we had several more breakdowns, played football with ice lumps and at long last got to my beautiful shower and sit down toilet, the perks of the city, but i have to say dearly missed the countryside and the real Mongolia.


About rdamm

I am about to embark upon a V.S.O. placement for one year in UB, Mongolia. I shall be working as a textile designer at Mongol Nekhmel, a textile company that produces cashmere, yak and camel hair clothing and homeware. I shall be sharing the skills i have gained in the last 10 years as a designer, creating connections and helping to open-up the products to the European and Japanese markets, therefore hopefully assisting to bring herding communities out of poverty. The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of V.S.O.
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