Finding Nemo

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mongolian Hell Bus

Another gorgeous bus journey
Buses and I don't like each other.  I've waxed on and on about how I love trains, and how buses ought to be relagated to the dark ages as a medieval torture device.  And I thought I'd endured the lowest forms of bus hell on the ride through the mud in Yunnan, or the Tibetan driver who loved chomping chicken-feet as he plunged off cliffs, or that contagious puking festival on a bus in the Philippines.  But Mongolia has taught me that, as Dante described, hell goes quite deep.  In Mongolia, I found the very bottom of the Abyss and it is inhabited by the Dark Lord Himself.

Excuse me, can you drool a little higher so at least my shirt soaks it up? Sweet
At 3am, on a dark "road" that resembled a backyard moto-cross event, I found myself sandwiched between a Mongol wrestler and a girl.  One had decided that my bony shoulders looked like soft pillows, the other preferred snoring into my chest. Every time the bus bounced, their large heads slammed into me.  How this didn't cause them pain was a Mongolian medical mystery that I find fascinating.  The man ahead of me apparently had a condition that involved methane and sulfur leaking profusely out of various orifices.  The driver was cursing because he was lost, which was understandable because there were at least 5 or 6 mud-tracks going off in all directions in the pitch dark. He enjoyed turning around and reversing direction every 30 minutes or so.

Oh yeah, ... and I had to pee so bad that my vision was turning yellow.  Every time the bus bounced, my bladder squealed in pain. 11 hours in, only 9 more to go.  For the 2nd time in 2 weeks, I felt the overwhelming need to pray.

How had this happened?  After my previous year away, and innumerable bus rides of pain and loathing, I had made a new rule.  No bus rides over 8 hours.  Period.  That was when it was time to suck it up and buy a flight.  But it turns out that in Mongolia flights are priced triple for tourists.  My flight up to Khatgal had cost me nearly $300!!  (Locals paid about $100.)
I took this great pic of a Stupid Tourist paying inflated prices

I have one rule that trumps all other rules: and that is never allow yourself to get totally screwed over just because you are a traveler and not a local.  Every time an ignorant tourist pays 10 times the actual price for a souvenir, a meal, or transportation, it causes two problems.  First, it emboldens the locals to jack up prices even further, and pushes local consumers out of the area.  The result is a tourist desert, where everything becomes artifical, expensive, and local flavor is extinct.  Second, even 2-tiered schemes like this one were problematic:  It forced budget travelers out of the market.  Only deep-pocketed tourists could afford it, and deep-pocketed tourists are those that tend to favor horrible sterile hotels and posh comfort even if it destroys the aesthetic of a place.  It is all part of the Tragedy of the Traveler, and I wanted no part of it.

Thus, I decided to break my rule and take the bus.  Even though it was 20 hours.  Even though I knew there were no real roads.  Even though I knew there was no toilet.  Even though there was the chance I would be sitting on a coke bottle again.  Part of me wondered if I could take it.  After all, I had never done a bus like this.  Maybe it would toughen me up, make me more of a warrior traveler.  I mean, let's face it, the manliest thing I have ever done is eat an evil 20-pound Santa Claus made out of solid chocolate one night at 3am. And even that required the help of 3 much more manly siblings. I started to look forward to the challenge of a 20-hour hell bus.

Russian Furgan: proof that the only reliable 4WD in Mongolia eats grass
Things started well.  Too well.  There are 3 options for country transport in Mongolia.  There are the Furgans: Russian micro-bus coffins with huge mud wheels.  They apparently are the best because they don't bounce around as much as the big buses, but the driver wanted 45,000 Tookirig because I didn't speak Mongolian.  The locals were paying 30,000.  Then there are these deluxe coaches that are fairly new to the scene.  I saw this nice blue coach sitting in the lot in Moron (yes Moron, Mongolia is a real place), but I didn't bother asking the price.  I knew it would be too much.  Then I noticed an old metal school-bus in a separate yard.  It looked cheap.  "Only 25,000 Tookirig, good price my friend."  Perfect!

We got on, my seat was in the very back.  There was no leg-room at all, my knees were popping over the rail in front of me.  Doh.  There was no way I could take 20 hours in this position.  I pointed out my predicament to my smaller Mongolian seat-mates, they let me take the middle.  I couldn't believe it, the middle seat had nothing in front of it.  I stretched my legs out, luxury!  With a smile I realized this might be alright after all.
The bus started up, we started cruising out of town.  Suddenly, right before we hit the open steppe, the bus stopped.  A car pulled up and out came a large Mongol wrestler.  He got on.  I chuckled at the situation, after all, the bus was completely full!  This poor guy would have to stand or sit in the aisle.  That's what you get for being late, my naiz (friend in Klingon, er, Mongolian).

The driver brought the man to the back of the bus, and then, incredibly, motioned for me to scoot over.  I looked around.  There were 5 back seats, all occupied.  If I scooted over, we would all be crushed for the whole trip.  I knew what was going on.  The driver thought because I was a tourist that he could take advantage of me.  I usually don't pick these fights, but this one was too important.  I shook my head and said firmly "No!" in Mongolian.  I motioned that I had paid for this seat, and everyone else had paid.  No way was he taking my seat.  The driver became mad and started yelling at me, I stood my ground and shook my head.  The wrestler looked at us, then abruptly stepped forward and sat his 200 pounds right on my stomach.

The wind was knocked out of me. I gasped for air. The wrestler stared straight ahead.  The driver smiled, then happily turned away, started the bus, and we were off.  I had lost the argument to a new wrestling move: the Mongol butt-blaster.

I had no choice.  Eventually I squeezed over into a contorted position with my legs in the aisle, knees on the rail, ass partly on the middle seat, and elbows in the girl's face next to me.  He wiggled and wedged his ass into the gap with a plop.  Things couldn't get any worse.

But of course, it is never ever wise to even think such a thing.  Anyone who has ever ridden a school-bus knows that the back of the bus moves the most when you hit a bump.  Imagine a pyschopathic Mongolian bus driver fueled on red-bull, screaming along a moto-cross mud track at 70 mph.  At one point, I am pretty sure he tried to a pull a triple-jump.  You know, when the guy on the motorbike hits the first jump, sails over the middle, and then lands on the 3rd.  Except, the school bus didn't quite make it.  As we hit and bounced all of us sailed violently into the air.  Luckily I already had my hand on the roof to brace for impact.  The wrestler wasn't so lucky.  Thump! went his skull.  We all looked at him as he rubbed his noodle, cowering in fear that he might decide to crush one of us. Then, I started laughing. I don't know why. I couldn't help myself, as I watched this big man rub his head in confusion. He stared at me for a moment, and then started laughing too.  We were all in this together after all.

But then something disturbing began to happen.  Each time we went over a little bump, the wrestler subtly pushed his butt against mine.  At first I just took it for a new Mongolian salutation, perhaps this was how he liked to shake hands. Or maybe if I was lucky he was trying to pick me up. But then it dawned on me that it he wasn't doing it to get my number. Slowly but surely, I was being pushed out of the precious middle seat with its leg-room.  He knew what he was doing.  It was a genius move.  I started to push back with my butt on the bumps, but I realized with dismay that the bus was generally riding on the right side of the road, so that the bus was tilted my way.  Gravity was helping him.  It wasn't fair, but he was winning.  Our ass-on-ass war continued for about 20 minutes, but then I was exhausted.  I stopped resisting, and on the next bump, he pushed me clear of the aisle. I had been defeated in Bun Battle.

I brought my knees up in a fetal position, shins pushing against the metal rail in front of me, in pain.  Each bump brought misery.  When I get home, I will recommend travelers to Mongolia bring soccer-style shin-guards.  When I get weird looks, I will just lean forward and say in a low voice, "Trust me."

The girl next to me said in perfect English, "Sorry about all that."  I was a little dumb-founded.  First of all, I was surprised she wasn't mad at me for repeatedly smacking her lips with my elbow.  Second, I couldn't believe she could speak English,  let alone fluently.  It turned out her name was Zara, she had studied medicine in Europe and was coming home to be doctor.  And she wasn't bad looking either.  I explained that the only way we could both be comfortable is if I put my arm around her and she put her head on my chest.  It was either that or I keep knocking her in the face.  She agreed.  Suddenly things were a bit more comfortable, and in particular I noticed with happy surprise that my right hand was resting on something soft, warm, and … bosomy.  I almost started drifting off, despite the bar slamming into my shin-bones and the occasional hang-time when the driver decided to launch the bus into orbit.

But suddenly I woke.  Something was terribly wrong.  It was a smell.  I looked at Zara, and decided it wasn't her.  The wrestler seemed alright too.  No, it was the odd-looking man in front of us.  Something had crawled into his ass and died.  And it was aimed square in my face.  I waited patiently.  The smell didn't fade.  It seemed that the man had somehow achieved a kind of static equilibrium with the steady flow of volcanic gas leaking from his crater.

Then, on the next bump, something pounded into my left shoulder.  It was the wrestler's head.  He had fallen asleep on my bony shoulder.  Each bump sent it banging into me, which not only failed to wake him, but apparently made him so comfortable he began snoring into my ear with a wooden creaking noise.  The circle of death was almost complete.  There was only thing missing.  I began to realize I had to pee.  Very very badly.

It was at this point I made the biggest mistake of the night. I began checking my watch. It said 3:00am. I waited, and dozed, and listened as my bladder made noises similar to that of a clown turning a balloon into a poodle. After what surely must have been an hour, I re-checked my watch. It said 3:05am. I stared at the two black blobs of hair on my shoulders and almost cried tears of pure pee.

Somehow, miraculously, time marches on when we feel that it must have stopped.  The next day we arrived in a downpour.  Soaking wet, sitting on the bus back into town, I realized I had forgotten to get Zara’s number. Goodbye forever soft warm friendly Mongol doctor babe.

Back in the hostel I met a tourist who had made the rookie mistake of taking the deluxe blue coach.  She had arrived hours ago, before the rain, and looked refreshed.  She said it was really nice, the seats quite comfy.  

Still traumatized, brain in a fog, with dry-mouth and bloodshot eyes, I managed to ask her how much it cost.

She had paid 20,000 Tookirig.

5,000 less than me.

But I will say it was almost all worth it, because there is no feeling closer to pure ecstasy than releasing pee from your bladder for 2 solid minutes.

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