Vagabonding Field Reports: Road Trip through the Gobi Desert

(CP> I’m preparing for my next trip overseas, so this month I decided to share a trip I took in 2010, as part of the Mongol Rally. If you’re looking for an irreverent race that is challenging, yet incredibly fun, check it out.)

Cost/day: ~$40/day (food / gas)

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

I’m fairly sure that we are the strangest thing anyone has seen lately. Three chaps, who haven’t showered in weeks, in an obnoxiously fluorescent ambulance being held together by duct tape, driving through the Gobi Desert.

Describe a typical day:

Once we hit Mongolia, our days became all about necessities: food, gas, drive, fix the ambulance, sleep – repeat as necessary. I’m sure that this may seem monotonous, but I found it freeing. Instead of worrying about all of the inconsequential stresses in our daily lives, I was forced to worry only about what truly mattered – survival and moving forward. Somehow, these stresses and the focus they require made me feel much more… connected to everything around me. It was the same “in the moment” feeling that I love about riding motorcycles — just spread out over a much longer period in time.

Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:

Outside of the major cities and towns, few people that we ran into spoke English. Instead, our conversations were a mixture of words, pointing and improvised sign language. I am amazed by how much you can convey in this manner. Specifics are hard, but sharing a a general story or concept is easy — just one of the joys of being human.

Entering a town

Making new friends

The most unexpected conversation that we had, was with the sister of a man (Bolt) who invited us into his yurt one evening. She was fixing us dinner (warm goat milk soup with various meats and cheeses) and was the most stoic woman I’ve ever met — especially with a meat cleaver in hand. As we looked around the yurt, we noticed some trophies on a shelf. When we asked what they were, she stood up, moved over to a cabinet and pulled out a large vinyl roll. When she let it unfurl, we saw a picture of her holding a trophy and a ping pong paddle. She never smiled (in the picture or in real life), but I could tell she was immensely proud. Bolt later explained that she was the Mongolia ping pong champion and had once won the international championship. What are the odds?

Inside a Mongolian Yurt

What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

The landscape and vistas were easily the best thing about the trip. Each day, I had my breath taken away, both by the enormous expanse of the landscape and by how much the terrain changed.

Road, Mongolia

Mountain Pass, Mongolia

Vista, Mongolia

Totem on Hill, Mongolia

My only dislike was that we had a deadline (self-imposed) to make it to Ulaanbaatar, so we didn’t get to go on many random side-trips. We spent weeks driving through Mongolia, though it was only a taste of the country. I definitely would like to return to explore certain regions.

Describe a challenge you faced:

Just trying to keep an ambulance running was the biggest challenge and deserves it’s own story. I won’t go into everything here – suffice to say that the Mongolia roads destroy vehicles. During the 1700+ miles that we drove through Mongolia, we:

  • lost our side door and fender
  • had to strap down our hood with a rope
  • fractured our windshield
  • lost a fan belt
  • destroyed our front suspension and wheel well
  • had an electrical fire, losing our lights and alternator
  • broke the emergency brake
  • cut a brake line, disabling our normal brakes (we then used gearbox to slow down)
  • killed our starter (and had to rely on push-starting)
  • destroyed our front suspension and wheel well
  • broke the frame (our passenger door was strapped shut, becoming a structural component)

What new lesson did you learn?

I learned the power of community support. In Mongolia, the terrain is so rough and many of the vehicles are so worn, that the worst often happens. Since there is no formal support (AAA anyone?), people help each other out. It actually reminds me a bit of Burning Man. You are ultimately responsible for yourself, but are often surprised by the generosity of strangers.

Community Effort – Fixing the Ambulance

We were saved multiple times by others – especially when torrential rains turned the desert into a huge mud bog. However, we also did our best to return the favors – whether giving oil to a couple on a motorcycle, or trying to pull a truck out of the mud. (Have you ever seen an ambulance try to pull a semi-truck? Hilarious!)

Do onto others…

Where next?

I’m beginning a road trip across America, so that I can visit with my family and close friends before I head over to Singapore and Australia for several months. Over the next few weeks, I’ll drive about 6000 miles, from Philadelphia to Ohio, Missouri, South Dakota, Washington, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and then back to South Dakota.

I absolutely love driving these long stretches. There’s something almost therapeutic about it; like a form of meditation. Once I’ve been driving for a few hours, deep thoughts seem to bubble up, allowing me to work through unresolved issues, to reflect on recent actions or to plan out where I’m headed.

See you on the road!

Chris Plough writes and podcasts at, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.


Posted by | Comments Off on Vagabonding Field Reports: Road Trip through the Gobi Desert  | June 9, 2012
Category: Asia, General, Images from the road, Vagabonding Field Reports

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