Greyhound, the Great American bus company, has a rotten reputation—and it deserves it. My recent, first and last, experience with Greyhound was a 16 hour nightmare, that I spent sandwiched in between a 300 lbs parolee and a jittery little man, whom I would guess was schizophrenic based on the rather hostile conversations he was having—with himself. It was miserable. But nevertheless, some good did come from the experience. The seemingly endless ride jolted my memory of some of the finer bus excursions I have had, and of one in Mongolia in particular.
On this trip I would be traveling from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to the country’s second largest city , Darkhan. To give an idea of the driving styles and road conditions in Ulaanbaatar; my Mongolian friend, who was seeing me to the bus station, got car sick on the 15 minute ride to the station. This was an ominous sign, but I was assured that I wouldn’t have to worry about good roads or bad roads on the bus, because there weren’t any roads—only well traveled dirt paths, Yee-haw.
At the station, I got in the ticket line, bought the ticket, and asked about how long the trip should take. The cashier said 16 hours. She said 16 hours for the simple fact that “How the heck I’m I supposed to know how long it will take? You could end up there tomorrow or in two years! Now get on the bus, you’re holding up the line!” doesn’t translate as easily.
I found the bus, and a fellow traveler, and asked foolishly if there were assigned seats.
“Seats? Oh dude, is this your first time?” he remarked.
The bus itself was an old Soviet clunker. In its heyday it could have probably transported around 20-25 fully equipped Soviet soldiers—we counted 57 passengers. And we were sat in the front of the bus, facing the rest of the passengers. The other traveler was put in the luggage area, in between the driver’s seat and the first row of seats. I actually got a seat.
I sat next to a pretty Mongolian lady; I smiled at her and was about to try and start a conversation when my knees were knocked to the side by a huge Mongolian man, who sat to my left. He had to have been a sumo wrestler. I was sandwiched, but it wasn’t terrible.
Next, two elderly women and a middle-aged lady sat directly across from me. We all negotiated leg room, until we were locked in, and our legs formed a human zipper.
The two elderly ladies each carried a sleeping child. They both looked at me and smiled. Then one of the ladies put one of the kids in my lap, and started to giggle. The kid didn’t wake up, so the other lady did the same. Now I was sandwiched on either side, legs were zipped up, and both my shoulders had become pillows. And the ladies were giggling.
Then came the rest of the luggage and the late comers, who really would have no seats at all. The luggage filled up the rest of the space we had around the upper bodies, and the stragglers filled in the space around our lower. One man, with one blue eye (apparently Cataracts are common in Mongolia), sat in the door-well, and smelled of Vodka.
Now that we were packed in and unable to move, we were ready to go. We bounced along through the city and unto the unfinished cross country highway. The highway was smooth, and too good to be true. After ten minutes, we barreled off it and unto the dirt path. I couldn’t see the other traveler, but I knew he was behind me.
“The lady at the counter said this would take about 16 hours.” I shouted.
“Ha, yeah right dude! That means 16 hours not including all the times we get stuck in the mud.” he yelled back.
While the sun was up the scenery was a fine distraction. The steppes are vast and wide. The mountains in the distance seem to be days away. We passed the occasional yurt, some herds of horses, and camels, but when the sun went down there was nothing. Nothing but the constant bouncing and the tingling of sleeping limps.
When you are on the road in a situation like this sleep doesn’t come, though you are not really awake either—it’s more of a trance state. You have reflections of your past and projections of your future, but they are more like hallucinations than dreams.
In between one of the trances, I peered over to the blue-eyed fellow down in the door-well. He had been bounced around and shaken up worst than anyone, and now he didn’t look well. The other passengers noticed also. Someone tried to get a bag to him, but it was too late. We were all introduced to both his breakfast and lunch.
We stopped to air out and take a restroom break, only there were no restrooms. In fact, there weren’t any buildings, or bowls, or holes in sight. We all just spread out along the path and had at it; all together, men and women a like, out there on the open plain.
After that, we somehow piled back into the old beater in the same manner as before, and continued on for another several more hours. We stopped again for some food late that night, but then got right back on that old road. Still no sleep, but after awhile you stop caring.
The sun would be coming up soon. We’d been on the road for a hard 14 hours. We were on the downhill, when the inevitable happened—Mud.
“Ha, I told you dude! Never fails.”
We were sunk. So, everyone filed out and stretched, while the driver and crew got to working on the rut. They worked for over an hour, until they conceded that it wasn’t moving—but perhaps it could be pushed.
The passengers surrounded the sides and back of the bus, and altogether started pushing. This ended in failure too, actually we probably made it worse. But the good news was that many of us were now very near completely covered in Mongolian mud–and I felt good about that.
The bus had been stuck for over three hours when the sun began to rise. We needed help, but of course out in the middle of Mongolia you can’t just call up a tow truck, so we waited. They radioed another bus that was on route, and they agreed to stop and help. When it arrived, the buses were strapped together. Engines roared, tires spun, and people pushed, and low and behold, as sure as day—the other bus got stuck too.
So now, we all waited. Our band of intercity travelers had grown into a small tribe. And our tribe waited patiently for another several hours, for another bus to come to the rescue. Two finally arrived, and were able to pull both buses out. We were back on route.
When we finally made it to Darkhan, a full day and a half had passed. I was muddied, sore, and sleep deprived, but my spirits were high. I felt like Jim Lovell stepping out of the Apollo 13 capsule. I was glad to do it, and hope to never do it again. I had just had one of the those experiences that writer Pat McManus would call “a fine and pleasant misery.”