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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.”

Good Journeys!

My sole motivation for heading to Mongolia to fish came from the descriptions I got from a guy in Beijing.  Greg was a giant from Nebraska, and living in China.  He had just come back from a trip to Mongolia and was eager to share his experiences.  Just the way he said Mongolia, with a loud booming voice, sold me on the idea.  “MAN-GOO-LIAA!”

It was the greatest outdoor destination in the world according to Greg; for more reasons than just fishing, but that was especially good.  “Mongolians don’t eat fish.  So the rivers and lakes are flowing over with whoppers! They’ll bite anything. Heck, they’ll jump right in your boat!”  Now, I’ve heard some fish-tales before, but this was Mongolia–“MAN-GOO-LIA!”  Come on, it had to be true.  I left Beijing right away, and headed for Lake Khovsgol, one of the biggest lakes in Asia.

Getting to Mongolia and to a prime fishing spot took some time and effort.  The train from Beijing to Ulan Bator took 16 hours.  The bus from UB to Hatgol, the town closest to Lake, took…well, who knows, I blacked-out after 18 hours.  I had met a follow backpacker on the bus who was also interested in fishing.  “I’ve never been fishing before.  Do you have any experience?” he asked.

“Yes, of course.  I am from Georgia.  that’s just about all there is to do!”

We spent a small fortune on two fishing poles, reels, lures, a net, garlic, and lemons (and bread, peanuts, and cookies to snack on inbetween meals of fish).  We were going to slay them.  After a short hitch-hike in the back of a truck, we had reached our destination.

Lake Khovsgol is billed as one of the most beautiful sights in Mongolia, and it truly is.   Located in northern Mongolia, near Russia, it is surrounded by mountains and alpine forests.  The water is crystal clear and clean enough to drink.  Hiking along, it’s common to see wild flowers, horses, deer, reindeer, a variety of birds, among other flora and fauna.  Gers, traditional Mongolian homes, are scattered spaciously along the shore line.  It’s wonderful.  Oh, and the fish…

On the first day of our expedition, more hiking was done than fishing.  We had to get far enough up the trail to get away from the more established places of lodging.  So after the day was done, and we hadn’t caught anything we weren’t surprised.

We woke up the next day, full of energy.  The fish were just sitting there waiting for us.  We were sure of that much.  We fished and walked and fished and walked, all morning, not a bite.  A lunch break of peanuts, bread, and cookies and we kept walking.  The mother of all fishing holes couldn’t be too far along, we thought.  The next day went in much the same way.  We fished late into the evening, not such much as a nibble.

On the third day we decided to take a new approach.  We would rent a boat, paddle out, and find those stubborn fish, even if we had to paddle the whole lake.  But we had planned to catch more fish than we could handle, and packed food accordingly.  So, after two and half days of nothing but bread, peanuts, and cookies, irritation was beginning to take hold.

We paddled for several hours, threw out every lure we had, and still nothing.  “I thought you said you were an experienced fisherman?” my travel companion said.  I couldn’t get him to understand that being an experienced fisherman usually meant buying expensive equipment, showing it off, and just telling people you know how to fish.  I was starting to get annoyed at his inability to grasp these subtleties of the sport.

“Maybe we should try something different, maybe spear them.  Say, you’re American. Don’t you have a gun?  We could just shoot them.”

“I wish I did have a gun right now!  I’d latch you to this boat, blast a few holes in the thing, and let you talk deal with these stubborn fish face to face! Now, Be Quiet!  I’m trying to concentrate!”

There was a short silence right before a huge splash. “My god, he got one,” I briefly thought, but when I turned around it was my partner who had jumped in the water.  “I’m going to take a break,” he said, “and just go for a little swim.”  Day three–zero fish.

Day four–more peanuts and bread. The cookies were all gone; and more hiking and more fishing.  I was getting burnt out.  Four days and not a bite.  I called it quits early that day, but my partner was going to keep at it.  I set up camp, started a fire, and started reading.  I had gotten comfortable and into the book, when I heard the ole boy running up the trail.  “Hey Nate, I caught something! I caught something!”

“What’d you catch?” I yelled back.

He came running up, stripped down to his undies and shivering.

“Hypothermia!”

On day five we hiked for about half a day, but we were pretty well defeated as far as fishing goes.  “I hate cut this short,” I said, “but we’re getting close to Russia, and the guide book says they’ll fill you up with bullets if you stroll over the border.  Let’s turn back.”  Any excuse would have sufficed at that point.

Without stopping to fish we made good time back.  The next afternoon, as we came upon established lodges we had tried to avoid, we were stopped by another traveler–a Canadian on Horse.  “What have you guys been up to? he asked.

“Fishing…” we both admitted.

“Fishing!  Oh, there’s no fish to be had here!  You’ve got to go right over that mountain there or over to Lake Baikol.  Those places are boiling over with fish. Big ones!  You know the Mongolians don’t eat fish? They’ll bite anything, shoot they’ll jump right in your boat!”