Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

Driving in Central Mongolia

North of Altai, Gobi-Altai Aimag
For the past few weeks I have been seeing Mongolia by mashiin, on journeys for various purposes. The first of these trips was with staff of the US Embassy (see below) in Mongolia, helping to encourage Mongolian secondary school students to work on their English language skills to take advantage of scholarship opportunities in the US. Making a wide loop around the central part of the country, we traveled through parts of Uvurkhangai, Bayankhongor, Govi-Altai, Zavkhan, Arkhangai, and Khovsgol aimags.

Some of this travel has been on the newly paved roads that are appearing across the country—from Ulaanbaatar west to Bayankhongor and still intermittenly to Khovd, north to Darkhan (then west to Erdenet), south to Dalanzadgad, and east to Baruun Urt. Although some of our driving made use of this black road, much of the country we needed to get to, as well as much of what is interesting here, is still only served by routes that are unpaved and which do not appear on a map. With a little generosity, some could be called roads, but others are more accurately described with words used with foot or horse travel: path, track, trail. Most have never been touched by a grader or bulldozer. Because of the effects of heavy vehicles on soil occasionally softened by rain, many of these tracks are abandoned for a parallel course when driving them becomes too punishing for vehicles and their passengers.

Off the paved roads bridges become a novelty, with at least half of those we saw serving only as a reminder of what time and traffic do to wooden planks and posts. Bridges we crossed two years ago have deteriorated to the point where we bypass them for the route through the rivers they span. At several of these crossings we stopped to look at just how far gone the old structures were.

I asked a Mongolian from the embassy how Mongolia pays for the new roads, and learned that for the current round of paving, which began several years ago and will not be finished for several more, some of the funding for the north-south route had come from a loan provided by the Millenium Challenge Corporation of the United States, an agency whose goal is to combat global poverty.

The rest of the funding is a bit of a mystery, as is the whole issue of revenue here. Those who work for the government or large registered businesses have taxes taken out of their paychecks. But herders don't seem to be taxed, nor do the thousands of small shopkeepers. Part of this is the legacy of a historically nomadic culture without a postal delivery system—where, exactly, would you send a tax bill? And how would you have a delivery system without roads, let alone permanent addresses?

Mongolians are no more eager to pay taxes than Americans and many of those we've met who have lived in the US complain about how high taxes are there, though I don't recall any complaining about the transportation system, or the schools they attended. Eight hours on a Mongolian dirt road would be a nice reminder for most Americans of the advantages of pooling resources for the common good. A seven day journey, even in the embassy's Land Cruisers, and the beauty of what we've accomplished with taxes will be appreciated at the gut level, if not in your bones.

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Driving in Central Mongolia

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Black Road, West of Ulaanbaatar

Black Road, Uvurkhangai, Past Ulaansheveet

Black Road, Khairkhandulaan, Uvurkhangaai

Black Road, Near Bayankhongor

North of Uliastai

No Road, High Ground

Volcano's Edge

Near Tsenger Hot Springs

South of Tsetserleg

Road to Jargalant


Truck Traffic

Lunch Stop

Tsoivan For Twelve

Finishing Tsoivan

Lunch for Outreach Crew

River Crossing

Van, River Crossing

Tractor-Assisted Crossing

Pit Stop

Herders' Gers

Isolated Ger

Ger, Wooden Pens

Horses, Steppe