Nomadic life in action: Proud Mongolian woman in front of her family’s Hyundai pick-up with her ger all packed-up in the back.
After a little pause we are back on track for our Trans-Siberian Railway series. After a tiny hop to Terelj National Park we are now entering ‘real’ Mongolia and getting lost in the Gobi desert for a week. This region is bigger than France (612,000 sq km) and home to just 313,000 inhabitants, and I will try and relate this amazing experience with 3 posts on here. One of the big questions I will ask (and try and answer) is: which cars survived this environment, one of the most inhospitable in the world – yes, which cars did survive the Gobi desert?
The loop I did was over 1,500 km long and traversed one of the most isolated regions in the world. As soon as we get out of Ulaanbaatar, the car landscape changes drastically, as does the landscape full stop – now desert steppe the entire way. One bit of trivia first: “Gobi” is Mongolian for “desert steppe”, meaning a landscape that has not enough vegetation for marmots but enough for camels. Yep, that’s a pretty bucolic definition I know but typically Mongolian! So technically when you say Gobi desert you are saying desert twice. Yes sir!
As you will see in the next 2 Gobi reports, the car landscape in the region is defined by whether there is a sealed road to access the area or not. There are no more new cars except the odd Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX. The Hyundai Porter and Kia Bongo/Frontier pick-ups are the vehicles of choice for the nomadic and semi-nomadic people living in the area, mostly in their very recognisable marine blue robe.
Even though a camel is supposed to be able to carry a fully packed ger (250kg), nowadays nomadic Mongolians prefer the convenience of a pick-up truck. My trip was great timing as it is the end of summer and the start of winter in Mongolia, meaning the time many nomads change location.
The only actual town we crossed in the Gobi is Mandalgovi, one of only 5 locations housing over 10,000 inhabitants (just) in this region. It is very hard to give an adequate estimate of the most popular cars here as the sample is so small but there were a few striking particularities in the local car landscape. Apart from the Korean pick-ups described above, both generations of Toyota Prius can still be spotted but much less often than in Ulaanbaatar. Instead, the most successful used Japanese imports seem to be the Toyota Carina and Corolla. There are many used and bruised Hyundais everywhere, as well as noticeably more Nissan X-Trail of a certain age. No new cars except the usual Toyota Land Cruiser.
After Mandalgovi, we witnessed first hand what is potentially the most drastic change in Mongolia’s infrastructure today, owing a lot to the newly opened Oyu Tolgoi mine: a sealed road is in construction down to Dalanzadgad, which is currently only accessible with very sturdy 4-wheel-drives. As I noticed on my way to Terelj, Chinese trucks have the monopoly of the construction work, which is an interesting phenomenon in itself given the near absence of Chinese passenger cars in the entire country (although I did spot a Great Wall Hover on the day we left UB). Caterpillar machinery is being replaced by Liu Gong vehicles as well. If that hasn’t translated into the acceptance of Chinese Passenger Cars in the region, I would say that when Chinese pick-up trucks get rugged enough for the Gobi desert, Mongolian nomads may opt for them instead. They have been driving Chinese motorbikes around the steppe for decades after all (which I will describe in my next Gobi report).
The second and last village before we entered full-on Gobi desert was Bayandalai, which is actually nothing more than a few houses in the middle of the desert. Given there is no sealed road to reach this village, the Korean pick-ups have all but disappeared. There are no new cars, either.
The progressive appearance of Russian Jeeps and vans is the striking element that will characterise the next part of this adventure which I will relate in my next post…