Best Selling Cars Around The Globe: Trans Siberian Series Part 13.3: Which Cars Survived The Gobi Desert

Matt Gasnier
by Matt Gasnier
best selling cars around the globe trans siberian series part 13 3 which cars
Make no mistake: our van is a Silver Mustang.

Today we continue on our Trans-Siberian adventure, with the last report dedicated to the Gobi region in Mongolia. We have seen in the previous Gobi post that the UAZ vans and jeeps were by far the most popular in the Gobi desert. It’s no surprise then that we did this whole trip in one of them, the UAZ Bukhanka. In Russia, this off-road van (real name: UAZ 452) has earned a few nicknames – Bukhanka: (loaf of bread), Tabletka (pill) or Golovastik (tadpole) – in Mongolia our driver has baptised its own Silver Mustang, because of its grey colour and its ability to gallop to the most isolated stretches of the Gobi.

If you can’t wait for the next report, you can follow my trip in real time here, or check out 174 other car markets on my blog.

Our Silver Mustang in all its glory

If you have read the previous parts in this Trans-Siberian long-term Photo Report, you will know that this UAZ off-road van is still on sale as new in Russia ( here you can see me posing in front of a UAZ billboard in Tomsk). You can also get yourself a shiny new one in Mongolia for 26 million MNT (Mongolian Tugrik), the equivalent of US$15,000 which is actually pretty good value for money. As such, even though this vehicle has been in production with virtually no design change and only a few mechanical updates since 1965, ours was only 7 years-old.

Prayer wheel, lucky charms, compass, long-range mobile phone: we’re ready to roll (literally).

The best way to describe the UAZ Silver Mustang is a mix of VW Kombi van for its habitability and Lada Niva for 4WD ability. I was going to say Land Rover, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In fact the Silver Mustang is totally adapted to Mongolian tracks, or rather Mongolian tracks have been made by hundreds of Silver Mustangs and as a result they go absolutely everywhere here, and can be driven at up to 80 km/h on unsealed tracks, which doesn’t seem like much but given how unstable the vehicle is it is a good choice to sit at the front so you can anticipate every bump on the ground and hold on for dear life!

With our driver and guide Ogi

However when it comes to steep climbing our driver Ogi bluntly put it as ‘dangerous’ and asked us to disembark and climb by foot while he was attempting it on its own. I filmed the whole thing (see above).

Ready for takeoff

A Kombi van with good 4WD ability? How on earth did this vehicle 1. not expand outside the USSR and 2. not become cult worldwide? The fact that it was used by the Soviet Army in the midst of the Cold War and that it needs around 20 litres of petrol per 100 km might start answering these questions…

Easy access engine

The Silver Mustang has a few technical particularities, the main one being the location of its engine (from the GAZ 21), placed between the left hand driver and the front-seat passenger and accessible inside the cockpit. That’s a relatively unusual feature that turns out to be a total blessing when the temperature goes down to -30 or -40°C as it is often the case in Mongolia: no need to get out in the cold to fix it! And even at 0 to -10°C which were the temperatures we enjoyed in the Gobi it is good not to have to open the door!

“Switching off” four wheel drive after our steep Yolyn Am climb.

The body of the van is equipped with two front doors, a single-wing door on the right side and a double-wing door in the rear. There is one fuel port on each side of the van, leading to two separate fuel tanks. A tip: shake the van when you refuel to ensure the tanks are really full! Four wheel drive is activated manually, meaning you have to stop the vehicle, unscrew and fix the two front wheels and go. Do the reverse to switch off four wheel drive.

Badass truck

We were a little perplexed on the first night when we learnt our driver was happy to sleep in the van and not in the ger. But we understood soon enough that the back of the van transforms into a full-on bedroom when the night has come, with a soft bed that we could only dream of inside our ger, smoking hot at the start of the night but freezing cold by the morning!


How is it to drive? Like how it is to drive a truck designed in the sixties. The brakes need a lot of warning, you have to come to a near-stop at each big bump on the track as the suspensions are from another age, and I’ve discovered a new variant of aqua-planning: sand-planning! The Silver Mustang is feisty, stubborn and demanding. Kinda makes you think of a… silver mustang. Mmmm…

Fixing the wheel after one hour on Day 1: not a good sign.

Now to the main question a lot of you have I know: when did we break down? To be honest given how reputedly unreliable these vans are, I was half-exepecting to get stranded on the second day and forced to get back to Ulaanbaatar without having seen any of the Gobi. But after a worrying stop one hour into Day 1 to fix a wobbly wheel, I have to admit there was absolutely no issue until Day 5 when a flash bog-down (flash because we were back up and running in five minutes) and a bout of sputtering slowed us down a little. But nothing some Mongol TLC couldn’t fix.

More nothingness…

We arrived at 6pm on Day 7 in Ulaanbaatar as scheduled. Turns out our Silver Mustang was much more reliable and trustworthy than the mustang I rode on the last day which left me with a black eye and stitches on my face! I should have known better. I’m a car blogger, not a horse rider.

The next Trans-Siberian update will be about the Hummers of Ulaanbaatar, so stay tuned!

Sealed road: a luxury that only occurred on Days 1 and 7.
Near Bayanzag, Gobi.
Bogged down… only for 5 minutes.
First ger camp in the Gobi
Getting a civilisation fix in Mandalgovi before the Gobi desert.
UAZ logo
Near Bayanzag, Gobi.

Join the conversation
3 of 10 comments
  • Big Al from Oz Big Al from Oz on Jun 13, 2014

    Matt, I would love to be in your position and traveling like you do. Do you take some fishing gear and a rifle for hunting? It's amazing what's available and is useful in some regions around the world. Even in Outback Australia we are spoilt with the vehicles we use. But some of these Russian trucks seem very capable. What size was the engine? 2 litre'ish?

  • Inside Looking Out Inside Looking Out on Jun 15, 2014

    I can imagine the quality of motor oil and gas these vehicles have overcome. Or may be they are already designed with that in the mind.

  • SPPPP Aggression is pretty much the reason that racing exists, so I am going to call this an unsolvable problem. It's a contrived scenario in which you take risks to get rewards. You may be able to improve it ... but never eliminate it.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is now our fourth 20th Anniversary GTI, and the third of those four that had major structural modifications for purely aesthetic reasons. I didn't picture Tim as the type to want to join the STANCE YO crowd, but here we are?
  • JMII This is why I don't watch NASCAR, it just a crash fest. Normally due the nature of open-wheel cars you don't see such risky behavior during Indy car events. You can't trade paint and bump draft with an Indy car. I thought it was a sad ending for a 500. While everyone wants a green flag finish at some point (3 laps? 5 laps?) red flagging it is just tempting people too much like a reset button in a game.The overall problem is the 500 is not a "normal" race. Many one-off competitors enter it and for almost every driver they are willing to throw away the entire season championship just to win the "500". It sure pays way more then winning the championship. This would be like making a regular season NFL game worth more then the Super Bowl. This encourages risky behavior.I am not sure what the fix is, but Indy's restart procedures have been a mess for years. If I was in charge the rule would be pit speed limiter until the green flag drops at a certain place on the track - like NASCARs restart "zone". Currently the leader can pace the field however they wish and accelerate whenever they choose. This leads to multiple false and jumped starts with no penalty for the behavior. Officals rarely wave off such restarts, but that did happened once on Sunday so they tried to make driver behave. The situation almost didn't happen as there were two strategies in the end with some conserving fuel and running old tires, driving slower with others racing ahead. However the last caution put everyone on even terms so nobody had advantage. It always gets crazy in the last few laps but bunching up the field with a yellow or red flag is just asking for trouble.
  • Tim Healey Lol it's simply that VWVortex is fertile ground for interesting used cars!
  • Jalop1991 I say, install gun racks.Let the games begin!