Our arrival to Mongolia was pretty rough. Mongolia is amazing, and we wish we could spend more time getting to know the people, culture, and landscape. We’d definitely come back to learn more. But our first 24 hours was…rough. We are now calling it “The Mongolian Incident.”
To start with, we arrived at 11 pm in Ulaan Bataar, the capital, and looked for our scheduled airport pickup from the hostel we booked with. It never showed up. When Jordan called, the woman on the phone sounded confused and finally suggested we just take a taxi.
So we did, unhappily, at 12:30 in the morning. Once at the hostel we discovered that they’d booked our overnight tour for the wrong days, and we couldn’t take it. I asked the woman to change the tour, to call the tour operator and arrange so we could still go, but she said we’d have to speak to the manager who would come in at 11 am the next day. Well, our tour was suppose to leave at 9:30 am, so I knew that by the time I spoke to her they would just say, “sorry, it’s too late to go today.”
The woman also didn’t have our beds ready and tried to get us to stay in a more expensive room (and have us cover the cost). Yes, an auspicious start to the trip.
So the next morning we met a German couple who was going to get a bus ride to Terelj National Park and spend the night in a tourist ger, and hike around—basically everything we wanted to do, but not with a tour. Jordan and I had thought it was too difficult to get around Mongolia without a guide (public transportation is confusing or non-existent and many private “guides” just try to rip you off). But they said it was possible. We had to go to Naran Tuul, the local market for winter gear, but decided after that we’d grab a taxi or bus out to Terelj National Park and find a ger on our own.
Well. It was a good idea.
So, all that’s backstory.
After the market a man saw us looking for a taxi and decided to help us. He was half Korean and didn’t know much English, but between Korean and English we were able to communicate pretty well (Jordan and I couldn’t even say “thank you” in Mongolian at this point yet). He put us in a car hailed from the street and walked away. Then the driver (who wasn’t an official taxi driver, but more on that elsewhere) found out we wanted to go about 60 km out of the city and decided not to take us. It was too far, he said.
So out we got, and the Korean-Mongolian saw us again. “Don’t worry,” he told us. “My brother is a taxi driver. He will take you. And maybe I can go, too!”
He took us to a chicken restaurant to eat while waiting for his brother. All the while, the sun got lower in the sky, it turned 2pm, and we were getting pretty concerned about getting out to the park while it was still light. At this point we decided not to take a friendly stranger’s help again. Even if it is just friendly help, with the language barrier things always get tangled up, and somehow even though you’ve said you want to get somewhere now, fast, immediately, you end up waiting in a restaurant while the local is promising his brother is just a few minutes away.
When Jordan went to pay for lunch, the Korean decided Jordan needed help sorting the money and peeked into his wallet before Jordan could pull away. We think this is when it turned from overly-friendly local to scam.
We paid and suddenly it was time to go. Apparently we’d been waiting on lunch, not his brother. Language barrier, again, really screws up your schedule. We paid a taxi to take us to another part of town, where we got in his brother-in-law’s car.
“You okay? You like?” The Korean kept asking.
I was anxiously looking at the time (3:30 pm) and said, “We need to hurry. We need to be in park before dark.”
So we hopped in the brother-in-law’s car (and it wasn’t an official taxi either) and then the Korean tells him where we want to go. He’d had like five or six phone calls through lunch, presumably to his brother-in-law, so I’m not sure if his brother really did have second thoughts or if it was the Korean interpreting and embellishing the scam.
The driver hemmed and hawed when he found out we wanted to go to Terelj, and the Korean convinced him we wanted to go, so the price they finally came around to was 150,000 tugrik (that’s about 65 USD). Jordan shook his head. “That’s too expensive.”
“Okay, okay,” the Korean said. “Because he’s my brother, you get 130,000.” (Roughly 53 USD)
We knew it was too expensive still, but not by how much (We found out later it was double a fair price). But we also knew that we had to get out to the park before the sun set, and finding another taxi to take us would possibly take too much time. If we had known how expensive we woul’ve walked away right then. So we agreed.
The Korean was friendly, always pointing out things, always instructing his brother to stop and let us see the people selling nuts and fish on the side of the road. “You like? You want fish?” He pointed to a salted fish hanging off a stick.
Jordan and I looked at each other. “Uhh, no.” What on earth we were going to do with a salted, whole, scaly fish?
So we drove on. The driver stopped for gas. We checked the time.
The landscape was lovely, but the sun kept getting lower. We stopped a couple of times to enjoy certain sights, then hopped back in the car and kept going.
The Korean kept pressuring us to go see a famous statue and the national park, but tried to bump the price up to 180,000 tugrik. We couldn’t afford that—we barely had enough cash to rent a ger and get back on a public bus the next morning. So Jordan stayed firm, despite the Korean’s disappointment.
“We have to go fast,” I said again. “We need to find a ger.” The sun was setting, it was 4:30, and a lot of places looked closed.
“It’s okay. I am helping you,” the Korean repeated over and over. We were getting nervous at this pint, but we couldn’t do anything. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere in -25 degree C weather.
We stopped and asked at six ger tourist camps, and all but one were closed. The last one was a small, half-put together place, and didn’t offer breakfast or dinner. For 150,000 tugrik. We gaped. That was about 30% more than a fair price, and if we paid it, we wouldn’t have enough cash for a bus back to UB, let alone food.
“No, too much, too much,” Jordan said.
“What do we do now?” I whispered.
“Go back to Ulaan Bataar, I guess,” he said. So we turned to our two “guides” and said, “Okay, we’ll go back together. So all four of us climbed back in the car.
“Okay, to get back to UB, 250,000 tugrik total,” the Korean said.
Jordan and I stared, unbelieving. “You’re going back to the city right now anyway!”
“130,000 to park, 120,000 to city,” the Korean insisted.
“We don’t even have that much money!” I protested.
“Okay, for you, special price. 180,000 total.”
“I don’t think that’s fair,” I murmured to Jordan.
“That’s too much,” Jordan replied in Spanish.
(At this point, we switched mostly to Spanish. Although the Korean’s English wasn’t very good and he probably wouldn’t understand low tones, we didn’t want to give him the confidence that he could understand us, especially when we had no idea what he was saying in Mongolian to his taciturn brother-in-law.)
“We can’t get out,” I said.
“We can hitchhike. We’ll get out, find a car, and go back,” Jordan suggested.
“In this weather? What happens if no one comes? None of the gers are open.” I had a horrible image of us freezing to death in Mongolia. I guess now, looking back, if worst came to worst, Jordan could sneak back to the open ger camp, steal some wood, and we’d hike over a hill to a closed tent, break a lock, and sneak inside a ger. But still, we didn’t have matches or flint. So I’m not sure that would’ve worked.
In the end we agreed to the 180,000 price and privately conferred about just handing them the original 130,000 once back in the city and running.
Halfway back, at a fork in the road, the Korean tried to get us to see another sight.
“It’s dark—we won’t see anything,” I told him, getting really frustrated at this point.
“There is light,” he insisted.
“If same price, yes. But more expensive? No. We do not have money,” Jordan said firmly.
So we went on. About halfway back the driver pulled into a gas station.
I frowned, not sure why we were stopping. He had filled up on the way out to the park, and we were driving in a Toyota Prius anyway.
“Okay, we need gas.”
Jordan and I stared at the Korean.
“We need money. To pay. Gas.” Through hand gestures and cobbled Korean and English, we learned that they expected us to pay for their gas.
“No,” Jordan said flatly.
“You have half a tank!” I exclaimed, pointing to the dash. “I can see—you have half a tank.”
“No, no. We have no gas,” the Korean said with a straight face.
“This is fucking it,” I whispered to Jordan.
“I refuse,” Jordan whispered back. “Get your things.”
Thankfully, all our stuff was in our laps, rather than the trunk (they had tried to lock our two bags in the trunk, but we had refused earlier). Jordan hopped out, followed by me.
“What are you doing? The Korean sounded incredulous.
“We will find a different way back to UB,” Jordan said, smiling. “Here is 80,000 tugrik. Fair price for one-way.”
And suddenly the Korean raged, jumping out of the car toward Jordan, waving his hands and shouting.
I went to another car at the station, asking how much to UB, but the man took one look at the drama unfolding behind me, shook his head, and drove off.
“Why? Why?” the Korean demanded. “I am your friend! I help you! I help you! I need money!”
“Dude, take the money I paid you and go away,” Jordan replied forcefully.
I knocked on the window of the gas station, gesturing to ask if I could come in.
The two gas attendants stared at the spectacle but nodded, letting me inside.
“You have your money, go away,” Jordan said, and followed me inside.
The Korean followed, too.
Both gas attendants looked chagrined, worried about the drama going on inside their work. They both gestured, “Go, outside, take this outside.”
I refused to go outside. The Korean was getting more and more angry while his brother loomed in the doorway silently.
“Fine, here.” Jordan handed the Korean another 20,000. “You have 100,000. No go. Just go back to town.”
“I need 130,000! You said! I need money! I told you! I help you! Why? Why?”
“We don’t have that much money!” I said.
The Korean handed the money to his brother-in-law and turned back, waving his arms, looking ready for a fight.
“I can take him,” Jordan told me.
“Don’t you dare,” I whispered back, trying to remain as calm as possible. “You’re not Mongolian. You’ll be the one that goes to prison.”
In the meantime, the male gas attendant went to the back room and pulled out a baton, utility belt with handcuffs, and a bottle of mace. He seemed to be taking the Korean’s side.
“Give me camera,” the Korean demanded.
“Absolutely not,” Jordan replied. We eyed our bags, which I had set on a windowsill. The Korean was closer to them than we were by this point.
“Give me camera!” He jabbed a finger at the camera hanging around my neck.
Jordan stepped in front of me. “Hey, man,” he said in a placating voice. “You got your money, just take it and go. Go back.”
The driver in the doorway seemed to think that was good advice, but the Korean was furious. He grabbed Jordan’s camera bag. “I take home!”
I flew toward him, intercepting the bag as he tried to hand it to his brother-in-law. I got the bag and backed away, behind Jordan again, but the lens cap on the camera fell off and clattered to the floor.
The Korean swooped it up, triumphant. “I take.”
“Man, give me my lens back,” Jordan said.
And for the next five to ten minutes there was more yelling, arm-waving, and the Korean storming toward us.
“Get back, Adrianne,” Jordan warned. “If he comes at us, I don’t want him hitting you.”
The poor gas station attendants watched nervously, the man fingering his mace. I couldn’t tell who he wanted to use it on—the Korean was obviously more irate, but he spoke Mongolian and we didn’t.
Finally Jordan broke into the yelling. “If I give you 30,000, will you give me my lens cap back?”
“Yes,” the Korean agreed.
We only had denominations of 20s, so Jordan pulled out 40. Then they did a little dance, “you give it to me first,” and “No, you give it to me first.” So Jordan handed the money to the attendant as a middleman. He didn’t look happy about it, but obliged and traded the cap for the money and change.
The Korean finally calmed enough to leave, and stormed out to the car, where is brother-in-law was already waiting.
Jordan took the camera from me and stood at the window, waiting to see them leave. But the Korean decided Jordan was taking photos of them and stormed back, yelling and screaming some more.
“You have your money!” Jordan and I said. “Just leave!”
“No, this is my home. You leave. Get out! Get out right now!” He edged around, trying to herd us out the door. I didn’t want to go anywhere out in the cold, away from the gas attendants as witnesses.
Jordan grabbed the extra bag and walked outside.
The Korean grabbed my arm, pushing me toward the door. “Leave!”
“Back off!” I glared up at him. “Don’t you touch me!” I raised my hands and widened my stance, trying to recall self-defense moves.
The Korean maybe realized he looked really bad, trying to force a woman out into the cold, and took a step back. Or maybe the gas attendants told him to chill—I’m not sure which. But Jordan stood in the window, beckoning me outside, so I went.
“Did he touch you?” Jordan hissed.
“I pushed him away,” I said, standing right at the window. “I’m not leaving this window. There’s no telling what this guy might do.”
The Korean came outside behind us, still yelling and pleading. “Why? I need the money!” We ignored him, and eventually he got in his brother-in-law’s car and drove away.
I sighed in relief, my legs shaking from adrenaline.
Someone rapped on the window, and I turned to see the female attendant waving at us. I smiled and hurried back inside the building.
The man turned out the light so no one could see us sitting inside, then got us stools. The woman made us tea and smiled reassuringly.
Jordan and I huddled together, warming from the tea, trying to make sense of what had happened.
“I guess everyone has a scam story,” I said. “We’ve been traveling for almost two years. We’re past due.”
“That was so much money,” Jordan growled.
“I was angry about not seeing anything today, but after this scam, we have a full day’s worth of drama.”
After we had calmed down, the gas attendant showed us how much money would be fair to get back to the city (40,000 tugrik, or 16 USD), then stood outside with us at the road and helped us wave someone down.
Another Prius stopped (Priuses are really popular in UB) and said he’d take us to the center of town for 30,000 total.
Jordan and I thanked the gas station attendants profusely, hopped in the car, and finally got back to UB at 9 pm.
From there, we walked to our hostel and asked for a day tour for the next day. We didn’t have hardly any time in Mongolia, and almost a full day had been eaten by this scam. And I desperately wanted to meet a nomadic family. Eventually, after haggling and getting strange answers, I called another hostel/tour operator and booked a nice full-day trip that had everything we originally wanted (minus spending the night in a ger) for 60 USD per person.
“Tomorrow will be better. The Golden Gobi took our reservation, even though I called at 9:30 at night, for the next morning,” I promised.
“I can’t believe I let him take all that money,” Jordan replied.
“I was just so anxious to get to the park. I should’ve let you say no.” I unwrapped all my winter gear. “Let’s take a shower and go to bed.”
And that is our Mongolian Incident.