Our Soviet Van, Stuck in a Mongolian River!

Today’s amazing guest post is written and shared by my friend, Colleen, from Colleen Brynn Travels…please enjoy!

Some of the potholes were as large as a rhinoceros. As our Soviet van dipped and tipped its way along the pocked road, I thought we would reach that critical point just past our vehicle’s centre of gravity, and it would fall over. More than once, my heart leapt up into my throat and I grabbed at air, scrambled to trust the driver.

He was a kind-eyed man, with a constant smile playing on the lines beside his eyes. He didn’t speak a word of English, but that didn’t matter. Our guide was a Mongolian-born man about my age who had spent many years in the United States, his dad having been a diplomat there for much of his adolescence. He was able to translate for us, and together, these two men provided us with a colourful experience in their unique country.

Driving anywhere in Mongolia is an exercise in patience. Driving outside of the capital is an exercise in not only ones will to drive 7 hours to get to a distance that shouldn’t take more than 1 hour but also an exercise in managing ones tendency toward carsickness. Outside Ulaanbaatar, the capital, there isn’t much to drive on but long, stretching roads that appear to be more like paths than roads, paths that cut through fields, that bisect rivers and potholes and whatever else might be in their way.

When, during one of our long stretches of driving, we came upon a woman standing at the side of the road, I was perplexed, wondered what she could possibly be doing standing out here all by herself. There was nothing, and I mean nothing around. Just grass, hills and more grass.

I remember her hair most of all, a cute, perfectly shaped black bob. I noticed her shoes next, tidy, clean, colourful. She waved at us, and we slowed to sidle up beside her on the road, no one in front of us, no one behind. No one.

She communicated to our guide and driver that she was a tour guide, that the van she and her guests had been in was stuck in a river not far away. She kindly asked us if we would follow her and help pull them out. For the desolation and distance of their situation, she was amazingly calm, and even though her calm didn’t properly communicate her desperation, we didn’t need any convincing to offer our assistance.

Incredible, I marveled when we came to the river, and I saw where the old, Soviet van sat, half-sunk, drowning in the clear, cool waters of a nameless(?) Mongolian stream. We got out of our van, and our driver proceeded to plow his way across the river, slowly and surely. The plan was to attach a cord from our van to theirs and hit the gas.

This is what the drivers did. Then, after a lot of underwater tire-spinning, it became evident that additional muscle was required. A family nearby, enjoying a picnic and a bit of camping, donated their burliest men to the cause.

Pushing and shoving ensued. At first it was scattered and uncoordinated. They flailed and slipped on the rocks in the river as the engine revved and rumbled. I shouted out across the water and told the men to all push at the same time. They then began a repetitive count-and-push dance.

At one point, a man on a tractor trundled by. He looked at the situation and turned around. It seemed he might be going to fetch help. Another man came by on a horse. He waded into the river, sat there and watched, the horse rigid with obedience and indifference.

Many, many failed attempts later, the magical combination of man power (7 guys) and perfectly timed acceleration came together and the submerged van popped out of the water with a grunt, a scraping of river rocks.

We all clapped and cheered, a collective triumph of patience and persistence, and then we laughed when we saw our guide slip. When he emerged he muttered, “I lost my shoe.” Sure enough, it slipped off his foot and floated away in a single breath. Even though he had a back up pair of shoes, he would later do a short hike to a waterfall in his socks.

At that point, we all thought great, we can get on with our original plan now. So our driver turned around and began to make his way back across the river. Whenever I think back on this moment, I wonder if had I shouted, things might have turned out differently. I saw everything happen clearly and slowly, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to shout out a warning. My vocal cords were paralyzed, frozen by inevitability. Our driver made it halfway across the river, and then the van slipped into the same hole from which the other van had just emerged. Now our van was stuck.

With disappointment, our guide took pity on us and asked if there was anything we wanted rescued from the van for the moment. I requested my scarf so I could cover my skin to avoid sunburn, and he was also thoughtful and brought us waters.

I felt bad for our driver; he couldn’t communicate with us to express an apology, but I could see it in his eyes. I wished I could tell him not to worry, that none of us were upset, that we were all fine and everything would work out, but he just put his head down and busied himself righting the situation.

Lately I’ve been trying to remember that “every time you see the humour in a situation, you win.” This was one of those times. I wish I could have shared a laugh with our driver about our van.

We sat there for a while, and nothing happened. It was hot, and I did my best to shield my white skin with my white scarf. I wrote in my journal to pass the time. The Japanese girl in our group expertly shaded herself from the UV rays with a tracksuit that covered her arms to her wrists and her legs to her ankles, and she hid under an umbrella. I envied her. Meanwhile, the other van was on the other side of the river and was in the process of emptying itself of water. Its engine was dead by then and was no good to us.

I looked off in the distance. Rain was coming. For the sake of an impending sunburn, I was grateful, but for the sake of our lack of shelter, I wondered what that meant for us.

The man on the tractor reappeared, but I do not remember what he did, if anything. I had given up documenting with my camera what was happening and instead just watched. After a lot of waiting around and wondering, THIS appeared:

I don’t know where it came from or why or how they knew to head down to the river. I was just happy to see their large, imposing army-grade vehicle… which also just so happened to be filled with adorable Mongolian kids.

They appeared to be on some sort of family holiday, and they were about to rescue a bunch of foreigners on their Mongolian escapade. Once they’d arrived, it was like the best surgeon in town had finally arrived to perform a complicated and specialized surgery; only he could do it… only this vehicle was capable of extricating us from the pocket in the river.

Ropes were attached, the area was cleared, and before I knew it, the tires of this beastly vehicle bit down hard on the rocky riverbed. They spun and argued, but insisted the Soviet van stop sulking and join the rest of the family. As if waking from a nap, our van shuffled out of the water obediently. Once again, we all clapped and cheered.

That’s when I saw the rush of water spilling out of our vehicle. Two things crossed my mind: damage to our engine and damage to our things. We crept around to the back of the vehicle to see our belongings. I expected to find soggy backpacks and dripping suitcases, but instead, I saw nothing. The bags were no longer in the back. Our driver had carefully maneuvered them out of the water and onto the seats. I did my best to express my deep gratitude to him but I think this was lost in translation. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect him to save my/our belongings, so the fact that this had been his primary concern warmed my heart.

And that’s how my Soviet van got stuck in a river in Mongolia and how it was later rescued.

Our engine was kaput. We had to wade across the river (which was actually pretty dangerous considering the current and the fact that we carried our bags on our backs), and there, we all piled into the other van. It had been repaired while we waited. Our two groups almost didn’t fit in together, and I thought it was both comical and rude that the other group snubbed us for taking up their precious room. If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t have lost our own van to the river as they had.

We carried on, and even though we lost quite a bit of time to that van-eating river crater, we managed to see everything we had wanted to… including a bonus – playing with puppies in a field shortly after our rescue mission!

Colleen recounts her favourite travel tales at her blog Colleen Brynn Travels…and studies optometry while she isn’t writing. She is wildly fanatic about all things spicy – the spicier the better! – and loves playing hockey and swimming in cold lakes. She has traveled to over 40 countries and has been on the road off and on for the last ten years, much of which she accomplished solo. Drop her a line, she’d love to be friends. You can find her on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram!

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