What the Mongols Taught Me

The tiny microbus honks a third time as I exit my friend’s apartment and head across the street to my waiting ride back to Omnodelger. Sitting under a street light flurries sparkle like falling jewels in the van’s headlights. Loaded up with my backpack and two baggies of purchased city goods I stride towards the microbus, walking through my own breath as it materializes in front of me. I clutch the handle with a gloved hand and yank open the sliding door.

The microbus. A staple of virtually any long distance Mongolian travel.

The tiny bus is packed floor to ceiling with all manner of goods and items. House paneling, stacks of foam insulation, towers of baby diapers, a disassembled bed frame, wooden crates of fresh vegetables, piles of plastic bags full of every eclectic item imaginable. To say the tiny space left for passengers was overcrowded is an understatement. Seven people were packed into a space that looked like it might uncomfortably hold three. To make room for the influx of goods the seat was slightly inclined forward causing the people on it to lean forward into a spine stiffening position. Men crushed and crammed onto one another. A woman and her baby sat leaning against piles of bags, the arm not being used to hold the child was raised above her to keep goods from collapsing onto her head.

As I pushed the door open all the way a bag rolled out and onto the ground the man closest to me flailed an arm and checked himself to keep from cartwheeling out of the microbus.

I blinked twice at the sight before me.

No way, absolutely not.” I said aloud to no one in particular.

Mongolia taught me a great many things but patience is at the top of the list. It was no gentle lesson, either. For over two years the central Asian nation tried, tested, and shoved every impatient inducing scenario down my throat. All of this pretty much from the get-go.

My first couple of months in Mongolia were spent in the sleepy town of Orkhon. I lived with a Mongolian family who taught me all the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of Mongolian culture.

One Saturday morning I got up early and hurriedly began packing a day bag. Last night my host brother had promised that today would be the day he would take me to the neighboring town of Khutul. To me Khutul was like the Land of Milk and Honey. In more populated Khutul, there were commodities such as a working post office, sit down restaurants, larger grocery stores, and best of all the coveted internet cafe. All these things were unavailable in Orkhon.


Excitedly I stuffed my laptop into my bag and slung the pack onto my shoulder. Shutting the door behind me, I ducked through the entryway of my family’s house out into the sunshine and usual noisy racket of the surrounding yard. As my eyes adjusted to the summer Mongolian sun the sight before me instantly soured my mood and wiped the smile from my face.

There, in the middle of the yard our family’s car lay dismantled. It sat in a pathetic heap, its two front tires removed, the whole front end was propped atop tiny pyramid stacks of red brick. The fenders were missing, laying in a plastic pile off to the side. The hood was open, revealing near emptiness underneath. Spread out on an oil stained tarp was a collection of parts that I could only assume used to make up the space under the car’s hood. All manner of gaskets, fuses, tubes, metal casings, and twisted wires sat sprawled out before me. This was my family’s only mode of transportation. With the current state of the family car it didn’t look like my anticipated Khutul visit was happening anytime soon.

In the middle of this mess sat my older host brother, Moojig. Holding up two unrecognizable parts, his arms were black from fingers to elbows in oil and grease. He held the pieces in front of his face slowly trying to fit them together.

Good morning, Justin!” he said with a smile, apparently missing my dumbfounded expression.

He got up from the tarp with the two parts in hand. I let the bag fall from my shoulder and followed him across the yard. As he knelt down with the two parts preparing to weld them together I searched my limited Mongolian word bank.

What are you doing?” I asked, trying to hide my disappointment.

He stood up and let out his signature high pitched laugh.

The car is broken.” He gestured towards the gutted hulk as if I had missed it.

I can damn well see that I thought, “Will we go to Khutul?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

Ah” he answered with a nod as if I had just reminded him of the trip.

We’ll go, we’ll go.” he picked up a welding mask. “Later.”

With a cheerful greasy pat on my shoulder he donned the mask and knelt before the metal pieces.

Moojig (left) ever the mechanic could repair anything from cars to the family tractor.
Moojig (left) ever the mechanic could repair anything from cars to the family tractor.

I did end up making it to Khutul. Though “later” turned out to be in a weeks time. I also climbed in that overcrowded microbus and endured the four hour neck kink. You see, Mongolia taught me the lesson of patience by forcing it on me. I got in that overcrowded microbus because if I didn’t I’d have no ride. I watched Moojig reassemble the family sedan like it was an adult LEGO model because it was my only option. I became patient because I was helpless to do anything but.

We as Americans are inherently impatient. Its ingrained into our society and nature. We tap our feet waiting in line for coffee, we want our pizza in thirty minutes or less, internet downloads must be instant, streaming TV must be seamless, we blast down highways and scream at traffic lights. Any hold up in our high speed lives is met with customer service tantrums and scathing online reviews (“I’d give it 0 stars if I could!”).

The moment when the patience light bulb turned on in my head happened during a particularly long drive back from the capital, Ulaanbaatar to my remote village of Omnodelger. In the dead of night our tiny car slowly bounced and crawled its way across the steppe. The spring thaw leaving the roads muddy and gouged.

Already eight hours into the ride, the time we should have been arriving in town, our driver halted at a river bank. The waters, swollen with freshly melted snow had widened the river making it deep and dangerous to ford. Up and down the bank we moved, searching for a safe place to cross. It was almost three in the morning and I wanted to be in my own bed, I had to teach early the next day.

Typical river in my home province of Khentii.  Water moves at a trickle or a torrent depending on the season.
Typical river in my home province of Khentii. Water moves at a trickle or a torrent depending on the season.

Finally, I resolved myself to the situation. It was all out of my hands anyways. We’ll get there when we get there I thought. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. This line of thought would soon become my mantra.

Another eight hours and a sketchy river crossing later we finally make it into town. I’m forced to rush right to school. After teaching a hastily thrown together lesson I sit down with a co-worker, Kherlen in the teacher’s room. Curious about my latest epiphany I ask her if Mongolians have a proverb similar to my patience mantra.

After a lot of thought she answered, “This proverb, maybe, we don’t have.”

This is life.” she added.

Her words rang true. During all my impatient scenarios the Mongolians around me never seemed to bat an eye. Here on the steppe things happened when they happened and no one ever minded or put up a fuss. To Mongolians things taking awhile was just part of their day to day existence.


Back home in America, my service in Mongolia at an end, I toss and turn in bed at night. Unemployed and living at home. Frustrated with people I no longer relate to and with a job market that doesn’t value me. My experiences reassured me more than ever about the person I am and the kind of life I want to lead. I’m still young. I’m eager. I’m ambitious. I wanted to move forward now. I knew I was at that pivotal stage in my existence where a new chapter was about to open, the page just wasn’t turning.

This is life.” Kherlen’s words echoed.

I relaxed my head on the pillow.  

Only one thought crossed my mind as I closed my eyes.

We’ll get there when we get there



What sorts of lessons have people from other places taught you?

Categories: Mongolia, Travel Insight | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “What the Mongols Taught Me

  1. Pingback: Mongolian Transport Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ride – In the Land of the Blue Sky

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