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BSCB Trans-Siberian Railway Photo Reports described as “National Geographic meets Car and Driver”

2015 GMC Yukon. Picture courtesy of, Tiger picture courtesy of National Geographic

TTAC Comment #1

If you have been a BSCB reader for the past year you will know about the Trans-Siberian Railway Photo Report I published between September and November 2013, describing the car landscape along the famous railway and going through St Petersburg, Moscow, Lake Baikal, Ulaanbaatar, the Gobi desert and Beijing among other places. I have been publishing these reports on American website The Truth About Cars, and one reader recently described the series as ‘National Geographic meets Car and Driver’. I couldn’t be more honoured!

Relive the entire Series through 24 Photo Reports featuring hundreds of photos here

Ghost motorbike rider Gobi desertIn the Gobi desert, Mongolia – October 2013

Trans-Siberian Railway 2013: Merc G-Class Mongol music video

This is Part 23 of my Trans-Siberian Photo Report. You can see all other Parts of this long-term Report here. A few weeks ago I wrote about the most popular cars in Mongolia, and described how the Mercedes G-Class ranked at a world-best #5 so far in 2013, reaching cult-level in the country. Thanks to Buggii, the driver at the hostel I stayed in Ulaanbaatar last month who became an avid reader of BSCB, I can finally share with you some proof of that cult status which is unique in the world. Above is the music video for Mongolian R’n’b artist Tselmuun’s latest hit “Setgel”. From 2min49 in the video you can see a line of Mercedes G-Class behind the dancers, not one but 4 of them – so cool right now.

Trans-Siberian Railway 2013: The best-selling cars in Mongolia

1 Toyota Land CruiserThe Toyota Land Cruiser is by far the most popular new car in Mongolia.

* See the Top 12 best-selling models by clicking on the title! *

This is Part 19 of my Trans-Siberian Photo Report. You can see all other Parts of this long-term Report here. I know a lot of you have been feverishly waiting for this article, and I have to say at some stage I didn’t think I would actually be able to share this type of data for Mongolia.

2 Kia Rio PolicePolice orders have pushed the Kia Rio up to #2 so far in 2013.

After chasing, following up and chasing again many actors of the Mongolian automotive industry, here it is in all its glory thanks to Toyota’s distributor in the country Khet Motors: the official Top 12 best-selling new cars in Mongolia over the first half of 2013! These 12 models added up to 1,568 sales over the Full Year 2012 and 913 over H1 2013, which can be extrapolated as approximately 40% increase of the overall Mongolian new car market year-on-year… Talk about explosive growth.

3 Lexus LXThe Lexus LX rounds up the 2013 year-to-date Mongolian podium.

Observation in the streets of Ulaanbaatar didn’t lie: the Toyota Land Cruiser is well and truly king around here, selling 501 units over the Full Year 2012 and 375 so far in 2013. It’s hard to estimate the Land Cruiser’s overall market share but it should definitely be north of 20%. Kia Mongolia tells me a special order from the Ulaanbaatar police has pushed the Kia Rio up to 2nd place so far in 2013 with 97 sales, and this makes sense as I did not see any ‘private’ Rios the entire time I stayed there.

5 Mercedes G ClassThe Mercedes G-Class ranks at a world-best #5 in Mongolia!

#2 in 2012, the Lexus LX570 is pushed down to a still incredible third position in 2013 so far thanks to 88 units sold above the Hyundai Tucson at 54 sales. But the most characteristic and unique element of the Mongolian new car market is found in 5th position: the Mercedes G-Class reaches its world-best ranking here thanks to 51 units sold and up from #7 in 2012! The G-Class is simply adored by Mongolian consumers and has reached cult-status, being included in numerous local music (Mongol pop or rap) videos.

Range Rover Mongolia 2013The Range Rover is the #11 most popular model in Mongolia so far in 2013!

It is a very interesting models ranking indeed for Mongolia, with many other high-end models ranking inside the Top 12 like the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado at #6, Hyundai Sonata at #7, Toyota Land Cruiser 70 at #9, Ford Everest at #10 and Range Rover at #11! This is typical of very ‘young’ new car markets where only the wealthiest have the money to afford to buy a new vehicle, and therefore go all out when they do. Given the very large majority of the Mongolian population can only afford to buy used Japanese imports, the Mongolian new car sales charts end up looking like they belong to a petrol-rich Middle-Eastern country…

Full Photo Report and 6 months 2013 Top 12 models Ranking Table below.

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Trans-Siberian Railway 2013: Japanese imports in Ulaanbaatar

1 Toyota Prius IFirst generation Toyota Prius

* See the Full Photo Report by clicking on the title! *

This is Part 18 of my Trans-Siberian Photo Report. You can see all other Parts of this long-term Report here. After reporting on the impressive number of Hummers in Mongolia’s capital city Ulaanbaatar, today we have a look at one of the most peculiar characteristics of the car landscape of Ulaanbaatar (and the country): used right-hand drive Japanese imports. Hope you enjoy, and stay tuned for the last Mongolian update in this long-term Photo Report, detailing the official best-selling cars in Mongolia in 2013. Yessir!

If the very high ratio of used right-hand drive Japanese imports in the streets of Ulaanbaatar was after all a logical continuation of what I had progressively observed as I traveled further East in Russia, the big difference is the extremely high occurrence of hybrid models, namely the first two generations Toyota Prius. Easily explainable by the fact that used imports of hybrid cars are exempt of import tax, this fact still had you (and me!) scratch our heads given the very harsh weather Ulaanbaatar experiences during winter.

2 Toyota Verossa PriusToyota Verossa and second generation Prius

Somehow hybrid and temperatures going down as low as -40 to -45°C didn’t seem to work together. That’s where we got it wrong. Speaking with a few drivers in the capital city, they all told me one of the main advantages of owning a hybrid car and particularly a Toyota Prius is that they always start without a fault each morning in winter, no matter how outer-worldly the temperature is. That is definitely not the case for non-hybrid cars, in particular the hordes of used and battered Hyundais I spotted all across the country.

3 Toyota Corolla Prius IToyota Corolla and Prius

My first impressions of the Ulaanbaatar car park were confirmed day after day over the two-week period I stayed in the region. Priuses Priuses everywhere… As you will see in the Mongolia best-sellers article, Toyota is the default brand when it comes to buying a new car here, and this is even more true in the used car world.

13 Nissan ElgrandNissan Elgrand

Apart from the thousands of Prius you can spot in the capital, the next three most popular used Toyotas to have travelled directly from Japan are quite familiar: they were also quite successful in Russia… I am talking about the Toyota Ist, Verossa and Probox.

5 Toyota Crown HybridToyota Crown Hybrid

Three models I didn’t see often in Russian but at every street corner in Ulaanbaatar are the Toyota Crown Hybrid (all generations), the Toyota Mark II Grande with its distinctive tail-lights split by the nameplate…

6 Toyota Mark XToyota Mark X and Prius

…and the Toyota Mark X. The only non-Toyota that should feature among the best-selling used Japanese imports is the Nissan Tiida. I also spotted a few Nissan Elgrand, Honda Life and Element but it’s mainly a Toyota world out here.

7 Toyota Will CyphaToyota Will Cypha

7b Toyota Will ViToyota Will Vi

7c Toyota Will VS HummerToyota Will Vs and Hummer

A range I got to discover with eyes wide open in Russia was Toyota’s Will cars, and in Mongolia they have become quite common, to my amazement. So common that I have managed to take ok pictures of each member of the range above: the Will Cypha, Will Vi and Will Vs next to the ubiquitous Hummer.

8 Toyota Voltz Pontiac VibePontiac Vibe? Nope, Toyota Voltz

Other oddities I spotted in Ulaanbaatar include the Toyota Voltz, a badge-engineered Pontiac Vibe complete with the nameplate “V” logo which in fact could stand for Voltz as well as Vibe – handy!

9 Mitsuoka RyogaMitsuoka Ryoga

This is the first (and only so far) time I saw a member of the Mitsuoka brand…

10 Honda ElementHonda Element

Full Photo Report including many more Toyota Prius below.

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Trans-Siberian Railway 2013: Peugeot launches in Mongolia

Peugeot 4008 Mongolia LaunchPeugeot Mongolia official launch ceremony – July 2013

* Many thanks to Marc Bocque for organising this interview! *

This is Part 17 of my Trans-Siberian Photo Report. You can see all other Parts of this long-term Report here. Coinciding with my stay in Mongolia, French manufacturer Peugeot, after confirming in July an accord with local distributor Baz International (also involved in mining, real estate and cable TV), is in the process of launching for the very first time in the country. The first Peugeot showroom is currently in construction in Ulaanbaatar. To understand the motivations behind this launch I had the privilege of interviewing Eric Mougin, Peugeot Asia Sales Manager and responsible for the imminent launch of the brand in Mongolia.

Peugeot 208 Mongolia 2014Local distributor Baz International has expressed strong interest in the Peugeot 208.

The launch of Peugeot in Mongolia is part of its general Asian strategy linked to an expansion in no less than 13 countries in the region, including South Korea, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Nepal, Indonesia and most recently Kazakhstan. Peugeot bases this strategy on the fact that Asia ex-China/India now counts 1 billion inhabitants and is the fastest-growing car market in the world. The manufacturer tables on the opening of its first Mongolian showroom in early 2014 but given the temperatures that affect Ulaanbaatar at that time of the year, the country almost grinds to a halt and the French carmaker doesn’t anticipate any commercial activity here before Spring 2014.

Peugeot 508 Mongolia October 2013. Picture courtesy of largus.frThe 508 will be Peugeot’s flagship in Mongolia for now.

The main objective of Peugeot in Mongolia is ‘to be one of the first European brands present at the start of history’ as new car sales start taking off. Peugeot estimate the Mongolian car market at 45-50,000 units in 2013, however only around 10% of these (5,000 at most) are new cars and, as we saw in my Mongolia First Impressions post the large majority are RHD used Japanese imports. Peugeot is counting on the intention of the Mongolian government to regulate used RHD imports more strictly, and believes the new car ratio may climb to 50% within the next 3 years to reach 50,000 units off a 100,000 units total market by 2020.

Peugeot’s initial sales target is modest: 150 to 200 sales for the first full year. The range includes the 208, 508, 3008 and 4008 for the moment, all models will be petrol automatic transmissions imported from France to build on the country’s luxury reputation and Peugeot will be positioned ‘close to the premium world’. No hybrid diesel for now, but given the popularity of hybrids in the country this option is seriously considered.

Toyota Prius Mongolia October 2013Can Mongolia ever fall out of love with used RHD Japanese imports?

Now onto my 5 cents worth on the subject. Peugeot is virtually unknown in Mongolia, so it definitely is a good idea to launch now, as it will take time to build a reputation. Not that it will greatly affect Peugeot sales in the country but even if say used Japanese imports become illegal, the Mongolian used car market will reorient itself towards LHD Korean imports and it will take a long time for a market that has been almost 100% used forever to become 50-50 used/new. Simply because most of the population do not have the money to buy a new car. After all, even in very mature markets like France the used-to-new ratio is still 2 to 1.

Citroen DS Wild Rubis ConceptDS Wild Rubis: a Peugeot variant would get the brand an instant 10% market share in Mongolia!

A badass SUV would be the best way to fast-track Peugeot’s progression in Mongolia, as Peugeot’s range is currently a little at odds with the country’s tastes and roads which is not uncommon for a brand new launch. Apart from (very) central Ulaanbaatar, the roads are uneven at best, impassable at worst unless by old Hyundais with no pretention or a big SUV. However, the country’s infrastructure is improving at lightning speed so no doubt these conditions will be bettered by the time Peugeot is an integral part of the market.

Now. About this Peugeot 6008 concept to be unveiled at the 2014 Beijing Auto Show and built on the same architecture as the DS Wild Rubis… Mongolia is waiting for you!

Trans-Siberian Railway 2013: The Hummers of Ulaanbaatar

Hummer 2One of the many Hummers I saw in Ulaanbaatar

* Check out the Full Photo Report by clicking on the title! *

This is Part 16 of my Trans-Siberian Photo Report. You can see all other Parts of this long-term Report here. After one week in the Gobi desert, saying that getting back to Ulaanbaatar is a shock is an understatement. You would think that civilisation progressively creeps back to culminate in the capital, but it’s not so. Basically anything outside of Ulaanbaatar is desert steppe, and when you arrive in the city it’s like turning a huge switch on: you instantly are in traffic jams going for kilometres! It’s simple, I saw in 10 seconds the amount of cars it took one week to spot outside the capital…

Hummer 5Big.

There will be four more articles about Mongolia on BSCB, including one detailing the (official!) best-selling models in the country in 2013 so far so be sure to check in often so you don’t miss any updates. I couldn’t go on without pausing on one of the most surprising particularities of the UB car landscape: the astounding frequency of Hummers. I saw dozens every day in the capital (no, it was not the same doing the rounds, I checked).

Hummer H2b

All models are represented, with the H2 being the most frequent. When riding my bike to Terelj National Park, I was even passed by a hugely huge H1 Alpha Wagon and it took both sides of the road to pass my tiny mountain bike! Scary. I also spotted a few pick-ups. One interesting fact in Ulaanbaatar is that a majority of these Hummers are driven by women. With 80% of the highest-ranking jobs in the capital held by women it makes sense that they drive one of the most expensive American vehicles around.

Hummer H2 on saleThis Hummer will set you back 89,999,999 MNT

If you are interested, there is one (new?) Hummer on sale right in front of the big State Department Store in Ulaanbaatar for 90 million MNT which is a steep US$52,000. Any takers? Which begs the question: but where do all these Hummers come from? When the brand shut down in 2010, there were reportedly 2,200 vehicles remaining to be sold, so it would make sense that a share of these found their way to Mongolia. A very interesting South China Morning Post article explains it all for us.

Hummer H2 yellowA yellow Hummer for a change

In 2010 Terbish Bolor-Erdene, a 30 year-old entrepreneur president of the Mongolia Hummer Club, said there are around 300 Hummers in Ulaanbaatar, a quarter of them sold through his dealership. This number could well have jumped to 500 or 600 today. ‘The Hummer started out as a military vehicle and we Mongols still think of ourselves as warriors. It’s just a perfect fit for our country and our people.’ he said. The SCMP says the vehicles are particularly popular with Mongolia’s nouveau ‘khans’. Owners include pop singers, CEOs and famous athletes. Sumo wrestler Davaagdorj Dolgorsuren, who became Japan’s 68th Yokozuna, drives a Hummer H1 (probably the one who passed me on my way to Terelj!).

Hummer H2 SUTHummer H3T

Mongolia’s love affair with the Hummer started in the late 1990s when a brash cashmere magnate named B. Jargalsaikhan started driving around Ulaanbaatar in a Humvee, one of the original military vehicles designed and used by the US army. Hummers have since filtered into Mongolia’s growing upper class. Luvsandorj Magnaidorj, a policy director for the local traffic police office, drives an H2.

Hummer H3

In 2010 when the article was written in the South China Morning Post, Bolor-Erdene and other importers were purchasing Hummers in the US and shipping them to Mongolia, via China. Shipping a vehicle cost around US$2,600 and once it arrives in Mongolia the importer will likely pay an additional US$6,000 in import duties.

Hummer H3 Lexus LXHummer and Lexus LX

The Hummers were then shined up and sold in parking lots around the city, with high mark-ups resulting in big gains for importers. In 2010 Bolor-Erdene said his asking price for his latest import, a Hummer H2 SUT, was US$120,000, whereas a typical US price for this vehicle was US$56,800 at the time. Now that Hummer production has stopped, importers like Bolor-Erdene have to rely on the remaining stock available (it is unclear whether there are still some new Hummers around) or used vehicles.

But the Hummer was not the only American gas-guzzler to be seen frequently around Ulaanbaatar… See below the jump for more Yankees.

Full Photo Report below.

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Trans-Siberian Railway 2013: Which cars survived the Gobi (3/3)

Silver MustangMake no mistake: our van is a Silver Mustang.

* See the Full Photo Report by clicking on the title and click on each photo to enlarge! *

This is Part 15 of my Trans-Siberian Photo Report, and the last one dedicated to the Gobi region in Mongolia. You can see all other Parts of this long-term Report here. 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. If 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.

IMG_9379Our 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.

Driving aidsPrayer 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 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!

Matt OgiWith 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 and will upload it on here when YouTube is available to me again, in a few days when I land in Australia as the video site is blocked in China where I currently am.

Ready for takeoffReady 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…

Engine insideEasy 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 pretty 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!

Manual Four wheel drive 2“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.

FrontBadass 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!

Nothingness 1Nothingness

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…

Day 1 stopFixing 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 say 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.

Nothingness 5More 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.

Full Photo Report below.

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Trans-Siberian Railway 2013: Which cars survived the Gobi (2/3)

Ghost motorbike rider Gobi desertLike a ghost riding the desert… Forget cars, motorbikes are the preferred motorised means of transportation in the Gobi.

This is Part 14 of my Trans-Siberian Photo Report. You can see all other Parts of this long-term Report here. The last update was just an introduction to the Gobi region, now we are getting serious. Traversing the harshest terrain in the Gobi desert took us 4 days on an often disappearing track, only rarely flat. Needless to say only the sturdiest four wheel drives are allowed here.

UAZ Hunter Gobi 1UAZ Hunter near Yolyn Am, Gobi.

Now you might question my sanity doing a Car Photo Report on potentially one of the areas in the world with the fewest cars around, and I would forgive you for that. But spotting the rare vehicles able to survive in this environment already tells a fascinating story in my view. Firstly, I will attempt to explain the role of a motorised vehicle, two- or four-wheeled, in the Gobi desert. Remember there are 13 horses for each human being in Mongolia, plus wild and domesticated camels roam the desert by the thousands, so any motorised vehicle may seem superfluous at first.

UAZ Silver Mustang Gobi 2UAZ Silver Mustang near Khongoryn Els, Gobi.

The inhabitants of this region, which is one of the most inhospitable in the world, are one of the most hospitable people I ever got the chance to meet. All live in traditional gers, with their most valuable possessions for the most part being horses, camels and/or goats. A lot of these families are 100% self-sufficient and live off their animals’ meat and dairy products (the best I ever tasted in the world – and I’m French!), and sometimes a bit of tourism. They move around once the sparse vegetation around their camp has been consumed by their animals, which sometimes can mean a weekly displacement.

Matt Ogi Yamtak GobiWith our driver and guide Ogi and valiant 80 year-old Yamtak who made us some horse milk vodka!

To give you an idea of the hospitality of these people let me briefly recount two stories. In the first ger camp we arrived at, right in front of the Khongoryn Els dunes, our hostess, who had already retreated to her winter camp 45km away, didn’t think twice about riding her motorbike across mountains and sand dunes (yessir!) to come meet us, take us on a camel trek, and spend an evening drinking Golden Gobi beer and playing very involved shagai (ankle bones) games with us.

Gobi life scene 1Ulzi and his sister-in-law Nasar who kindly opened their ger’s door to us.

Gobi life scene 2Typical life scene in the Gobi 

A couple of days later, we couldn’t reach our scheduled ger camp before sunset because of a few tiny issues with our car (which I will relate in my next Gobi post). Not to worry, we literally crashed in at a family’s camp, and our local driver asked whether we could sleep here for the night. That actually meant one member of the family had to go sleep in the next ger camp kilometers away to let us 3 sleep on the floor of their only ger, which they did not hesitate one second doing, on top of it cooking us one of the most delicious breakfasts you’ll ever get to eat, and inviting us to watch how they milked their horses, goats and camels. That’s Mongolian hospitality for you.

UAZ Hunter horse GobiA horse and a UAZ Hunter: that’s a good start in Mongolia. Near Bayanzag, Gobi.

I know I’m getting a little off-subject here but I wanted to take the opportunity to stress the incredible experiences that I was lucky enough to live in rural Mongolia, so that if some of you were thinking of visiting this country then you get convinced to go, as I recommend it highly.

Gobi motorbikeNear Dalanzadgad, Gobi.

So a motorbike, and the Chinese have a near monopoly on these here, is potentially the most precious means of transportation a Gobi desert family could own after a horse. The car comes much below in the needs ladder, mostly as an aid to their nomadic life to carry their ger and a few suitcases and pieces of furniture when they move camp. The whole time we traversed the Gobi desert we were the only four-wheeled vehicle in movement – apart from one stranded bunch of Mongol lads we helped bring back to motion by siphoning out a bit of our petrol. I never saw anyone hop in their car for a quick (?) drive to the next ger. Horses fill that potential need much better.

UAZ Silver Mustang Gobi 1UAZ Bukhanka near Khongoryn Els, Gobi.

Now that I have set the décor, onto the big question: but which cars on earth can be tough enough to withstand this environment? And I’m sure the answer will surprise you: Russian cars. In the 4 days we traversed the harshest part of the Gobi desert, from Bayandalai to Togrog, I spotted a grand total of 18 four-wheeled vehicles. Yep, that’s only 4.5 per day… This is probably the most acute carspotting draught in my entire life!

Kia Bongo GobiOne of only two Kia Bongo pick-ups I spotted in the Gobi.

Almost all of the vehicles I spotted were parked next to lonely gers peppered along the desert, and there were – drum roll… 9 UAZ Bukhanka (we will call it Silver Mustang – you’ll know why in my next post) not including ours, 5 UAZ Hunter, 2 Kia Bongo four door pick-ups, one VW Amarok and one Toyota Cami. That’s it. Meaning 80% of the vehicles I saw in the Gobi desert were Russian!

UAZ Silver Mustang Gobi 3UAZ Silver Mustang near Khongoryn Els, Gobi.

Why oh why I hear you ask, given the atrocious reliability reputation of Russian vehicles. Easy. Every Mongolian you will ask (our driver included) will tell you that Russian four wheel drives are ‘a little difficult’ – that’s Mongolian for ‘a pain in the arse’ – but they have been around forever so virtually everyone driving them knows how to repair them. Yes they break down often but they can go everywhere and when they break down they can be fixed easily, which is not the case for all the brand-new Toyota Land Cruiser you can still spot all the way until Mandalgovi.

UAZ Silver Mustang with gerUAZ Silver Mustang with packed-up ger on roof

It’s an interesting but telling coincidence that the most frequent vehicle I spotted in the Gobi is the one we were driving in. The Silver Mustang is truly the Gobi desert survivor, so much so that I have dedicated one full post to it, the last of my Gobi Photo Reports… Stay tuned, it’s coming shortly!

Trans-Siberian Railway 2013: Which cars survived the Gobi (1/3)

1 Hyundai Porter GobiNomadic life in action: Proud Mongolian woman in front of her family’s Hyundai pick-up with her ger all packed-up in the back.

* See the Full Photo Report by clicking on the title! *

I’m back! Thank you all for your patience, the Gobi desert was an amazing experience that I recommend highly and that I will try to relate in 3 dedicated posts, starting today. Hope you enjoy! This is Part 13 of my Trans-Siberian Photo Report. You can see all other Parts of this long-term Report here. 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.

2 Toyota Land Cruiser MandalgoviToyota Land Cruiser in Mandalgovi, Gobi region.

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!

3 Hyundai Porter Gobi2Hyundai Porter, Gobi region

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 full packed-up 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.

4 Toyota Prius MandalgoviToyota Prius in Mandalgovi, Gobi region

5 Toyota Corolla MandalgoviToyota Corolla in Mandalgovi

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, and 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.

8 Russian Truck MandalgoviZIL 130 in Mandalgovi (thanks Vinvad)

7 Sinotruk Truck GobiSinotruk Howo

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).

9 Hyundai Getz BayandalaiHyundai Getz next to Bayandalai’s sole water well.

10a UAZ Hunter BayandalaiUAZ Hunter in Bayandalai

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, a few battered Hyundai Pony, one Hyundai Getz, two Toyota Rush but 3 UAZ Hunter including one dedicated to the Traffic Police, which must not have had too hard a life until now give the absence of traffic in Bayandalai.

7 Toyota Rush BayandalaiToyota Cami in Bayandalai

10c UAZ Hunter BayandalaiUAZ Hunter in Bayandalai

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…

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Trans-Siberian Railway 2013: Terelj NP, Mongolia Photo Report

1 Toyota Prius IIToyota Prius next to a traditional Mongol ger in Terelj National Park

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This is Part 12 of my Trans-Siberian Photo Report. You can see all other Parts of this long-term Photo Report here. After giving you my First impressions on the unique Mongolian car landscape, I now take you to Terelj National Park, 80 km East of the capital Ulaanbaatar and already complete countryside. What I first observed in Ulaanbaatar is still valid here, namely a huge part of the car landscape is composed of the first two generations Toyota Prius. I have also seen proportionally more Toyota Verossa in this part of the country.

2 Toyota VerossaToyota Verossa near Nalaikh, Mongolia – September 2013

As far as new models are concerned, the clear large SUV trend I described in Ulaanbaatar is understandably even more pronounced here, even though the road from Ulaanbaatar to Telej is sealed all the way and in perfect condition. It is even being upgraded in some parts which I will talk more about soon. Given the Terelj Hotel, the most luxurious hotel in the country, is a typical weekend destination for cashed-up inhabitants of Ulaanbaatar, I spotted many Toyota Land Cruiser on my way to Terelj and a few Lexus LX, Infiniti QX and Nissan Patrol.

3 Toyota Prius IToyota Prius on the road to Terelj

This was for me the opportunity to discover the ‘real’ Mongolia, sleep in a traditional ger and check out the eagles, camels, yaks and horses that are emblematic of the country, while still keeping an eye on the cars passing by on the road of course… I have had a few questions from you asking whether Mongolia was already too ‘commercialised’. While it is obvious the country is probably a lot more developed and touristic than say ten years ago, it is not a walk in the park and you have to ‘earn’ your Mongolian experience.

4 Matt MongoliaGood old me with my mate Attila the golden eagle

What is heart-warming is to see a large part of the Mongolian people now actually living the life they had been dreaming about for decades and enjoying every minute of it. While they have embraced consumerism whole-heartedly, they are doing so very pragmatically, with caution and most importantly without losing themselves, in a typically Buddhist way. The Mongolian modern identity is unique and has a multitude of facets including modern ‘Mongol pop’ music which mixes traditional instruments with contemporary sounds, and very present traditional costumes it is not rare to see worn in the street or around ger camps.

8 Foton AumanFoton Auman

Back to reality and a last observation about this little hop out of the Ulaanbaatar traffic jams is that most of the heavy trucks catering for the road work I saw along the way are Chinese: the Foton Auman is the most popular with construction companies, some with an interesting and very prominent ‘Produced by Foton Daimler’ announcement, as are the Sinotruck and Dongfeng brands. I also saw a Wuzheng truck which is a brand I didn’t know before…

8 Toyota Prius IToyota Prius just outside of Ulaanbaatar

That’s all for Terelj, and for once I can’t tell you what the next stop will be because I am not sure whether there actually are cars there! So it’ll be a surprise…

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