I consider myself a fairly savvy traveler, a street smart girl. I grew up moving around my native United States and even internationally. Travel is in my blood and I’ve known from an early age how to handle myself on an international level. I currently live abroad in Hong Kong and have had the first opportunity to do some solo travel, something I’ve been dreaming of doing for quite some time. I started with a trip to Thailand, a country notoriously kind to solo travelers. Maybe I got cocky or just wanted a bigger challenge but I decided recently to take the leap and go to one of my golden destinations, Mongolia, one of the least visited countries on the planet. You can imagine my nerves as I researched my trip. People said it was a glorious place but somewhat challenging to traverse. I collected information on where to stay, what to do, and tried my best not to butcher the Mongolian language to no avail. Once I was on the actual airplane, my head was packed with the information I thought I needed. Unfortunately, I learned that when faced with fears, my mind switches to autopilot and it could have put me in a very bad situation. In a matter of only 24 hours, I managed to break not one, but four of what many declare are the golden “solo travel safety rules.” The fact that I ended up in one piece and with only a cautionary tale to tell I guess is good enough for me. I hope you can learn from my mistakes and don’t make the same of your own but also realize that everyone has their own adventure and it doesn’t always end up badly. It all began when I touched down at the Chengis Khan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia one evening. I had arranged with my hotel to pick me up, as I have a strange fear of taxis. It’s true, I’ve thrown myself out of planes and off of buildings but I hate, hate, dealing with taxi drivers. I always seem to climb in to the cab, I try and communicate where I want to go with photos, maps, or elaborate hand gestures, the driver gets frustrated and throws me out. I did not want this to happen at night in Ulaanbaatar by myself.
Anyway, I arrived and to my dismay, no driver was waiting for me anywhere in sight. I walked through the mess of people waiting to greet their loved ones with what felt like a swarm of rabid butterflies forming in my stomach. Just as my breathing started to quicken this little, old, man who looked like the Mongolian version of my grandpa came up to me.
“Taxi?” He asked with a sweet smile.
“Oh, no thank you.” I replied, although I’m sure he didn’t understand me beyond the “no.”
I decided to exchange my money while I waited and hoped the driver would be there by then. I looked at the mess of signs, unaware of where to go to change my money.
“Exchange?” I turned round to again see the old man. He beckoned for me to follow him. We turned down a dusty hallway as he motioned for an elevator.
Safety Rule One:
Don’t go anywhere dark and creepy with a strange man.
Thankfully, we went up a single level and the doors opened to the bank just ahead. As I waited for my Hong Kong dollars to change to Mongolian Tugrik I noticed the old man’s reflection in the bank window. He was waiting for me. He really wanted me to use him for my transportation. Shoot, this made me nervous. I felt bad, so bad in fact that I chose to throw all my cash into my daypack rather than split it up for safety.
Safety Rule Two:
Break up your money so you have back up in case you have an item stolen.
The man led me back down the stairs and proceeded to walk me around to all the hotel drivers. Mine simply wasn’t there. He chatted to some of his friends and it seemed like none of them had seen anyone from that hotel that day. Well, I decided I better just head out before this little man chooses another blonde girl and I’m left to deal with, in my mind, the scary Mongolian drivers. I turned to him and shook my head “yes” and we headed out the door. To be kind, he took my day pack so I wouldn’t need to carry it anymore. My daypack, with every cent I had in it. Safety Rule Three:
Never, ever hand your money to a stranger. Don’t be stupid!
He was old, I could out run him if he tried to make a break for it, I thought. I stood obnoxiously close to him, however, just to be sure. We rounded the bend and he motioned to a car directly in front of us – his taxi? This was no regular, public taxi this was a standard, small SUV you would see a sports mom driving to pick up her kids. No sign, no anything.
The alarm started to go ballistic in my head. Do not get in a stranger’s car in the middle of a foreign country where you have no cellular signal or people looking for you. Turn back now! What are you thinking?
Safety Rule Four:
Don’t voluntarily get into a strange man (or woman’s) car at any point whether traveling or not.
But I got in the car. Against everything I’ve ever been taught whether being a child or a young woman by herself I got in the car! I don’t really know why, and I doubt I’ll ever repeat this choice again. I decided to trust the kindness of a stranger, it had worked out for so many travelers before me. I trusted my gut which told me this man was as genuine as he seemed to be.
I placed my bags in the back seat and climbed into the passenger. It took us a while to find the hotel, driving through the congested Ulaanbaatar traffic, trying out best to communicate with each other in our respective languages. Once we finally pulled up to my hotel, he handed me my packs and I payed what he asked, (a whole $10,000 tugrik less than I would have had to pay the hotel’s driver!) and we waved goodbye. As I entered the hotel I reflected on what “dumb” choices I had just made in quick succession and whether or not I should tell my Mum how I began this solo trip.
So, in the end everything turn out alright and all I have to show for it is a tale to tell a daughter someday. The lesson I learned was to trust your gut in travel most travel situations. Scary things can happen, but thankfully, there are plenty of good people in this world to balance out the bad.