Surviving a kidnapping while backpacking in Mongolia

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The day after…

Igor and I were sitting across from each other at a hostel in Ulaan Baatar. I was telling him about my ordeal the night before. His eyes went wide when I told him I pulled my knife on a Mongol taxi driver.

Igor: “How much was he trying to steal from you?”

Me: “10,000 Tughriks!”

Igor: “Hahaha, dude that’s like $3!”

Me: ….

guys laughing

The day before…

When I arrived at the Ulaan Baatar “Dragon” bus station it was dusk, I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. I was returning from northwest Mongolia and spent much of the journey crammed in uncomfortable mini-buses.

The Dragon bus station is a seedy place, lots of drunks and pickpockets about.

Dragon Bus Station Ulaanbaatar Mongolia
Dragon Bus Station, Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia

A stout taxi driver in a yellow jacket offered me a ride. As always in Mongolia, I clearly established the price before we started. (Mongol taxi drivers often try to charge extra when you arrive.) Our agreement of 10,000 Tughriks was crystal clear.

I started to get into the back seat of the taxi, but the driver pointed me to the front passenger seat instead.

I didn’t think anything of it and got in.

Little did I know, I walked into a trap…

The ride

The driver had a dim look to his face. He kept speaking to me in Mongolian despite it being clear I didn’t know his language. He figured if he talked louder or repeated himself 10 times, I would understand.

My hostel was walking distance from Sukhbaatar Square – the iconic center of the city. That’s where I told him to take me.

Sukhbaatar Square Mongolia
Genghis Khan statue in Sukhbaatar Square

Despite this being the most well known place in Ulaan Baatar, he got lost. I could see on my phone we were going in the wrong direction.

Ultimately, I needed to point out to him every single turn back to my hostel using my phone’s navigator. I think he was drunk.

A sinking feeling…

He pulled into a dark side street next to my hostel. He immediately turned to me and said “20,000 Tughriks” – twice our agreed price. (In other words, $6 instead of $3.)

I said, “No. 10,000 Tughriks like we agreed.”

He got aggressive, demanding 20,000 loudly, again and again.

I was tired and in no mood for bullshit. I said, “Fuck you” and reached for the door handle to get out of the car….

The lever just flopped out when I pulled – it had been disconnected from the latching mechanism.

The driver wasn’t surprised. He smirked. It was at this moment I realized why he wanted me to sit in the front seat.

I looked at the handle, the paint was worn off. He’d done this scam many times.

How many others, just like me, have grabbed at that handle, wearing off the paint?

A cornered animal

Me: “Let me out first, then I’ll pay.”

Driver: “No you pay first!”

Me: “Let me out of the fucking car.”

Driver: “No you pay first!”

This stalemate went on for several minutes.

I couldn’t really move, the taxi was small and I was almost shoulder to shoulder with the brute. I wasn’t going to pull my wallet out in the car. He would’ve just grabbed it and smashed me in the face.

two men in a car
Example of the close confines – very dangerous.

I resented being trapped. I was in no mood for this stupid shit.

I raised my voice, “LET ME OUT OF THIS FUCKING CAR!”

Then I yanked harder on the door handle and broke it clean off.

The driver erupted, “AHHH – YOU BROKE MY CAR – NOW YOU PAY MORE – $20 EUROS – $20 EUROS!”

I told him, “FUCK-YOU” and tossed the handle on the floor.

Suddenly, the driver turned forward, stepped on the gas and took off, with me still locked inside.

Going to the 2nd Location

I grew up in the early 90’s when suburban white mothers were terrorized by weekly news stories about child abductions. My mother told me that if someone tried to snatch me to fight my hardest on the spot.

“Don’t let them take you to a 2nd location,” she said.

(It’s good advice. Most abductees are killed/robbed/beaten/raped at the second location – the criminal’s turf.)

kidnapping second location

Here I was, en-route to a 2nd location – in Mongolia – remembering what my mom told me when I was 8 years old.

I took stock of my situation and started running through my options.

I was at a physical disadvantage. The driver was a good 50lbs heavier than me. In the confined space, I could suffer damage if he started striking me.

Then there is always the possibility of him having a knife or a gun. If I started violence, maybe he’d have a weapon to retaliate.

There wasn’t enough space to escape to the back seat.

I couldn’t let him take me to the 2nd location.

I had a knife in my pocket

I’ve carried a knife in my pocket since I was 10 years old when I passed the Boy Scout knife safety course. I always carry a folded knife discretely in my pocket when traveling. Igor calls me the “Prepared American Man” for a reason.

Gerber Air Ranger
This is the knife I’ve carried for 10 years. It has a thin handle that is discreet in your pocket so nobody knows you’re carrying it.

The car kept speeding towards the second location. Where was he taking me? The driver was calm, he knew exactly where he was going.

gang beating
Would I soon be introduced to his friends?

I reached in my pocket and got the knife in my hand – still folded and concealed.

Ideas raced through my head. Could I break the window glass with the knife handle? I didn’t think it would work – auto glass is tough and if I start pounding the window he could beat me while trapped next to him in my seat.

I briefly considered presenting the knife and threatening him with it. However, if I merely presented the knife, it was possible he could overpower me and use the knife against me.

I knew that if the knife came out, I’d have to be all in – no hesitation – committed to a devastating first strike. The special forces guys I used to work with, called this “violence of action.”

I mentally rehearsed the strike.

I’d stab him in the neck while both his hands were on the steering wheel.

This might sound crazy, but I was cornered, with a criminal, in a foreign country, driving down ghetto streets. Survival instincts were taking over.

cornered animal

When Plan A is “stabbing a man in the throat,” you need a Plan B.

You know it’s interesting – or stupid. I never once thought to just offer him the money to let me go. I really resented being trapped. It made me mad. This clouded my judgement.

Another factor is I believe my testosterone levels were elevated from the intense travel and physical exercise over the previous 40 days. Igor and I had maintained a relentless travel pace. Always with heavy packs on our backs, hitchhiking, sleeping in a new place almost every night, hiking up mountains, eating fresh Siberian food, getting sun, and breathing highly oxygenated air. This was closer to the life of a Viking than an office worker and had noticeably increased my vigor.

I hadn’t completely lost my mind though, I knew stabbing a man had horrible consequences.

What would happen next? Get arrested for murder? Get thrown in a Mongolian prison? What would I do after? Call the police? Could I trust the police?

I figured I’d try to just get the fuck out of there and make a run back to the Russian border.

In hindsight, I’m glad I arrived at a worst case scenario plan early. With that already planned, it calmed me down a bit to keep working through the situation.

Only one thing was certain. I wouldn’t let him take me to the 2nd location.

Traffic

As I talked about in my Ulaan Baatar Datasheet, traffic is horrible in the city.

There was a traffic slow down up ahead. The driver had to stop when a Mongolian couple crossed the street in front of his taxi.

I immediately pounded the windshield of the taxi and yelled to the pedestrians, “HELP, open the door!” I hit the passenger window with my fist and pointed to the handle to show I was trapped.

Cars were stacking up around the taxi in traffic. The driver couldn’t speed off or attack me – we were publicly visible now.

Thankfully the pedestrians actually stopped and opened the door from the outside. (How many people would have just ignored and kept walking?) I sprung out, bag over my shoulder, closed knife in the palm of my right hand.

Finally I was out of that fucking taxi.

It ain’t over till it’s over…

The driver jumped out after me – demanding money.

I’m not sure what happened to the couple that opened my door. I had tunnel vision and was fixated on the driver.

I yelled a big “F-U-C-K Y-O-U and other expletives, hoping to draw attention to the scene.

He got back in his taxi.

After backing about 20 steps away, I pulled out my phone to take a picture of his license plate. I wanted to report this asshole to the police.

He saw me taking the photo, leapt out of his car – and charged straight at me like a rhinoceros. A decedent of the Mongol Horde was coming right at me.

Mongolian man attacking Frank Conor
Actual photo of the attacker. I was trying to video his license plate when the driver got out and charged me. This is the last frame as I was putting the phone back in my pocket to brace for the attack.

Fight or Flight

I could have run. I had a lead, I was probably faster.

But rationality wasn’t in control. The decision wasn’t mine. Biology had taken over. I was in a new form. A violent form I’ve never been in before or since.

Frank Frazetta Viking berserker
Viking Berserker – Painting by Frank Frazetta.

He kept closing the distance – five steps a way.

I pulled out my knife – flicked open the blade down to my right side.

My head lowered, my arms cocked back, knees bent, I leaned forward.

In that moment, all of my anger, fear, and stress of the ordeal was focused – like sunlight through a magnifying glass.

I wanted him to get to me. I wanted to stick my knife in him.

But it didn’t happen.

He slammed to a stop. A stunned look on his dumb, round face. He spun on his heels, bolted back to his car and sped off.

And that was it.

“Yeah, it happens”

I walked about 5 km back to my hostel. I’d had enough of taxis.

If you’ve ever been pumped with adrenaline then you know how it sort of drips out of you over time. I was about half way back to myself when I got to the hostel.

I told the skinny teenage Mongolian kid at reception that a taxi driver locked me in his car and tried to rob me.

He casually replied, “Yeeeeaaahhh, it happens.”

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article…

I’ll break down the many lessons I learned, and precautions I now take while traveling.

Links to Free Mongolian Guide Books and References

Mongolian Phrase Book
Mongolian Food Guide
Ulaan Baatar Datasheet, trip report
Mongolian Girls Reference

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