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Automobiles How the UAZ Bukhanka Tackles Mongolia’s Toughest TerrainMore than 60 years since the UAZ-452 Bukhanka's debut not much has changed — and that’s exactly what makes it so easy to repair when you’re on some of the toughest and most remote backroads in the world.

When people ask me why I run tours in Mongolia, the answer depends on the day. “Because I hate myself?” might be my answer after a particularly long and grueling journey where everything seemed to go wrong. Or “because it’s the most magical place on earth” could be my answer after yet another life-changing experience in a far off corner of this ceaselessly amazing country.

Usually, it’s somewhere in between. In Mongolia, you either sink or swim. The country either eats you alive, or it changes your life in ways you never thought possible. There’s no in between. It teaches you one reoccurring (and blaring) lesson, and that’s to stop overcomplicating things.

For me personally, that lesson came in the form of flipping a 30+ year old Ural motorcycle with a sidecar in a blizzard, on a frozen dirt track, leading to five days in a Mongolian hospital bed. But that’s another story altogether. This is supposed to be a happy story. This is a story about the UAZ-452 Bukhanka, Mongolia’s unsung hero.

UAZ-452 Bukhanka

(1) Photo

With my Urals (yes, plural, there are some things you never learn) safely stored away in my garage in Ulaanbaatar, it’s the comfort and determination of the vehicle of choice here in Mongolia that you’ll find me – and my guests – traversing the steppe in these days. There’s a reason it’s earned almost cult status in Mongolia, and across much of Central Asia, even if you’ve never heard of it.

Primitive in almost every sense of the word, and for reasons that are sometimes incomprehensible even to me, these bukhanka “bread loafs,” as they’re often called, are more popular than ever. A fact that’s hard to miss when you’re navigating across the hardest and remotest corners of the steppe and a fellow filled-to-the-brim bukhanka comes rattling along out of nowhere. 

At first sight, tourists get a kick out of the look and character of traveling this way. The bukhanka quickly becomes an essential part of the experience. As someone who needs to safely get people across treacherous and vast terrain, it’s the reliability and capability that continues to be the reason I use them.

Here though, we more commonly refer to them as furgons. A Russian word with French roots, simply translating to “a type of van.”

UAZ-452 Bukhanka in field

(2) Photo Breanna Wilson

Two UAZ-452 Bukhankas rear photo

(3) Photo Breanna Wilson

With just a basic set of tools and a rudimentary knowledge of mechanics, you can repair just about anything on a furgon with whatever you have at hand. In a country where only a fifth of the roads are paved, wouldn’t you want something that’s easy to repair too?
UAZ-452 Bukhanka

(4) Photo UAZ

UAZ-452 Bukhanka side view

(5) Photo UAZ

UAZ-452 Bukhanka traveling on a dirt road

On the UAZ official website, the company seems to reject the idea of the 452 Bukhanka being nothing more than a mere van or a mechanical pastry on wheels. Instead — and this is a direct quote — they prefer to present it as the “Kalashnikov assault rifle from the world of machines.”

Noted, UAZ. Noted.

Since the debut of the UAZ-450 in 1958, and the upgrade to the UAZ-452 in 1965, when it lost the front suicide doors — something I would have very much liked to have seen, the Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant (UAZ) has kept updates to the vehicle at a minimum. Today, when you climb into a brand new furgon, it’s almost impossible to comprehend that this isn’t some sort of relic resurrected from the past, but that it’s fresh off an assembly line.

Originally, the 450 was the first forward control cab-over-engine van of its kind to be built in the Soviet Union. The engine, bulkily placed between the driver and passenger seats, produces 112 hp (82.5 kW) and 4,000 rev/min with a max torque of 208 at 3000 rev/min. The modern 16-valve engine is compliant with Euro-5 standards, isn’t finicky when it comes to fuel quality, and since it warms up fast and is known to start even in extremely low temperatures — like the ones we notoriously experience in Mongolia — they just make sense here.

First built on a GAZ-69 chassis, these all-wheel drive vans were originally used as ambulances and postal vans. A short wheelbase and tight turning radius make them surprisingly nimble. And now, with power steering coming standard, it is much easier to drive.


(7) Photo Breanna Wilson

(8) Photo Breanna Wilson

UAZ-452 Bukhanka camper van conversion.

(9) Photo

Realistically though, when it comes down to it, there’s one single reason why furgons are still so in demand. And that’s because repairs can be done easily — and anywhere. With just a basic set of tools and a rudimentary knowledge of mechanics, you can repair just about anything on a furgon with whatever you have at hand. In a country where only a fifth of the roads are paved, wouldn’t you want something that’s easy to repair too?

It’s an impressive thing to watch. Axles, differentials, tires, gearboxes, you name it and it’s been repaired in even the unlikeliest of circumstances and with the dodgiest of materials in a way we like to refer to as “Mongolisation.” Not to mention, in a country where gas stations and fuel quality can be — I’ll say, suspect — the furgon is capable of running on just about anything. In the past, two separate fuel tanks could run on gasoline of as low as 72 octane, but at least 76 was preferred. These days UAZ recommends the gas to be at least 92 octane.

While I only use furgons to get guests from site to site, adventure companies in other countries have caught on to the concept of outfitting furgons for overlanding purposes with rooftop tents, camp kitchens, power setups, and more, sending travelers out on self-driving expeditions in places like Georgia (the country). This concept is a bit too risky to take on in Mongolia, if you ask me, until road and cellular infrastructure improve. Thankfully, the price to hire a furgon, with a driver, and insurance, runs about 150,000 Mongolian Tugrik or $45 USD a day.

The price of a brand new furgon starts at $9,100, another reason this bread loaf on wheels — and the legends around it — aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, especially in Mongolia and on my tours.

Specs UAZ-452 Bukhanka

  • Engine 2.5L (2445 cc) 4-cylinder petrol
  • Configuration Front-engine, four-wheel drive
  • Gearbox Manual 5-speed
  • Differential Lock Rear axle
  • Brakes Dual circuit, vacuum booster, drum
  • Wheels 225/75 R16
  • Clearance 220 mm
  • Length 4440 mm (14’ 6") to 4847 mm (15’ 10") Depending on the model
  • Models include 39625, 3962, 3303, 3909, 2206

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