Steph Ridenour '01
The Mongol Rally is a yearly event where teams drive tiny, cheap cars (engine size maximum 1.0L, motorcycle maximum engine size 125cc) from London, England to Ulan-Ude, Russia via Mongolia in all of 4-8 weeks. The event is just one of The Adventurists’ epic journeys and it sits beside others such as the Rick Shaw Run and the Ice Run, for which they encourage you to be as unprepared as possible. If I remember correctly, their advice is to “pay no attention to the hordes of travel bloggers posting boring-bombs all over the internet” and if anything informative graces your sights, “quickly jab your eyes out with a fork to avoid any advance knowledge seeping into your unsullied brain.” The Mongol Rally covers more than 16,000 kilometres over every terrain one can imagine: deserts, steppes, the Himalayas, Europe’s civilized smooth freeways and Asia’s pothole-ridden roads with no rules. There is no set route that anyone forces you to take and there is no back-up support or roadside assistance. There is no right or wrong way to do it—there’s simply a start line and a finish line and a general timeframe on when you should aim to be there. It looked like a stupid idea bound for failure, but I had nothing better to do at the time, so I said, “I’m in.”
While the Mongol Rally is primarily known for its ridiculous cars and even more ridiculous stories—if nothing goes to plan, then everything is running as normal—the Rally’s primary purpose is fundraising. Every team is required to fundraise 1,000GBP for charity, half of it going towards Cool Earth and the other half to a charity of the team’s choice. We chose Engineers without Borders Canada to stand alongside Cool Earth in our campaigns.
Cool Earth is a charity that works to halt rainforest destruction by working with communities that live at the forefront of it. Instead of buying land and reserves to keep it from being destroyed, Cool Earth has addressed the root of the problem and works with indigenous locals to put the power back into their hands. All of Cool Earth’s partnerships are driven and owned by the indigenous people. Through education and supplies, Cool Earth aims to ensure that local communities value the environment around them and gain more by protecting it than they would by destroying it. Local livelihoods become entwined with value for the local environment, creating communities that will stand up to loggers to protect one of their greatest resources. Partnerships between villages and Cool Earth aim to become self sustained within five years, with locals driving where funds need to be spent. Through this method, Cool Earth has saved nearly 660,000 acres of rainforest and nearly 157,000,000 trees.
Engineers without Borders Canada addresses the patterns and root causes that sustain inequality and poverty. They provide on-site learning and travel opportunities to students, professionals and fellows who work both in Canada and around the world. EWBC works at ground level to ensure that problems are being addressed where they begin. With the help of volunteers and professional mentorship, communities work towards growth, independence and sustainability with the resources that are available to them.
The preparations for the Rally are enormous. At the very minimum each team has to acquire a road legal scrap car, their visas for the route they’re planning to take and any vaccines, depending on how safe you’d like to be. In addition for the more prepared, teams search for sponsors that will donate gear or funds to help make this journey possible and perhaps slightly more comfortable. For even the further prepared, the car itself gets a makeover. Teams add engine snorkels, skid plates to protect the engine on the rougher roads, lifts for more clearance, tennis balls stuffed into the suspension, stereo systems, solar charging stations and so many creative decorative adjustments that by the end of it, there is no mistaking a Rally car on the road. Teams added seats to their roofs, strapped blow up dolls and small boats to roof racks, decals, stickers, racing stripes and finger paint. People decorated their entire vehicle with meticulously drawn coloured Sharpies. Anything goes.
There are a million and one ways to drive from London, England to Ulan-Ude, Russia but most of them fall into three categories: The Southern Route, The Central Route and the Northern Route. The teams with the most time and the most resources and frankly, the most determination, take the Southern Route. The Southern Route ploughs through Europe, Turkey, Iran, the Stans, possibly China, Mongolia and Russia. It takes the most visas (the most expensive ones and the most complicated ones) and the most resolve to stick with it. The Central Route is slightly more forgiving, but not by much. Instead of delving through Iran, teams drive through Azerbaijan to take a ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. Teams on the Central Route generally don’t dip into China –the visas here are extortionately priced- and instead have double-entry Russian visas. For the teams that are on the tightest budget and the tightest timeline, the Northern Route is the fastest and theoretically, the cheapest. The Northern Route heads through Europe and then directly through Russia to get to Ulan-Ude. Many teams on the Northern Route will take detours into Kazakhstan and Mongolia and some will even drive as far north as Finland. Our team chose the Central Route, which at the time I write this has us waiting for that magical cargo ferry that is supposed to give us a lift from Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, where we have a whopping 5 days (or less, ferry dependent) to get out of the country. Our plan has our vehicle spinning through the sand in Uzbekistan before clunking over the Himalayas and surrounding mountains in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan before heading to Russia and Mongolia.
Right from the beginning, my Rally experience was exactly as expected: nothing went to plan. At first we had a team of three, and two hours before I boarded the flight to London, we were down to two. The registered owner of our vehicle had dropped out 48 hours before we even got to the start line, creating new hurdles for us. Without the registered owner in the vehicle, you cannot take a car across a country border unless you have Power of Attorney, which at the time, we did not have and we had never looked into getting. We quickly reached out to friends of friends of friends and found friendly people in Serbia that agreed to receive and hold mail for us. By the time I’d landed in London my head was whirling and I’d lost my luggage somewhere in Iceland (soon recovered).
After the launch party in Chichester, England, all of the 300+ teams made their way in their tiny cars directly to the ferry to France. Teams were push starting their vehicles across the field we had all camped in the night before. Within 10 kilometers of the start line we passed three teams whose cars had already sputtered and died on the side of the road. Teams fell out in numbers very quickly: teams split up, their cars died beyond saving, they lost their passports, their visas just didn’t come on time, they couldn’t get insurance, they couldn’t get ownership of their vehicles, the list goes on. Not even every team entered made it to the start line. The logistics of this highly unplanned adventure took its toll right from the beginning. The one logistic I didn’t do the math on: how far you need to drive every day if you want to be in Ulan-Ude by August 22. We drove every day, all day, mostly on the freeway unless my phone rerouted us onto sketchy back roads in Romania. We camped out nearly every night, set up tents in the dark and were rolling by 8:00AM the next morning. It was a non-stop pace and there was barely any time to take a breath. We were flying through countries so quickly that we didn’t take cash out, we barely knew the exchange rates and we definitely did not know the name of the currency. I never even learned how to say “Hello” in their language, which is something I usually swear by.
Our car worked its way through Liechtenstein and the absolutely gorgeous mountainous roads of Austria before reconvening with many teams in Budapest, Hungary where we decided to convoy with another Canadian team until our visas would go askew with each other somewhere in Kazakhstan.
After we’d driven all the way to the Black Sea on the Romanian coast together we backtracked to our base camp in Serbia and picked up our paperwork. Serbians are bordering on aggressively nice—they gave us a tour of Belgrade, fed us two delicious home-cooked meals and even got a mechanic’s shop to open up on a Sunday so we could have the car checked on. Our host joked, “In Serbia, we are about being good hosts. Even the worst criminal in Serbia is the best host!” They were very excited about our adventure and agreed that, “What is the point of life if you only have pajamas and a work suit?” They gave us advice on which border crossings to take and updates on what the situation was like in Turkey after the attempted military coup. Serbian people on the whole were warm, friendly and quick to smile. I always love when I go to a country and have everything I thought of it proven wrong.
We drove a straight line through Bulgaria towards Istanbul, and made it into Turkey as the sun went down and the call to prayer rose up. That warbling call was our soundtrack to navigating the new world for most of our time in the country.
With our Canadian companions, we skirted Ankara and drove until midnight to reach Cappadocia. Cappadocia is a special place and it appears on postcard after postcard. Instagram is littered with pictures of this little town amidst the strange rock formations. In 2014, over 200 hot air balloons took tourists to the sky each and every morning as the sun came up. There were so many collisions that there is now a 100 balloon limit, although with the military coup there were significantly less balloons flying. We still had the most amazing view from our campsite in the morning, regardless of the number of balloons. The next morning we managed to heave ourselves out of our sleeping bags at 3:30 AM to climb into a hot air balloon ourselves to see the sunrise. The pilot let the basket skim tree branches and narrowly missed the sharp rocks. Seeing the sunrise from a balloon in Turkey is something I will never forget. The world was still sleeping as we rose into the air, my ears popping near the top.
We drove towards the border of Georgia and slept in the car in a truck stop. I still don’t know if it was legal or not but no one seemed to mind. The next day I joined our Canadian companions in their vehicle at the Georgia border, squished comfortably into the back seat amidst the four other boys. All of our bags were strapped to the roof, which was caving in under all the weight. You could actually see it being crushed downwards. Our third team member had come back online and he booked a flight to Tbilisi, Georgia so he could complete the harder, more strenuous part of the Rally. Our teams then went separate ways in Azerbaijan due to different time schedules. They needed to rush through to the next country and I didn’t, so I stayed in Georgia with my new team to explore the mountains. These are the most underrated mountains I’d ever been greeted with and we took the tiny overloaded vehicle up 4x4 tracks to get to a campsite at 2,300 m.
After a few small, steep hikes we drove towards Azerbaijan, endured a six hour wait at the border and then drove onwards to Baku in sticky 37C heat. The next part of the journey is the trickiest to coordinate: the ferry to Turkmenistan. The ferry is unscheduled and only leaves when it’s full. No one seems to know when that is. Most teams were only issued three days of car insurance at the border, so after these three days the vehicles have to go through customs at the port and officially exit Azerbaijan. After this process, the vehicle can’t leave the port so teams are stuck camped out there waiting for this magical fairy tale boat to come and load them out of the country. In addition, the visa for Turkmenistan is only a five day transit visa. We choose when the visa starts at the embassy in Baku, but it’s a gambling game; if you choose your visa date starting too early, it’s possible that you will only arrive in Turkmenistan with 1-2 days left on the transit visa which isn’t enough to get out of the country. If you choose your visa to start too late and you manage to get on a ferry, you will be stuck in the Turkmenistan port in “no man’s land” (between exiting and entering a country) until your visa becomes valid.
We’ve chosen a visa date to start the day after tomorrow. There is fevered whisper of a ferry tonight among the Ralliers, and it’s faster than usual. Teams are tracking the boat offline and everyone has high hopes it will take us all and solve our problems.
Our problem is that if this ferry is on time, and if nothing goes wrong, and if we get on this fancy fast ferry, we will be stuck on the other side for at least 12 hours before we can clear customs.
But who are we kidding? This is the Mongol Rally. If nothing goes wrong, you’re doing it wrong.