Mongol Rally 2018
Watch the full, narrated video here:https://business.facebook.com/ScalerFab/videos/1120286251485298/
This summer I was lucky enough to participate in a journey around the planet that encompassed 25 countries, 21000km of driving, 22 flat tires, 5 flights, and a train journey on the Trans-Siberian Express.
In no specific order, I visited the gate of hell, was banned for life from a country, received a grocery bag full of cash, had the most stereotypically Russian conversation of all time, experienced the worst meal ever (sorry Grayson!) and had some of the best experiences of my entire life.
This all started this past January. I decided to leave college for a while, and had heard of an event called the Mongol Rally a few years prior. This rally was a trip from the UK to Mongolia in a car of your choice (so long as the engine was 1.2L or less), and with no support other than what other passing ralliers may wish to give. With no other immediate plans, I decided that now would be a good time to finally take part in this, and set about finding some teammates.
For some reason (haha), I couldn’t find anyone that I knew who wanted to do this with me, so I took to a Facebook group for the rally to find some teammates. After much visa-organizing, expenditures, and planning, we all met up in Germany in early July, and prepared our car – a 1.2L, Front-wheel-drive Opel Agila. Maybe not the best vehicle for tackling some of the world’s worst roads, but it’s what we had. After fitting a skidplate, homemade roof rack, sponsor stickers, and a sweet paintjob (courtesy of our teammate Markus) we set off.
I’ll skip describing our entire journey in detail here, as nobody really wants to read that much; I’ll stick to the highlights. After starting in Germany, we drove to the UK, then back east to the Czech Republic, where the start party and 300+ other teams all came together. From there, we headed northeast to Ukraine and Moldova, then south through Romania and Bulgaria.
We then crossed the breadth of Turkey, and got through the Turkey/Georgia border at about 2am. This wasn’t about to stop one of our teammates from having a good time though, as while the rest of us decided to get a good nights’ rest, he went out and partied until he forgot where our Hostel was, wandering in at 9am having not slept. We thought this was hilarious, as did he the next day when he felt alive again.
From Georgia, we did a day-trip into Azerbaijan, and ended up having coffee and talking with an amazing border guard after we got to the border too late to actually get back through. A 90km detour later, we got to a 24-hour border and back to where we were staying. We next headed down into Armenia on our way to Iran, and visited a very interesting region called Artsakh in the process. This is technically disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, so if I show up at an Azerbaijani border with that visa still in my passport I’d be arrested. Fun!
In the very south of Armenia, we met up with some other rally teams that we were going to travel with to reduce the cost of travelling through Iran (we all needed a guide due to our nationalities, on top of not super-cheap visas). Iran was an amazing experience; by the end our week there our arms were literally sore from waving back at so many people, all who were excited to see us. We had people offer to give us their food, open their homes to us, and even give us alcohol (a big no-no in Iran).
After Iran, we headed north to Turkmenistan, a country which is notoriously hard to visit. We stayed at the capital, Ashgabat, for a few days - a strangely-abandoned-feeling immaculate marble city in the middle of the desert. Next up, we headed North down the country’s only highway, then a few kilometers into the desert towards the Davarza Gas Crater – commonly called the “Gate to Hell”. This is a massive hole in the desert which has burning since soviet scientists accidentally ignited it in the 70s’. Just getting out there in our cars was quite the ride, but we managed it with some damage.
Once we made it back to the road the next day, we headed north to Uzbekistan. While there we saw the dried-up Aral Sea and abandoned fishing boats, had the best BBQ of my life (3-ft long massive skewers, and delicious like you wouldn’t believe!) and got a black-market exchange rate in a closed cellphone store. Uzbekistan currency is worth so little that we were given an entire grocery bag of cash, which only amounted to a couple hundred dollars.
From Uzbekistan we headed east to Tajikistan, and the legendary Pamir Highway. This took us within 10 feet of Afghanistan, and over 20000 feet up on the worst roads I have ever driven on (think one-lane, boulder-strewn dirt track with a drop-off on one side and an oncoming truck in front). On the last stretch, we camped for the night while all suffering the effects of altitude sickness. Because of the altitude, we couldn’t get water hot enough to boil, so our meal consisted of week-old Turkmenistan canned tomato sauce and lukewarm undercooked pasta. I can not recommend this less.
After reaching Kyrgyzstan and a reasonable altitude again, we temporarily split up – one of our teammates decided to stay in a city for an extra day and catch up with us in the next country while the other 3 of us drove north. This went well until we took a “shortcut” and blew the top of a front strut tower out of the hood at 3am in the middle of nowhere. We decided to sleep in the car for a few hours, and limped the car 150km to a welder the next morning after finding a tiny town with a shop that sold us some crackers.
With the car sorted, we continued heading north, and crossed the border to Kazakhstan (side note; people with carts full of pillows are oddly common at every far-eastern border for some reason). We hung out in the capital city for a couple days after our ordeal until our 4th teammate caught up. From there we drove north for a couple days until we reached Russia, nearly wrecking the car in the process. In many places, the (concrete) roads became rutted by the weight of semi-trucks and bad road design; Turns out that going 110kph over a rise may cause the road to throw you into the opposing shoulder, nearly in the ditch.
We left Kazakhstan with only a few flat tires (bent wheels, mostly) and a destroyed alignment for our trouble. Not much time was spent in Russia on our first entry; instead we met up with the teams we had gone through Iran with, and made a beeline for the Mongolian border.
Mongolia didn’t really go smoothly either. A couple kilometers after entering the country, we hit a massive dip in the road at wide-open-throttle, and cracked our cast-aluminum oil pan. A friendly local family, some JB-weld, and a few hours later, we were back on the road. This was not to be permanent though, as a couple days later we smashed it again; this led to an 8-hour tow across the Mongolian steppe (no real roads between cities at this point) by another rally team who we owe a massive amount of gratitude to. I can safely say I had never been so glad to eat microwaved dumplings by the time we arrived at the town’s only hotel at midnight, having had to circumnavigate the town’s airport in order to get onto a concrete road into town.
The other teams left us behind as we tried to get the car fixed again; the finish line for the rally was closing in a couple days and nobody wanted to miss the final party. Against all odds, we managed to find the only guy with a TIG welder within a 500km radius, and got the car sorted for the princely sum of 38 dollars. We headed north to the Mongolian capital, where we spent a day exploring a massive bazaar and mailing out postcards.
From there, we made a final push to the finish line, which was across the Russian border in a city called Ulan-Ude. After our plan to sleep in a city just across the border was foiled by every single hotel being full, we pushed on until we got to Ulan-Ude at 5am. By sheer happenstance, we booked into the same hostel that the teams that had helped tow us were at. The next morning, we got the car to the official finish line, grabbed some pictures, and took part in the final finish-line party; we had managed to arrive on the final possible day!
With the festivities over, we split up; 2 of my teammates blitzed the car back across Russia to Germany before their visas ran out, and myself and another teammate parted ways to head back to our respective homes. The journey wasn’t over for me just yet though; the cheapest way for me to get home (and, as it turned out, the coolest) was to take a 3-day train ride to Vladivostok, then a series of flights from there back to the east coast of Canada.
When I arrived in Vladivostok, I was stopped at the train station’s metal detector – turns out that the coins I had been collecting from every country looked pretty suspicious in an x-ray view. In possibly the most stereotypically Russian experience of all time, I managed to defuse the situation by showing the guard a picture of my Lada project car- a thumbs-up and “Lada - Russia supercar!” from him later, I was allowed to go on my way.
Once I flew out of Vladivostok, I ended up having a 10 hour layover in Shanghai; this in itself was a bit of a risk, as I didn’t have a Chinese visa, just some internet posts about being able to get a 128 hour transit visa on arrival. This, happily, did in fact exist, and I was let in after some passport scrutiny (I had half-filled my entire passport on the trip thus-far).
Shanghai airport led to by far the most surreal experience of my entire trip; I had arrived at midnight, and literally nothing in the entire airport was open, and nobody was around. I wasn’t about to go find a hotel, given that my flight left early the next morning, so I set up camp with my air mattress and sleeping bag in the absolutely massive check-in room. Words don’t begin to describe how massive this space was – easily as large as an entire office building in just empty space - and I was camped out on the floor in the middle of it all. Once morning came, I began the last couple of flights that ended up back in my home city, 25 countries and 3 months later. Glad to be back, but one amazing ride.
It’s nigh-on impossible to summarize a journey of this magnitude in a paragraph, so I will finish with a quote from a man more eloquent than I:
“And when I’m gone,
you can call me foolish, but not boring.
I will have lived.”
- Oliver Barber
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