We always have loved a good road trip. We load up our playlist, stock up on junk food, and hit the open road where we have the freedom to stop when we like or drive through the night. When we heard about a zany overland adventure during which teams drive small cars from London to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, we knew this was the trip for us. The Mongol Rally is the mother of all road trips.
The saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss,” and when it came to signing up for the Mongol Rally we had no idea of what was involved and what planning needed to be done. We were grateful for this ignorance; had we known the daunting task ahead of us, we may not have signed up.
Driving a car from England to Mongolia over a varied terrain of 10,000 miles is no small task. Add the fact that we were driving a cheap tiny vehicle loaded down with gear and people, and it was nearly an impossible feat. The rules are simple: 1) The car cannot have an engine larger than 1.2 liters, and 2) You need proper paperwork to get through all the border crossings. That’s it.
Because we all were traveling from the United States, our car needed to be purchased in England. Luckily, we found a sponsor from New Zealand who loved the idea of the Mongol Rally and offered to help us out. The sponsor took care of the car. We took care of the rest.
Fellow Expedia Viewfinder Rick Griffin and good friend Sherry Ott, of Ottsworld, rounded out our ragtag team of four. We all put elbow grease into finding other sponsors and planning out the route through 15 countries. We also decided to raise funds for the Christina Noble Foundation, a project that helps orphaned and abandoned children in Mongolia.
Our adventure started at Goodwood Stadium located about 45 minutes outside of London. Here, we started with a lap around the racetrack that is famous for hosting the annual Festival of Speed. The Mongol Rally isn’t exactly about speed, so we kicked off the event with what has been dubbed, The Festival of Slow.
About 350 cars chugged around the track for an entire day. We were in the middle of the pack, and once we finished our lap, we pulled out of the stadium and hit the road for on the ultimate road trip.
It wasn’t long before we were crossing the English Channel on route to continental Europe. One of the first challenges was driving an English car (with the steering wheel on the left side) on European roads (where cars drive on the right). Passing was interesting as the passenger had to keep an eye out for oncoming traffic!
Stocked with camping gear and auto supplies, we felt confident we’d reach the finish line. There’s no time limit with this race—you can take three weeks or three months to reach Mongolia, you just have to get your car to make it there. We recommend a six-week period to make it in time for the big party. Most teams reach Ulaanbaatar by then.
Viewfinder Tip: Learn to drive a manual transmission. It’s a must for driving cars in Europe.
The first part of the trip was quite comfortable as we drove the paved European highways and stayed in affordable hotels. We stopped to visit friends in Brussels, and even went on a Vespa tour of the beautiful city of Prague.
Once we entered places such as Romania, Ukraine, and Siberian Russia, however, our Mongol Rally experience was another story.
We camped on the side of abandoned roads. We cooked our meals over a camp stove. We filled up our gas tank (and a spare can) every chance we had, just in case we couldn’t find another station for hundreds of miles.
The most difficult part of the Mongol Rally began in Kazakhstan as the highways turned to bumpy roads. On these roads, heavy trucks sank into melted pavement, and deep grooves literally pulled our muffler right off the car. We were held up at border crossings and police asking for bribes.
We dealt with flat tires, broken shocks, and constant twisting of chicken wire to hold our muffler together. All the while, we were packed like sardines into a tiny hot car with sand blowing in the windows and coating everything with a regular dusting.
Kazakhstan, the land of “Borat,” surprised us at every turn. One day we were camping in a remote field surrounded by nothing but endless dusty terrain; the next day we stumbled upon the modern city of Astana, a metropolis that rivals the likes of Shanghai or Tokyo.
The driving conditions grew ever more demanding as we reached Mongolia, where roads disappeared into lakes and rivers, and then separated into a dozen dirt trails leading in every direction. We had to follow our compass to make sure we were heading east!
The desert heat was intense and the driving was difficult, but we saw places that are nearly impossible to witness any other way.
We drank fermented mare’s milk; a traditional nomad drink of Mongolia known as airag. We munched on hard cheese with local families stopping to say hello. We watched the great horsemen of the Mongolian Steppe round up their herds. We stayed in a genuine ger, the traditional dwellings of the nomadic people. We also met met men on the side of the road holding massive eagles on their arms—the eagles were used for hunting prey. Occasionally, we ran into our fellow Ralliers at border crossings and campsites, where we swapped tales of weeks past.
We laughed. We cried. We fought. We made up.
The Mongol Rally truly is the ultimate road trip adventure. It changed the way we look at the world. Circling a third of the earth over two continents by car opened our eyes to different cultures, friendly people, and an experience that truly showed us what we are made of. We were surprised just how much we accomplished when we only had the land, our team, and our wits to get us through. In the end, we came away with one of the most memorable experiences of our lives.
What’s your dream road trip?