So, you’re going to attempt the Mongol Rally.
Well, first things first, allow me to commend you on your bravery.
It takes some serious cojones to attempt an odyssey like this, simply because there is a high chance you will perish in a Ukrainian alleyway or on a Siberian highway or in the Gobi Desert. The road is fraught with peril. But, it’s also fraught with enough breathtaking scenery, amazing people, and wild memories to last you a lifetime. Like the many brave souls who attempted the Rally before you, these are probably the things you’re chasing. And while many have not made it to Ulaanbaatar, with a little luck, you might just roll across the finish line and cement your place in history. This past summer, my teammates and I did just that.
Now, with the Mongol Rally in the rear-view mirror, I can say without hesitation that it really is the trip of a lifetime, and you’ll have fun regardless of the speed bumps you hit along the way. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take advice when it’s offered. As a rally veteran, I know a thing or two about survival on the long, hectic road from England to Mongolia. Sure, my team was probably the least prepared of the year, with zero spare tires and no jerry can, but we made it. And the very fact that we made it suggests that there is more to preparation than stocking up on the obvious supplies. So buckle up, and allow me to impart what I learned on the 2013 Mongol Rally. I hope it serves you well on your grand adventure.
1) Impose a speed limit on your car to save on gas:
This shouldn’t surprise you, but between England and Mongolia there are two continents worth of countries. Each one has its own driving laws. Some countries have higher speed limits than others, and others have speed limits that are really just guidelines (I’m lookin’ at you, Mother Russia). You will find it difficult to resist the urge to drive as fast as each country allows. I advise against this. In the lead-up the rally kick-off, the Adventurists (who organize this behemoth adventure) will remind you over and over again that The Mongol Rally is not a race. Rushing to the finish means you’re probably driving recklessly. This is dangerous. It’s also expensive. It’s important to remember one of the main parameters of the adventure here: You’re driving a car tremendously unsuited for the task. This means that whether you’re driving a Nissan Micra, a Fiat Panda (like my team did,) or even a School Bus, your vehicle was designed for city driving and short commutes. It was not designed for pan-Eurasian epics, and the way it burns through gas at high speeds will reflect this. Furthermore, you’ll probably have a mountain of gear strapped the roof, which will make your clunky, old steed that much less aerodynamic. So take it slow and enjoy the scenery. In our minds, there were two speed limits on the Mongol Rally. One was the actual speed limit of the country we were in; the other was the “Billy-limit”. You see, we named our car Billy, and the Billy-limit was the maximum speed he could chug along at without burning through gas like Miley Cyrus has burned through her dignity. This was around 110-115 km/h. That’s still pretty fast.
2) Always have a pack of cigarettes with you:
Yeah, I know. Smoking kills. Cigarettes are deadly and they stink. I agree 100% and I’m happy to see tobacco use becoming the societal taboo that it should be. But here’s the thing: In many parts of the world, the dangerous reality of smoking cigarettes has not set in. You’ll find that in most of the countries you traverse, smoking is extremely common. Heck, you might even be invited to light one up with a stranger. In this case, I implore you to literally suck-it-up and do it. Why? Because in places where the language-gap is so severe that not even Google Translate can save you, sharing a cigarette with a stranger can be an extremely effective way of saying “I come in Peace.” Offering somebody one of your own cigarettes drives the message home even more effectively. Just remember: it’s rude to fish a smoke out of your pack and hand it to them. Hand them the pack and allow them to grab one for themselves. You’ll be pleased with the results. And besides, East of Germany, cigarettes cost about a buck. You can take the hit. So, stock up, and you may find yourself on an old, dirt road in Kazakhstan, sharing cigarettes with a couple of Kazakh guys, laughing at each other’s hand-gesture-jokes, despite the insurmountable language barrier. You may bond with these guys so quickly that they point you toward one of your best campsites of your entire trip. If it happened to us, it could happen to you. Oh, and never underestimate the power of casually offering a cigarette to a border guard.
3) Give people the benefit of the doubt:
Pick pockets, scam artists, you’ve heard it all before. The sad truth is that the world is full of slimy locals who are just waiting to make a buck of an oblivious tourist. The good news is that for every scum-bag out there, there are thousands and thousands of good, honest people. I’ll admit, before I departed on the Mongol Rally, I’d heard all the stories and my guard was up pretty high. But if you drive from England to Mongolia worrying that every stranger is waiting to steal your wallet or over-charge you or short-change you, you will have a miserable time and you won’t make nearly as many friends. More often than not, the person who is offering to help you actually just wants to help you. Keep your wits about you, of course, but take a deep breath. Let your guard down, and you may just meet people like Norbo, the cab driver in Astana who we initially thought wanted to scam us, but really just wanted to hang out with us. Or you may meet people like the two guys I partied with in Beijing, who weren’t trying to scam me, but just wanted to show a foreigner a good time.
4) Have some American cash on hand:
The US Dollar is still very much the global currency. Make sure you have some. You may not end up needing it, but American money can be a very useful tool in a bind. It was particularly useful to us just after crossing the Russian border. Allow me to recount the story.
Unprepared idiots that my teammates and I were, we did not have any Russian currency when we entered Russia. We had done no research and didn’t realize that we would not encounter an ATM until we arrived in Moscow. Moscow is hundreds of kilometers from the border. This didn’t become a problem until we found ourselves driving uphill in bumper-to-bumper traffic with the needle on empty. We pulled off at a gas station. There was a Visa sticker on the door, so we figured we could fill up with credit. When we approached the attendant to do this, all we got was a stern, “nyet.” Discouraged, we moved on to another station to try again but faced and identical problem. This is when panic set in. We were gasless and cashless with only a few words of Russian between us. Thankfully, we had some American cash. We waited by the pump for someone to come fill up, at which point we pleaded with him to sell us some Rubles in exchange for American money. He thought about it, but eventually elected not to. Desperate, we tried again. This time, we were saved by the kindness of strangers. Not only did our rescuer trade us some rubles for our USD, but he gave us better than the exchange rate. Cah-ching! We were saved. We filled up our gas tank and arrived in Moscow unscathed that night. If we hadn’t had that American money, we might still be at that gas station in god-knows-where, Russia.
5) If you’re a caffeine fiend, stock up on tea or coffee:
I’m going to keep this one very, very simple because it is very, very important. If you’re like me and you need coffee to function in the morning, stock up on some good stuff to brew when you wake up. Alas, fellow java-slave, you will go through long stretches where a hot cup of coffee is impossible to find. Instead you will be forced to rely on strange, high-potency energy drinks. You’ll get used to the taste, but I don’t think our hearts and livers will ever recover.
6) Learn the ins and outs of guerrilla camping:
If you set out from England expecting a comfortable string of hotel and hostel stays, you’re going to be disappointed. You picked the wrong trip. Sure, you’ll probably find yourself in hostels here and there. We hosteled in places like Bratislava, Moscow, and Astana. When you’re outside the bigger cities of the world, however, cozy accommodation is not so easy to find. In these cases, you’ll need to camp. Here’s the problem with that: In most of the world, it’s illegal to just camp anywhere. But sleep is crucial, and when fatigue sets in, you may be forced to break the law for a good night’s rest. So you pitch that tent, renegade. Just be careful where you do it. To avoid detection, you’ll want both your tent and your car to be well-hidden. This means it’s not as simple as pulling off on the shoulder and pitching your tent behind the trees. Any curious cop will stop for an empty car on the roadside. Instead, look for dirt roads. Dirt roads usually lead to farm land and farm land usually leads to more dirt roads— the less-travelled looking, the better. Find yourself the most overgrown dirt road you can, drive a ways down it, pull off, and set up camp. Just avoid pitching your tent on actual crops— that’s somebody’s living. Rise early, and clear out quietly. If you’re lucky, you won’t have any problems. If you’re luckier, you’ll be awoken by an easy-going Ukrainian farmer and a long parade of his cattle. He’ll look at you as you nervously pack up, puffy-eyed and panicked and he’ll smile. Then you’ll realize he doesn’t care at all. It happened to us. Twice. Do note, however, that in Russia, it is legal to camp anywhere. With the exception of places like church grounds and water reservoirs, you can cozy up for a care-free night of sleep any place you like. Sweet dreams.
7) Let yourself get lost:
It’s important to have some semblance of a route. After all, your goal is to arrive in Ulaanbaatar. If you don’t head in a vaguely easterly direction, you won’t make it. But that doesn’t mean you should stay glued to your planned path. The truth is that half the adventure is getting lost. And in the end, getting lost will be the reason you see some of the amazing places that you do. If my teammates and I never got lost, we wouldn’t have found ourselves on an almost non-existent dirt road, driving through the mountains of Lombardia, Italy. If we hadn’t gotten lost, we never would have found ourselves shopping for dangerous weapons at a roadside market in Russia.
If we hadn’t gotten lost, we never would have found ourselves alone, in an entirely abandoned village in Kazakhstan. These are moments I will never forget until the day I die. These are moments that I never would have experienced were it not for bizarre twists of fate and accidental wrong turns on the road to Mongolia.
8) Surrender to impulse:
This one is simple. Make like Jim Carrey in that corny movie Yes Man and say “yes” to everything. Go party with those Russians. Turn down that dirt road to find the source of that strange music. Eat that mystery meat. Go to the weird bar that was recommended to you by a stranger at your hostel. Explore everything. Talk to everyone. Leave no stone unturned, and never be afraid to make a wrong turn. I cannot stress this enough. If something feels right, or good, or exciting, do it. Whatever the implications, they are probably better than wondering what might have happened if you’d had the courage to turn down that road or talk to that interesting looking person. After all, The Mongol Rally is for the courageous.
So, now you’ve got a few tips to stick in your back pocket for later. I hope you find them useful. Now go, release your inner Kerouac and see the world.