Road Trips

Rise to the Rally: The Ultimate Road Trip to Cross One-Third of Earth’s Circumference

I was frustrated. We had driven more than 10,000 miles across Europe and Asia, and now that our teams were on our last 100 miles before the finish line, one of the cars broke its front axle as we exited the Gobi Desert. There was no way we could fix this on our own. After so many adventures and misadventures in the last 46 days, was the Mongol Rally finally doomed for us, so close to the finish line?

The Mongol Rally is an unrouted, unsupported driving adventure from London, England, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Participants cross 10,000 miles — one-third of the Earth’s circumference — of unforgiving deserts, perilous mountain ranges and nonexistent roads.

If that weren’t challenging enough, you’re equipped with an ill-suited car not built for this type of adventure. In our case, a small Hyundai Getz.

Two days before the rally started, my teammates — Alex and Stephen (friends I’d met through adventure travel and blogging) — and I flew to London to unite for the first time as a team with the decidedly nonsensical name, The Drama of Llama.

I felt oddly unprepared for the challenge ahead. None of us had done something like this before.

It had taken us months to plan our potential route, get our visas and buy our car; yet I felt oddly unprepared for the challenge ahead.

None of us had done something like this before. We didn’t know anything related to car mechanics, except changing tires and other regular-maintenance basics. Still, we were up for the adventure, willing to face the unknown.

We did our best with those few days in London to buy food, camping equipment and spare tires and ready our car’s paperwork prior to crossing through 17 countries.

On July 14, we left London and drove to Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, the Rally’s official starting line. Here we would meet the other 170 teams in what felt like a surreal, medieval party.

Live classical music played inside the castle’s ruins, people dressed as jesters roamed the grounds, “peasants” served drinks nonstop and high-court knights battled each other to an acted death.

An electronic-music party followed, where everyone would celebrate the last day before what could be the biggest adventure of their lives.

Mongol Rally: Start line.
On your marks, get set, rally! (Photo: Ben Davies/The Adventurists)

Our goal: to reach the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar in five weeks.

The next morning, one by one, each team drove over the startup stage and set off to undertake their journey to Mongolia.

Our goal: to reach the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar in five weeks. Everything in between we would “play by ear.”

The first day was smooth yet fast-paced, at a rate I had never experienced. We woke up in London, took the ferry from Dover, U.K., to Calais, France, and spent the morning driving along the French coast. We ate lunch in Belgium, dinner in Luxembourg, and slept in the car on the autobahn in Germany. On that first day, including sightseeing stops, we drove 12 hours and traversed 350 miles in five countries.

While our first five days in Europe were filled with beautiful sights and famous landmarks, for us, this part of the rally was a stroll in the park. We were eager to hit more adventurous terrains and the challenges that came with them.

Once we left Europe, we decided to take a two-day break in the city of Istanbul — the gateway to the East. In a majestic place so full of history and culture, we spent our time visiting iconic sights like Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and my favorite, the surreal Basilica Cistern with its 336-column hypostyle hall mirrored in the shallow water that fills the dark, somber space.

Our two days came to an end, and as I saw Istanbul disappear in the rearview mirror, I felt that the rally had entered a new phase. We weren’t yet in the adventure’s climax, but our plot was quickly taking us there.

Landscape of Cappadocia.
Overlooking the surreal landscape of Cappadocia. (Photo: Norbert Figueroa)

The following morning I woke up with one thought in mind, “We need to buy our car insurance.

Ahead we had Cappadocia, a region famous for its distinctive “fairy chimneys” — tall, cone-shaped rock formations clustered throughout the landscape.

Cappadocia is best seen during sunrise on a hot air balloon ride — which we did the following day — but we were eager to see the rock formations from the moment we arrived. We drove to the Devrent Valley to watch the sunset from one of the Bronze Age homes carved into valley walls by troglodytes (cave dwellers).

We all took a moment to appreciate how lucky we were to enjoy this otherworldly scenery from such a vantage point. As the burnt-orange hues in the sky faded into twilight and the eroded shapes dotting the landscape turned into silhouettes, we set up camp and slept surrounded by thousands of years of history.

Turkey rapidly became a highlight of the rally, but we were barely halfway through the journey. As we passed the majestic high mountains of Kaçkar and reached the nation of Georgia, we faced a hard decision. Do we head toward Russia, a border crossing known to be complicated and volatile? Or do we deviate towards Azerbaijan, a country we didn’t plan on visiting and lacked visas for?

We weren’t sure about the current Georgia–Russia border status, but we still pushed for it. Once we exited Georgia, we entered no man’s land, a two-mile spread between the nations’ immigration checkpoints. We would wait here to learn our fate — whether we could enter Russia through that border.

We spent over five hours queuing in our car, playing cards and imagining scenarios ranging from immigration officers confiscating our belongings to going to jail for attempting to cross this border, so close to Chechnya.

It turns out we were in luck, as none of those scenarios materialized. It was past 11 p.m. when we finally stepped onto Russian soil and were free to continue. Since it was so late, we couldn’t buy the mandatory car insurance at the border, so we decided to drive just a few miles down the road, park at a gas station and sleep in the car.

The following morning I woke up with one thought in mind, “We need to buy our car insurance.”

It was 9 a.m., and we readied to drive to the nearest town to do our due diligence. As Alex drove, Stephen slept on the passenger seat, and I sat in the back looking at the sunflower fields. A loud screech, a sharp right turn and a bang brought my daydreams back to reality. We had crashed. Our car collided sideways with the rear of a small truck.

Prokhladny is a small rural town in southern Russia, far from any tourist trail or spotlight.

As the airbags deflated, I realized what just happened. I needed to assess the situation. All three of us were unharmed, but what about the car?

A broken axle and transmission. Our Hyundai was wrecked.

For over two hours we tried to find a police officer who could speak English. We never found one. Luckily, a man driving past the crash scene saw us and noticed we were not locals. He stopped and offered to help translate for us.

We desperately needed it; we needed to explain to the police why we didn’t have the mandatory car insurance. During our research, we read that driving without insurance in Russia could lead to jail time and passport confiscation. We didn’t want that.

Zaur, our unofficial translator, discussed our situation with the police as we looked on cluelessly, not knowing what he was saying or what to do. After some back and forth, Zaur told us, “The car will get impounded by the police. You need to get in the back seat of the police car.”

We looked at him with eyes wide open, to which he reacted with a quick laugh. “No, you’re not going to jail. In fact, they are taking you out for lunch.”

We were even more puzzled. “You guys are the most interesting thing Prokhladny has seen in a long time. They will treat you well. In fact, you’re soon getting interviewed by the local newspaper,” Zaur continued.

Prokhladny is a small rural town in southern Russia, far from any tourist trail or spotlight. This “foreigner’s crash” was news. After lunch and a long afternoon full of paperwork, we faced our reality. How would we finish the rally? We didn’t know how yet, but one thing was for sure: We would not quit.

The following morning, Zaur came to pick us up at the hotel to take us to the bus station. We planned on reaching the border in hopes of meeting other Rally teams we could hitchhike with all the way to Mongolia. We couldn’t thank Zaur enough for his help, and still, he bid us goodbye in a strong Russian way, with a bottle of vodka.

If the rally gods were looking down on us, they manifested themselves once we reached Astrakhan, the border town with Kazakhstan. There we met with three different teams that were planning on convoying for the rest of the rally, and all three decided to take a member of our team. Even though we were in different cars, we were still rallying together!

If the rally was a fun challenge before, it was now a hilarious experience full of various characters from all over the world. As a convoy, we drove for countless hours in the Aral Karakum Desert to reach the Aral Sea. The highlight of this sea is the stranded fishing boats in the sand. They lie in the middle of what once was a thriving sea full of marine life — and today is considered one of the worst environmental disasters in history.

Unfortunately, our cars were no match for a sandy former seabed. One by one, we got stuck in the sand, just like the ships.

Luckily we had the manpower to push the cars out and backtrack. It was a failed mission. But camping where a sea had flowed just over 25 years ago felt stunningly surreal. There was no light pollution. The Milky Way sparkled in its full glory.

Gobi Desert camping on the Mongol Rally.
Camping in the Gobi Desert. (Photo: Norbert Figueroa)

Five weeks had passed by now, and we were just entering Mongolia. It is said the rally doesn’t start until you reach Mongolia, and even considering all the events we went through prior to arriving, I agree.

Mongolia is home to the Gobi Desert, the fourth-largest desert in the world.

Mongolia is home to the Gobi Desert, the fourth-largest desert in the world. To reach Ulaanbaatar, you must cross most of it. Across the majority of the desert, there are no paved or gravel roads, just dirt tracks that split and join along the way. Naturally, there are no signs. Take the wrong division and you could get lost for hours.

We got lost twice.

The second time, it took us nine hours to find a Gher (Mongolian tent) where we could reach someone and ask for their help. A family lived there, and they welcomed us with yak cheese, offered dinner and invited us to spend the night there.

We were tight on time and couldn’t stay for the night, so a family member helped us get back on track by leading us with his motorbike. We went through a valley, crossed rivers and a drove on marshlands until we reached our intended road. Without him we would not have found it.

A week had passed since we entered Mongolia. We had crossed most of the Gobi Desert and were just 100 miles from the finish line when disaster struck again. Our cars had been battered so much by the harsh terrain, the broken roads in Kazakhstan, and the sand washboards in Mongolia that they were practically falling apart by now.

After hitting one last pothole, one of our cars broke its front axle. It was night already, and we were determined to finish that day. Since we were closer to the capital city, our chances of finding help soon were higher. Part of the team split to find a house or a shop where they could call for a flatbed truck, and within half an hour our solution materialized.

Mongol Rally road trip.
A savior in the form of a flatbed truck. (Photo: Norbert Figueroa)

The crash felt like a sharp blow to our plans, but in hindsight it was the best thing that could have happened to us.

There were a few problems, though. We had no ramp to push the car onto the flatbed, and worse, the flatbed was too small for the car (and it was a small car!).

Determined, we figured out we could use the sand banks, loose wooden planks found nearby and a shovel under the broken wheel to push the car onto the flatbed. With that done, we removed the rear wheels and placed them under the car to serve as jacks. Once the car was tied all over and mostly secured, we slowly drove the last 100 miles to the finish line.

At about 5:30 a.m. on August 27, we finally crossed the Mongol Rally finish line. As exhausted as we were, this moment lifted our spirits in ways we couldn’t have imagined. We had faced countless challenges along the way; we lost our car and failed a few times, but we pulled through to the end.

The crash felt like a sharp blow to our plans, but in hindsight it was the best thing that could have happened to us. We got to experience the good in people and in places where you least expect it.

Mongol Rally: finish line.
The finish line! (Photo: Norbert Figueroa)

We saw the camaraderie of rallymates willing to help others reach their goal and realized places we may deem dangerous based on their portrayal in the media are often among the most hospitable.

After visiting more than 105 countries — and completing one very long rally — I’ve learned we cannot reduce the world to news blurbs. Those stories often omit the human aspect of a place: everyday life, culture and social interactions.

To see and understand the good, the beauty and the diversity beyond our borders, we must experience them firsthand with an open mind and an adventurous spirit.