The International Writers Magazine: Across Europe to Save Lives
The Mongol Rally
On the 18th July I and my teammate Freya Liiv left Goodwood in a bid to drive nearly 10,000 miles to the capital of Mongolia.
The ethos of the rally is to achieve this aim in the most inappropriate vehicle possible whilst also raising buckets of cash for a range of charities. There is no set route for the rally and no time limit. This results in some teams traversing through Scandinavia and Siberia whilst others swelter in the heat of Iran or the deserts of Turkmenistan. As for the choice of vehicles, this year saw a fire engine covered in fur, an ice cream van with a bathtub on the roof and a handful of old London Taxi’s and 1960’s Morris Minors. Our choice of wheels for the journey was a 10 year old, 1.3L Kia Pride.
The first few days of the journey were leisurely. The motorways of France and Germany allowed us to glide towards the dramatic peaks of the Swiss Alps. On our 4th day we left our campsite on the Zürichsee and by the end of the day we’d taken in; Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and a Germanic looking corner of Italy. After countless tunnels, lakes and jagged peaks we entered Slovenia before heading for the coast. The next day we crossed the last of the Alps eastern foothills to see the spotless sky and clear waters of the Croatian coast. I didn’t see a cloud for the next 4 weeks.
After a glorious couple of days on the twisting coast road we ran into our first problem. At the Montenegro border we discovered that we’d forgotten our car registration documents and insurance certificate. We also discovered that immigration officers are not the most easy-going bunch and they promptly sent us packing back to Croatia. A phone call home, a DHL, and 6 days later we tried again. With our papers couriered to us we had no problems entering Montenegro but needed to make up some of the time we’d lost. What followed was a 26 hour non-stop epic through the hot Balkan night finally ending up in the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria.
We crossed eastwards across hilly Montenegro and entered Serbia at 3am. A quarter of a mile into Serbia we encountered a police stop and a hefty request of 160 Euros for the pleasure of motoring in their fine Republic. We U-turned back to Montenegro and crossed east through the newly independent republic of Kosovo. The sun was beginning to rise as we crawled into their capital, Pristina (the Kosovan equivalent of the M1 is still a work in progress). After coffee, we pushed on into Macedonia then across to Bulgaria and the safe familiarity of the EU.
Turkey was next on our itinerary. I have been to Turkey before and was excited about becoming a Lira millionaire for the exchange of about £5. As I was travelling and cooking with a vegetarian I was also excited about the prospect of a huge kebab. Unfortunately, my dreams of riches went unfulfilled as Turkey has knocked several zeros from their currency. A side effect of this made Turkey rather more expensive than anywhere east of Italy and government tax made their petrol price the highest of anywhere on our route (£1.34 per litre). Thankfully my stomach had better luck than my wallet and I am unashamed to say that I indulged in a large and protracted kebab binge.
We tackled Istanbul at midnight. With the tourist shops long closed we wandered the narrow stone passages up to the Blue Mosque. Its needle-like minarets extend up towards the city smog while the large central dome sits like a fat jewel in its ancient surroundings. We spent 4 days crossing the bronzed heart of Turkey, finally spending our last night in the shadow of Mount Ararat, a stone’s throw from the Iranian border.
With Iran, we had no idea what to expect although it’s perceived hostility towards the West and forced isolation were what initially attracted us. The same factors also made us nervous as we approached the border. I was reassured almost immediately as 5 miles into Iran a family pulled alongside us to wave and then beckoned me to open my window. As I did so they extended a handful of plums followed by other fruit. We were both still doing 50 MPH.
In Iran we were often approached in the street by people wishing to help us. We were invited into peoples’ homes to stay and were treated to some excellent meals and endless cups of chai. Everyone we met was passionate to stress that their government did not represent them, and many complained about the contested election. It surprised me how most, even young people, saw their religion as important in their lives and they found it odd that we did not.
We entered the former Soviet Union and began crossing the ‘Stans. Turkmenistan was first. Their capital, Ashgabat, is a lifeless city of white stone towers and garish domed ministries. The central monument is the 75m ‘Arch of Neutrality,’ which is crowned by a golden statue of the late President Niyazov. If the alien looking tripod arch was not bad enough, Niyazovs’ statue rotates so he always faces the sun. Gas and oil wealth may have created a Dubai-like capital but life for ordinary Turkmens is still basic and poor. As we crossed Turkmenistan’s desert interior we found this out first hand. That night our car was broken into and all our valuables were stolen. Trying to achieve a police report the next day was frustrating and fruitless. It was the low point of our trip.
Uzbekistan was our second ‘Stan and couldn’t possibly have been worse than our first experience of central Asia. It almost was, though, as I crashed the car on our first day there. On hitting the corner of a U-turning car I managed to buckle the bonnet and cave in the front of the Kia. Luckily, the engine of the car was undamaged. More luck came in the form of a passing motorist. An English speaking local pulled up and offered to help us as he knew a nearby mechanic. The Uzbek mechanic was more bear than man. He started wrenching the front of the car with his bare hands then he began slamming his weight down onto the bonnet. To our amazement and disbelief, in just 5 minutes he’d successfully ironed out most of the damage. Our luck continued as our Good Samaritan invited us to his in-laws’ house for chai. The chai led to a large Uzbek dinner succeeded by generous amounts of vodka late into the night. The next morning we ate a breakfast of local honey and jams under the trees of their courtyard before we said our goodbyes.
Kazakhstan was the final ‘Stan on our route. With it came the best and worst roads in central Asia. I found it hard to comprehend the vastness of Kazakhstan. The land was almost unnaturally flat in places with no more than patches of boulders or scrub to break the horizon. The unwavering straightness of the road extended far into the heat haze. This endlessness influenced our driving as we rarely stopped and crossed almost 1500 miles of Kazak soil in 3 days.
The Russian border was slow. We’d heard reports of other crossings into Russia taking up to 18 hours. We were lucky as ours only took 8 hours. I resisted making it a longer stay when the customs official checking our car asked ‘AK-47, grenade, narcotic?’ I didn’t think he’d appreciate a joke.
Russia was a marked return to a temperate agricultural climate. The rain was back, its life-giving properties fuelled the vast fields that flanked the highway. The fields were then replaced by thick pine forests and the land began to rise and buckle until an Alpine scene emerged around us. We’d crossed into the Altai Republic, the outdoor pursuit capital of Russia. Further into the Altai, the glacial peaks of nearby China came into view before the land flattened out again at the Mongolian border.
On our 38th day we crossed into Mongolia, the 10th largest country in the world and once the hub of the largest contiguous empire ever. I want to be positive about our time in Mongolia. I wish I could regale anecdotes about the rolling steppe, southern deserts, nomadic culture and abundant wildlife. Perhaps if we’d been travelling by horse (still the transport of choice), I would. However 1000 miles of the most appalling dirt roads have shaken out any enthusiasm I had for Mongolia. For some unknown reason the hard Mongolian tracks have formed a corrugated surface that prevents speeds above 20 MPH (unless you want everything in your car to literally disintegrate or fall off). By the time we finally reached the capital, 5 days later, we’d driven every daylight hour and barely paused, even to eat. We were exhausted. A few days in Ulaanbaatar allowed us to recover and reflect but we were not ready to forgive. We gave our car to our charity and got the train to Moscow before flying home.
In total our Mongol Rally took in 22 countries and over 9884 miles. Despite our delays we reached Ulaanbaatar in exactly 6 weeks. The Kia pride was sold for Christina Noble Childrens Foundation and made up part of the £4900 we managed to raise for them. Our car required no mechanical assistance (apart from the facelift in Uzbekistan) and we only changed one tyre that had worn bald.
© Adam Smith November 2009
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