Life on the Mongol Rally: How to Drive Across the World
This week, I caught up with two explorers about their time on the Mongol Rally, to find out what it’s really like to experience the greatest road trip on Earth. Barrie and Joe, two young vagabonds set out to cross the world in a Perodua Nippa back in 2015, travelling over 10,000 miles from the UK to the delightful tourist town of Ulan Ude, Russia. One thing was for certain, it was hard to ignore the laughter in their voices at almost every point when telling their story, which is what adventure is really all about. They made it, just about… And they had a thing or two to say when they returned.
How did you decide to do the Mongol Rally?
Well, I always wondered how people go through life without having a sense of adventure. I was at uni at the time, and I remember thinking that this trip would be my motivation. The first thing I’d spend my first pay checks on once I finished. So I spoke to a good friend of mine about this idea. I had to drive to Mongolia on the rally, and he was shocked. He asked “why on earth would you want to go to all these places that nobody ever goes to?” And I was a bit put back, like, holy fuck there are actually people that don’t have this urge to get out there and do crazy things. So I just bought an entry ticket and hoped I could find someone to come!
Luckily I found Bazza, who was up for it.
How did you go about planning it?
Well you start with this idea, but you have to think about how. It’s not the sort of thing you can just do. And that was the exciting bit, you know? I had some money to make it happen, but I hadn’t checked with work, I’d just bought the ticket and committed myself. That’s the first step, take the leap and figure it out from there. It’s pretty special.
So Barrie had done a bit more travelling than me at the time, and kind of knew how to plan things. I didn’t… So Barrie came up with loads of sensible and whaky ideas, and I basically came up with stupid ideas that weren’t relevant, haha. The first two months figuring out what we were gonna do and how were pretty chaotic and stressful.
It started with us plotting all the places we wanted to see on a map, and at the same time scraping the dregs of gumtree looking to find the worst car we could get our hands on. Then it was visas, the biggest problem with visas for The Mongol Rally is the time scales- you need to know exactly when you’re entering and exiting a country in advance, which is hard to know… We also didn’t know, but visas come in the language of the issuing country, so we had to pay to get them translated into English so we knew exactly what we had.
The rally had been going for about 10 years when we signed up, and basically Mongolia had got sick of all these old shit cars from stoke-on-trent turning up in Ulaanbaatar, and decided they’d had enough, and the finish line was moved to Ulan Ude, in Russia. I think until that point we’d not considered politics, we’d only looked at geography and all the cool stuff we’ll see and do along the way, the food and the people. But in reality you do need to think about politics and what you can and can’t do in some of the countries, which you do need to take somewhat seriously. You know, there are things that will get you a wrap on the knuckles, and other simpler things that could land you in a backwood jail cell, so you really need to look this stuff up.
So what about the car?
Barrie was very good at researching, which basically meant trawling through forums to find other people who had done it, what they did and what they used. And that’s how we found the car. The Perodua Nippa. One of the first cars to do the rally, and one which had a little cult following, but no one was using any more. Most people use Nissan Micras for the mongol rally, as they seem to have the highest success rate. We got our Nippa for £170, with 50,000 miles on it and basically in new condition. It’s a shame we didn’t take the fellas details and send him a picture of the car at the finish line- I don’t think he knew where the car was going, haha.
The idea is to get a car less than 1litre engine, and as small and crap as possible. The ethos, the mission objective if you like, of the rally is to test your mettle. It’s designed to be difficult and chaotic, that’s the point and that’s why we chose this car. It’s quite cool actually, as everyone sets off separately but it’s not long before you see other clearly distinguished, crap cars with stickers, and you sort of toot your horn. We had this little train going by the end of Europe. There were these guys we met at this point and did the rest of the trip with, they’d bought a car for about £5,000, which was obscene really, it was basically brand new, air conditioning, 1.6 turbo diesel. You know, they got a lot of stick for that.
We also saw some non-ralliers driving the silk road in proper overland vehicles, which is cool, but not really the aim of the mongol rally. You know, we couldn’t just steam along. We had to think about the bumps and holes in the road, overheating problems, fuel stops etc in an whole other way. It made it more challenging, but it wasn’t a holiday it was an experience and challenge was the point. If you don’t get into at least one situation where you have to take a long hard look at yourself and wonder what the fuck you’re doing, then you’re doing it wrong.
Our trusty Nippa, in it’s natural habitat
Did you not want to quit? What kept you motivated?
There’s a real sense of satisfaction when you’re doing it, you’re talking to locals and they’re asking what you’re doing there. When you tell them they’re just awestruck, and it makes you think, you know, actually I’m doing something quite ridiculous here. And that’s how your brain works really, after a couple of weeks you get accustomed to life on the road, but it only takes a moment of reflection to realise a sense of achievement and pride in what you’ve accomplished so far. It makes you very aware of what you’re capable of, and some perspective. If you’ve had a situation where you’re at your lowest point, you actually look back on these with fondness, and know that these are the stories you’ll always tell.
“but it only takes a moment of reflection to realise a sense of achievement and pride in what you’ve accomplished so far.”
There’s a balance, you know. Allowing some bad things to happen without them being truly awful, like death (that’s bad, haha). But you know, breaking down in the desert is shit, but it’s not going to scar you for life and it’s a cool story and positive in the long run. You’ll learn a lot about yourself. There’s no way it’s easy all the way through, there are hard days and you absolutely hate it, but I look back at those specific moments and think, that was fucking brilliant. That was funny, ridiculous and incredible, and I’m glad I had that experience and opportunity to reflect on how normal life really is. I’d do it again for that reason.
How did you approach breakdowns?
Well, there are two obvious schools of people on the rally, over and under-prepared. You’ll see cars bogged down with kit, people with half an engine in the back and it’s like, mate, if you breakdown half way through turkey when you’re knackered, dehydrated, you’re not gonna fix it. It’s not needed. To be honest, we were a little on the over-prepared side. But you need someone to tell you it’s okay to drive across the world with only 3 t-shirts and not 12, you don’t need that winch, you don’t need a lot really. You can’t underestimate the ingenuity of people that live remotely and have to recycle or fix their parts. We had a tyre changed by a child in Kazakhstan, he changed that thing quicker than I’ve seen blokes in the UK take the wheel off, and he wasn’t older than 12. We chucked him $20 and he was over the moon.
Our favourite people were the mechanics, and they handled breakdowns in the most crazy ways. At one stage we had several holes blown in our radiator, so we had to drive at 60mph with the bonnet off to keep the engine cool, which is tricky on steppe, dodging potholes. You know, we couldn’t keep this up, so we pulled into a little town and found this guy. It was pretty late, getting dark and we obviously couldn’t communicate with him at all. So we managed to point out the issue, and he offered to help. Within a few minutes, Joe and I were inhaling lugs of this mans cigar, plugging the holes in the radiator with our fingers and blowing the smoke through to see where it came out. All the while this guy is welding up the holes we found, and we were back on the road pretty quick. Of course though, these repairs didn’t hold. After a while, we ended up with a 4.5ft old man sitting on the gear stick between us because the bonnet was on the back seat. He was necking a bottle of vodka and directing us to a scrap yard to find a new part. We did wonder at that point how things had panned out this way.
What was the dodgiest incident you had while driving?
Before we fixed the radiator I mentioned we were speeding across steppe, steppe is basically flat grassland and gravel with no distinguishable features, and so we’re steaming along at 60mph with our 1litre engine, 13inch wheel and a busted radiator. If we slowed down, the engine would run out of water and over heat in 15 mins. Unfortunately, we didn’t notice the mound that the car ahead had narrowly avoided, and we hit this thing full force. We literally took flight, landing with a shocking bang, and soaking wet. What was the liquid? Well the plastic jerry can on the roof containing about 20litres of fuel has burst, and was pissing through the holes that we’d drilled directly into the roof to secure the roof box, and through the open windows. That had to be the dodgiest moment, and considering I now work in the fuel industry, I’m pretty horrified at what could have happened!
“Then all of a sudden, after god knows how long alone in this shack, the door burst open with the two huge Russians in tracksuits and too much jewellery burst in.”
How about borders, what crazy moment did you have?
On the Kazak and Mongolian border in the mountains, there’s no physical crossing so you have to go from Kazakhstan into Russia and then back into Mongolia. We took this back road to a different border crossing we saw from a map, and it wasn’t used much but we were assured by some locals that it was operational. When we got there, the Kazak side was a breeze you know, the guards were taking selfies with us and everything was great, and then we entered the Russian side. This thing was literally a shack in the middle of nowhere, and of course we were ushered inside immediately after having our passports taken by a stern looking border guard. He left us alone after using Google Translate to tell us that someone was coming for us. At this point, one of the guys pointed out that the tatty old chair in the corner looked like it had rope burns on the arm rests. We thought, oh shit, we’re done for.
Then all of a sudden, after god knows how long alone in this shack, the door burst open with the two huge Russians in tracksuits and too much jewellery burst in. They interrogated our maps to find out what we were doing, asking loads of questions about Putin and Ukraine, it was really quite worrying. Then we had to get back in the car and follow them down a dirt track past the border, where they made us pull over by a verge… The lead Russian, the one who could speak some english, pulls out some smokes and hands them around, and I just remember him slowly pulling the cigarette from his mouth, exhaling, and loudly proclaiming “Welcome to Russia!”. Turns out it was all a big prank, these guys were really sound, gave us their numbers and offered support for the next week or two! Gave us a proper scare!
We know that bribing is commonplace, how did you go about that?
Bribing is a way of life on the road in some of the countries, the police pull you over for sport and you can’t really hide because you’re the only idiot in a Perodua Nippa with stickers all over it and the bonnet on the back seat. We stocked up on Marlborough Golds when in Georgia and these were the perfect bribe. They’ll literally smoke the pack and then transfer their cheap local cigarettes into the box… But the real trick with bribing the police is to keep it as low as possible, not only to save your cash and cigarettes for the next bribe, but also because the next car that comes along will be expected to pay at least what you paid! Another golden tip is to carry a dummy wallet with just a few dollars in it.
Our survival tactic was to stick with other teams, but that all went out the window because of the route we’d chosen and our visas. Turkmenistan changed the rules for exiting the country so that you could only exit via Uzbekistan, which we didn’t have a visa for. So we said goodbye to the other teams, and decided to try and cross the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan. That was fun. We were literally the only team going that route, and we needed to find a space on a ship, so after some digging we found this fixer who had figured out he could make some money connecting ralliers to transportation. He found us a spot on a cargo ship which literally had 50 train carriages, and loads of lorries, and then our Nippa. It was a pretty grim journey to say the least, we slept in a cabin infested with cockroaches and ants, and shared with long haul truckers. But you know, afterwards we stayed in a 2 star motel which felt like heaven and only cost us £30, so again it really helps with perspective.
About a day after that though, we were on the road again in Kazakhstan steaming along on the tarmac, before turning right onto a completely desolate dirt road. After about 8 hours driving, we pulled over and Joe and I literally looked at each other without speaking, like this is it, who’s gonna eat who, we’re done for. It’s a weird feeling, driving so far and for so long without seeing another person, and it wasn’t until that point we remembered some advice we were given by a lady we met a while back, which was to always keep an eye out for power lines- as these always travel between towns. We looked up and saw no power lines in sight.
Did you make it to the finish?
Yeah, we made it! As I mentioned, they moved the finish to Ulan Ude in Russia, which definitely felt heavily communist and typically soviet. It was a lot of relief you know, making it that far, and it wasn’t long before we all were hit with tiredness like our minds finally relaxed knowing we were catching a flight home soon. The tiredness was a bit of a ball breaker at that point. We nipped to the shops, if you can use that phrase to describe it, and the American guys in their Mitsubishi Colt managed to fall down a dodgy man hole cover. That was kind of the last straw for them, and one of them burst out in a fit of rage. It was quite funny to be honest. Not so funny getting the thing out again though, haha.
The Mongol Rally 2020 was unfortunately cancelled, but, it is a go for 2021! I’d imagine that it will be twice as furious, twice and ridonculous, and even more legendary! I’d also imagine you can’t wait to hear more, and so have a butchers-hook (look) at our other articles: