10,000 Miles, 41 Days, 12 Countries, 3 Mountain Ranges, 2 Deserts. 1 Car
What would possibly possess two guys on their gap year to drive thousands of miles across vast plains, desolate landscapes, arid deserts and freezing mountains to Mongolia? Why would they brave cramped cars, tents and stomachs to reach the distant outpost of Ulaanbaatar? And how did they escape police bribes, break downs, crashes and even the Gates of Hell to reach their destination?
Gapyear.com caught up with Sheffield students Richard Puchalka and Andrzej Staszek to find out why they signed up for seven intense weeks of travelling and how they survived the awesome, humbling and incredible adventure that is the Mongol Rally.
Rallying the Troops
“It was last September. We were in the pub having a pint thinking about what we would do on our gap years. We started talking about some rally we’d heard about and it happened that this one fitted in to when we could go.”
Richard is telling me of the day last autumn when the two Yorkshire lads made the decision to sign up for the adventure of a lifetime. What else attracted them to the event rather than just doing a spot of backpacking?
“Probably the driving – that we could drive ourselves,” says Andrej. “The whole event is just a bit different and it’s for charity as well, so it seemed like a good thing to do.”
The Mongol Rally is an annual cross-continent race extravaganza held by event co-ordinators ‘The Adventurists’. They put on several different variations of the ‘adventure rally’ each year; there’s the Ice Run across Siberia, the Rickshaw Run through India and the Mototaxi Junket in Peru.
What all these races have in common with the Mongol Rally is the pure desire for adventure, the feeling of being out on a limb as you speed away from your comfort zone and hurtle toward the unknown.
The Adventurists believe that things have gone soft in the travel adventuring. They reckon rallying should be rough-and-ready, a rustic experience. They plan events with no maps, little structure and absolutely zero hand-holding.
These are open-ended road trips, the definitive cases of the journey taking precedence over the destination. No one even cares who arrives first. The Mongol Rally is a game about players, not winners.
On Your Marks
It’s this spirit of adventure that attracted Richard and Andrzej, both 22, in the first place. The guys tell us forming a team together was pretty straightforward after knowing each other so long
“We’d been mates from secondary school,” explained Andrzej,” though we’ve known each other since we were six or seven.”
Andrzej and Richard come across as pretty laid-back, amiable guys. They sound thoroughly at ease in each other's company, which you would expect from people that have known each other for 15 years.
Prior to the Mongol adventure Richard had just graduated from Sheffield Hallam with a degree in Sport and Exercise Science, whereas Andrzej had left the University of Nottingham where he had studied Economics. After saving fiendishly the two adventurers found they had raised approximately £8,000 toward the rally.
“We got sponsorship from different companies and sold space on the car,” says Richard, “but we worked hard to save up ourselves.”
The road to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia was long and – frequently – hard. It would take the guys over six weeks to reach their destination, and where they were going there are no sat navs.
Richard and Andrzej set off on 25 July from Goodwood race circuit in West Sussex. Behind the wheel of their road warrior – a 2002 1.0lt Nissan Micra Vibe - they were one of around 350 teams heading out into the unknown.
Teams ranged from one person up to six or seven. Choice of teammates on the Mongol Rally is entirely up to each team, but the choice of vehicle had some arbitrary regulations: cars need to ideally have no more than 1.0 litre engines and be less than ten years old.
The rally start-point where these teams got set to go had a pretty ebullient feel to it. “It was a real festival atmosphere, there was a crowd there and it was really built up," says Richard. "Everyone loved it and people were beeping their horns, leaning out of the windows, playing their music and cheering.”
Andrzej says: “Teams would do a lap of the racecourse then head out on the road.”
On the Road
The start of the Mongol Rally from the UK is fairly straightforward, the guys tell us. Most of the teams essentially head in a convoy to a ferry to get across to France. Right from these initial stages Richard and Andrzej sensed something special about the whole experience.
“The camaraderie on the trip was brilliant,” Richard says. “Anyone would do anything to help anyone else out.”
Andrzej noted the make-up of teams. “There were a lot of young people,” he admits, “but there were quite a lot of older people, over 35.”
He added: “The ratio of girls to guys was very poor, but you kind of expect that from this kind of trip.”
Denied the opportunity of properly engaging with females, the guys turned their attention to the road.
“France we couldn’t really give you a good description of because we went through at night,” Richard says. “And in Belgium we only stopped in a lay-by and slept there.”
So when was their first meaningful stop? “We went to the German Grand Prix!” says Andrzej. “Just the race on the Sunday.”
Although the Mongol Rally kicked off in the UK, the European stage began in the Czech Republic. And of course, you can’t start a mass road trip without a party.
“It’s an organised party by the Mongol Rally for the European launch of the rally,” says Richard. “There’s lots of drink and nice food and partying through the night.”
“The Czech Republic was really nice,” says Andrzej. “Lots of rolling hills and beautiful scenery. And after that we visited some of my family in Poland.”
Over the Borderline
Things went pretty straightforward for Richard and Andrzej for a time through Europe. The roads were well maintained, the weather was fair and the people were friendly. Mostly.
Andrzej says: “We had a bad experience at the border to the Ukraine. They weren’t very nice because we didn’t have a green card. They marched us off to buy one.” He doesn’t sound happy.
Richard concurs. “They searched us four or five times,” he says. “But we had to get to Kiev because we were doing a Chernobyl tour, so we just had to get on with it.”
Grand Prix? Family visits? Chernobyl tour? It doesn’t sound like they were keeping a very quick pace.
“Some people do crack on and get there as quick as possible,” admits Richard. “We thought it would be a waste of time to drive straight through. We said ‘we might as well stop and see as much as we can.’”
Things settled down for the Sheffield duo from Kiev to Karkiv. Then they unceremoniously broke down.
“We had been hearing a rattle for a while,” says Richard. “We came across a broken down ambulance and what they described was similar to the rattle in our car. They said it was best to get it checked out.”
“Apparently their engine fell out!” adds Andrzej.
“When we got to Karkiv in south-east Ukraine we broke down,” recalls Richard glumly. “It was the clutch that gave out.”
Breaking down in the Ukraine...doesn’t sound appealing. “And it was a Sunday,” Richard continues, “but luckily a guy stopped and towed us to a hotel where we stayed.”
The hotel manager’s son drove Richard and Andrzej to a nearby mechanic, but it wasn’t a cheap fix.
“It cost £200,” admits Andrzej.
“It had to be fixed,” Richard says firmly. “There was no option to stop there. We couldn’t speak the language, we couldn’t negotiate.”
Road Less Travelled
After border tensions and breakdown trauma, the guys headed to Volga in Russia. They explain that the most popular route on the rally is to go south and pass through Iran, but that they made a strategic decision to avoid that route. How come?
“It was a lot more hassle to get through Iran than it was worth,” argues Richard. “It’s too expensive to get the visas and passes. It’s £300! each”
From Russia they drove through Kazakhstan, meeting up with a group of university guys from Bristol and convoyed with them to Ulaanbaatar.
“They were great,” says Andrzej. “But that’s when the roads got...quite bad.”
Bad? How bad?
“Bad enough so that you have to drive at 15mph for 10-11 hours” laughs Richard. “We were driving on the right-hand side of the road but it was sloped. Rocks, rutted road...that’s where we lost our number plate!”
However, it sounds like rocky roads weren’t the only concern. “We were running out of water,” says Richard. “Though we hit some smooth tarmac at one point and had a celebratory coke.”
In many ways the route through Kazakhstan seems the most exciting and interesting part of the journey. The guys broadly agree. “We’d drive through small towns and everyone would love it,” says Andrzej. “Kids would run right up to you.”
Richard chips in: “Some people would ask you for your stuff, and some kids were trying to reach in the car and grab it!”
“But generally most people were just excited to see you,” Andrzej reassures us. “They’d not seen anything like it.”
Gates of Hell
Turkmenistan involved probably the guys' top highlight from the trip: The famous 'Gates of Hell'. This is basically a permanently burning crater in the middle of the Turkmenistan desert.
It was formed when a drilling exploration caved the ground in during the 1970s and swallowed up all the machinery. The combination of chemicals, explosions and a deep supply of gas mean the crater is constantly burning.
The Turkmenistan government actually thought it would burn itself out within a year or two. But that was decades ago, and it’s still going.
“We got there quite late,” says Richard. “From a few miles away you can see the glow from it. We headed over, walking a mile and a half in the desert at night.”
“At the top of a hill you think, ‘oh, it’s not that big’,” laughs Andrzej. “But as you walk down you think ‘blimey!’”
“And it was hot,” adds Richard. “Really, really hot.”
Presumably there were plenty of security people and lots of health and safety procedures in places to prevent an accident?
"There was no police or security,” recalls Andrzej. “There was no barrier or really anyone to stop you from walking right up to it.”
“You can’t put into words how amazing it is,” says Richard. “We took a dump by the side of the fire pit, wrapped it in paper and threw it in. But the fire and energy is so powerful it just threw it back out at us!”
"You've never seen a group of guys run so fast," laughs Andrzej.
Running on Empty
Through Europe Richard and Andrzej stayed in hotels. After that they camped the rest of the time. “We never slept in the car,” says Richard. “It was camping all the way.”
Andrzej explains us about their nightly routine. “When it started to get dark we’d turn off the road," he says. "We'd drive for five minutes and try and pitch up somewhere quite quiet where people wouldn’t see you."
The guys tell us that careful as they were, they were sometimes discovered. Although not by people.
“Camels!” says Richard. “They were just sort of interested, though. In Turkmenistan I woke up and thought Andrzej was snoring, but it was actually a camel right outside the tent. We could see its shadow!”
You don't get that camping at festivals. What were the drawbacks of camping? “When you woke up it was unbearably hot through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan...” Richard begins.
“Though once you got to Mongolia it was freezing cold!” Andrzej finishes.
Throughout the period of camping by the side of the road, the guys cooked using a camp stove. They lived on a varied and balanced diet: pot noodles, pasta with Domino sachets, and for lunch they bought bread, butter, cheese and ham. Pretty much every day.
Did they ever sample the local cuisine? The street food? “We tried a lot of dumplings,” explains Richard. “You got the runs, but they tasted so good and you were so hungry by the time you stopped you just went for it.”
So it was...worth the runs? “Not worth it,” says Andrzej. “It got pretty bad.”
Richard describes the process for dealing with ‘dumpling stomach’: “You just pull up by the side of the road and go,” he says. “We had a fold-out toilet seat. That became quite popular. You could watch the sun rise from the tent as you squat down.”
Sorry, a fold out what?
“It’s a bit like a camping stool,” says Richard. “My dad said ‘that’s the worst thing you could buy. It’s £20 and a waste of money’, but it the best thing we bought. We’ve signed it and I’m going to frame it.”
The Finish Line
Once into Mongolia our heroes hit a trip low point as they were involved in a car crash with a local drunk driver. “Yeah, it was in the first town in Mongolia,” Andrzej says. “The police brought us in to the station. The guy who hit us was drunk and tried to claim his wife was driving.”
Richard describes: “A guy from the Mongol Rally had turned up by that point and helped translate. We had to take a breathalyzer. I blew 0.00; the drunk guy's wife blew 0.00 He blew 2.30. His car got impounded.”
Despite that little hiccup the guys did actually make it to the end of the rally. The conclusion of every Mongol Rally culminates in a huge party in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, which is held once a week on the fourth, fifth and sixth week after the start of the whole event.
The journey to the finish line of the rally had been pretty eventful for our heroes, but the adventures weren’t over just yet. Just getting to the club was a challenge. “There was ten of us in the taxi on the way there,” explains Andrzej. “It wasn’t even a proper taxi, it was just a car. People just flag down anything in Mongolia and hope they’ll take them where they want to go."
"We were inside and people just kept getting in," adds Richard. "One guy was 18 stone. I couldn't believe it.”
Eventually they made it to the club and the good times rolled. As far as they recollect. “The party? From I can remember it’s good,” says Richard. “Very good.”
“There was free vodka,” adds Andrzej. “And a buffet, live music, dancers. It was a big deal. In a really nice club.”
Once they finally finished partying, what happened? “We stayed for a few days then flew home,” explains Richard. “You sell your car through some local Mongol Rally guys. Our car actually got sold for more than we paid for it.”
“It was sad to see her go,” Andrzej says, with a hint of nostalgia. “We named her Martha.”
Thoughts and Advice
The Mongol Rally seems to have been a huge experience for Richard and Andrzej. They have plenty of highlights from the trip, with the low lights - of which there were relatively very few - including the runs, not showering for a week and the time they crashed in Mongolia. What advice do they have for any teams planning to do the rally next year and follow in their tyre tracks?
“Take a toilet seat,” suggests Andrzej.
“If you get stopped by the police: play dumb,” argues Richard. “And try not to pay bribes! Some people paid a lot in bribes. Lots of policemen kept asking us for money for no reason. One asked for binoculars, then a whistle, then dollars.”
“One policeman kept us waiting at a border because we wouldn’t pay him ten dollars,” Andrzej remembers. “Everyone else paid him. He wouldn't let the car through for a while, but they have to let you go eventually else it looks bad.”
Any other tips?
“Don’t constrain yourself in terms of budget,” confirms Richard. “It’s not a cheap thing to do.”
To The Future
No doubt many might claim that driving thousands of miles through unpredictable roads and cultures is irresponsible. Did our guys ever have any tense disagreements with friends or family as to whether they should be going on the trip?
“Not really, no.” says Richard, bluntly. “It’s as dangerous as you make it. You can keep yourself out of dangerous situations by keeping your wits about you.”
That answers that, then.
Richard and Andrzej raised over £2,000 for official Mongol Rally charity the Christina Noble Children's Foundation, who raise the quality of life for in-need children in Mongolia and Vietnam. It's fairly common for all rallys and adventures to have a charitable angle, and each year The Adventurists' events raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for good causes.
It’s clear from chatting with the two guys that this has been a wholly exciting, worthy and awesome adventure. “It’s the best £4,000 I’ve ever spent,” claims Andrzej, sincerely.
Would they do something like this again? “For me, I’d do a rally again, just not the Mongol Rally,” says Richard. “Maybe I'll get a job, settle down and do it as a holiday. That would be great.”
And just like that our time is up. It’s been brilliant talking to Andrzej and Richard, and everyone at gapyear.com wishes them well for the future.
The Mongol Rally is over for another year, but they’re already advertising for teams to sign up for 2012, once again promising the same rustic journey that is ’10,000 miles of dirt roads, shit roads and often no roads.’
If you think you’ve got what it takes to conquer a crazy road trip - or maybe you don’t but you just want to do it anyway, which is kind of in the spirit of the whole thing - head over to The Adventurists’ website and browse their various races and rallies.