Surviving the Mongol Rally

November 18, 2010 13 Comments »

Abandon The Cube Drives the Mongol Rally 2010

As you all know – I’m planning a 10,000 mile epic adventure with 3 other travel bloggers across Europe to Mongolia this summer via the Mongol Rally. The idea of the Mongol Rally hatched last year when I came across a career break couple who were taking the plunge into the rally in the summer of 2010; Lauren and Mike from Abandon the Cube. I reached out to interview the couple and shared it on my blog last March.  You an revisit that ‘before’ interview here.

That post was the pre-mongol rally interview; after following them this summer across Europe to Mongolia – I was excited to do a post-interview to see how it ’really’ went. In addition, they have also served as great resources so far for my own team planning for 2011! I honestly wish I could have about 4 hours face to face with them (while drinking a beer of course) to ask them the millions of questions I have regarding getting a car, the proper paperwork, supplies, sponsor, routes, dangers, and sites. Our own team is well aware of the challenge and dangers we have ahead of us, and being able to talk to Lauren and Mike about it is a huge help!

I’m excited once again to bring you Lauren and Mike from Abandon the Cube to talk about their experience in participating in the Mongol Rally. Did they make it to Ulanbataar? Read on…

Car Trouble?

How long did it take you from leaving London to arriving in Ulanbataar?
We left on the 24th of July, arrived on the 4th of September.

As Americans, how did you get a car in the UK?
We had a friend in the UK who agreed to store it for us, but we bought it online via Ebay and made the deal via skype with the British seller who, for an extra 100GBP drove it to London and dropped it off at our friend’s place. It was a huge pain and a lot of stress

Did you have a favorite country or area you drove through?
Romania was a beautiful place for driving. Beautiful countryside and never a dull scene. I’d give Romania top marks for that! But we loved Luxembourg for the beauty and cleanliness as well.

Did you take time to explore any of the cities you went through – or was it all driving, all the time?
We spent a bit of time (one-three days) in most of the capitals we stopped in, depending on what was happening with our convoy and with our little car. We stayed for several days in Budapest while another car was being repaired, but stayed only a few hours in Vienna because of the cost of hostels there and limited camping options. So, it all depended on finances and our convoy mates.

Did you have any mechanical difficulties?
Ha! Of course! Our little Citroen Saxo had its first major problem in the middle of Samarkand’s rush hour. The gear linkage popped out and we had to jack the car up right then and there and try to fix it. It never was the same again, it popped out about every 100k and we’d have to stop and jack the car up again. We also blew about 3 tires on the entire trip…. and, I hope this doesn’t dissuade any of your readers who are potential future ralliers, but the engine seized in the middle of the night on a dirt road on the Mongolian steppe and never started again. The poor thing just couldn’t make it. We had it towed to the nearest city and rally drop-off point. Mechanical difficulties were the norm, not the exception!

How did you find your way – GPS, maps?
We used maps, but to be blunt I’d take a GPS. The maps of Mongolia are a joke and we were lost for a few days as a result. If i did it again I’d do it right. It isn’t ‘against the spirit of the rally’ to have a solid backup like a GPS.

Did you ever have to sleep in the car – or camp?
I’d say we camped about 90% of the time. In Europe and Eastern Europe there were camp sites with showers and what not, but once we hit the Ukraine we were on our own camping on the side of the road. In a convoy it wasn’t intimidating, but one night we camped in Kazakhstan alone and it was a bit freaky. We also discovered in Mongolia one night that our tent had lost its rain resistance. Our tent flooded in a flash and from that point on we were sleeping in the car every night. In fact, I think we only stayed in three hotels the entire trip.

Did you experience any run-ins with the law? Bribes? Barter for camels?
This is embarrassing. But, I was driving in the Ukraine, I had literally just crossed the border and we were eager to get as far away from the border guards as possible so I was going a bit fast. I came over a hill and saw the cops, but it was obviously too late. I talked with the officers for a while and eventually they let me go! I didn’t have to pay a bribe or a ticket. We were pulled over a few other times, mostly in Russia, and never paid a single bribe or ticket fee. I think they could tell we were out of cash. Anyways, we set out on the rally determined not to pay anything, and until we got to Mongolia, we didn’t.

The Finish Line!

Everyone has an “Oh Shit!!!” moment when traveling – that moment when you think “Oh $#!+ – What have I gotten myself into” – what was one of yours?
We finally made it out of the Mongolian border holding pen where we had spent the past two days and nights sleeping in a cement cage waiting for them to process our import papers. Things were dismal and everyone was on edge. Eventually we got out and, like all caged animals do, we wanted to run free. We slammed the gas to the floor and took off and rounding the first curve we did a bit of a fish-tail. We sped back up and around the second curve we saw one of our friend’s cars in the ditch, obviously having rolled, with glass and metal everywhere! We jumped out and looked around but they were gone. It was scary because they had rolled three times doing the same stupid maneuver we were just doing and it just as easily could have been us. (we found out later they were okay. A few broken ribs and a real scare was the worst of it, but they did total the car).

How much money did you raise for charity?
We raised around 1,600$ for Mercy Corps- Mongolia. It was great because as we were driving around the Steppe we got to see signs saying ‘2009 Mongol Rally funded Mercy Corps Project’ and we’re looking forward to seeing the 2010 posters up. There is a need in Mongolia, and I’m happy to be a part of helping to fundraise for Mercy Corps. Overall– I’m not sure how much was raised because some teams are still pulling in new donations!

What happened to your car?
Sadly, our little car didn’t make it. 200 miles from the finish line the engine seized. The fuel filter was kaput and we didn’t have a replacement. We popped the hood and looked down to see a fried, sorry and pathetic looking mess. Mike was driving when it officially died, I guess it got really loud and he downshifted from 5th through all the gears to 1st and then it died. We had it towed to the nearest drop-off point. There are 5 drop-offs around the Steppe so that you still get to finish the rally even if your car can’t make it all the way to UlaanBataar. We’re happy and lucky our car died less than 150k from a drop-off. She was a good little car and made it 99% of the way, which was more than we expected once we saw the ‘roads’ in Mongolia.

What advice would you give people who are considering this for 2011 or beyond?

Abandon the Cube

I’d suggest having a rough outline for what you want to see and where you want to go, but since you are going to meet amazing people and convoy with them you have to leave time for seeing what others are interested in as well. The convoy makes all the difference in the rally. I’d also suggest bringing only comfortable clothing. Men were wearing swim trunks daily, they are quick-dry and easy to clean. You have to remember its summer, its hot, the car doesn’t have AC and you are driving through some harsh, desolate deserts. Anything you can think of to make the car cooler and yet still keep the weight down is a bonus. We were dripping sweat 90% of the time until we got to Mongolia, where we were freezing. I’d suggest taking a short road-trip in prep for the rally and seeing what you think you need on that trip. Don’t bring a cooler, you wont find ice. Don’t bring anything you dont want ruined, as the dust gets into the car and can ruin electronics, everything! I mean, its dirtier, harder and longer than you can imagine!

Ok – I’m not sure if I’m no more intimidated of excited after talking to Lauren! Check out our team progress on The Social Media Syndicate – we are just starting to search for sponsors…we have a long, but very adventurous road ahead!

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