The Mongol Rally: Embracing The Unexpected

Hazel Rowland

If you’re hoping to raise money for a good cause, you might think about organizing a bake sale, undertaking a sponsored silence, or even signing up for a marathon. How about driving 10,0000 miles across Europe and Asia, over mountains and through deserts, in a tiny car and without any kind of backup or a preplanned route? If you’re looking for an adventure, then the Mongol Rally certainly promises that.

There are three basic rules: 1) The teams must drive a small car, with an engine of one liter or less; 2) Each team is completely on their own: there is no backup if you get lost or your car breaks down; 3) Each team must raise £1,000 for charity, half of which should go to Cool Earth, and the other to a charity of their choice. The Rally starts in the UK and finishes in the Russian city of Ulan Ude, but where the teams go in between is entirely up to them. The event organizers, the Adventurists, recommend that teams avoid spending too much time planning but instead embrace the unexpected. Previously, teams have gone as far south as Iran and Pakistan, while others have passed through the Arctic Circle.
James Cockshull and Aaron Lewis undertook this great motoring challenge over the summer of 2015. Here they describe their incomparable adventure.
What was your motivation for taking part in the Mongol Rally?

We were after an unusual adventure that was different from the bog standard package holiday or backpacking hot spots that have increasingly become way too safe and easy. We wanted a challenge that forced us out of our comfort zones and required us to cope with some demanding and dangerous situations. Ticking countries off the travel list and seeing them outside the tourist traps was a huge motivational factor for us too. Finally, fundraising for two great causes – Dementia UK and Cool Earth – was also an reason for signing up.

Preparation for the rally

Which car did you choose and why?

We chose the mighty Ligier Ambra, the smallest engined car to enter the rally, because we wanted to be unique and stand out from the crowd. There are around 300 teams in the rally every year and the majority of the cars that take part are Nissan Micras and Fiat Pandas, which, in our opinion, are way too common and reliable.

Our car made attracting sponsors easier, since when they saw its photo they could envision just how huge our challenge was. One of our biggest sponsors, Owen Contractors, told us that their reason for sponsoring us was that they knew we wouldn’t have a relaxing time in a car that was designed to take you to Tesco’s and back. They were right ­– there was nothing relaxing about it!

We found our urban warrior on eBay after scouring it for months. We instantly fell in love. We knew we had found the perfect rally car. With a few hours left we made a bid. The rest, as they say, is history.
Did you have any premonitions?

Our biggest premonition was our choice of car. We worried that it wouldn’t cope in the extreme heat and if we suffered from any major mechanical problems acquiring replacement parts would be extremely difficult due to its rarity. It was only running properly the day before the launch and had broken down a total of four times in the ten miles of testing we’d put it through. This certainly didn’t help our nerves! We knew we’d stumble into problems the further East we ventured where civilization diminishes and the language barrier would become a further hurdle to conquer, but we just accepted this as part of the adventure.

At the start of the rally

What was the highest point during your trip?

The trip was a roller coaster, and there were many high points. But, naturally, the highest point was reaching the finish line in one piece and being awarded the figurative crown for breaking the record for the smallest car to finish the rally. We felt elated that we’d done our sponsors proud and that their donations were not in vain. We felt relieved that there were no more breakdowns to fix. It was the first time we could relax in seven long weeks.

And the lowest?

As the breakdown count raised rapidly the further east we ventured, our morale for dealing with them exponentially declined and the low points started to stack up. One low point in particular was breaking down on the top of a Siberian mountain range on Aaron’s birthday. With the temperature dropping to single figures, the car suffering from intermittent ignition problems, our mood fell to an all time low. Enthusiasm and team spirit had gone out the window. On a dark Siberian peak we were stripping and rewiring ignition components lit by a dim torch in the middle of the road. We’d had enough and decided to camp up in the car that evening. Luckily, after a few hours of uncomfortable sleep in seats as rigid as church pews we were able to fix the problem the following morning.

Making repairs

Were there any moments where you felt genuinely scared or in danger during journey?

One particular incident comes to mind. We had broken down in the Kazakhstan wilderness with very few people going past. With limited supplies we were getting concerned about how long we could last in this barren, merciless landscape.

Many hours later we saw a small 4×4 approaching. Both of us frantically flagged it down and were relieved when it started to slow. The local Kazakh man and his son got out and we started the long process of trying to explain what we were doing and whether they could help us get a tow truck to take us to the next small town 260 kilometers away. The man then started making funny hand gestures, but, being seasoned professionals in translating hand signals, we suddenly realized that he wanted to tow us himself. At the time this seemed like a great idea.

We hooked the tow rope up to his exhaust hanger and to one of our front wishbones (since we didn’t have a towing eye) and in sign language and pictures explained that car was only capable of 60km/h and that he shouldn’t tow us any faster. Initially the tow started out well, sticking to a reasonable 40km/h. However, our request must have slipped his mind because after five minutes the speed started to rapidly increase. The car was being dragged all over the place across shoddy tarmac and coarse gravel roads.

The scariest part was when the tow topped a ridiculous 114 kilometers per hour. To put this into perspective, 70 kilometer per hour was our fastest stable speed under our own power. With dodgy brakes that would be lucky to stop a pushbike, and the speedo bouncing off the scale, we were fanatically trying to signal to the man to slow down. This was easier said than done, as he was more interested in taking selfies and sparring with his son in the front seat.

In the garage

The jarring tow and occasional bad roads eventually snapped the towrope and we had to resort to using a seat belt to get us the rest of the way there. A combination of his lunatic driving and bad roads eventually punctured one of his rear tires. We helped carry out a roadside repair and afterwards we assumed he would learn his lesson and drive more sensibly. Of course this was not the case. He was drifting all over the road narrowly missing oncoming trucks and camels. His driving was so abysmal that it looked like he was falling asleep at the wheel at some moments. This was the first time when we were seriously concerned for our lives.
Where was the most memorable location that you passed through?

Rudny, Kazakhstan is a town that we will always remember, not for the scenery but for the situation we got ourselves in and the generosity of the people we met. Driving south to north through Kazakhstan, we saw some pretty diabolical roads that were more like a gravel pits than recognizable highways. This took its toll on the car, and culminated in a loud bang as the rear wheel exploded. In the middle of a Kazakh road we found ourselves dangerously stuck with no way of moving or pushing the car off to the track at the side. The bearing had locked up so badly that we couldn’t push the 300-kilogram of plastic and aluminum to safety.

Luckily a kind lorry driver who had also broken down helped us manhandle the little Ligier into safer territory. Within the space of ten minutes we had a visit from a panda patrol. They called us a tow truck while laughing at the car and immediately after proceeded to call in another police squad in which to share the laughter. Sure enough a tow truck turned up. We loaded the car up on the truck, which took us to Qostany, the next major city where we were not sure we’d be able to find a replacement bearing because of the car’s scarcity.

On the road

We squeezed into the recovery truck and had a laugh with the two truck drivers via Google Translate before arriving at a supermarket car park where were they brought us some local beer to sample. Only after we’d finished drinking with them did they take note of our plea to drop the car off at a garage, since it was getting dark. An hour of pictures and hand gestures later it turned out that the truck driver was a mechanic and owned a workshop back in the town we had just come from. We arrived back in Rudny and dropped the car off at his workshop.

It was now midnight and together with a few of his mates we were dismantling the rear axle assembly where we soon discovered that this might be the end of the road for us because wheel bearings in Ligier size are as rare as rocking horse excrement. Of course we were pessimistic when the Kazakh mechanic told us that he would have two new bearings and the rear hubs milled by the morning.

On the road

While the assessment of our wonder wagon was being carried out, the other truck driver was warming up his pimped out Lada ready to take us to a hotel. Getting in the blacked out, matte black Lada with a sound system the size of our Ligier, we cruised down the back roads of Rudny with the soundtrack for Bad Boys being blasted. It was quite hilarious and also alarming since we had no clue where we were going. He asked if we needed anything to eat or drink and we replied that he shouldn’t worry because we’ll just walk to a shop from the hotel. Straight away they drove us to a corner shop and explained to us via their English translator that we were in the ghetto and that getting out of the car in the wrong place or walking to the shop on our own could be dangerous. We realized they weren’t joking because the shop was heavily armed and we had to point to items that we wanted through a window.

The following morning we were picked up from the hotel, and, true to his word, the mechanic had fitted two new bearing, had both wheel hubs milled out from a fresh block of aluminum and on top of that refused any payment from us. We were amazed and grateful for the generosity of the Kazakh people who treated us like celebrities. We ended up taking them for a meal as a token of appreciation.

On the road

How has it felt to return to everyday life after such a massive adventure?

We haven’t really returned to everyday life because we’re currently traveling around Asia on our way to Australia. However, we are already getting bored of this 21st century backpacking malarkey. After the rally, it’s just not extreme enough for us. To alleviate the boredom we’re always contemplating the next adventure. We just have to hope that it can equal the glorious madness that was the Mongol Rally.
Any tips for next year’s participants?

Pack as light as you can. Lay out a pile of things to take and then half it. You won’t need it all. We promise.

Try to take a unique or funny car. You’ll find it easier to get sponsors.

Apply for your visas as early as possible. They are important. Don’t leave them too late and then panic because you’ve run out of time.

When planning your route try to avoid the Caspian Sea crossing from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan. We read online that the frequency of the ferry was roughly every seven days. We were hoping to get lucky to hit it somewhere in the middle and wait three or four days. However, we got unlucky and ended up waiting around for the whole seven days which, despite camping in the port, cost us a lot of money.

Finally finished!

What did you learn from taking part in the Mongol Rally?

We’ve learnt that first-world problems back home pale in comparison to the constant challenges the Mongol Rally throws at you, forcing us to appreciate the luxuries we take for granted. Through the many roadside breakdowns we’ve suffered, we’ve observed and admired how resourceful local mechanics can be with a limited toolkit. Back home we’ve lost the ‘make do and mend’ mentality we used to have. We live in a throwaway society now, which we think is a shame.

We’ve learnt how to be patient, how to communicate through seemingly impossible barriers, how to funnel negative thoughts into motivation and how to work together to achieve common goals. We’ve learnt that only through adversary comes triumph. We’ve also learnt that many countries are vastly different to how we imagine them or how they’re portrayed in the media. Nearly everyone we met was extremely generous and supported us in our ridiculous quest. Most people have a good side, you just have to find it.

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article