The Mongol Rally is from London to Mongolia. It is an unsupported, unguided, save your own ass — trip of a lifetime. The purpose? To see if you, your teammates and your 1.2 liter car can make it and to raise money for charity.
The first time Sherry Ott heard of it she was hooked. Her problem was she couldn’t find anyone to do it with her. When she came across three total strangers that were interested, none of which had any knowledge of cars or car repairs — she jumped at the chance.
Here is a bit of her story.
What on earth made you want to be in a car with three people you don’t know and drive from London to Mongolia?
The Mongol Rally’s moto is, ‘If you know you are going to make it then it is not an adventure.’ I loved that concept. I love adventures and I love to push myself. One of the reasons I did it was because I knew this would push me into places I was not totally comfortable. I am not talking about physical locations. I am talking about places inside of me that I am not comfortable with. I like to do things that are right on the edge of fear and excitement.
How long are you in the car before the honeymoon period is over and you want to kill each other?
I would say around Day 2. You get to know each other pretty quickly when you spend that much time together in such a small space. The dynamics were pretty evident early on. We had really great times where we all worked really well together and we had really horrible times where we screamed at each other and there were tears. When you put people into very stressful travel situations it makes emotions that much more heightened.
What was the route?
You can go any route you would like. It is not a race. It is more of a can you make it. We started in London then to France, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, 3 km of Moldova, the Ukraine, the southern part of Russia, into to Kazakhstan then back through Russia through western Siberia and we entered Mongolia through the west.
How many cars started the race?
And how many cars finished?
About 50% finished.
What was the primary reason they did not finish?
Car breakdowns. Some were other problems like they got in trouble with the law. There were people who were arrested. The thing to know is the people who put on The Mongol Rally make it very clear that they do not offer any support. It is up to you to get there. There are no numbers you can call. It is all on you. They provide you with the charity information and the information it takes to import a car into Mongolia. A lot of teams got into trouble. Some got into accidents. Some teams did not get along. But mostly the cars that did not finish had mechanical issues.
What kind of car did you take?
There are restrictions on the cars you can take. The Mongol Rally does not allow you to take any car that you know you are going to make it in. They restrict your car with a 1.2 liter engine and it can’t be older than 10 years old because you are going to auction it off for charity at the end. They have a couple of exceptions to these rules. It can be 1.5 liters, but you have to pay an extra fee to the charity or you can take an emergency vehicle like an ambulance or a fire truck because the people in Mongolia need these kinds of vehicles. Part of the car restrictions have to do with import rules because you are essentially importing a car.
We were unique because we got sponsors for a lot of stuff. We had a really great car sponsor. It was allwaysrentals.com from New Zealand. They loved the idea of The Mongol Rally and decided they would buy our car for us.
What is the thought of no one on your team knowing anything about a car?
Well there are two schools of thought. One is – the less you know the more of an adventure it is. But probably more importantly, since we are all long time travelers and as traveling is what we do for a living, we know that anywhere in the world when you need help, people are willing to help out. We put our trust in what we know about the world and in our trust of people and just trusted that no matter what happened it would work out.
So, how did you find your teammates?
I met Deb and Dave at a travel blogging conference in New York for about 20 minutes and I just happened to ask them what was next. They said they didn’t know, but they said they, ‘wanted to do something epic’. The moment they said that it all just kind of clicked and I told them about The Mongol Rally. They were excited about it and I knew I found partners. We had to do all of our planning over Skype. I didn’t seem them again until we showed up in London two weeks before the race to pick up the car in July. The 4th partner was someone I had never met, but someone they had traveled with before.
What is the spectrum of types of roads you were on?
Europe was easy until we got Romania and that was where things started changing. We got into two lane roads where passing was necessary and there were a lot of trucks, but the roads were still good. When we got into the Ukraine the roads started to fall apart. They did have highways, but there are also cows, crosswalks and horses on the highways. Russian highways were great. Everything fell apart in Kazakhstan. One day it would be horrible roads or no roads. Some days we could go a maximum of 10 km an hour all day and then the next day we would get to a huge four lane highway. You never knew what to expect. Mongolia does not have any asphalt roads. In Mongolia it was a matter of having a compass, a map and knowing what direction we wanted to go.
Does everyone start on the same day at the same time?
Yes. We all started in London at Goodwood Race Track. It is called it The Festival of Slow. It is a big party. It is hilarious. You do one very slow lap around the Goodwood Race Track and then you are off.
Did you have any problems with the police?[Laughing] Yes, but not nearly as bad as other teams. We paid less than $100 in bribes. Some people paid $100 a day in bribes. We were frequently stopped by the police. Mainly because we were this little car that had stickers all over it that was loaded down. We stuck out. A lot of the authorities kind of know what is going on and they know they can stop you for whatever they want and they can shake you down for whatever they want. We got stopped a number of times. Never for speeding. We were good about that. Although we never really knew what the speed limit was. We were just really careful.
Where we got into trouble was when we didn’t have all the right paperwork. For half of the race, we did not have the title for the car. We did eventually have it faxed to us, but sometimes we got into trouble with that when they would realize it was a copy.
Our bigger problem was in Kazakhstan because we did not have insurance. We screwed up. We did not buy insurance at the border which you always have to, but in fairness no one reminded us. We spent 4 or 5 hours at that border and no one mentioned it. The next day we realized we did not get insurance. So we spent a week and a half going through Kazakhstan without insurance. When we were stopped [by the police] their English was not good enough to know the word insurance so eventually we would just get out of it by frustrating them. Then we got stopped by one guy who understood English just fine. I had to ride in his police car. The bribes started at $350. After about an hour and a half and a few hours in the police car we got him down to about $53, which is what we would have paid for insurance.
As you are going from place to place are you visiting or just driving through?
No, that is the hard part. You become completely focused on getting there. Out of the five weeks we were in that car there were only two days we did not drive. One day we just needed the rest and the other day we were waiting for the right paperwork. We were always on the move. We did try to take a little extra time in Prague or Kiev and that is it. We never knew what was going to go wrong the next day, so we were always really focused on progress.
When you arrive, where are you exactly arriving at?
The Adventurists have a finish line. It is a parking lot and a building. It is in the capitol of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar. Of course we got lost on the way to the finish line. The city is really confusing, traffic is horrible and we didn’t have maps. Once you find the finish line there is a place to corral all the cars and they begin to auction them off immediately. There are locals there waiting to buy cars. In the end The Mongol Rally raised over $500,000 for a local Mongolian orphanage.
There is no prize. No t-shirt. No anything for doing this?
There was a party. Because they do not know when all of the teams are going to finish they have three weeks of parties every Saturday night. So if you finished that week and you could stick around you could go to the party. They had children from the orphanage come to sing and provide entertainment. They also would bus people out to the orphanage so we could see what we had raised money for. Once you spend that long in a car and that much time working towards a goal, you do not need a t-shirt or prize.
How much did all of this cost?
Some of the base costs were $1200 for a team, but you can have as many people on your team as you want as long as they fit in the car. There were a group of people that took an American school bus and it made it. You have to buy a car and that is going to run you about $1000 – $3000. You have to get insurance for each country. You are required to raise $1200 for the charity. My visas were around $800. We spent $2000 on petrol. We had a slush fund for car repairs which was about $1000 and then lodging and food. I would say it was around $5000 – $8000 if we had to pay for it ourselves.
So you are driving around the world with $1000’s of dollars cash in your car.
And besides that as we were all travel bloggers we not only had thousands of dollars, but we had 4 MacBooks, back up drives, iPods, cameras and iPhones. We had a lot of stuff in there.
Did anything get stolen?
No, we were very lucky. There were a lot of teams that had a lot of stuff stolen. Every time we stopped for the night we took everything out of the car. Some people got stuff stolen because they left things in cars. Once we went over the border from Romania to Moldova we started hiding things. That is when cars started being searched and we were being asked for bribes at the borders. Before we got to the border we would stop and split everything up. We put money everywhere. I put money in tampons.
Are there any rules on what you cannot bring?
No there isn’t and people get really creative. One team traveling in an ambulance brought a red sofa chair. They would bring it out and put on the beach in Turkey or put it in front of a ger in Mongolia and have locals sit on it. There were no restrictions besides the car engine size.
What would you say was the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was the dynamics of the people on the team. This type of travel requires you to constantly make decisions. Every day we had to reevaluate the way we were going. The problem was we were making decisions based on information when we had no idea if the information was correct or not. We would stop at a gas station and we would try to decide, ‘Do we get gas here or do we keep going?’ Maybe at a particular gas station they wouldn’t give us gas and we would think that they were not giving us gas because the tanks were empty. But then we would think what they were trying to tell us is that the tanks were going to be full in 45 minutes. Of course that is what we thought they said, but [because of the language barriers] we were never sure.
Then we would ask the locals what the roads were like and they would draw a picture in the sand and we would think that we understood them. So we were making decisions on information that we really had no idea if it was right or not. All of those things lead to four people being really indecisive and really stressed out. When you are dealing with that every day, it really becomes challenging.
So when you are in a car with four people for five weeks are you talking or are you driving in silence?
We drove in silence a lot and actually, we did not have air conditioning so it was difficult to talk because it was hard to hear. Most of the time we were just looking out the window.
How did you decide who drove?
In Europe it was much easier and we had a daily rotation. Once the roads became more difficult and the days became longer and more draining we would still do the rotation but we would do it more often.
Do you have a favorite memory?
There are so many. Meeting the people. When we were in Kazakhstan and Mongolia we camped. We would drive until it got dark or we were too tired and we would pull off the side of the road and camp. To the locals, we were like an alien ship that had landed. They would stop by and look at us or give us gifts. We had families in Mongolia that would bring us cheese or wanted to have their pictures taken with us. Everyone wanted to buy our car because there is a shortage of cars there. It was really lovely. The fact that the locals were interested made it really worth it.
I remember one guy in Kazakhstan. He was on a horse and he had a dog with them. He gave us a gift – a horse whip. We gave him a t-shirt. He came back the next morning and just sat there and watched us like we were a television show. It was the neatest thing.
That kind of makes me want to cry when you think of the United States and
how much fear there is with people who are different.
The last day we camped and we were picking up camp for the last time ever. Around the time we had everything in the car, this little boy comes up on a horse and he gives us a bottle of Airag [fermented horse milk]. We could tell his parents who were across the way told him to come give it to us. We gave him a t-shirt or something and he just said goodbye and rode off. It was beautiful.
To learn more about Sherry Ott and her adventures please see her blog at: http://www.ottsworld.com/