Chip Malt and four of his friends continue on the road trip of a lifetime: a journey of more than 10,000 miles from London to Mongolia. To read Part I of this series, click here.
Hungry and exhausted from the all-night, taxing drive through Turkey’s Pontic Mountain Range, the five of us were ready to leave Turkey and head toward Georgia.
This border crossing was rumored to be friendly; our guidebook even told us that we might receive a bottle of wine upon entrance. It also provided an opportunity to swim in the Black Sea; while we waited two hours to cross the border, we all took turns jumping off the rocks right near the border into the water. Our spirits and moods were immediately lifted after the fresh ocean rinse; it was our shower for the week.
Unfortunately, when our turn was called, we learned that our guidebook could not have been more wrong. The border guards instructed the four Americans in our party to walk across the border; our Kuwaiti team member was told to drive the van through. Within twenty minutes, the four of us were in Georgia, sipping on beers and taunting Khaled via text message to hurry up so we could get to the pillar monastery by sunset. Then, I got a frantic phone call:
“Dude, they won’t let me through. They searched our car with a drug dog and found nothing but told me to go back to Turkey. They said they didn’t want ‘the Kuwaiti’ in their country and they reached for their guns.”
I tried to calm Khaled down and then our team began to devise an action plan. Georgia was absolutely essential to our journey because the Armenia-Azerbaijan border was closed due to conflict and there was no other way to get to our ferry to Turkmenistan. I feared that we may not make it to the finish line.
We tried speaking and negotiating with different borders guards but they proved to be unhelpful. We forced ourselves into the presence of the police chief but he didn’t speak any English. Finally, we encountered one woman working at the tourist information stand who volunteered to leave her post and act as translator for us for over two hours.
The border guard was claiming that our temporary car registration was fake and that we had stolen the car; the woman explained to the guard that that was actually how London was now issuing them. Not surprisingly, we ended up learning that Khaled was being held back because of racism, and after almost nine hours at the border, the woman convinced the police officer to let us through. When we were reunited, we gave each other huge hugs, then sped away as quickly as possible, cursing at Lonely Planet for setting false border expectations. The thought of this blatant prejudice had not even crossed my mind when we registered the car. Khaled was the first to London and had a London address, so he took care of all the paperwork. We actually thought that we would be hassled more than Khaled given America’s current reputation; however, like this experience in Georgia and unfortunately for Khaled, that proved never to be the case.
From Georgia onward, the trip felt completely different. We took a ferry across the Caspian Sea and drove by the Door to Hell in Turkmenistan to the Aral Sea and along the Silk Road in Uzbekistan, before heading up through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The roads through those countries proved to be too much for our car to handle. Most were unpaved with deep wheel tracks carved from 18-wheelers. Our van routinely bottomed out and the conditions eventually broke our suspension, causing us an afternoon delay while it was fixed in the garage of a local (once again, a bellhop named Oleg at a hotel nearby left his position to escort us to a local mechanic shop). We continued to hobble through the “Stans,” finally reaching Siberia and then entering into Mongolia. It had been two weeks since the incident at the Georgia border and we found ourselves needing one last stroke of luck in order to make it to the finish line.
“Our Mongol Rally team started as a group of five, but expanded to include numerous strangers that went way out of their ways to help us get to the finish line.”
The final 1,200 miles through Western Mongolia were bittersweet. We could practically taste the finish line; however we still had the toughest drive ahead of us. Western Mongolia is known for having absolutely no roads through its mountains and most cars that strive to make the trek are modified 4×4 Landcruisers. Even with a new suspension, the Mongolian border guards, seeing our low-riding pink minivan, simply wished us good luck with a terrified look on their faces.
We started off feeling positive; we were even contemplating shipping our van back to America and tackling the route from Vancouver to Argentina the following summer. The car must have overheard us, though, and disagreed; as we pulled up to a river and began to cross it, she decided that enough was enough. Our van died on us.
We got out to discover that we had cracked our transmission fluid reservoir and had leaked our tank dry. We were literally in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia with only one small hut in sight. Yet within minutes, a man came outside and approached us. Although he was carrying an unclothed baby, he but put him down and began to work on our car without hesitation. There wasn’t much to do without any fluid, however. At least the baby, who had taken a particular liking to Brian, provided some comic relief.
Another car pulled up behind us. The driver noticed what was going on and exited his vehicle holding two giant bottles of transmission fluid. Together, the two local men put together a plastic funnel and filtered transmission fluid into our car. Then they can gave us an extra bottle to get us to the next town.
They didn’t’ stop there. One of the men ran out of sight and within minutes came back riding a tractor. He hitched our car to the tractor and pulled us through the river, which sunk our car up to its hood. We hadn’t realized how deep it actually was; without him, he would have never made it across.
We thanked the men, offering them some compensation but they wouldn’t accept. We piled back into our van and continued on to the next town – the fluid they had given us indeed lasted until then – where we purchased more so that we could continuously replenish the tank until we reached the Mongol Rally finish line, 600 miles away. By the time we reached the end, our car had completely deteriorated, losing all of its electrical power and poetically fully dying as we pulled into the finish line parking lot.
“We have been able to keep in touch with those who have email addresses and Facebook pages, sending them pictures and thank you notes. The others – the ones deep in the mountains and desert – we will most likely never hear from again, but they played such an important role in our journey and won’t be forgotten.”
The experience of the Mongol Rally is hard to explain in an article or to your friends. Some people say we were crazy for doing it and others envy the experience. I have traveled to over 50 countries in the past few years and it was by far the most fun and authentic way to travel. Our Mongol Rally team started as a group of five, but expanded to include numerous strangers that went way out of their ways to help us get to the finish line. We have been able to keep in touch with those who have email addresses and Facebook pages, sending them pictures and thank you notes. The others – the ones deep in the mountains and desert – we will most likely never hear from again, but they played such an important role in our journey and won’t be forgotten.
To see more highlights from the group’s Mongol Rally experience, check out the following video: