Hi! My name’s Nathan and I spent 28 days driving a 15-year old Nissan Micra from London to Ulan-Ude in eastern Russia with my friend Richard this summer as part of The Mongol Rally.
The first thing people ask us (after they’ve said we’re bonkers) is why on earth we decided to do this. Richard has wanted to compete in the Mongol rally since around 2005, and being a caring friend I managed to convince my manager to let me have the time off in order to escort him one-third of the way across the globe.
As a condition of entry, each team must raise a minimum of £1,000 for charity – £500 of which has to go to the official rally charity, ‘Cool Earth‘, which works alongside indigenous villagers to halt rainforest destruction.
We decided to donate the rest of the of the money raised to Alzheimer’s Research UK and the If U Care Share Foundation, a local North-East charity set up in 2004 to offer help through prevention, intervention and support of those bereaved by suicide, after Dean and Shirley’s eldest son Dan ended his own life in their bathroom.
I live a couple of doors up the street from them, and watched the whole tragedy unfold from my brother’s bedroom window.
I would like to tell you all that we spent many hours planning all of the intricacies of our trip and leaving no stone unturned in our preparations … but this would be far from the truth! We split our duties in to ‘admin’ and ‘car’.
As I’m a home administrator for Careline Lifestyles in Newcastle, I unsurprisingly took charge of the admin side (route planning, visas, etc) and Richard was tasked with finding an (in)appropriate car to get us there, and him back. The only rule of the rally is that the car you choose must have an engine under 1.2L.
I planned our entire route on Google maps and navigated the bureaucracy of visa applications whilst Richard toured the shady back-alley car dealerships of the region looking for a bargain. Our car – affectionately named “The Soup Nazi” due to its unfortunate number plate – cost a grand total of £300!
On Saturday 16 July, we drove our chariot down to the start line of Goodwood Motor Racing Circuit near Chichester, ready for the opening ceremony the next day.
Unfortunately, on the A27 just outside of Chichester, we were boxed-in by the police and forced off the road. The modifications we had made to our car to hold jerry cans had made us look like a mobile bomb.
Thankfully, once the nice officers had seen we were harmless and called off the armed response unit en-route, they signed our car, re-opened the road and let us on our way.
An eventful start before even getting to the start line! There was also a military coup in Turkey that morning, which left us looking at alternatives to our planned route of: UK > France > Belgium > Luxembourg > Germany > Czech Republic > Slovakia > Hungary > Bulgaria > Turkey > Iran > Turkmenistan > Uzbekistan > Kyrgyzstan > Kazakhstan > Russia > Mongolia > Russia.
In the end, we decided to plough through Turkey just three days later and had no problems whatsoever.
There are far too many amazing things that we saw, experienced, and did for me to waffle on, and on, and on about – so I’ll cut straight to my favourite part of the trip: Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan is unbelievable. The capital – Ashgabat – is a cross between Las Vegas and Rome, in the middle of a desert, with not a single soul on the streets.
Once night falls, it gets even more surreal. Multi-coloured fountains, shimmering coloured high-rises, and roads that have lights built in to them as the lane dividers.
This kind of thing isn’t contained in the capital however.
Four hours north, slap-bang in the middle of the Karakum Desert, is the Darvaza gas crater – more commonly referred to as “The Door to Hell”.
Forty years ago, a Soviet gas drill collapsed in to a crater. Worried that the methane gas would seep out into the nearby village of Derweze, the soviet engineers decided to set fire to it in order to burn the gas off and make the area safe. They anticipated the burn-off would take a couple of weeks … it’s still burning today.
Our mighty Nissan Micra stood up to everything that was thrown at it, with the only damage being a snapped rear-right suspension in Kyrgyzstan that contributed to a snapped anti-roll bar in Kazakhstan.
After wrapping both up with bungee cords and driving 500km across the Kazakh Steppe, we found a lovely gentleman in flip-flops and shorts that welded them back together for the princely sum of £10.
We were also unable to get in to Mongolia due to the customs officials springing a cash-only 8,700,000 Mongolian Tugrik ‘Mongol rally tax’ on us (equivalent to $4,500).
This directive had been sent to them from head office at 9am Monday morning – doubly annoying for us, as we’d reached the border one hour too late on Saturday (with the border turning out to be closed all day Sunday).
This resulted in us chucking a u-turn – as we had no way of paying that amount – and spending the next four days driving through the Siberian wilderness to the finish line. Luckily, after a week of negotiation involving the rally organisers, British embassy, and Mongolian officials, the tax was dropped and teams were allowed to enter the country.
I am so glad that I went on this adventure, and would encourage all of you that have been nice enough to read this far down the page to do it yourselves! The main thing that I have taken from this is that people across the world are all so kind, generous, and friendly.
Iran has by far the friendliest people I have ever met in the world! A toilet break on the road would result in a crowd around our car and an hour of conversations – as well as the honks, waves, high-fives at 100kmph, and gifts thrown through our window (a gold watch being the most expensive, and chocolate being the most appreciated).
Whether it be a vodka drinking contest with locals in Kyrgyzstan, being taken for shashlik by Uzbeki students, cups of tea with fellow travellers at the Mongolia/Russia border, or being bought a beer by a Turkish truck driver near the Bulgarian border, it’s the people we met and interacted with all across the world that truly made the trip worthwhile.
If you’ve enjoyed my brief, chaotic, rambling, then please feel free to donate online to our wonderful charities. The deadline for donations is Friday 14 October. As a mad-cap side-note; Richard is currently driving the car back to Newcastle through Russia and the Arctic Circle.
You can find out how he’s currently doing via Facebook, together with the exact route we took, thanks to our GPS tracker.