Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mongol Rally 2009: A Retrospective

Fair warning: This post is not about technology.

About a year ago, I had just gotten back to the United States from Mongolia, where I took part in the insane, awesome event that was the 2009 Mongol Rally, as a part of Team Great Job!. I reckon the 2010 rally is finishing up right about now.

It was an amazing experience.

We bought a used car in Düsseldorf, Germany. It came with a scratched up copy of Hakim's Tamni Aleek in the CD player, which became our official start-of-a-new-journey music. Our trusty steed was a 1999 Nissan Micra, which we named 'Goat' in part because of its hardy nature, and in part because of our questionably-tastful decision to tie a goat skull to the front when we got into Mongolia.

We randomly ran into a friend from our university radio station in a market in Amsterdam.

Some mechanics in Poland fabricated a sump guard for our car out of sheet metal. We communicated with drawings, by talking on the phone to a friend of the mechanics who spoke some English, and via a short explanation written in Polish by our couchsurfing host, Bolek.

We broke down in Vilnius, Lithuania (broken U-joint), and the head mechanic at the local Nissan shop was so interested in our trek that he his crew repaired our car, and did some extra maintenance, for free -- all while staying late on a friday evening.

It took three tries (with three different car registrations) to get into Russia at the Russian-Latvian border. We finally got through with the help of some nice Latvian college students we met at a bar (which had become our local base of operations), one of whom registered the car with her father's address.

At a farmer's market somewhere in Russia, we bought a kilo of by far the most delicious almonds I have ever tasted. Every almond I have tasted since is but a shallow and unworthy imitation.

We tried to make a U-turn in Moscow. Ha!

We didn't get to go through Kazakhstan, even though we had the visas, because of our long delay in getting into Russia. We drove straight to western Mongolia.

I got to drive through the Russian mountains near Mongolia in the middle of the night, windows down, blaring Italian hip-hop. We stopped once at a waterfall which we could hear and smell but, because of the pitch black, could not see.

We camped out many nights under the beautiful Mongolian sky, next to the Gobi. The washboard-textured dirt roads repeatedly rattled our rear-view mirror off, and broke our gas gauge so it read about a half-tank lower than it had (which frightened us until we discovered the real situation).

Compared to many other teams, we got by without any major run-ins with the law. We got pulled over just a handful of times, and never had to pay a fine/bribe.

Teammate Will, as chief documentarian (and a professional photographer), wrote some excellent essays, with photos, as we were on the trip. They are far more detailed and better-written than this post. He also compiled portfolios of photos from Europe and Mongolia. Check it out! Also check out his photos from times when he's not hurdling across Europe and Asia in a Nissan Micra.

My thesis is this: I thought it was a great 2 months. I learned a lot and experienced a lot. It was stressful as hell in parts, too. We raised a good chunk of change for the Mercy Corps in Mongolia. Seeing Europe in a car is actually quite nice, though. You get to park outside cities, stay in cheap euro-camping, and take the tram in. It gives you freedom to move between cities that you don't get with just public transportation. Then, after that, you can get around in places that don't have real public transportation, like rural Latvia and Russia, and, well, pretty much all of Mongolia outside of Ulaanbatar.

It's not terribly expensive, either. I didn't have an apartment at home in San Diego, and everything except my plane tickets back from Ulaanbatar (bought on short notice since we didn't know till late when we would actually get to Ulaanbatar), was cheaper than just paying my rent in San Diego. Including those bastard plane tickets, it was an extra month-and-a-half of rent.

If anyone's thinking of doing something similar, do it!