Mongolia: Experiences of the Mongol Rally

Guest Post by Theroamproject.com.au

3 friends, 16,000km, 18 countries and a 1997 Toyota Corolla. These simple ingredients would take us from Berlin to Mongolia traveling by car through some of the most fascinating countries in the world.

Sunset in Mongolia
Sunset in Mongolia

The Mongol Rally is an adventure that has been attracting people from all over the world for decades. It runs from Europe to Mongolia, finishing in Siberia. There are only 3 simple rules; 1. You must have a ‘crappy’ car (1.2L or less, and 20 years old), 2. You must raise money for charity, and 3. You are totally unsupported throughout your drive. I admit it does seem a bit insane – throwing ourselves into some of the harshest roads and most politically unstable countries in the world in nothing but a beaten up car and a few spare clothes… But this is exactly what made this trip so incredible.


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So, what are the most amazing experiences along this wild and wonderful journey?

1. The silk road

First on the list would have to be the majestic silk road, where you’ll find yourself immersed in the rich past of Central Asia. The wide open expanses out in the take on a timelessness, dotted with small villages and herds of roaming animals. You’ll then find yourself in a preserved Silk Road city like Bukhara or Samarkand, and you’ll feel like you’re about to tie up your camels and talk shop with some caravan leaders about spices.

The first city the we visited in Uzbekistan was Bukhara, which has been around since the 9th century. The city was dotted about with beautiful temples, topped with intricate domes tiled in teal-turquoise patterns, called madrassas. After the scorching heat of Uzbekistan’s western deserts, we sought some respite next to a watering hole in the centre of town. People have literally been hanging out here for over a millennium, and it seems little has changed. We could also see why the city was famous for water borne plagues up until the 19th century, given the quality of the water.

A magnificent madrassa in the Silk Road city of Bukhara
A magnificent madrassa in the Silk Road city of Bukhara

Each city we visited rose magnificently out of the desert, a welcome vision in the vast desert plains. Imagining yourself, a weary trader coming from the West towards the East literally thanking your divine spirits that you’ve been delivered out of the sands.

2. Driving through Mongolia

Next on the list would undoubtedly be driving through Mongolia. The landscapes have a surreal feeling, where you actually feel like you’re driving on some foreign planet. The land in the far northwest of Mongolia is known as high desert, which means there are basically no trees and very few plants amidst the never ending mountains, hills and valleys. We were constantly mesmerised by the mountains flanking us in all shades of green, purple, blue and red depending on the time of day. It’s a true joy to drive through such unknown and uncharted territory, especially when you’re punting along in a 20 year old Corolla that really shouldn’t be driving these routes called roads.

Mongolia is also rich in large, crystalline lakes along the highway, many the size of a small sea. These would be fed by long winding rivers cutting through the landscape. These never ending vistas would be broken by groups of wild horses prancing around. You half expected Genghis Khan to come over the horizon.

The guys hanging out in some of Mongolia’s otherworldly scenery
The guys hanging out in some of Mongolia’s otherworldly scenery

3. The lawlessness

Lawlessness isn’t exactly a highlight in the traditional sense of travelling, but for us it brought about some of the most interesting experiences of the journey.

One of the first things you become used to driving along Central Asian roads are the bribes. In Kyrgystan and Khazakhstan there were police lying in wait at speed traps along the highways. They would pull us up, as we (and basically every other foreigner) were often speeding without knowing it. They would invariably have one obese cop with a radar gun, one stationary car with the sergeant grinning greedily and a host of others running around doing their bidding. They would start at $100 USD and tell us we would be deported if we didn’t give in. Then, after some hard-line negotiation, they’d usually be content with a crisp $10 USD bill in their hands. Although frustrating, these negotiations often brought about some humour and laughs.

Making friend with the locals, after we paid them $10 to let us keep going. He asked for the photo.
Making friend with the locals, after we paid them $10 to let us keep going. He asked for the photo.

Another incredible experience came from our lack of understanding of drone laws in Uzbekistan. We had a DJI Phantom III drone on the trip, which helped us capture some amazing footage. But in Uzbekistan, their fear of security threats and hostile espionage, means they’re not too fond of drones. In the beautiful silk road town of Samarqand, we flew our drone up high, but as our drone pilot triumphantly brought down our drone, the authorities descended upon us… leading to our first arrest in Central Asia.

At the station we were ushered upstairs, phones confiscated and handed to the authorities. We spent the next 4 hours in the interrogation room, where a translator went over the questions at a frustratingly slow pace. Then our next hour turned out to be one of the more surreal of the journey. It seemed our attempts to make poor conversation convinced them we weren’t that bad. After a while the translator explained that we were okay, and after the painfully sluggish paperwork was done, we could go – with no fine, and we could keep the footage. As we excitedly drove away from the station in a police car, the officer got a call from the police chief, telling him to turn back around. Our hearts sank.

Then the car pulled up outside of an unsuspecting cafe called ‘The Good Cafe’. We’re we about to get whacked? Was this the end? We were led into the restaurant, the police chief sat glaring at us. We all felt we were drawing to a sticky end. Then, out of the blue, he cracked a wide grin and warmly ushered us over. He then proceeded to offer us cognac by the bottle and give us one of the better meals we had in Central Asia. This constant dance of emotions, tussling between feeling frustrated at a broken system yet surrounded by the most amazing people encapsulates Central Asia. When we asked the chief why he did this, he explained, ‘I want you to remember Uzbekistan’.

4. Border Crossings

Border crossings are one of the most frustrating experiences in Central Asia. You never know if, or how, you’ll get into the country, it might be through a bribe or sheer luck. But, one of the most satisfying things of the journey was the sigh of relief you breath on each side of the crossings.

As an example of the ordeals, the border crossing from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan was like something out of War of the Worlds. Our car was funneled through the Kazakhstani side into no-mans-land, where it was stationed for 3 hours in the midday sun. There were no toilets and no shade in a dusty rubbish filled strip of land packed with waiting cars, trucks and people. The crowd waiting to pass through was on the verge of rioting, injured people were being carried along by relatives and everyone seemed to have all their possessions – bikes, electric cookers, fridges and everything else they could think of. Central Asian border crossings deserve their reputation. After a 5 hour ordeal, we finally rolled in to Uzbekistan.

It’s an experience like no other, but we couldn’t recommend highly enough to come prepared with your visas, be patient and always smile. In the end each border we got through we left smiling with a chuckling guard ushering us through.

5. The People

But, if there is to be a top of the list, most amazing of all in Central Asia, was undoubtedly the people. Warm, kind, humble and generous, each day we were amazed at people with so little offering so much. The hospitality in Central Asia was like nothing we had experienced in our lives.

Breakfasting in the morning by the side of the road in Khazakhstan, a car would drive by offering us dried apricots, then another would offer a watermelon, and another some grapes, until our entire boot was filled with a fruit section Donna Hay would be envious of.

As we wandered the back streets of Bukhara in Uzbekistan, we drifted towards some thumping Omar Souleyman-esque music and stumbled across a group sitting around a table. They invited us to drink and eat, and we ended up spending the next three hours being guests at a traditional Uzbek wedding. The smile on the 94-year-old great grandpa who sat at the end of the table surrounded by his family, while his shaking hands missing the left index finger brought the cup of vodka to his mouth, was priceless.

Whilst in Mongolia, amidst the treachery of the roads and the incredible landscapes, the people are amazing, intelligent and stoic. They have wonderfully wise faces which have probably been etched by the harsh environments over the years. One day, broken down on the side of the road, with our sump guard in tatters, a group of Mongolian fisherman pulled up, jumped out, and proceeded to work on our car. They pulled out milk vodka, shared it around, then gave us 4 fresh fish as they fixed our car and sent us on our way. The number of times people stopped to help our broken down car was incredible. We truly couldn’t have made the journey from Europe to Siberia without the help from the kind people along the road.

The grandpa of a family who invited us into their house in Mongolia
The grandpa of a family who invited us into their house in Mongolia

These stories are just a handful of the amazing encounters we had with people through Central Asia and beyond.

So what next?

Central Asia isn’t a destination for the faint hearted. But for those looking for something esle, for another frontier untouched by the hands of modern tourism, where people are as kind and generous as they have been for centuries and the landscapes will leave you in disbelief – Central Asia is for you.

If you are interested to see more of our journey, please check out our online mini-series – available here: http://www.theroamproject.com.au/web-series-mongol-rally/
And follow us on Instagram for more journeys to come: http://www.instagram.com/theroamproject.

See Also: My Time in Southeast Asia: From Thailand to Vietnam by Road, Train, and Boat

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