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What I learned driving 10,000 miles on the Mongol Rally

Popular Mechanics logo Popular Mechanics 1/12/2020 Bassam Tarazi
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Not too long ago, two friends and I took part in the famed: Mongol Rally. The trip stretches almost 10,000 miles from London, U.K., to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia using only car with an engine no bigger than one liter. 

While the trip can take as many days as you'd like (ours took 5 weeks), this isn't easy highway driving. The Mongol Rally passes through some of the most challenging terrain on the planet, and we were not in a car fit for the task. Trips usually start out similar until you hit the Caspian Sea, then you have a decision to make. You can north through Ukraine, go south through Iran, or go through the Sea by cargo ship—we chose the last one.

Here's some of the knowledge gained during this mother-or-all road trips.

It’s Hard Buying a Car in a Foreign Country

a group of people in a desert: mongol rally© Bassam Tarazi mongol rally

One of the hardest parts about this whole endeavor was figuring out how to buy a car in England while living in New York City. There are sensible laws like, being present, that prevent such things.

Research

Our way around this conundrum was to say that I lived at my cousin’s house, in London. He and I have the same last name. Whatever the British government needed me to fill out was sent to my cousin, which was then mailed to me in the States.

If you don’t have a family member, you’re going to have to find a friend’s address.

Before you can actually buy the car, you need insurance. And we certainly didn’t want a long term policy so we used https://www.hertsinsurance.com/. (It’s like Hertz, but not really.) You certainly don’t want to tell them that you plan on driving the car to Mongolia.

Buying Car Insurance at the Border

Most of us would understand the idea that you need to have car insurance for the country you’re driving in, but what about a country you're only driving through? You buy them at borders. You get to decide how many days of insurance you need in that country, and you have to pay for it before they even let you cross the border.

Long Road Trip? Buy Japanese

a group of people sitting around a car: What I Learned On My 10,000-Mile Mongol Rally© Bassam Tarazi What I Learned On My 10,000-Mile Mongol Rally

By rule of the Mongol Rally, every car has to have a 1 liter engine or less, so we ended up buying a 1997 Daihatsu Move, clocking at measly 42-HP, 847cc. It kind of looks like an Audi S4 on its side (and it’s about as fast as an Audi S4 on its side, too).

We drove almost 10,000 miles, traversing cold mountain ranges and sweltering deserts. The only real trouble we had was shearing off an engine mount bolt on Day 2, and getting a flat tire on Day 29. Not bad!

The Importance of Patience

a group of people on a beach in front of a truck: What I Learned On My 10,000-Mile Mongol Rally© Bassam Tarazi What I Learned On My 10,000-Mile Mongol Rally

It doesn’t matter how many forms you fill, stamps you have, or fees you pay, if that last guard at the last gate doesn’t want you to leave the country—you don’t get to leave the country. It’s bureaucracy personified.

The closer you get to a border, the less important your opinion becomes. Crossing borders by car in Central Asia is maybe the greatest lesson in learning to control what you can control (for the record, your breathing is about all you have dominion over at that moment.)

It’s a humbling lesson in patience. I’m a better man for it.

No Fly-Over Countries

When you encounter the world one tire rotation at a time, you’re forced to abandon the social brushstrokes of “they.” Up close, xenophobia loses its hostility through a kind gesture or a shared laugh. The Muslim becomes a Central Asian who becomes a an Uzbeki who becomes Widad: a hardworking mother of three trying to provide for her kids by selling fruits and vegetables on the side of a desert road.

Stereotypes save time. Understanding takes effort.

Fixers Make The World Go Round

What I Learned On My 10,000-Mile Mongol Rally© Bassam Tarazi What I Learned On My 10,000-Mile Mongol Rally

Countless times we were at a literal impasse until someone with more local knowledge and a grip on multiple languages came to our rescue. This is “the fixer.”

A fixer can get you from point A to point B, geographically or logistically, when you can’t do so on your own. That’s useful. And you’re always willing to pay for it.

Driving When On The Right Side Of The Car

For those of you who have grown up with steering wheels on the left, there are a few things you need to adjust to when in a car with the steering wheel on the right

  1. You change gears with your left hand
  2. Your blinker is where your right hand is and your lights/windshield wipers are where your left hand is
  3. When passing someone on the right on the highway, the hardest thing to remember was that your left shoulder is not at the leftmost edge of your car, it’s only in the middle. When making that pass, you have to really push yourself way to the right, much further than you’re typically used to
  4. Prepare to clip a lot of curbs

Getting There Was Only Half The Battle

a black truck sitting on top of a car: What I Learned On My 10,000-Mile Mongol Rally© Bassam Tarazi What I Learned On My 10,000-Mile Mongol Rally

Istanbul. Rush hour. No cell service. Can’t read Turkish. Welcome to hell.

Getting from here to there on a map was only half the battle. Finding a place to park and sleep was another. Just because we got there, didn’t mean we got there. 99% wasn’t good enough. Because 99% there was still 500 yards from where we needed to be. In the pressure cooker of planned grit, there is no autopilot. There is just you and your teammates at the backend of a 12-hour drive in a tin can looking for an address that doesn’t exist.

Whenever we did find our home for the night it felt like we had just survived reentry from space. There’s no satisfaction like the earned satisfaction in planned grit, when joy sits inches away from calamity.

Eat, Sleep, and Move East

a close up of a hillside next to a mountain: What I Learned On My 10,000-Mile Mongol Rally© Bassam Tarazi What I Learned On My 10,000-Mile Mongol Rally

We had nothing else to do. We didn’t have to balance different tasks, make deadlines, launch projects, or attend networking events. It was just: eat, sleep and move east. There were no texts to answer, emails to check, or corporate asses to kiss. It was just: eat, sleep and move east. That was the only goal.

This reality left us harnessing the power of three things: uninterrupted thought, unbridled focus and collective discomfort.

Camping in the middle of nowhere with 8 other people, with nothing but a campfire and a couple bottles of alcohol after a day moving east is one of the best memories of the trip. Pure contentment met full immersion…for hours on end.

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