In 2010, I drove with four friends from London to Ulaanbaatar as part of the Mongol Rally.
The event’s organizers describe it as “Motoring stupidity on a global scale.”
For this rally, there’s no support team, no set route and no guarantee you’ll arrive safely (or at all).
Our journey through Europe was really just a nice vacation.
We set off from Goodwood, a historic racetrack with manicured lawns and photo-perfect tarmac.
We indulged in Indian food in London. We breakfasted in Belgium on waffles. We even enjoyed a U2 concert in Amsterdam.
But east of Belarus everything changed.
From then on, flushing toilets, clean water, comfy beds and easily available gasoline were fond memories, or at least lucky finds.
Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia presented the challenge I’d been looking for.
Especially the Trans-Siberian Highway, a nearly 7,000 mile stretch of asphalt that spans eight time zones.
You could drive across the United States and back again and still not have driven that far.
Large portions of the highway were built by Gulag prisoners, many of whom died in the effort. It was only fully paved in 2015.
Our journey on the Trans-Siberian Highway took us through Novosibirsk, a city whose average temperature is below freezing six months of the year. Its hottest month, July, averages just 66 degrees Fahrenheit.
We were there in August, and as they say, “It’s a nice place to visit….”
As we left Novosibirsk, our GPS no longer had detailed maps. From then on, it functioned only as a clock and a compass.
We found ourselves on a dirt road full of holes and sharp stones. It was clearly well-traveled, but we dented a wheel and popped a tire trying to drive 20 mph on it.
We knew our journey would take us off road at some point, but we hoped that wouldn’t be for a while. We were nearly 2,000 miles from our destination, and we still had the Gobi Desert to cross.
We squirmed at the thought of spending more than 100 hours driving on roads like this.
As we carefully navigated the quagmire that the Trans-Siberian Highway had become, we saw a truck lumbering by off in the distance. It was going faster than us, going the same direction we were.
It wasn’t long before it was out of sight.
Then another truck came and went. We realized that we were traveling parallel to another road—one that had to be paved.
It turned out to be the actual Trans-Siberian Highway, and once we got on it, we traveled easily for many more hours.
We eventually made it to the border, successfully crossed the Gobi Desert, and reached Ulaanbaatar, where we donated our vehicles to be used as ambulances.
Along the way, I learned a few things.
Regardless of how bleak any given situation might look, it’s almost never as bad as it seems.
Good companions are essential.
So is planning and preparation. But no matter how much time and effort you put in, there will always be surprises, setbacks and disappointments.
For any journey worth taking, there will be parts for which you just don’t have a map.
And finally, there’s always a way forward—and it’s often better than the one we’re following.
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