When Charlie Grosso decided to challenge her own own boundaries, boy did she do it big and Intrepid was along for the ride! After 13,025 kilometres (8095 miles) across 14 countries in 38 days, she shares her incredible Mongol Rally experiences…
“The eighteenth-century Swiss author Madame de Stael once said, “travel is one of the saddest pleasures in life.” If travel is a lovely single malt Scotch, The Mongol Rally is akin to crack. It has been 3 months since I arrived at the finish line and yet not a day goes by where I don’t think about those 6 weeks spent driving across the world. I am beyond addicted and I constantly wonder how to get another fix.
The Mongol Rally is a 10,000 mile unsupported car rally traveling from London, UK to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. The Mongol Rally is adventure philanthropy at its best. Driving across 1/3 of the world in a tiny car, 2 continents, 14 countries, 5 mountain ranges and 3 deserts, while raising money for Lotus Children’s Centre in Mongolia.
I meet Pamela MacNaughtan and DJ Forza on Twitter. They pitched themselves as intrepid adventure-loving travelers and they wanted to join me. Call it feminist pride, call it what you will. I declined a few excellent offers from handsome lads who wanted to join my team, all because I wanted to put together an all women team. The rally sees less than 14% of women participants and out of 298 teams in 2012, only 4 were all women. I believe adventures are not just for boys!
The 10,000 miles ahead is full of bad roads, no roads, bandits, deserts, mountains and mis-adventures. Two of us on the team do not know how to drive a stick shift and all of our mechanical knowledge is theoretical at best. Three strange women locked together in a tiny car for 6 weeks feels like reality TV in the making.
I left all the creature comforts of NYC, put my career on pause for a moment and willingly subject myself to potentially a hazardous journey – both mentally and physically, because life is a dangerous proposition. To feel alive often involves risk and life dares you at every turn to see if you will take the bait. I am taking the bait. I want to see where my limits are and expand beyond it.
Three strangers in a tiny car driving across the world it is!
Now for the car… The rally regulations state the car must be made after 2005 (they don’t want a bunch of old junky cars dying slowing in Mongolia, nor would it be very charitable) and be approximately 1.2 L engine size. Emergency vehicles such as ambulance and fire trucks are allowed as well.
DJ, living in Geneva at the time, begins the car search in earnest. Several unsuccessful weeks goes by and we are now past the deadline for turning in the necessary car paper work. I am quietly panicking. In a moment of AH-HA! I remember my friend Earl (of Wandering Earl) is in Romania.
“Hey Earl, I need a favor. I need you to buy me a car.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. It needs to be around 1.2L engine size, made after 2005 and cost less than £2000. Other than that, I have no preference.”
3 days later, Earl bought me a 2005 Daica Logan. Buying the car was easy, getting a Romanian car registered in my name when I don’t live in Romania is another problem all together. Just as the car purchase is nearly complete, DJ decided to forgo the rally. She is being offered some amazing opportunities. Before we even started the rally, the team is down to two.
The launch site for this epic drive is Klenova, a small Czech town about 2 hours from Prague with an ex-Soviet military base and a medieval castle. It is mid-July in Europe and I have traveled through Turkey, Romania, Italy and France just prior to our arrival in Klenova. It has been boiling hot everywhere until now. The days are cold, 10 degrees Celsius at best during the day and quite chilly at night. We arrive the day before the official launch, set up camp and check out gear.
More and more cars arrive and the Festival of the Slow is about to begin. The air is thick with excitement and the quiet Czech countryside is interrupted with honking car horns, disco music coming from altered speakers and engines revving. It is finally here!
I carefully drive Irina, the mighty Dacia Logan (which we later dubbed as Disco Dacia), up the hill to introduce our team and the car. This is day 2 of driving a stick shift and I am trying not to hit of other ralliers. Being one of the 4 all-women teams, we were presented with a She Wee, a plastic device in the most feminine shade of pink that allows you to pee into a bottle!
That night, in the medieval castle of Klenova, adventure-loving intrepid travellers drink too much, dance too hard and all have a Bacchian time.
The next morning, we decamp and start our drive and in a matter of days we’ve quickly zipped through 2500+km – Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania all went by in a flash. The Mongol Rally is not a finish first rally and we’ve given ourselves 6 weeks to complete the drive from Prague to Ulaan Baatar, but the further east we move, the more uncertainty there is. Once you get in the car, the compulsion to just keep on going sets in. Lets get as many good miles down, on paved roads, where I can drive in 5th gear for kilometers on end before all bets are off and we are trying to decipher which donkey track we should follow.
On the very first day, we altered our projected itinerary and decided to speed through Eastern Europe to get to a rally party on the Black Sea Coast of Romania. Driving 16 hours non-stop for a party and skipping countries that I would like to see is not my usual M.O. but something happened at the launch party that flipped a switch in me. After months of explaining to people what The Mongol Rally is and why I want to do it, being immersed with a group of fellow ralliers, where no explanation was necessary, is a thing of beauty. The camaraderie is intoxicating. The bond is instant.
The rally does not have a pre-determined route and each team is on its own timetable. Factoring in the extremely high failure rate, its uncertain if we will ever see any of the other participants again. The party at Vema Veche is the last time most of us will be together for a long while, so I wind through the alpine forest of Dracula at top speed. I bump my way through giant potholes on the truck routes outside of Bucharest in the dark, and pass by sketchy pit stops to get to my comrades. They were strangers to me less than a week ago, but after launch finding them again matters.
We arrive at Vema Veche well after midnight. Tents are pitched on the beach in the dark and with every arrival, the crowd on the dance floor cheers. It feels like a victory already and we’ve barely started. I had spent all my Romanian Lei on gas, as the gas stations do not like my US credit card. No matter, who needs money when the room is full of friends. Drinks are bought and I dance until dawn.
The Mongol Rally is not traveling. The Mongol Rally is the perfect drug for those of us with Type A personalities, goal oriented and slightly obsessive. During all the pre-planning, you have an inkling of what is to come, you knew this would not be travel as usual, but you still held a romantic notion about what you could manage. We had flex-days so we could take our time and explore Budapest, Bucharest, Istanbul and other great cities. But we didn’t anticipate the strong compulsion of go that would set in.
In Baku, Azerbaijan, we have to jump through our first real hurdle: get Pam’s Turkemistan visa and get on the cargo ferry before my visa expires. Back in the Turkmenistan Consulate in Istanbul, Pam had told a little white lie when submitting the paper work. She didn’t have her Uzbekistan visa in hand and the Turkmenistan officials would not let her submit the application without the proper onward visa. So she said she is going to exit out of Kazakhstan instead – a very different route than my already approved Turkmenistan visa.
Ishmael, the local ‘fixer’, is already at the consulate with a few other ralliers. We need to get the consulate to issue Pam’s visa today and we will need all the help we can get. I walk straight up to Ishmael, smile sweetly and start to work on getting this visa.
Meet Lachlan. Tall, scruffy, intense, he knew our team and who we were as soon as I walked up. We’ve been exchanging Facebook messages and this is the first time we’ve meet in person. He is driving alone. Ishmael asks if Lachlan wants his help with the visa and getting on the boat, Lachlan being a little naïve to the ways of the world told Ishmael, no, he will do it himself.
After much ado, including push back from the consulate as Pam had declared her profession to be one that is interpreted to being a journalist, we finally were able to secure Pam’s name on a list for a visa on arrival. Now we head for the cargo port and wait.
Teams pulls up to the port gradually, mostly new faces and teams I have not meet before. Ishmael goes in and out of the ticket office and everyone who has employed his service waits for what is next. Will there be a boat today? Maybe. There are no straight definitive answers. We could only hope.
Lachlan goes into the ticket office and tries to buy his ticket and is rejected. He has pissed off the fixer and he is being screwed with. I plead Lachlan’s case to Ishmeal and willingly subject myself to a little ass grabbing for a comrade’s cause.
We pay $100 per person and $80 per meter on our car and we move the car 20 meters down the dock from where we were and wait. The drivers (registered owner of the car) and passengers (your mates) each approach customs in different groups and wait. One window after another, one stamp after another all crescendo into final mob scene to pay the loading fee before we drive our cars onto the cargo ferry to sail across the Caspian Sea.
We head above deck with our dinner and a couple of tiny bottles of scotch. The sense of relief is palatable from everyone. This has been an all-day ordeal.
The cargo ferry sets sail at 5am. I woke up to the engine humming and no land in sight. After days of constant motion, the sudden stop is strange and a relief at the same time. We are about to enter the next phase of our Mongol Rally adventure and this is a nice intermission. After hearing horror stories on the condition of the boat, the cabins and the bathrooms, I am pleasantly surprised. Everything is sparse but clean.
The 14-hour crossing felt long. We have all been on an adrenaline-fueled mad dash. There is a clock ticking somewhere, a visa, a rendezvous with another team or a plane ticket out of Ulaan Baatar pre-booked. We silently feel the minute hand ticking, the days getting crossed off the calendar and we move through each country with a tunnel vision towards the finish line.
We dock at Turkmenbashi at 7pm and we wait for the cargo to be unloaded before we can disembark and start the massive customs procedure. Suddenly, Pam turns to me and say, “we won’t get into Ashgabat until late Friday night and the next day is Saturday.”
“That is right. We will head for Ashgabat as soon as we can tomorrow but we won’t get in until late…” Then the unspoken words behind her sentence hit me. Pam is scheduled to pick up her Uzbekistan visa in Ashgabat and there is no consulate service on Saturday. We start Act Two of the Mongol Rally in the North Korea of Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Pam is heading home due to visa complications.
Ashgabat, the capitol of Turkmenistan, is an unusual place. There is only one television station and it broadcasts state propaganda. There are giant politicized, monolithic construction left from the Soviet era and of its current dictator President Niyazov, all façade in white marble and gold. The hotel rooms and restaurants serving foreigners are potentially bugged. There is only one ATM in the entire country accepting only MasterCard. This city is weird. I want to get out as soon as possible.
Lachlan (Team Polar Bear Posing as People), Peter and Darian (The Cranky Canukes) and I are in a convoy through Turkmenistan. After stocking up on supplies we pull off at the first opportunity and eat a canned goods lunch on the side of the road. The boys and I spend the next couple days together until we lost The Cranky Canukes in the last stretch before the boarder crossing into Uzbekistan. Lachlan and I drive on for another day before his schedule pushes him onward at a faster pace. Now that my team is down to just me, I am tempted to push through my exhaustion, blow off my commitment to photograph Wok the Dog and keep up with Lachlan. However, Wok The Dog, my photo documentary project on food markets around the world, has been ongoing for many years and I owe it to myself to do it justice. Squandering this opportunity to photograph markets in Central Asia because I have tunnel vision is unwise. We part ways in Samarkand, I hope to catch up with him down the way.
Irina my little Dacia Logan is about to log its 10,000 km on The Mongol Rally and I want to make sure she is okay before I start on the hardest part of rally, the toughest roads. I pull into a mechanic’s shop in Kazakhstan wanting a general check up, breaks, clutch, and maybe even an oil change. That doesn’t seem too ridiculous does it?
“What is wrong with the car?” The mechanic asks in minimal English.
“Nothing. I just want to make sure everything is okay.”
A confused look befalls him.
“Does it go?” The mechanic asks.
“Does it stop?”
“Okay then. There is no problem. It is good.” The mechanic declares.
Due to another visa snafu, I am forced to take my time driving through Kazakhstan. Somehow I ended up ahead of the projected schedule and I cannot enter Russia for a full week. 2,500 kilometres on paved roads in Eastern Kazakhstan should only take 4-5 days to drive max which means I have to slow down. With nothing but time and relatively few livestock wandering on the road to distract me, I have a bit of time to contemplate random things. Why are all the houses in Kazakhstan painted white and blue? Why is there a crazy sub-division in the middle of nowhere? Who are they anticipating that will come and live here? Why are there cows, sheep, goats and horses everywhere but finding a kabob is nearly impossible?
After spending night after night camping in the middle of nowhere, you start to wonder about the nowhere-ness of it all. What does it mean to be somewhere? Is the difference between nowhere and somewhere predominately defined by the sense of isolation? Wait. What happened to the good road? Where did it go? Why am I on the bad road running parallel to the good road? How do I get over there?
I camped in the middle of nowhere Kazakhstan for nearly a week and slowly made my way to Semey, the last town before the Russian boarder. With only 3 hotels in Semey, running into other ralliers is easy. Within an afternoon, I meet 5-6 different teams of Aussies, Canadians and Europeans. My solo status is now known in the rally circuit (thank you Facebook) and everyone generously invites me to convoy with them.
I join a team of Canadians: Paul, David and Marc of Canadian Camaraderie and 3 Aussies: Locky, Scott and Tim, Men Who Stare at Camels. Finding the right convoy to travel with is an art unto itself.
We wait at the mechanic’s all morning for new brakes for Men Who Stare at Camels, spend 2 hours driving around in an obscure Russian town to find a new battery for Canadian Camaraderie and while trying to get a replacement tire for me the boys nearly get in a fist fight with a skinny Mongolian man. No one complains and no one is upset because we had to spend part of the day sorting out car trouble for another team. Without words, all for one and one for all becomes the underlying principle.
When I started on The Mongol Rally, I was looking forward to all the interactions I would have with the locals as I make my way through 14 countries. What I didn’t realize then is your interactions with the locals are limited because of the speed at which you travel. Aside from stopping for supplies, petrol and mechanical failures, there is very little opportunity to interact with anyone other than fellow ralliers. You are consistently in the middle of nowhere.
We gradually make our way toward the Mongolian boarder, one mechanical failure at a time. We arrived at the border just before 6pm, at the end of the workday. We hand over our passports and are directed to pull into ‘the compound’ where there are at least 40 other teams.
It’s been a very long time since this many teams are all in one place. The weather is turning fast. Our desire to say hello to other ralliers and get the lowdown on the border situation is superseded by the need to set up shelter. Fist-size hail then rain. We huddle together under the tarp hoping the gale force wind doesn’t blow our tent away. Welcome to Mongolia! Oh wait, we are not quiet there yet.
The next morning all the drivers hang out by the administration building, hoping to get ourselves processed so we do not spend another night camping on concrete. An officer walks by me and asks me if I am Chinese in Mandarin and he practices the 5 phrases he knows in Mandarin. Next thing you know, my car plate has been called. My paper work miraculously jumps the queue and I have been processed ahead of everyone else. But I cannot leave. I can’t leave my boys behind. All for one and one for all. I wait another full night with the boys.
Nearly two full days after we pulled into the compound, at 2pm all 3 teams have their paperwork complete and we are allowed to exit. Locky hops into my car (their car has major suspension issues), we crank up ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” and drive into Mongolia!
The first afternoon of driving after 2 days of sitting still, enclosed in a concrete-wire-fenced cage is pure bliss. Everyone is ecstatic! Those not in the driver seat pop out of their window, the sunroof, climb on top the roof rack and ride into Mongolia with unmitigated excitement.
There are bandits between the boarder and the first town, so we don’t stop for anyone. But we do stop for the wild camels on the side of the road. Camels in Mongolia!
On the Mongolian Steppes it is cold, cold, cold. The temperature has been dropping rapidly since Uzbekistan and Western Mongolia is the coldest yet. We set up camp within sight of a few yurts. A few kids curiously come by on their horses and then their father joins them on his motorcycle. They brought gifts: two different hard, sour, cheeses known as qurut and byaslag, and fermented horse milk, airg. We share our spaghetti with them – they were not impressed – and gave them the last of our chocolate pudding – which they loved.
Driving in Mongolia is filled with a continuous choice of LEFT! CENTER! RIGHT! for each divergent road. The roads keep on splitting off and at times there are as many as 6 different forks to choose from, or you seem to be running parallel with 10 different roads. There are no paved roads in Western Mongolia. Sometimes the road is good enough to drive at 60km/hr and there are entire days where the average speed is 32km/hr. I push on and hope all roads lead to Ulaan Baatar and our finish line.
The only way we know if we are on the right course is if we hit a town every few days. The towns are crucial. We need to re-supply food, vodka, find fellow ralliers to see which teams have made it into town but most importantly, repairs. With only one spare tire, I continually need to get the tire patched. The rocks are sharp and big and a flat tire is the least of the damages.
Night after night, day after day, I am literally in the middle of nowhere. Often we would wake up with a curious Mongolian man or two, traveling by on a motorcycle and they stop to check us out. It is a little bizarre to crawl out of your tent and see men standing there watching you brush your teeth, boil water for coffee and make breakfast.
There is wildlife everywhere. Some days we would stop every hour or so as there would be a herd of yaks, wild horses, camels, goats, even eagles that are being kept for hunting. Wooden bridges that look like they are about to fall apart and river crossings are highlights of our days. It is nearly stupid how much fun it is to drive across a river. You put the car in first gear and drive across the river without letting your foot up the gas so you don’t flood the engine. Maybe it is the possibility of screwing it up and killing the car, but every river crossing is so much fun, every broken bridge is a reason to squeal!
There is only 800km left, we drive more aggressively, a little more recklessly, after all, the cars only need to last us another 2 days. The convoy has grown from 3 to 7 cars since this morning and we stop following each other in single file. We lose the last ounce of fear and let go any sense of restraint. We overtake one another at every opportunity. It is a thrill to overtake the Canadians and stop eating their dust for once.
There is a hot spring marked on the map, a 30km detour from the last town before Ulaan Baatar. We are confident. UB and the finish line is a sure thing now. Yes, let’s take a detour and go find the hot spring. After 10 days of nearly freezing temperature, we all dream of sitting in a hot spring of 35 degrees Celsius with a drink in hand to celebrate this last night before the finish line.
We speed our way through grassy fields, driving on roads that are not roads and I get a flat. The boys hop out, the tire is changed with the precision of a Nascar pit crew and we race towards the setting sun. We find the tiny village that is marked on the map and the hot springs is supposed to be near. The villagers have no clue what it is that we are looking for. We give up on our beautiful dream of being clean and warm and start to look for a camp-site. Wait, what is that over there? A soggy patch of grass leading up to a pipe. Hot, sulfuric water is coming out of the pipe! Oh My God! We actually found the hot spring….or at least, a pipe bringing hot spring water down from somewhere.
We set up camp for the last time and try to eat EVERYTHING we have. We crack open the small tin of foie gras I have been saving since Budapest, and couple bottles of Chilean Red wine we found in the last town. Even though our hair is matted, we are beyond dirty, all of sudden, we feel like our civilized selves again.
We’ve lost enough elevation for the night to be above freezing. Scott and I grab a blanket, walk 10 meters past all the cars into pitch-blackness, lay down on the grass and look up. Stars upon stars, galaxy upon galaxy, we are watching history! Under the star-light, we feel a little small, a little complete, but more than anything else, we feel the pulse of possibility. Locky hauls out some wood they’ve been carrying and we have a campfire for the first time in the treeless plains of Mongolia. We warm ourselves by the fire, pass around a bottle of Chinggis Vodka. This is living! This is life!
The next morning we race towards UB and the finish line on sweet tarmac at 100-120km per/hour, breaking only for the occasional unexpected pothole. We might have been aiming for the finish line all these weeks, but final destination only matters because of all we’ve been through. These majestic, ridiculous, stressful, near-death, breathtaking, fast thinking, quick talking and wickedly brilliant kilometers we’ve traversed, is what the rally is about.
A huge polluted Asian City with its insane traffic welcomes us. Our finish line is in the center of town, in the back streets, in front of a slightly dodgy hostel. It takes us nearly 2 hours to navigate from the edge of the city to the finish line. Traffic dampens our enthusiasm and makes our arrival anti-climatic. But the victory banners are giant and so is our sense of elation! The Finish Line at last!
13,025 km, 14 countries, 38 days:
Longest time went without a shower: 4-5 days… but who’s counting!
Camp shower administered: 2
3 flat tires and 0 mechanical failures (that is for all of those who made fun of my Romanian made car!)
0 bribes paid (no booze, no cigarettes, nothing given)
Pulled over 5 times
Ticketed once in Prague
Hours spend driving a stick shift before the start of the rally: 1.5 hrs in an IKEA parking lot in Romania
Status of Clutch at the end of the rally: Excellent!
Navigated through Istanbul traffic like a pro, shifted up and down gears on steep hills with the precision of race car driver. Yes. I want to be a race car driver!
Vodka consumed: Hmmm…hard to say when everyone just passes the bottle around
Longest border crossing: 44 hrs
Shortest border crossing: 1.5 hrs
Bottomed out and needed to dig the car out: twice
Days spend in the middle of nowhere: 14+
Some ralliers say that it was quite a feat I made it. The odds were against me from the get go they say. One teammate dropped out before the launch. Didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. Have zero practical mechanical car repair knowledge. Bought a Romanian made car. Only had one full size spare tire and no tools. Visa issues. Another teammate dropped out. Physically driving the entire 13,000km. You should have never made it they say. But I did. I arrived at the finish line with the reputation of driving like a mad woman and being the only woman to have completed the 2012 Mongol Rally on her own.
I have been a solo traveler for many years now. I love traveling alone, love meeting myself, life, head-on the road. The Mongol Rally was not traveling but an incredible adventure, one that I am still digesting and re-living after all these months.
“For me, travel has rarely been about escape; it’s often not even about a particular destination…There is something in the act of setting out that renews me, that fills me with a feeling of possibility. On the road, I’m forced to reply on instinct and intuition, on the kindness of strangers, in ways that illuminate who I am, ways that shed light on my motivations, my fears… Often the farther afield I go, the more at home I feel.” Andrew MacCarthy, The Longest Way Home.
The rally and the successful completion removed the last ounce of fear I had about what is possible. I close my eyes and think back on those days and nights in the middle of nowhere and I smile from ear to ear. I am ready for the next thing. I might love the act of solitary travel but I am even gladder to have found like-minded adventurers!”
Intrepid was pleased to help sponsor Charlie’s SMStowaway team and carbon offset their journey. Plus money raised for Lotus Children’s Centre in Mongolia in conjunction with The Intrepid Foundation has been doubled by Intrepid Travel.
Photos: Charlie Grosso, somewhere en route to Mongolia!