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18 countries, 3 guys, 1 car and not a clue – Taking on the Mongol Rally

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Harry, Tom and Dave met at Bristol University and all studied Bio Chemistry. Last year, at the age of 21 they decided that they wanted to embark on an adventure they would remember forever. Rachel at has a quick word with the guys about their five and a half week road trip in a 2004 Daewoo Matiz 1.0 litre.


mongol rally car

The Ride


How did you first hear about the Mongol Rally?

Tom: I had a friend at school whose crazy older brother did it and it stayed in the back of my mind since the age of about 14.

Harry: There was a large group of us who were really up for it. I feel the thoughts of the rally can take some of the blame for my exam results that summer which weren’t up to scratch by any stretch of the imagination. Our distraction from revision became a ‘who can find the most outrageous vehicle to travel 10,000 miles in’ competition. We finally formed a trio later that summer when the rally ballot opened. Who can we thank for being on the ball and spotting this in the middle of August? Tom, he’d broken his collarbone, in Bristol after an inebriated cycle ride at 3am to a petrol station, leaving him bed bound and very bored at home.

Tom: Possibly the most painful experience of my life!

What were your first concerns before you’d even set off from Goodwood?

H: Whether we had the right kit, too much kit. Generally kit oriented. It’s very easy to envisage every problem possible when you sit at home in the UK, particularly when you find your way onto the official Mongol Rally Facebook group. Here everyone from bygone years shares their tales, and such is life, they only ever seem to be the negative ones. But it’s also more likely that you’ll only need a spare tire, a jack, and a jerry can.

T: We had heard a lot about corrupt police and bribes so that was pretty worrying; also just getting ill or something horrible happening (physically) in the middle of the desert miles from anywhere.

Dave: Yeah breaking a leg wouldn’t have been ideal, being transported in a tiny car with two of your mates not knowing what to do would have been awful!


What charity were you raising money for?

H: Initially we thought we had to raise money for two charities. They were ‘The Adventurists’ charity of choice, which was the Lotus Children’s Hospice in Mongolia. Our main one was ‘Brain Tumour Research’ in memory of my Ma, Caroline PY who died of a brain Tumour in May 2008.


How much money did you raise?

T: Just under £3500.


What was the worst point of the whole trip?

D: Tom, having too much shit in the car and leaving his mates.

H: We had a blazing row in Azerbaijan, Baku to be exact. It was at this point that visa dates were creating stresses. Dave and I had realized that we needed to be out of Uzbekistan and into Kazakhstan 10 days from the point we were in Baku. 10 days is a short time to take a ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi and then drive through the desert into Uzbekistan and do more driving. So we thought we might have to leave ‘Khan’t read a map’ who we had convoyed with all of the way. They were a team consisting of three of Tom’s school friends: John, Liam, Will. Tom didn’t want to leave them but Dave and I didn’t feel such a need to stick with them. So in the heat of Baku one morning, we had a big old argument and then we hugged it out.

T: I remember waiting for the ferry across the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan. We were already on a timescale and things were taking a long time. It was the point at which tensions in the group were running highest and friendships were really put to the test.

D: Saying goodbye to the car was a low point too.

H: Yeah, true.


What was the best point of the whole trip?

H: There was no single best point; the entire trip was unbelievable. Some places stick in your mind particularly anywhere east of Turkey (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia) because of the fusion of Islamic culture and things that were/are so clearly Soviet. A large number of those countries are still ruled by ‘Politicians’ an interesting synonym for dictator. The history of Turkmenistan is incredible, some great trivia about Turkmenbashi, the dictator who died in 2007, changing the days of the week and months of the year to be called after members of his family. As well as banning ballet and car stereos.

T: Our time spent in Tblisi, Georgia will always stand out for me. The Georgian national hospitality is overwhelming and I have never felt so welcome anywhere. Not to mention the incredible history and landscape of the country. Also the last few days in Mongolia. camping rough in the steppes with not a single thing to be seen from horizon to horizon.

D: My favourite bit was arriving in Mongolia and driving around there. The whole experience was obviously fantastic, but there was a sense of relief, excitement and achievement when we drove around Mongolia because we’d made it.


What was the greatest place you visited and the worst?

H: Bucharest in Romania, is best described as looking like a complete dump. We were rather on edge throughout the whole of our passage through Romania. We’d been hustled out of a fair bit of cash just after we’d crossed the border and it had rather shocked us. Naivety gone we cruised through. We slept the night on a deserted beach near Varna in Bulgaria, it was sensational waking up right on the shores of the black sea. Istanbul, one of the first great cities in the World and still up there. Enough said really. Baku is a very interesting place, a strange fusion of old Soviet building with brand new neo classical architecture. I saw a programme two nights ago about an incredible building that’s just been completed, designed by Zaha Hadid. Look it up, your mind will be blow. The Azeris have the money to build this sort of stuff since they were allowed to start drilling for oil in the Caspian in the 80’s and 90’s. Corruption is the name of the game out there.

T: Tblisi, Georgia. Budapest. The whole of Mongolia (its pretty much all the same, there’s nothing there) also the last 75 miles driving through Russia towards the Mongolian border is some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever experienced. The worst place was quite possibly Romania. We had a horrible time, there they filmed Borat in Romania for a reason. Getting hustled the moment we crossed the border, corrupt police, gangsters and hookers everywhere. Camping in a truck stop surrounded by rabid dogs, used condoms, and hookers trying to chat to you has to be one of the most unpleasant experiences ever.



Who was the person who fixed the car most? Did anything keep on breaking?

H: Tommy Hills is a man who loves his tools, and a good mechanical problem to grind his teeth on. So Dave and I were very happy to let him loose on those sort of problems. We like to think that if we’d needed to we could have earned our mechanics badges, perhaps a little slower than Tom would have.

T: Me. We had trouble with our roof rack because there was too much weight on it so by the time we reached Uzbekistan it was basically held on with ratchet straps and gaffe tabs. Our sum guard did eventually fall off, having said that if we haven’t had it there would have been no way that we would have made it to Mongolia. Harry pretty much snapped the entire chassis in Mongolia from driving too fast and having too much weight and had to drive about 50 miles at 15 miles an hour to the nearest town to get the car welded back together. That was a long drive and an even longer game of I spy in the desert when there’s nothing to see.


At any point were you tempted to stop and go home?

H: No way Jose. Dave wanted to carry on when we arrived in Ulaanbator (hundreds of different spellings around), I would have loved to but I had things to get home for and same for Tom.

D: No.

T: Nope.


What was the most stressful moment of the whole trip?

H: Tom lost his passport on day two in Bamberg, in Germany. This was after a night out when we hadn’t intended to get too boozy. We ended up scouring the town at 3 am. No luck. The next day we retraced our steps and had no luck again. When I spoke to the rally organizers in England and realized Tom was going no further without all his visas it was bad news. But Dave and I thought that we might be able to continue on without our compadre. The really bad news arrived an hour later when we found out that as Tom was the registered owner of the car our trip was going caput at a rate of knots. Fortunately a lovely German gal found and returned Tom’s passy p just in time.

D: Hahaha your face when you saw her with it. Classic. He nearly fainted!

H: When we decided not to renew our Uzbek visas in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan’s capital) we knew we had 4 days to drive nearly 2500 km, which on some of the worst roads in the world is a big ask. All was going well until we hit a brutal stretch in Uzbekistan as the sun went down. They were building brand new roads right next to the worst roads in the world but you couldn’t use them. Dai and I certainly considered the possibility of being deported that night.

T: Racing to the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. There was a lot of very stressful late night driving, red bull and not much sight seeing



What was the Spec of the car?

T: The sexy Daewoo Matiz “xtra cool” air conditioning was broken, which was shit when the mercury hit 52 degrees in the desert in Turkmenistan.

D: We did however have reverse parking sensors, which was handy when trying to parallel park between two camels.

H: We also had a really rugged sump guard fitted before we left which saved our life and a roof rack for gear, oh yeah and also some pretty gnarly rally tires on the front wheels which weren’t absolutely necessary but certainly did come in handy when we punctured all of our others.


How much petrol did you use?

D: A lot.

H: I haven’t got an exact figure. I think Dave may have kept a record.

D: Umm..

T: In Turkmenistan fuel is so cheap it cost us 0.1 dollars to fill up or something ridiculous like that, although they tax you at the border as a foreigner so it ends up being the equivalent of 15 dollars. Still unbelievable scenes!




What would be the top tips you would give someone thinking of doing the rally?

H: You don’t need as much kit as you think. The bare necessities will do you just fine.

T: There are plenty of things that you could tell people that would make things easier for them but I would be inclined not to. We had very little advice from people who had done it before, and I think our experience was all the better for it. The idea of the rally is that you get into sticky situations and get yourself out of them. It’s supposed to be hard, and although it would have been far less stressful at the time I don’t think we would have gained nearly as much from the rally and not have as many anecdotes had we been more prepared. It often seems really shit when you are stuck in the middle of nowhere with no idea what to do but there is a real sense of achievement when you get yourself out of a situation by a plan of your own making.

D: Just keep your head screwed on and expect the worst. If you’re expecting a nice easy holiday don’t even consider the Mongol rally for a second.

D: Book a flexible flight home, make sure you know the people you’re going with so you won’t fall out. Be prepared to be uncomfortable at times and give yourself plenty of time to do it and enjoy the trip seeing the sites on the way.


How many miles did you cover?

H: 9200, I think. Dave should have a really exact figure somewhere.

D: I’ve no idea.

T: Yeah, I reckon about that amount.


What did it feel like to finish?

H: So incredible.

T: Amazing. but a bit underwhelming, the destination was the journey really so when we reached the finish line the overwhelming feeling was one of relief.


Who was the best driver and who was the worst?

H: I couldn’t possibly say! Although take inferences from this: the two times we were pulled over and fined for ‘speeding’ Dave was driving. Tom had two punctures. I sheared the suspension and had one puncture.

T: I was the best.

D: We obviously all had our strengths and weaknesses, but it was probably me that was the best. Harry took off a vital part of the engine and Tom obviously couldn’t drive properly. I only got caught speeding, which considering we were in a race is surely the idea?


Could you list a few of your favourite songs listened to on the trip?

D: Everywhere – Fleetwood Mac

T: Out the blue – Sub focus

H: The entire soundtrack to ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ would wake us up in the morning.


What did you eat?

H: Terribly in general, we were very pushed for time so often it was only one meal a day, consisting of rice and tomato sauce, tomato sauce and rice, pasta and tomato sauce, tomato sauce and pasta. Occasionally we would throw some onions/chillis/salami/anchovies, but when you’re in a car with no fridge in temperatures between 30 and 50, food tends to go off pretty quickly. Our breakfasts didn’t really count, bread or stale bread dipped in jam or nutella. The lack of food certainly helped to make things a lot more stressful than they needed to be.

T: I seem to remember having a lot of petrol station food. So a lot of crisps and chocolate bars.

D: It would all have to be doused it in a load of hot sauce and garlic to hide the disgusting flavour. We did have some good food in Georgia and a few local meals here and there but we usually didn’t have time or the money to stop and eat properly.
How much did you end up spending?

H: In all it was probably around 3k each, including visas, buying a car, kit, and food and fuel along the way.

T: Everything I had; the rally, drinks, money. Much more than you budget. It just happens. I had saved up and was prepared to spend it. It isn’t every day you get to do something like it.



Where did you leave the car when you’d finished with it?

H: The finish line was at this tiny hotel in the centre of Ulaanbator. We handed it over to a chap from Adventures for Development, a Mongolian charity run by the Adventurists. They sell all the cars that finish and the money raised they use for their charitable ventures all around the country.


What were the other people like on the trip?

H: An interesting mix.

T: Yeah, a real mixed bag. You had a whole range, from kids just out of school to army guys on leave, 4 guys in wheel chairs did it all by themselves which was incredible. I think they raised about £50,000. There was a couple on their honeymoon. I heard rumours that there was a whole family doing it together somewhere, though we never met them. There are loads of people who do it by themselves, and a lot of Aussies, Canadians and Italians. A real range of people. which was nice because everybody had different stories and different attitudes towards the rally.
Were any of the other members in the team or on the trip in trouble/hurt?

T: There were some pretty brutal hangovers in Georgia and normal stuff like the runs but we managed to get away without anything major happening. Oh Dave and Harry were both being violently sick at the border control point between Russia and Mongolia. We were stuck there for 52 hours in no mans land and what did we do to pass the time?.. Vodka. Yep.. It was pretty funny.

H: Some people were forced to pay extortionate bribes, particularly in Azerbaijan. Some people have to drop out because of ill health/broken cars. But there weren’t any major incidents. In the past some people have, regrettably, died.


Who ended up sponsoring you?

H: Friends and family were kind enough to do the charity stuff.

T: A lovely English lady who we met in a very un-touristy part of Istanbul, she now lives out there full time, and she just gave us 50 euros after we told her what we were doing. Talk to Tom about who he got to sponsor us for kit, there was a lot that donated, a cracking chap called Laurence also helped to weld a few things to the car before we left, he was the husband of a friend of Tom’s Pa’s from church group of something.


What was the worst breakdown or obstacle? Did you ever feel like it was the end of the road?

D: The broken spring support in the middle of Mongolia looked like it might cost us a lot of time. Fortunately we got it welded back together for a bottle of red wine and $30.



Would you do it all over again?

H: Absolutely.

T: Yeah, but in a few years. If i did it again I would want to do it with more money so we wouldn’t have to rough it so much. I think the experience would be so different every time you did the rally that you could do it over and over again and it would never be the same. Provided that you were prepared to put up with the stress of it all. Most of the time on the rally you are not having any fun and it’s really hard. So I think I want a couple of holidays lying on a beach somewhere before I jump back in a 1L car in the desert!

D: Oh yeah for sure… not sure I’d go with these two.. again.. (they all laugh)

H: That’s alright, you’d probably end up going with your bird anyway!
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