Things People Have Asked Us
Q: Why did you do this?
A: With easy air travel and the creation of the internet, the world has shrunk incredibly over the past few decades. Central Asia is one of the few places that remains undiscovered to the vast majority of Westerners, and it's a beautiful and amazing place. Add to that the adventure of driving 11,000 miles in a ridiculously tiny car -- which participants of past rallies have described as an eye-opening and life-changing experience -- and you can see why it was hard for us to resist. We're fortunate that both of us have freelance careers that gave us the freedom to take time away for a trip of this sort, so we wanted to take full advantage of that opportunity (though keep in mind that we were actually hard at work throughout our journey to document it for our podcast and various other outlets). Finally, we raised money for several great causes.
Q: is it possible to drive from London to Mongolia?
A: Yup. For starters, you can easily get from the U.K. to the mainland via a ferry or the channel tunnel, and there are of course numerous highways across Europe. Beyond Turkey, roads through Central Asia date back to the ancient silk routes from before the birth of Christ. The farther east we went, the more mountainous, rugged, and remote the paths became, and by the time we got to Mongolia, it was more trails through the dirt than actual roads. It is definitely possible to drive all the way, though, and thousands of participants have successfully completed the trek in previous years.
Q: you're crazy! wasn't it dangerous?
A: Everything involves risks, but we didn't go into this blindly, and we took several precautions to minimize whatever risks did exist. First of all, we believe there is safety in numbers, so the two of us from Team Donundestan traveled together with Team Sugar + Spice, and for parts of the trip, we were joined by other groups as well. The Mongol Rally has been taking place for over a decade, so there was a lot of good information out there about which routes to take and which to avoid, as well as some of the challenges and difficulties we could encounter along the way. This year's ralliers were in regular communication via a private Facebook group where we shared all sorts of tips and strategies, and there was also a wealth of other information available on the internet on sites like Thorntree and Caravanistan. We also traveled with satellite-based, GPS tracking equipment, so we always had a way to communicate with the outside world (even in areas where there’s no cell service), which came in handy when we needed to contact the American embassy after getting stranded in a remote part of Mongolia. We obviously avoided the most dangerous countries in the region like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, but as the recent attacks in Paris and Belgium have shown, things can happen anywhere, so we continued to monitor the news as well as travel advisories and decided to modify our route through Turkey in the aftermath of the attempted coup.
Q: What about Iran?
A: Though Iran has historically had a stigma among American and British travelers, millions of foreign tourists visit the country every year, and The New York Times reported a few months ago that an increasing number of Americans are eager to see the country following the recent lifting of sanctions. "One of the biggest surprises about Iran is that they love Americans," one North Carolina-based tour operator told the paper. "They hear you speak English and assume you’re British, and when they learn you’re American they want to have their picture taken with you and invite you to eat. I’ve never been so popular." Another recent article we read from The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. painted a picture of a modern, progressive, cosmopolitan society that's at odds with the perception many of us in the West have of the republic. With its beautiful landscapes and numerous sites of historical significance, Iran has long been regarded as a highlight of past Mongol Rallies, and hundreds of teams -- including many Americans -- had driven through the country without incident in previous years. Our experience was quite enjoyable and memorable. As Americans, we were required to hire a guide to escort us from one border to the other, which also added a level of comfort, since we had someone we knew and trusted who served as our interpreter and helped ensure we understood and adhered to all the local rules and customs.
Q: What happens if you break down in the middle of nowhere?
A: First of all, we took some classes to learn to do basic car repairs. Secondly, that's part of the reason we didn't attempt this trip alone. We drove along with our friends Rosi and Jane in separate vehicles, so on the many occasions when we broke down, they were thankfully able to offer us a tow or go to get help. Also, our route mostly had us staying in some sort of town or city each night, so we were rarely more than a few hours from civilization. And of course we brought extra food and fuel for times when we needed to camp out for a night until help arrived. Finally, as we mentioned, we had a satellite-based communication device with us, which we used when we get stranded in the middle of nowhere and needed to contact the embassy to get help.
Q: What about the language barriers?
A: We picked up a matching set of these shirts. Seriously, though, in most situations, it wasn't really a big deal. In fact, not being able to totally communicate was a big part of the adventure! Obviously if there's any sort of genuine emergency, good communication is essential. Our phones were able to help with basic translation. And when we had difficulty communicating with the border guards that we needed to be let out of Turkmenistan before our visas expired, we contacted the local embassy, where a Russian speaker was standing by to assist. In other instances, we did our best between hand signals and drawings, just as we did when we had to communicate with one of our drivers on a recent trip to Cambodia. Drew wanted him to stop if we saw any fishermen on the side of the road so he could take photos, but the guy barely spoke any English, so I drew a crude picture of a guy with a fishing pole, and he understood!