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Hundreds Of Adventurers Headed Through Central Asia On Charity Rally

A team goes off-road in a Mini Cooper, which meets the strict limits for engine size on the rally.
A team goes off-road in a Mini Cooper, which meets the strict limits for engine size on the rally.
Four hundred adventure-seeking teams from around the world are in the midst of a four-week drive to Mongolia by way of Central Asia and parts of the Middle East.

It’s a trip that involves no small challenges, from rough terrain to border guards looking for a bribe. In the first week, one team already ran into difficulties, prompting demands for $20,000 at the Russian border.

But the journey is worth the trouble. The 80,000 to 10,000-mile drive raised over $300,000 for charity in 2007. Participants are required to raise a minimum of $1,650 (£1000) per team before the launch for charity. But many teams, like Scott Brills' Michigan team, raise more than that.

"We raised a lot of money in a recession!" Brills said. "I mean, Michigan is horrible [economically]. It's really, really bad."

Difficult as it is, raising money might look comparatively easy when "the roads run out in Kazakhstan," Mongol Rally co-founder Tom Morgan cautioned at an event on July 21 at Klenova Castle in the Czech Republic, an early meeting point for ralliers en route from Spain, Italy, and Britain.

Indeed, the idea of driving to Mongolia in an unreliable car without a GPS -- forbidden by the rally’s rules -- doesn't appeal to everyone. But it attracts a select young crowd full of wanderlust. "The average age has to be about 25," said 24-year-old Gerard Bos, a participant from Canada.

The goal is to reach the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator in a car with an engine of 1.2 liters or less -- and the worse the car, the better. "You are supposed to be on an adventure, not in a nursery class, so if the sky does fall on your head, prop it up with a windscreen wiper and carry on," the Mongol Rally website advises. "If you're worried, stay at home."

"My expectation is to make it to Mongolia, though I do also expect that I could die," grinned Collin Otto, a young artist from Detroit.

Snakes And Spiders

That might be overstating the risk, but participants have their concerns, ranging from political instability in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to the large, predatory camel spiders that live in the desert along the rally route.

One car begins to show the strain of the journey in the 2008 rally.
They are “the biggest spiders in the world,” according to Otto. “What they do is they live in the desert and they hide in the shadows of people, in the shadows of objects.... They're like giant tarantula-ants!... Or a Mongolian death worm. Those do exist, yes." He quickly explains: "It spits acid."

To the growing list of concerns, Brills adds snakes, scorpions, and mad camels.

Though there have been no reports of mad camels, on-the-ground updates indicate that the first week has not been an easy one.

A recent blog update from Australian team "Rust Bucket" reports:

Russian roads were really bad. Broke our exhaust into two parts. Went for a dip in the Volga river after a sweaty day of driving. Matt got bogged in sand so we got to use our tow rope for the first time.

Arrived 2 a.m. at Kazakh border. The border guards are really funny...They showed us comedy clips on their mobile phone.... Gave them each a cigar and got them to sign our rally stripe. Camped last night beside a police check point. Got woken up this morning by a herd of cows moving through our camp....

Boiling hot here [in Kazakhstan]. Over 30 degrees. just got stopped by the police for the 10th time. Asked for $100 cash. Ash pretended he couldn't understand. 3,300 miles so far.

Meanwhile, an old Turkmen fax machine gave a London-based team some trouble. From their blog post:

The guards at the Azerbaijan port and the Turkmenistan border should have a list of people who have bought visas to enter Turkmenistan. The list was sent by fax - only 9 pages came through when it should have been 10. [A team member's] name was on page 10 and is therefore not allowed to board the ferry. The fax machine at the port is like something out of the 1970s and is broken. What to do?

Luckily, they can always change direction, as each team chooses its own route. One team was refused entry at the Belarusian border, so they detoured through Lithuania. Some go through Eastern Europe via Ukraine and Russia while others head straight to Turkey.

The Mongol Rally website reports that Ukraine has been the most divisive country so far. "Some are, shall we say, not really a fan of the country, while others are shouting about how fantastic Kiev is and boasting that they've met the friendliest border guards on this here planet of ours," one organizer writes.

Teams are clearly learning a lot along the way. "It appears that skinny dipping in the Volga is not conducive to maintaining your passport complete with £1,100 of unused visas," one team reports.