Everything was dark. No life for miles ahead, no light except for ours. The stars shined bright on the moonless sky and the Milky Way glowed as strong as ever from horizon to horizon. This place felt like it was ours, and at that moment the Kazakhstani desert belonged to us and no one else.
At that moment I realized I had made the right choice. I was glad I chose to do the Mongol Rally because I knew that the road ahead still had more moments like this in store. Ulaanbaatar was still over 3,000 miles away.
Before starting the rally I debated strongly whether to do it or not. I almost quit a few weeks before the start date due to visa problems, the planning ordeal, possible high costs, and the quitting of other teammates.
Still, I decided to move forward, even if I was a bit reluctant. But once I started the rally, I felt like I was bound to some great experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
The rally is not a cheap adventure, but it is doable with a moderate budget if you are conscious about your spending and do it on a shoestring – camping, cheap food, groceries and cooking, etc. I’ll share with you my rally spending in detail soon, but first, I want so share some general thoughts and lessons learned from the rally.
For any of you interested in doing the rally in the near future, here are some things you should know:
Essential tips to plan the rally
- Plan your route, but be very flexible – It’s important to know where you want to go to plan for visas, know logistics of border crossings, ferries, and more. But, be really flexible with the route and timing since you will be dealing with too many variables that are not under your control, are often unreliable, and are not easy to plan ahead (like the ferry from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan; it just leaves whenever it wants or gets full).
- Know your dates and plan your visas together – Visas only give you a limited time in the country, so have an idea of how long you’ll need in each country, when should the visa start, and how many entries are needed. All teammates should apply with the same dates on each visa.
- A team of 3 is perfect for sleeping in the car – We wanted to be a team of 4, but we discovered that a team of 3 was just as good, and even better to sleep more “comfortable” in the car.
- It is essential to have some form of communication – Have an international sim card or wifi provider to allow you to stay in touch with other teams, your own team members, or to call in case of emergency. We used OneSimCard for our international sim cards and XCom Global for our international mobile wifi device. Both delivered excellent service (except in Mongolia).
- Google maps and GPS are great but still carry printed maps, especially in Mongolia – GPS is not totally reliable in Mongolia (yet), and printed maps makes it easier to ask locals for directions.
- Carry essentials, but don’t overpack – As the Drama of Llama team, we were underpacked (regarding car mechanic’s essentials), but as The Thunderyaks team, we were overpacked. This made the ride low due to heavy weight. Potholes felt heavier and stronger since we hit them with more weight. Plus, in the long run, you spend more money on gas.
- Your teammates will have a huge influence on your experience – Choose them wisely. You will spend at least 4 weeks together; 24 hours a day and most of the time confined in the car.
Practical lessons from the road
- Travel with enough US Dollars in hand – I guarantee you will use them for bribes and to get out of sticky situations like a car crash! Still, you will use them for most common expenses like visas, hotels, and other daily purchases. The US Dollar is king, and it is accepted pretty much everywhere in the world. Carry at least $500 per team member.
- Turkey had the most expensive gas (petrol) of our entire route – I cringed when I learned that a liter cost almost $5!! We averaged $87 per tank in Turkey while in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia we averaged around $35! If possible, fill the Jerry Cans before entering Turkey to save at least a few dollars in petrol while there.
- Camp the most you can to save money – It’s part of the rally experience, also. Once out of Western Europe, it is much easier to camp anywhere. Just drive outside the city and find a random open field, and voila, you have a campsite!
- Don’t be afraid to sleep in your car – We also did this to save money and to force ourselves to get on the road earlier than usual.
- Carry at least one 20-liter Jerry Can – You will use it for sure… trust me. If you can fit two 20-liter cans in your car, even better.
- (At least) Two spare tires are a must! – We had 4 flat tires on the entire way (we were lucky), and two of them happened on the same day. You can easily fix or buy cheap tires at local mechanic shops along the way.
- Have some basic mechanic tools – These include a towrope, wrench, screwdrivers, hammer, and even duct tape, among others.
- Carrying spare suspension parts is smart – Besides flat tires, broken suspensions were the most common fixes I saw on the road; but more often than not, cars were fitted with the wrong suspension since the proper ones were not available in “the middle of nowhere”.
- A sump guard will probably save your car’s engine in Mongolia – It definitely saved ours when we hit multiple rocks with the underside of the car.
- Have decent cold weather gear – Russia and Mongolia were pretty cold, even in August (due to the altitude). My Exofficio jacket served me well on these cold desert nights.
- Register in Kazakhstan’s Immigration Office within 5 days of entry – Avoid having to pay a fine, or a bribe.
- Don’t forget to buy the highway vignettes in Europe and Turkey – Many European countries and Turkey require you to buy a vignette or “road tax”. You buy it either at the border when you enter the country, or at gas stations (depending on the country). Some times you’ll be asked for proof of it when you leave each country. Should you be caught without it, you might either pay a bribe, a fine, or simply have to buy it upon exit (which is the least probable). From our experience, all countries after Czech Republic (until Turkey) required it, but check this website to see which in your route require the purchase of vignettes and how much it costs.
- Convoy with other teams as much as you can – They will make the journey more enjoyable and help you when you need some rescuing (especially in Mongolia).
- Do not drive at night in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia – You will either get lost or damage your car with the millions, yes, millions of potholes and ditches you’ll fall into.
- Do not stop your car to speak with any random stranger on the road in Kazakhstan and Mongolia – In Mongolia, people place their bikes in the middle of the road and pretend to either need help or have “essential information” for you (like, “the road is closed ahead”). Don’t stop! Chances are these are mercenaries looking to rob you. It also happens with people chasing you on motorbikes. One time, two guys chased us side by side in Mongolia asking us to lower our windows. We knew what they wanted, so we ignored them and accelerated.
- Be risky, but be cautious – I know it is contradicting, but part of the great experience comes from stepping out of the comfort zone. You will drive through random unknown places, cross rivers, drive your car through massive ditches, or simply drive with no roads at all and no clear direction. This happens, but this is part of what makes the rally a real adventure. Be cautious by taking “measured” risks consciously and knowing (or hoping you know) how to respond to any possible outcome.
How much did the rally cost me?
Below I breakdown my expenses during the rally. The numbers below only reflect what I paid. For a total, multiply by 3 to know how much it could cost per team.
- Car: $522.88
- Gas (petrol): $595.22
- Car Insurance: $109.70
- Team Branding: $106.13
- Car Maintenance: $9.84
- Car Supplies/Tools: $130.72
- Food: $420.19
- Groceries: $71.40
- Accommodation: $305.10
- Camping Gear: $91.99
- Bus (post-crash): $20.00
- Visas: $702.68
- Driving Vignettes: $10.26
- Bribes (w/ crash payment): $186.33
- Ferry: $16.34
- Sightseeing: $118.00
Note: I did not include the flights since I had multi-city tickets to London and from Ulaanbaatar (including additional flights), nor the rally inscription fee since I did not pay it when I joined the team.
Quick random thoughts from my experience
- Dealing with a car crash abroad is scary, but not the end of the world.
- Losing your car does not mean the rally is over for you. In fact, for us, the adventure got even better!
- People are mostly willing to help, even in difficult situations.
- Trust the local’s advise on where and where not to drive. They know their country better than you.
- Marihuana grows wild along Kazakhstan’s roads. Yes, it does.
- I still think Russians are crazy, though less intimidating.
- Driving in Kazakhstan can be painfully maddening. Its long hours of very bad roads that seem to never end. And so can be Mongolia (some times).
- Mongolia is BEA-U-tiful!!
- The rally doesn’t really start until you get to Mongolia. That’s when your car will breakdown for sure (if it hadn’t yet).
- There are boring days, amazing days, and frustrating days. All worth having.
- You will get lost. Just enjoy the journey.
- Don’t take things too seriously. Relax.
In the end, was it all worth it? Hell yeah!
See this short clip of our Mongol Rally journey!