28 08 2018

The Mongol Rally

On July 14th, Team Dusty Martini, comprised of myself Archie Forsyth (19) and team-mate Ned Hiley (19), hurtled off from Hagerty’s Festival of the Unexceptional in search of the Mongol Rally start line just west of Prague. Two days later after a considerable amount of German autobahn driving, and alongside 900 other ralliers, we set off for Mongolia.

The Mongol Rally is an annual occurrence that sees over 400 teams take on a cross-continental overland adventure typically starting in England, and finishing in Ulan-Ude, Eastern Russia, just above Mongolia. The biggest caveat of all stipulates that rally vehicles must be no larger than 1,200cc in size, making things rather complicated bearing in mind the route crosses several different mountain ranges and passes over the course of seven weeks and 10,000 miles.

Despite an unnerving amount of car casualties within a disconcertingly small radius of the start line, we motored on through Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava in the first few days of the trip, all of which had cultural offerings of their own. The mountains of Romania provided the first real test for Martin, our little 1.0 litre ’92 Nissan Micra. The Transfagarasan Highway, well-renowned courtesy of Top Gear’s exploits, justified its reputation, with stunning scenery and breathtaking views, made only marginally less awe-inspiring by the realms of tattered rally cars crawling up its hills. Martin timed his engine flooding to perfection, just as we approached the highway’s peak 2,000 metres up, allowing us to gleefully coast the entirety of the way back down.

We crossed Bulgaria in a mere matters of hours, headed for the Turkish border, where we reconvened with ‘The Hot Steppers’, a second English team who we’d convoyed a lot of Europe with. After a couple hours waiting, the border guards quickly seized any alcohol in the cars, which we were told (unconvincingly) was not permitted through the border - very tactful indeed! Before long we crossed the Eurasia tunnel, from where the rally started to become rather more interesting and rather less conventional…

The hospitality of locals across the entire expanse of Turkey was quite extraordinary. Friendly mechanics in Cappadoccia were elated to witness the rally cars arrive in their workshop, and following a suspension raise, sump guard application and litres of complimentary Turkish chai tea, sent us on our way with a bottle of local red wine and four brand-new wine glasses. Coincidently, the alcohol-related theme continued into Georgia, where we tried a selection of fine local wines this time as part of an official tasting, all of which were delicious. We’d caught wind that the Georgia-Azerbaijan border was proving extremely long and tricky, which in our case was mitigated only by the guard’s interest in the car, and our sketchy knowledge of Manchester United football club, which they also seemed fairly enthusiastic about.

Aside from the many days spent racking up huge hours behind the wheel, our time in Baku, Azerbaijan has been perhaps the most draining. Due to Uzbekistan visa timing issues, we were forced to delay our crossing of the Caspian Sea, which is notoriously difficult to negotiate largely due to a non-existent ferry schedule, an extremely apparent language barrier, and substantial delays consequent of frequent high winds. By the time we boarded a ferry destined for Turkmenistan we’d already been sat in Baku for seven days. What entailed was a six-hour wait on board the ferry awaiting its departure, twelve hours crossing the sea, three hours waiting to disembark, ten hours overnight waiting at the Turkmenistani border, and nine hours driving to the country’s capital, Ashgabat, battling a serious case of sleep deficiency. Not ideal! But we live to tell the tale…

Turkmenistan is infamous for many a reason. It is an explicit, extremely blatant dictatorship, with which comes a copious quantity of quirky laws and a wealth of corrupt and greedy police (or so we were told). Such laws include a ban on public photography and smoking and a zero-tolerance policy on dirty and non-white cars in the capital, to name but a few. In a display of power and (apparent) wealth, every building in Ashgabat is made of white marble and gold, which creates the most bizarre contrast between the country’s basic, rural way of life elsewhere and the elaborate architecture and infrastructure of the capital. It truly was a sight to behold. Turkmenistan’s only other attraction was a magnificent natural gas crater, which has been alight for over 60 years, and was the scene of a prolific Mongol Rally drinks party on the 7th of August!

An wealth of unbelievably bumpy, pothole-laden roads later saw us enter Uzbekistan with a similar abundance of new, not-so-encouraging noises coming from every mechanical feature on the car…of which there are few of course. The sheer heat this side of the Caspian Sea, which never seems to drop below 40 degrees, has been undeniably challenging both for us and the car. After only a few days in Uzbekistan, we crossed into Tajikistan to tackle the Pamir Highway - a vast expanse of dirt track and intermittent (yet seemingly scarce) tarmac that spans hundreds of miles through the Pamir mountains, famously part of the old Silk Road trade route. What entailed was an astonishing array of scenery that lasted the entirety of the four days we spent scaling the highway, which at its peak, reached 4,600 metres above sea level (inherently coming with mechanical problems of its own). Regardless, with a minimal amount of power, we made it up and over the mountains, with the simply stunning scenery sure to remain vivid for years to come.

With just under 2 weeks to go before we cross the finish line the other side of Mongolia, we’d like to thank Hagerty for their support of our trip. Being hugely fanatical about classics ourselves, we feel massively privileged to have their backing, and hope we have advocated their community in far-fetched places that were previously outside of Hagerty’s sphere.

We wish Ned and Archie the very best of luck with their rally. On completion, we will be publishing a video of their exploits; please subscribe to our newsletter to receive this and other unique classic car news and stories: https://www.hagertyinsurance.co.uk/articles-and-resources/classic-cars-newsletter

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