In Episode 18 in my travel podcast series, I talk to Sherry Ott about the Mongol Rally and her adventures driving from London to Mongolia with three other travel bloggers. I met Sherry, who blogs at Ottsworld, in London just as their Social Media Syndicate (with Deb and Dave from ThePlanetD and Rick from Midlife Roadtrip ) were preparing to leave England starting from Goodwood. Now Sherry’s safely back from the Mongol Rally we caught up and heard about their adventures driving on dirt roads when the tarmac ran out, through rivers and over rickety bridges, although all this seemed tame compared to what happened to some of the other teams. In 5 weeks they made it to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia where all the Mongol Rally cars were sold to raise money for charity and there were not one but three finish line parties to celebrate the achievement.
The Mongol Rally is a car adventure for teams to drive from London to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, preferably in a totally unsuitable car. The Rally is organised by The Adventurists to support a different Mongolian Charity each year and all the cars are sold at the end with the proceeds going to support the charity.
Before they set off Sherry’s Social Media Syndicate team arrived in London to prepare the car that they had bought over the Internet, making sure they had all the spare parts they needed and well as getting all their paperwork in place. The challenge was that the team knew very little about car mechanics even though on average each Mongol Rally team has 9 breakdowns en route.
Each Mongol Rally team can choose their own route and Sherry’s team planned to travel through 14 countries; Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Mongolia finishing in Ulaanbaatar. To decide the route to team had got together on a Skype call with Google maps and plotted what they thought would work, but there was no detailed plan. There were times when Sherry wasn’t sure if they would make it due to delays at borders, problems with paperwork and mechanical difficulties, not to mention the terrible roads.
The team are all still friends but it was stressful always being in a car together and having to make constant travel decisions such as; what road do we take, where do we eat, where do we stay, what was that sound in the car? The team worked out any disagreements by sitting down and talking out the pros and cons of each decision, such as whether to change their route.
At the start of the Rally at Goodwood, everything came to life with a circus atmosphere and the organisers even arranged actors to impersonate Russian Border guards. It was exciting but everyone had their hoods up and was looking under the engines which made Sherry anxious that the other teams were better prepared than her team was.
A lot of the vehicles were ambulances and one was a small school bus named the “Too big to fail bus” which lived up to its name and made it to the end even though they had a few problems driving their bus through the streets of Istanbul. There were a couple of fire trucks and a car covered with long purple fur, called the “Fast and the Furriest” which by the end was completely grey with dust. Another car was completely wrapped in duct tape and the team had a lot of problems at borders because the officials couldn’t understand how to classify the car.
In Europe they enjoyed staying with travel bloggers in Cologne and Brussels and Prague was highlight where they stayed for a day to look around. Then they drove through Hungary and Slovakia and Sherry loved Brasov in Romania, a beautifully kept town surrounded by mountains. Sherry was sad not to be able to see more of these places but they were focused on keeping going and too many stops would put them behind on their schedule and even then they wouldn’t have time to see it all properly. There were also constraints due to the visas which determined that they had to enter Russia on 4 August as they only had 30 days to cover several countries then cross back into Russia again.
Until they got to Romania there were no border crossings but as they crossed into Moldova and into Ukraine things changed because there were border crossings and this meant delays over paperwork and difficulties in communicating as the language and alphabet changed and these countries had much less tourism. At borders they had to be patient and wait it out to get through without too many bribes. The border crossing took from 1.5 hrs to 24 hrs at longest with an average of 4 hours. Often they would have to act dumb and pretend they didn’t understand what was going on to avoid paying bribes.
On the roads crossing from Russia into Kazakhstan the roads got worse, because although they are tarmac they were poorly maintained and pounded by huge trucks with massive potholes or pot hills. If you went too fast the road condition could change quickly and you could scrape the bottom of the car, risking damaging it. In Mongolia the roads were also difficult as they were dirt and it was not always obvious which route to take.
Sometimes Sherry felt a little vulnerable at night in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, when they would pull off the road and drive into a field to camp, as she feared that they might be robbed, although in the end they had no problems of this kind. All the locals who came up to them just wanted to talk to them and find out what they were doing.
Once they got to Mongolia they encountered river crossings where they would rely on the advice of locals on the best route to cross the river as they were not always the obvious crossing points. Once they followed 2 guys on a motorbike, snaking though the river and the water came into the front of the car but they kept their foot on the gas and kept moving so as to avoid getting water in the exhaust. Although the driving was stressful, after 5 weeks Sherry was becoming a bit more relaxed about this kind of challenge.
Sherry had visited Mongolia 2 years ago when she spent 2 weeks on a local tour in the Gobi desert. This time she was able to see Western Mongolia which is more remote, but she found that outside the city the Mongol way of life of living in Gers remained the same and the landscapes were just as stunning. Whenever they camped in Mongolia the locals would come to visit them in the morning or evening and bring gifts such as cheese or fermented mare’s milk. As they had a map sticker on the bonnet they could use this to try and explain their journey. Any local visitors would invariably ask to buy their car due to the shortage of cars in Mongolia. Even though people can afford to buy a car, very few are being imported, so even in the smallest villages people would ask to buy the car.
Once the teams arrived in Ulaanbaatar they handed over their car and the paperwork to the Adventurists who organise the Mongol Rally. Some better vehicles get cleaned up and put in a bigger auction but otherwise they are auctioned on the day they arrive. The organisers pay the vehicle import taxes and the rest of the money goes to the charity with many of the cars being sold for more money than they were paid for in the UK. The charity changes every year, but this year it was the Christina Noble Foundation who run a Ger camp that houses orphaned or disadvantaged children who can’t live with their families. At the final party the kids from the camp performed for the teams, singing, playing music and doing a judo display, with around $500 being raised for the charity.
Because the Mongol Rally has no set end date, with everyone arriving at different times, the organisers set up 3 different finish line parties, one at 4 weeks after the start and the others at 5 weeks and 6 weeks. This meant that most of the teams could go to one of the parties, depending on when they arrived.
Once Sherry’s team met up with the other teams they realised that their team got off lightly. One team from Scotland went to a disco in Russia and 2 out of 3 got drugged and robbed while the third got in a cab to go to his hotel and the driver took him outside the city and demanded money from him. There were stories of people driving into rivers and their car floating away. Sherry reckoned that the Social Media Syndicate were too busy working and blogging to get into as much trouble as some of the younger teams.
Throughout the trip, the blogging team worked very hard at staying online. When they stayed in hotels they could generally find wifi and would work late into the night to get photos and blogs posted. Until they reached Mongolia they were able to use a 3G Kindle to get Internet access and do some live tweeting en route and check email. Once they were out of 3G range in Mongolia, they could use a world sim card sponsored by Onesimcard to text their tweets to a phone number which would then be posted on Twitter. In Europe they used a Tep wireless device which enabled them to get wifi on the move and they could even get Internet access and do work in the car. The Car was sponsored by Allways Rental in New Zealand.
The team used a satellite tracking device from Track24Solo who tracked their position and posted it onto their Facebook pages – within Europe they were able to track their position on the map but once they got to Mongolia they used it to track distance between villages. In London the team were put up in an apartment by Oh-London and in several other cities, Roomorama provided short term rental accommodation.
Now she is back in the US, Sherry’s current project is a series of meet-ups in cities in the US and Canada through her Meet Plan Go website, inspiring and advising people how to plan career breaks to enable them to travel. After that Sherry is not sure what she will be doing and has a feeling of anticlimax, that nothing can top the unique adventure of the Mongol Rally.
Find out more about the Mongol Rally
The Mongol Rally is an annual event organised by the Adventurists – find them on Twitter @theadventurists
You can read all Sherry’s stories from the Mongol Rally on Ottsworld
Read what Sherry’s team-mates wrote about the Mongol Rally – Deb and Dave at ThePlanetD and Rick Griffin at Midlife Road Trip
Connect with the Social Media Syndicate on Twitter @ottsworld @theplanetd @midliferoadtrip – they used the hashtag #mongolsms and #mongolrally
All photos are copyright of Sherry Ott
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