The Mongol Rally
Where it all began. 10,000 miles. Four Weeks. Two classic Minis.
The Mongol rally was our first drive which went beyond the limits of merely being a road trip, and qualified as an adventure. Ten thousand miles across Europe and Asia, through fourteen countries, in a couple of 1-litre minis, which had cost us barely more than £1,000 between them.
The full story of our drive from the UK to Mongolia is covered in the first two books of the Road Trip Trilogy - Survival of the Quickest and The Road to the East. However, if you don't have copies of these two books to hand, scroll down to take a look at some of the photos from the trip, along with an account which appeared in the rather excellent Mini World Magazine, back in 2019.
Nailed crudely to the wall above my desk, there is a numberplate. It’s absolutely filthy, and its surface is still splattered with bugs. A crack runs through it, hinting at past dangers on far-flung roads, while below the registration there is a sticker, applied by the car’s previous owner, which reads ‘my name is Daisy’. Really, it’s nothing. To anyone else, it’s simply a piece of old plastic. But to me it’s priceless - because of what it represents.
It represents the beginning of the journey.
For the car it was attached to – an indefatigable 998 Mini – was the vehicle in which years ago, I completed the Mongol Rally.
Over the decade since that first, glorious trip into the unknown, I’ve completed many globetrotting journeys in ill-suited steeds, but that 10,000 mile trip to Mongolia with Daisy will always be special to me, because it was the first. It’s where it all began, and Daisy is the one car I miss above all others. Because that Mini was bloomin’ fantastic.
As with many adventures, my Mongol Rally journey began with an innocuous conversation which a friend. Fortuitously, I mentioned it to a friend named Lee over a beer and a few days later, I glanced out of my window to see him parking a quirky red Mini outside, with a huge grin on his face.
‘Looks like we’re going to Mongolia in a couple of Minis then,’ I said.
‘Marvellous!’ he replied, still grinning wildly.
I splashed out the grand total of four hundred pounds on Daisy and the following summer, armed with little more than our two ancient Minis, an intimidating pile of maps and several rolls of gaffa tape, we set off into the unknown.
Despite the maps, within minutes of crossing the start line in London we were thoroughly lost, and were an hour late for our ferry to France - a fairly inauspicious start by anyone’s standards. Undeterred, we were soon surging across the continent, full of the unshakable confidence of the naive. Western Europe was crossed rapidly as we savoured the smooth tarmac and reached Prague within twenty-four hours of our departure.
From Prague, we nursed hangovers into Poland, before curving through the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia to the Russian border, where a curtain of indecipherable bureaucracy hung in our path. For hours, we tried to force a way through the seemingly impenetrable red tape of immigration and customs. The paperwork was all penned in Cyrillic script and the language barrier was a brick wall. Then worryingly, a tear was found on the photo page of my passport and I was led away by a gun-toting ‘Babushka’ to explain myself.
‘If you hear a gunshot, run,’ my co-driver suggested to the others as I disappeared for my interrogation. Fortunately there was one English-speaking guard at the border and I was able to talk myself out of the predicament with a vague promise to go to the British Embassy in Moscow to resolve the issue.
Eventually, we were allowed into Russia, the setting sun casting our Minis’ shadows far into the surrounding plain. A bossy policeman pulled us over as the sky darkened and insisted we follow him to a certain hotel. My paranoid mind swam heavy with outdated thoughts of bugged rooms and informers.
Heading up to St Petersburg, we marvelled at the neo-classical architecture as we gradually adjusted to the change in culture. A terrifying night drive then took our plucky little cars along the fractured tarmac to Moscow, dodging blinding trucks and aggressive locals all the way. We recovered from the ordeal by wandering around Red Square for a day, a surreal experience given the mutual suspicions which have traditionally distanced this nation from the West. Back on the road, the unfamiliar landscape morphed into a featureless steppe at the Kazakh border. Northern Kazakhstan passed in a blur of roadworks and before we knew it we were arcing south towards the Aral Sea, on one of the more notorious roads this planet has to offer.
For two hundred miles, the tarmac had fractured in a manner one would think to be achievable only through bombardment. It seemed impossible that our little Minis could meet the challenge but nonetheless, we pushed on blindly through the forty degree heat. The few locals seemed to have the right idea, driving on the desert to either side of the tortured road. Joining them, we surfed our Minis through the sand, savouring the adventure. Both of our cars’ exhausts came loose, but we simply tied them back on using speaker cable and pushed on. We camped out in the sands that night, with only stars and camels for company, and reached the town of Aralsk the following day.
Once a busy fishing port on the shores of the Aral Sea, the town’s fortunes had faded when overbearing Soviet planners diverted the sea’s inlets to irrigate nearby cotton fields. The scheme failed and the sea began to evaporate, shrinking so much that the port of Aralsk was soon twenty miles from its shores. It made for a sad sight. The carcasses of abandoned fishing boats lay decomposing in the sand, while dead marine life crunched beneath our feet as we walked, a poignant reminder of the futility of humankind’s attempts to dominate the natural world.
Morosely, we left the bleak dustbowl and continued to Shymkent, where one of the red Mini’s wheel bearings chose to go no further. With little common language, broken down in a world where Minis don’t exist, we found ourselves staring failure in the face. Nothing we tried seemed to work until eventually, Lee found a solution. The equivalent part from a Lada was jammed into position using bits of a drinks can as crude spacers, enabling us to hit the road again.
That evening we crossed out of Kazakhstan, but the Uzbek border had already closed for the day, leaving us trapped between the two countries. Nervously, we slept in No Man’s Land, cooped up in the locked cars, while shifty soldiers with machine guns wandered around us, taking a worryingly deep interest in my blonde co-driver.
Once we finally made it into Uzbekistan, the glorious town of Samarqand inspired us all. Well, all of us except Lee’s co-driver that is, whose delicate insides were too busy being ‘Uzbek’ed’, preventing him from going far from the sanctuary of a bathroom. The red Mini’s brakes had packed up the previous day, so Lee worked on them while I took in the sights. The Registan, a complex of 16th century Madrasahs stood bold against the steel blue sky. We visited Tamerlane’s Bibi-khanym Mosque and marvelled at the iridescent skyline of blue domes floating above the city. It felt good to take a break from the endless cycle of roads, repairs, stress and sleep. For the first time on the trip, we relaxed.
And then, it happened. The look on the hostel owner’s face said it all. When he apologetically held up the remains of my passport I understood immediately.
How could I be so stupid as to have left it in my trouser pocket and then put the damn trousers through the washing machine?
I felt sick. I could tell my co-driver was angry. Lee couldn’t stop giggling like a schoolgirl and as for his co-driver, well fortunately Brummy was still far too ill to bring his razor-sharp wit to bear. We picked through the remains. Evidently passports aren’t machine washable. My visas were tattered, but at least vaguely legible, however the car ownership documents were also in my pocket. Gone.
The next morning we headed up to the British Embassy, convinced our journey was over. Our visas expired that day so we needed to find a solution fast, as the corrupt police state of Uzbekistan is not a place to be on the wrong side of the authorities. Through the bulletproof glass and heavy security, I nervously explained the problem. The embassy staff could do nothing about the visas, but were at least able to provide me with a temporary passport. As for the car documents, a computer printout would have to suffice. I didn’t believe that this would get us to Mongolia, but had no choice but to try.
Lee and Brummy had already gone on ahead, through the Fergana Valley to Kyrgyzstan. It was too late to follow them so instead we rushed north, back to Kazakhstan, where we were nervously able to explain our way across the border in the nick of time, only a few hours before our visas expired.
A week later, the two Minis were reunited in a peaceful Russian meadow. Daisy’s rear suspension had collapsed but a temporary repair using ratchet straps had kept us moving. However Babs, as the red Mini was known, was doing far worse. Its brakes remained untrustworthy and a section of one of its axles had sheared, requiring the whole assembly to be drilled and then pinned together with a piece of car jack. Finally, the engine was sounding very ill and burning oil as though it were going out of fashion. It was still soldiering on though, so we limped across Siberia together, losing time every few hundred miles when yet another repair would inevitably be required. And so it was that Brummy found himself with fifty hours in which to get to Mongolia and catch his flight home. We still had almost two thousand miles to go. Action was needed, so Brummy joined me in ‘reliable’ Daisy while my co-driver reluctantly swapped over to join Lee in the seemingly terminal red Mini. Goodbyes were said and off we raced towards the Mongolian border.
Siberia is a vast, ominous place. We inched through its foreboding nothingness for two days straight, non-stop. Unfriendly skies taunted us with squally showers, while the isolating blackness of each night seemed to last a lifetime. Daisy’s failing electrics meant our lights were dim as glow-worms, our wipers sluggish beyond belief. We couldn’t stop the engine as not enough charge was being accumulated to power the starter motor.
Inexorably, we crawled onwards through the grimy industrial towns dotting Russia’s great wilderness of forest and taiga. Krasnayorask, Irktusk, and Ulan Ude crept bleakly past our windows before, exhausted, we reached the Mongolian border in the nick of time, only two hours before it closed for the weekend. We made it across with minutes to spare and were soon trying to navigate into Ulaanbaatar with what was left of our feeble headlights. Our ten thousand mile journey was over with only five hours in hand before Brummy’s flight left.
Somehow, against all the odds, Daisy had done it.
Two days later I was heading out of town again, to meet up with my friends in the faltering red Mini and escort them across the finish line in Ulan Bataar. It’s just as well I did as with only 80 miles of the 10,000 mile journey remaining a loud and very final-sounding bang came from its long suffering A-series. Following on behind, I saw a waterfall of oil flowing from its sump, caused by a thrown rod cracking the block. So near but yet so painfully, so far.
The last time I drove Daisy, the little hero of a car was towing its travelling companion past the camels and out of the Mongolian steppe and across the Rally’s finish line. And then, full of emotion, I donated it to charity and flew home, never to see that plucky little hero of a car again.
For me, driving a Mini on the Mongol Rally was the beginning. The genesis on which all my subsequent road trips have been based. I’ve since crossed Africa in a Porsche, and driven to the world’s southernmost bar in a TVR, but without that indefatigable Mini named Daisy bossing it’s across Asia, none of these adventures might have happened. And now, all I have to show for it are the memories, the numberplate which hangs above my desk, and a conviction that someday soon I’ll be back on the road in a far-flung, dusty corner of the planet, at the wheel of another Daisy, because I’ve never found another vehicle as charismatic as that Mini. I will be back.
And you know what? I can’t wait.