I've just returned from a 10,000 mile, nineteen country charity rally from Detroit to Ulaanbaatar. My mission was to raise money in order to help build a kindergarten in a rural area of Mongolia (along with Mango Language's generous assistance. We succeeded in completing this task, but not without a few challenges along the way!
After reading about the Mongol Rally in a magazine in the winter of 2008 I had set my heart on being a participant. The rules were simple: get a small car with an engine under 1.2 liters and newer than ten years old, no GPS devices, and each team must raise at least $1500 or so to be donated to charity. There is no set route and absolutely no support along the way--you just have to do your best to get to Mongolia some way or another. I was lucky enough to get a spot during the brief sign-up period last fall, and from that point on I devoted a good chunk of my time and money towards preparing for the task ahead.
The ten months before the rally began went by quickly. I setup a website, began gathering supplies, researched potential routes, applied for visas, read past team's accounts, searched for and purchased a vehicle (a 2001 Chevy Metro), spent a ton of time fixing the car up, shipped the car by boat from New York, and did a good amount of PR work and fundraising (we appeared on several radio stations and in a few area newspapers and publications). Even in the faltering economy we were lucky enough to far exceed the $1500 minimum fundraising amount and so we decided to search for an additional opportunity to help out somewhere. That charitable opportunity turned out to be a kindergarten-building project begun by a Rotary Club in Mongolia and later assisted by the West Bloomfield, Michigan Rotary Club, of which I am a member.
After picking up the car near London we drove across Europe pretty uneventfully. Our first troubles started when trying to go from Moldova to Ukraine. We were held for ten hours at the border because they had never seen a U.S. car with U.S. documents and only one license plate. We eventually got through and ended up spending my birthday on the beach in Odessa. From there it was a massive 36 hour drive to Volgograd, Russia (during which we were pulled over by a cop who tried to shake us down for $100) before another long push towards Kazakhstan. Our next border hassle occurred at Uzbekistan where we accidentally showed up one day before our visas were set to start. We spent the night in no-man's-land and had a memorable dinner outside with some truckers. From there we visited the silk road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand before entering the mountainous expanse known as Tajikistan. We made it more than halfway through the country and were in the middle of nowhere on the Pamir Highway when our car went kaput. It was a bad situation, but we were able to get it towed back to town.
We decided that it wouldn't be feasible to repair all of the problems and ended up selling the vehicle to a local family. From there we ended up grabbing a taxi back to the capital, Dushanbe, and then a flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan. While there we took a side trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan by taxi before my partner had to leave back home because of lack of funds and time. It was then up to me to fly to Russia and board the Siberian Express train for a three day trip to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. While in Mongolia I had dinner with ambassadors, was invited to meet the high lama, and took a 16 hour taxi to the Gobi Desert where I ran a full marathon without any training, experience, or proper equipment. It was an amazing end to an amazing trip.
While Mango hasn't yet added Mongolian to their considerable repertoire of language learning modules, I was able to get quite a bit of mileage out of the Russian module Most of the journey took part in former Soviet republics, so almost everyone knew Russian in addition to their local language. My rally partner and I both tried our best to get the basics down before setting off on the trip, and Mango luckily made it easy for us to do exactly that. You can only do so much beforehand though. Tip: make sure you have maps listed in both Russian and English! We didn't, and we had quite a time getting around at first. I suppose one good thing to come of being in that type of situation is that we had quite a bit of motivation to learn to speak Russian and read the Cyrillic alphabet that it's written in. We had most of the Cyrillic letters committed to memory
In all we ended up raising almost $9,000 dollars for charity. The kindergarten is still being built and will be finished later this month. We met so many interesting people and made many new friends and also saw some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. We were truly lucky to be able to participate in such an adventure. Taking a trip through so many countries and cultures like we did you really realize that people all over the world are essentially the same--everyone wants to make enough money to support themselves and their family, everyone cares about their children, and everyone just wants to be--in one word--happy. Such concepts transcend race, religion, culture, and arbitrary country boundaries. It was a challenge at times, but I would do it again in a heartbeat--and I'd recommend it to everyone. There's nothing quite like travel to open up your mind about the world we live in.
As Mark Twain once wrote:
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
Thanks for all of your support Mango!