Mark and Simeon finished the Mongol Rally
To Mongolia in a crappy car
They made it all the way to Azerbaijan before they heard it: a hiss. They pulled over to investigate; the coolant tank was leaking. Mark van Dijk, business student and Mongol Rally 2018 participant, remembers it with a sigh: ‘That tank just kept fucking us over. I was so done with it after a while.’
The tank was just one of the problems he and former business student Simeon Molenaar ran into on their journey to Mongolia this summer. Their goal was to drive from Prague to Ulan-Ude in eight weeks with no help, in a car with an engine capacity of only 1.2 litres.
At the Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan
Mark and Simeon start the story from the beginning. First, they knock back another shot of vodka. ‘ It’s from Mongolia’, says Mark. ‘Zazdarovje’, they toast in Russian.
Initially, the car worked fine. On the first day they sailed through Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. But they met ill luck in Bulgaria when the exhaust tried to give out. ‘It started making a lot more noise’, Simeon says airily. Fortunately, they were able to fix it.
At the Georgian border, they made a point to buy a couple cartons of cigarettes on the cheap. Not to smoke, but to use ‘as a social lubricant’, says Simeon. ‘A peace pipe, as I like to call it’, Mark grins. ‘Give someone a pack of cigarettes and you’ve immediately made a new friend.’
They also bought car insurance in Georgia. ‘Approximately 50 percent of the cars there don’t have bumpers anymore’, says Simeon. In Azerbaijan – ‘the most frustrating country in the world’ – they learned how important it is to follow the rules. The road they were on was a straight shot through the country, but they had to keep slowing down to avoid being photographed by one of the countless traffic cameras posted along the way.
When they made it to Iran they knew they had to be careful. They had already watched a customs agent confiscate someone’s passport when that person didn’t respond to instruction quickly enough. They knew they had to stay alert and play along.
But they were in trouble when they couldn’t read the Iranian numbers. Mark: ‘We could see there were prices on the board, but we didn’t know what they were.’ They had the foresight to bring an Iranian dictionary, but it was in a backpack that had been stolen several countries earlier. A man with a friendly smile and a gold tooth approached their Ford Escort and offered to help. He was a ‘tourist advisor’ and although they realised that they didn’t really need him, they didn’t have much of a choice. ‘There were six burly customs agents behind him.’
At the window, they discovered their import documents were missing. The ‘tourist advisor’ had kept them. All they had to do to get them back was pay twenty dollars each. ‘They keep trying to make you break the law, so they can tell the customs agent’, says Mark. ‘You have to pay attention.’
Four and a half hours later they were finally able to cross the border – and into what seemed like a completely different world. In the border village, Astara, a restaurant owner invited them home for dinner. ‘Friends started turning up from all over the place. It was a completely different experience’, says Mark. Simeon: ‘They were the friendliest people we ever met.’
But the journey became increasingly difficult. The coolant tank kept breaking down, and coolant is pretty essential for travelling through sweltering desert. ‘A mechanic at a gas station said he had a solution’, says Simeon. ‘He showed up fifteen minutes later – with a bottle of wood glue!’
But ten minutes later the tank sprung the same leak, landing them on the side of the road once again. Eventually they ended up at a garage in Isfahan. ‘There were wrecked cars and loose tyres everywhere.’
Peaks of the Himalayas
After poking around spare parts for a while, they found a coolant tank with the same connection as their Ford Escort. Mark: ‘There were four men working on how to get it in there. Their logic seems to be: the more people are working on it, the better the solution.’
While they worked, Simeon followed the mechanic into his office. The man took a bottle of clear liquid from behind the desk and filled a cup for Simeon. ‘It was so strong it brought tears to my eyes. Sixty percent alcohol!’
Meetings like this one made the journey worth it. In Turkmenistan, a drunk giant of a man approached them, yelling: ‘I like you! Beer?’ He turned out to be a former judo champion from the Soviet Union who was celebrating his birthday. Mark and Simeon were invited into a private room, where they mainly drank a lot of vodka.
There was also a fifteen-year-old Uzbek boy who replaced their busted exhaust pipe with a random metal pipe because he didn’t have a proper replacement part. And a Mongolian mechanic who generously served them fermented camel’s milk in his tent when their petrol tank was being repaired.
‘It was so gross. But we had to drink it’, says Mark. ‘I was so glad when he motioned for the cup back. But then he poured me another glass!’ The guinea pig meat he offered didn’t give them much joy either. ‘It was smoked over a fire of cow shit, because there are no trees there’, says Simeon. ‘And it sure smelled like it.’
Highest mountain passes
But the landscape was amazing. ‘I’d love to come back and drive through the even more remote areas in Mongolia’, says Simeon. They braved the biting cold on the highest mountain passes in the Himalayas, and pressed through the vast, unending emptiness of Tajikistan. Mark: ‘It really puts into perspective just how small human beings are.’ The next day they reached a height of 4,700 metres, the highest point of their trip. ‘Like driving up the Mont Blanc in a car.’
When they finally reached the end of their journey in Ulan-Ude, road-weary but victorious, the paint had been sandblasted from their car. They signed a form and received a sticker and two vouchers for free beer. ‘And that was it’, says Mark.
They should have been content and just hopped on next plane home like all the other contestants. Because while the journey out had been mostly successful, the way back was torture. ‘We had nothing but car trouble for five days. We were constantly fixing the thing up. We were just exhausted’, says Mark. ‘All we wanted was to go home.’
When they ended up in a heavy storm in Novosibirsk, their car finally gave up the ghost. ‘The wheel bearing broke in two and the bearing bushes were damaged beyond repair.’ A closer look revealed that their gearbox had been smashed, what was left of their exhaust was dangerously worn down, the rear suspension had come loose from the chassis, the radiator was leaking, and the tires were worn bald.
‘The underside of the car looked like a battered pan, the petrol tank was patched with duct tape, and the brake lines were attached with cable ties. But it was in perfect condition otherwise!’ says Mark.
Waiting for new parts would take too long. ‘Five days! Our visa ran out before that’, says Simeon. And so the friends smoked their last cigar, which they had saved for a special moment, and finally flew back to the Netherlands.
The pair wanted an adventure full of authentic experiences – and that’s what they got. So what’s next? Simeon laughs: ‘The car has been fixed up.’
Mark: ‘All we have to do is go pick it up.’
Everything that can go wrong between Prague and Ulan-Ude
- Trying to fix a leak in the coolant tank with fibre glass putty (in Azerbaijan)
- Having the exhaust closed with putty (Teheran)
- Fixing a hole in the coolant tank with wood glue (twice, in the desert between Teheran and Isfahan)
- A mechanic replacing the coolant tank with one from a derelict Deawoo Racer (in Isfahan)
- Breaking a rim and a shock absorber between Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) and Darvaza (a gas crater in Turkmenistan)
- A 15-year-old mechanic cutting out their muffles in Nukus (Turkmenistan) and replacing it with a piece of pipe, and using a hammer to bash a rim back into place
- Replacing one air filter in Dushanbe (Tajikistan) with one they’d brought themselves because the old one was full of sand
- Buying two new shock absorbers at the bazaar in Almaty (Kazakhstan) and looking for a garage to replace them. Taking one shock absorber with them in case of trouble
- Racing to Tolbo (Mongolia) with a leaking petrol tank and waiting five hours for the metal glue to dry
- A mechanic replacing a broken coil with a random different one in Khovd (Mongolia)
- A mechanic replacing the wheel bearing (with one the guys had brought themselves) on the side of the road between Altai and Bayankhongor (Mongolia)
- A mechanic fixing a leaking petrol tank in a tented village between Khairkhandulaan and Arvaikheer (Mongolia)
- Replacing a worn down tyre somewhere between Kharkorum and Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)
- Losing an important hose and replacing it with a piece of rubber between Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk (Russia)
- Nearly flooded the motor during a storm in Krasnoyarsk, driving over a flooded fly-over, soaking their spark plugs which took another night to dry
- Refilling the coolant tank over and over again between Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk
- Having their water pump, gaskets, and thermostat replaced in Novosibirsk
- Breaking their back left wheel bearing near Omutinskoye (Russia) Getting a tow to Tyumen, where their back left brake drum turned out to be broken, which in turn messed up the wheel bearing. A new drum had to be shipped in from Moscow