Mongol rally

Two idiots in a Ford Escort

They have absolutely no experience with old cars. But that doesn’t mean that Mark van Dijk and Simon Molenaar can’t drive to Mongolia in an ancient Ford Escort. This summer, they are participating in the 2018 Mongol Rally.
By Christien Boomsma / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

They’ve never worked on cars before. But Mark van Dijk and Simeon Molenaar understand the principle behind the internal combustion engine, and they have six months to figure the rest out. They have no reason not to drive to Mongolia in a thirty-one-year-old Ford Escort. Right?

The pair have been friends since they met at the Reformed student association GSV ten years ago. They like to drink beer, play chess, and hang out. During one such evening, they made each other a promise: to take a real trip one day. They would fly to Russia, rent a car, and make their way to Siberia. They would hitchhike – or buy horses if they got stuck. They would…

Do they even know how to ride a horse?

‘Well… no’, says Mark. ‘But I sat on my sister’s horse once.’


They shook hands on their promise no fewer than three times that night. They were going to do it, for real. But time passed,  and Simeon got married and had to go on honeymoon. ‘I mean I got to go, of course.’ And Mark was always busy with his business studies.

Then, two years ago, they saw a YouTube video about the Mongol Rally. In less than eight weeks teams from all over the world drive from Prague to Ulan Bator. There is no assistance during the race, but there is a party at the end of it. Vehicle engines can be no larger than 1.2 litres. ‘Typically, cars with engines that small are not at all suited to a race like this’, Simeon says, laughing. ‘You’re almost guaranteed to get in trouble’, Mark says, his eyes sparkling.

The two didn’t need to deliberate. This was it.

They were both fascinated by ancient China, the Middle East, the unused trade routes, and the faded glory of old power bases such as Isfahan or Samarkand. They were also fascinated by the VPRO documentary ‘De nieuwe zijderoute’ (‘The modern silk route’), which made them realise how much of their world view was influenced by the Western perspective. ‘But Asia was the centre of the world. While Europe was waging war, they were focused on philosophy and making great scientific discoveries. We’re interested in what the world was like before the European narrative took over’, says Mark.

Authentic experience

They also figured that they would be able to find some authenticity in Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country in the world. It is a place that hasn’t yet been touched by homogenisation and globalisation. ‘When I was a student I travelled through the Middle East’, says Simeon. ‘We visited the Gulf states, Qatar, Oman. But we never immersed ourselves in the local cultures. All these so-called authentic experiences have been commercialised by travel agencies.’

But the Mongol Rally is real; it has to be real.

Airplanes are even worse for the environment. And cycling didn’t seem like a great idea, either…

The rally also means they get to do something good for the planet; participants must donate a thousand British pounds, half of which goes to Cool Earth. The pair want to donate the other half to the Hartstichting, but they will raise more money first. They will fund the trip themselves, and they welcome sponsorship. All the money they raise will go to charity.

The middle of nowhere

Hang on: they are going drive an ancient, gas-guzzling car to Mongolia — for Cool Earth? ‘That’s exactly why people have to donate before they can race. Cool Earth uses the money to buy plots of rainforest, to ensure that the race is energy-neutral’, Simeon says. He is aware of the apparent inconsistency. On the other hand: ‘Airplanes are even worse for the environment’, he says. ‘And cycling didn’t seem like a great idea, either…’

So now they are the proud owners of a Ford Escort Cl 1.1 from 1986. They bought it the day after Boxing Day for a whopping 750 euros. ‘It was already discounted, and the owner was really nice, taking off another 250 euros.’

They have complete faith in the car. Not that they knew anything about old cars; but they read many internet forums to try and figure out what to look out for. Cylinder heads have a tendency to leak. Rust is often a problem. Some cars need a lot of oil, which could present a problem when it runs out in the middle of nowhere and there are no gas stations nearby. ‘But you can diagnose the oil usage by whether or not the car releases a plume of smoke when you start it, and this one didn’t’, says Mark.

Messing with plugs

So far, so good; they’ve driven the car to Hoevelaken and back with a detour through Dronten. This particular trip went off without a hitch. They signed up for Ford Escort forums, where people know absolutely everything about the car. One of its users sold them an official sticker for their car, new in its packaging, which meant it was thirty years old.

They installed an impressive sound system in the car. ‘We did that the first night. We were messing around with flashlights and plugs’, Mark says.

They also installed roof racks. ‘We’d already bought a roof tent so we’d have somewhere to spend the night.’

Over the next few weeks, they plan on replacing anything that might break. They will keep the parts and take them along, because it’s highly that things will break on their trip. And they should. ‘We could take this trip in a fancy four-wheel drive’, says Mark. ‘But that would be a different experience altogether.’

They will drive through Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan to get to Iran. They will take the Pamir Highway (an offshoot of the Himalayas), to Kazakhstan, then pass through a bit of Russia. Finally, they will end up in Mongolia.

‘The road literally ends there’, Mark says enthusiastically. ‘But we bought a really good compass.’

No man’s land

We may be taking risks, but we’re not irresponsible

The point of the trip is that they could end up with car trouble and no facilities, no garages, somewhere they don’t speak the language. They will be forced to make contact with the locals and let the journey take them where it may. ‘The people there are really friendly and helpful’, Mark says, clearly confident. This he read on blogs from people who participated in previous rallies. ‘Besides, you can get all bent out of shape about it, or you can just accept the circumstances and see what happens. This modern society wants everything to be predictable, to reduce all chance of risk, or buy insurance for everything. This trip is the antithesis of that mentality.’

We have, of course,’ says Simeon, ‘done our homework.’

‘We may be taking risks, but we’re not irresponsible’, says Mark.

They’ll be avoiding the Ukraine and Chechnya. These countries, which the ministry of Foreign Affairs has deemed too risky, are off-limits. They will make sure they have the right visa documents. They don’t want to end up in the no man’s land between Kazakhstan and Russia for ten days because their visa for one country has expired and the next one isn’t valid yet, which is what happened to one of their predecessors. They are reading up on the history of the places they will be travelling through, so they know how people might treat them. But everything else will be a spontaneous, authentic experience. And they’re looking forward to it. Even if they do get stuck halfway through, they hope it’s in a nice location they can enjoy. There’s really only one thing that could ruin the trip. Simeon: ‘The worst thing that could happen? If we never even make it out of Europe.’

Find out more about Mark and Simeon’s adventures on or their Facebook.

Photo by Christien Boomsma


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