Lessons learned from the Mongol Rally: Is the adventure dead?

Having completed the Mongol Rally with no breakdowns, no catastrophic arguments, no serious illnesses or crazy stories (well… maybe a few crazy stories… #whereismichael), Shane and I have been thinking about whether the Mongol Rally can still legitimately claim to be the greatest adventure on the planet. Are technological developments, improvements in road conditions and the general homogenization of the world eroding the possibility of having a true adventure?

Before we set off on the Mongol Rally, Shane and I watched endless youtube videos of Mongol Rally teams dragging their cars through rivers, drinking vodka with police officers and getting trapped in no man’s land for a week and inventing their own country. Shane and I weren’t looking for anything terrible to happen to us – we didn’t want to break down, get lost, or bribe any corrupt officials – but we expected that those things would happen to us anyway. We thought the Mongol Rally would be the ultimate test: of our car, of our relationship, and of ourselves. We prepared our wills in preparation for the worst.

There were a few tough times. Spending the night in the car at a truck stop outside of Istanbul and waking up to someone trying to get inside was the most stressful moment of the Rally for me. Trying to board the unreliable Baku-Turkmenbashi ferry, completing the lengthy immigration process in Turkmenistan, finding money and petrol in Uzbekistan and driving on some pretty rough roads in a tiny inappropriate car also feature on our list of difficult moments, but these were all challenges we were expecting, and to some extent we were prepared for them.

There can be no doubt that the Mongol Rally is getting easier year-on-year. The rapid advancement of technology is making it easier than ever to circumnavigate the globe in a tiny inappropriate vehicle. For a start, the Internet is brimming with tips and suggestions from previous teams who have completed the Rally. There is also a very useful website – www.caravanistan.com – featuring very helpful, up to date information about travelling around Central Asia. Wondering whether the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border is open 24/7? Looking for a realistic guide on driving times through the Pamir Highway? You check that in the blink of an eye on Caravanistan.

You can also use the Internet to connect with your fellow Ralliers. This year there has been a very well used Facebook group and Whatsapp group for the Mongol Rally. These groups have allowed us to co-ordinate meeting up with other teams and share updates on the road. From these groups we found out important information, such as:

  1. You need to buy vignettes in for Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, or you will probably be fined (we bought the vignettes)
  2. The most obvious and direct border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan was closed (we went to a different border)
  3. There was a speed trap between Almaty and Semey in Kazakhstan, which resulted in a number of teams being fined large amounts of money (we were very vigilant and obeyed the speed limit at all times)
  4. When taking the Southern route in Mongolia, the map tells you to turn right around 30km after the town of Altai but you should not turn right (we didn’t turn right)
  5. Where the recommended and not-recommended mechanics were in every town and city (not that we ever needed a mechanic)

With wifi available in practically every hostel we stayed in (not to mention numerous cafes, restaurants and shopping centres), it was always easy to communicate with our fellow Ralliers and to organise to meet people on the road. A high proportion of teams also invested in sim cards in every country, so they were rarely without data and an Internet connection. As the availability of wifi, 3G and 4G increases, this is only going to make finding information and communicating with other Ralliers easier and easier as time goes on.

Technology is also improving our ability to navigate. We knew our sat nav wouldn’t work once we left Europe, so brought paper maps and a compass. We also downloaded an app called maps.me, which worked in a similar way to google maps but didn’t require an Internet connection. We rarely used the paper maps except to look at an overview of our route in Mongolia. We used maps.me constantly (in fact, we are still using it).

As a navigation device, maps.me isn’t perfect. It can’t always tell which direction you are travelling in, which made for some interesting twists and turns when we first started to use it. However, it does provide a very, very detailed map. The names of hostels, restaurants and tourist spots were often stored in the map, making it really easy to find where we needed to go, even if it wasn’t the best navigation device in the world. As time goes on, and technology like this will continue to improve, navigating will become a breeze and getting lost will be a thing of the past.

It’s not only the rise of information and communication technology that is changing the face of the Mongol Rally. While there are still plenty of potholes to hit, edges to fall off and sand to get stuck in, there is no doubt that the quality of roads across the world are improving. In Mongolia, a new road is being built right across the Southern route. Much of that road remained inaccessible to us (although the stretches where it did exist were perfect), but in a few years’ time, it seems likely that driving across Mongolia won’t be that different from driving across Europe (at least from a road quality perspective).

Added to this is the constant improvement in car technology. This year, a Nissan Leaf completed the Mongol Rally (although they didn’t go through Mongolia, which is cheating a bit). Today’s new cars will be tomorrow’s old cars, and they’ll be better than today’s old cars. They will probably drive themselves to Mongolia.

Road improvements and car improvements are signs of a wider wave of development across the world. Mongolia itself is developing at a rapid pace, as are countries in Central Asia. While today it is still difficult to find petrol in Uzbekistan, and still possible to turn up at a random stranger and ask to stay the night with a woman and her two daughters in the middle of Mongolia, it is possible to find a KFC in pretty much every city from Bishkek onwards.

The advancement of new technology, improvements in road and car quality and a the general homogenization of the world is gradually making the Mongol Rally less of a crazy adventure and more of an interesting road-trip. In some respects, this is no bad thing – seeing the world is easier, more accessible and safer than ever. There are more opportunities for more people to travel and experience a different side of life. The downside is that the ‘different side of life’ we travel to experience might not exist for that much longer.

In five, ten or twenty years’ time it will be even easier to travel the world. We will all have self-driving cars with built-in navigation systems and translation devices at the ready. Information on where to go, how to get there and what to do will be readily available without the need to search for wifi or read a guidebook. It will be easy, and it will be comfortable. The nearest McDonald’s will never be that far away. But if every country looks the same – has the same roads, the same food, the same interest in Taylor Swift – you have to wonder what you will be travelling for, exactly.

There are still plenty of adventures to be had, and plenty of exploring to be done. The proliferation of technology and homogenization of culture of the Western world is yet to reach every corner of the globe. At the same time, comparing our experience watching other teams attempt the Mongol Rally several years ago on youtube with our real life experience today, I am very grateful that Shane and I are able to take time out now to see the world, rather than waiting any longer. In some ways we’ve had the best of both worlds – we’ve had an adventure, but we’ve also had technology to help us get through it in one piece.

The adventure isn’t dead yet. There are still mountains to climb, oceans to explore and a vast universe out there to discover. But the nature of adventure travel is changing, and as it becomes easier, simpler and safer every day, there are fewer and fewer reasons not to go and see the world.

If you want to have a big adventure, now is the time to get out there and do it.


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