by Dominic Frank
For as far back as I really care to remember, I’ve been on the move. Shortly after getting my driver’s license I made my first road trip — from St. Joseph, Mo., to Dayton, Minn. I was headed north to do a little skiing and visit some family. Somewhere in northern Iowa the map and directions to Grandma’s house blew out the window into the dark. Rather than turn around, I pressed on and pieced together the remainder of the drive from scattered landmarks from childhood memories.
During my Northwestern years I made many road trips, crisscrossing most of the lower 48. I graduated in June 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and took off for a week of camping and canoeing in the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. In about 10 days I was due in Schenectady, N.Y., to begin my professional life as a steam turbine field engineer for GE Energy. I showed up out of the woods, fresh off the road.
In more than five years with GE I’ve bounced around the world — to Thailand, Pakistan, Jamaica, Turkey, Spain. December 2003 found me outside of Milan, Italy, to start up a recently repaired gas turbine generator. The project manager for the rebuild was another field engineer named Seth Beck. It was a chance meeting that would shape the years to follow, as we seemed to share similar tastes in humor, adventure and beer.
Sometime later I found myself working in a GE Energy office in one of Chicago’s western suburbs. One day in August 2005 I was sitting in my cubicle when a two-line e-mail from Seth popped up:
Hey, any plans for next summer?
I clicked on the link and discovered the Mongol Rally, self-billed as “the greatest adventure in the world.” It’s an 8,000-mile auto dash from London to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar. Automobile engine size is limited to 1 liter … think Yugo, Ford Festiva, Geo Metro — cars with barely enough mustard to get to the grocery store or mow the lawn. Road conditions vary from nice and European to lunar crater-sized potholes to dirt trails. There are no support vehicles … a real do-it-yourselfer kind of trip. The £1,000-per-car entry fee is donated to charity (Send a Cow), and cars that complete the journey are donated to the Nairamdal International Children’s Center for auction in Mongolia.
I was hooked.
And so it began. Within a couple months five of us formed the Bad Colonies Motoring Cooperative and set ourselves to the logistics: visas, funds, vehicles, etc. We pitched our participation to potential sponsors, from Yakima roof racks to energy drink and deodorant companies to Late Night with Conan O’Brien. We never got the big-fish sponsor. But we did sell a lot of T-shirts emblazoned with “too lazy to hike everest.”
Almost sight unseen we purchased a 1990 SEAT Marbella and a 1989 Ford Fiesta (1.1L — shhh, don’t tell anyone). All agreed that they were sufficiently crappy. On July 22, in London rain, we set off and hopped aboard the car ferry from Dover to Calais, France, with roughly 30 hours to get to Prague for a rally party.
Thirty days later, after an ill-advised journey in unworthy carriages (only one of our cars made it — the one with no brakes, a leaky gas tank, no suspension and a suspect wheel bearing), three (out of five) of us stinky Americans arrived in Mongolia to cheers and the victory pint at Dave’s Place in Ulaanbaatar.
The chosen route for our caravan of five cars took us across parts of France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. Most of the way we carried about 10 gallons each of water and spare fuel and food enough to last several days. The toolbox consisted of a metric socket set and some wrenches, hose clamps, duct tape, loose wire, a couple of spare tires and whatever useful items we might MacGyver along the way. Among the notable fixes we cobbled together: temporary repairs of a cracked radiator hose using silicone, a hose clamp and a condom; fixing a broken fan belt with pantyhose; and even creating a new passenger-operated clutch for the SEAT. Some cliché about necessity and invention comes to mind. We also carried plenty of American coffee, which may have had just as much of a hand in the invention process.
At a car park in Prague I picked up a lone mannequin leg that was sitting in the corner. We carried the leg all the way to Mongolia, inventing stories about it for inquisitive policemen and border guards regarding its purpose (e.g. used for drinking or as an oar — mime rowing a boat). Musical instruments, whether you can play them or not, are also big hits with officials.
As the sun would begin to set each evening, we would pull off the road somewhere … sometimes a gas station, sometimes a town, often just open land. Within minutes one carload would leave in search of money and beer, and those of us remaining would sort out dinner, auto maintenance and any sleeping arrangements. Often I slept out under the stars, not even taking the time to set up a tent. Most car troubles occurred after nights when the beer mission returned empty-handed.
Asia is a big place, and life there is nothing like what I’ve grown up with. The portion we saw varied from wide-open 100-degree desert to freezing Siberian forest and everything in between. Most of it is very poor. Somewhere in the middle we happened upon a couple of Americans living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. They’d heard about the rally on NPR and took us in for a few idyllic days — a necessary recharge for the trials to come.
In the next week the Kazakh desert, roads, low-quality fuel and overall mileage would turn each day into a Herculean trial. Kazakhstan would claim a car in our caravan and one rally driver (not death, he just could not carry on anymore). Siberia would claim our SEAT.
We lost one of our drivers in between Kazakhstan and Russia with a visa snafu. For two days he sat between borders, neither country willing to let him in. No amount of cigarettes, booze, cash or guitar playing seemed to help. Purchasing the third cell phone of the trip, I got to know the U.S. consul in Kazakhstan very well. In the end our driver was smuggled back into Kazakhstan by border guards he’d befriended and narrowly made it out.
One thing that continues to amaze me is how much more open and curious other people in the world are. Anytime we stopped for a few minutes, a crowd surrounded the cars. People just wanted to know who we were and where we were going. After a few stops we started seeking out only the quietest streets and gas stations to pause — still the people appeared. Usually it was children who were the most outgoing, and some of them live in my most vivid memories of the journey. I wish I’d had something to give them.
I delivered the Ford Fiesta to Nairamdal on Aug. 24 and spent a few days in Mongolia relaxing, getting the mannequin leg signed by other ralliers, seeing the Dalai Lama speak and planning my return travel. It took me more than 50 hours, flying from Ulaanbaatar to O’Hare, to get home. On Aug. 31 I walked back into my Chicago apartment.
So what comes next? I’m not sure. Going in I had thought the rally might be the trip to hang my hat on. Untoppable.
I was wrong.
Before I left Mongolia the idea of a North and South American version of the Mongol Rally took root in my mind. A leisurely jaunt down the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego perhaps? Any takers? Stay tuned at www.badcolonies.org.
Dominic Frank (McC01) is a field engineer for GE Energy. Between assignments he resides in Chicago until the itch to see other places drives him out into the unknown.
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