Panorama From the Czech Republic to Mongolia in a Renault Kangoo
The Mongol Rally is an adventure/ charity event that starts in Europe and ends in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Among this year’s 300 participants was Ota Ulč jr., the son of Czech exile writer Ota Ulč, Nick Jarret, both from New York and Prague local Karel Vančura. The team covered the 10,000 miles from the Czech Republic to Mongolia in a Renault Kangoo, helping to raise money for UNICEF and the Lotus Children's Centre Charitable Trust. Radio Prague called Ota in New York to talk about the Mongol Rally experience.
“The Mongol rally was established by two English gentlemen who in 2003 saw a dilapidated car on the streets of Prague and decided to by it. Then they decided to one-up each other about how far it could go. One said “well, maybe we could make it to Slovakia” and the other said “maybe we could make it to Ukraine” and soon they’d decided to try and drive that car to Mongolia to see if it would make it – a sort of insane bet they made with each other. So they jumped in the car with no preparation, no map, nothing, no visas and simply drove all the way until they got to Mongolia. When they arrived at the border the Mongolians kindly told them “its very nice that you’ve come to visit us, but since you do not have visas please go home”. So they drove home. The entire trip took them several months and they became fascinated by the thought of going to places where people normally don’t go. And they established a group called The Adventurists where they offer a trip that is in aid of charity. This year the rally attracted some 300 teams from around the world who all drove to Mongolia.
The beautiful thing about this trip is that it is not undertaken in some big fancy four-by-four truck or something like you’d expect because the roads to Mongolia are absolutely atrocious. Instead you have to do it in a very little car and the reasoning behind that is that if you do it in a four-by-four truck it would all be too easy. And you need a little bit of adventure in life. If you have a small cheap car that may constantly break down it forces you to interact with people, to deal with the situation and, in doing so, test yourself as you go to Mongolia. But this is also about charity and the money that can be raised for it.”
“We do, yes. The car is donated to the organization and is then auctioned off with the proceeds going to various charities.”
So what was your own trip like this year –where did you start and what route did you take?
“The trip starts in Klatovy and ends in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, but you can go any route that you wish as long as you eventually make it to Ulaanbaatar. The whole trip takes about a month but you are encouraged to take as much time as you want because it is based on the idea of exploration. “
So it is not important when you get there but just to get there?
“Absolutely. There’s the challenge of trying to make it and the idea is also so see different places en route. There are basically three routes that people do. One is the northern route through Russia, which is sort of the easy route, then you have a harder route which is Turkey and through the Caspian Sea and Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and back to Mongolia and then there is the medium route which is the one we took. It led us from the Czech Republic to Slovakia to Ukraine, following the Black Sea going up into Russia to visit Volgograd and then cutting across Kazakhstan, back into Russia to see a little bit of Siberia and then to the western border of Mongolia and the final lap of about 15000 km across Mongolia to the capital Ulaanbaatar which is almost in the centre of the country. “
It must have been a revelation… what sticks most in your mind?
“I must say the trip was absolutely epic. Because every time you crossed the border you had no idea what to expect. So often you hear rumors of the sort - oh that’s very dangerous, you have to be careful because someone is going to rob you -and then you cross the border and realize that that is actually not the case and people are incredibly friendly. But there is the fear of the unknown…
One of the things that absolutely shocked me was the sheer size of Kazakhstan. It is the 9th largest country in the world and the population is quite limited. And also tourists do not venture into western Kazakhstan. In the entire time we were there – and it took us nine days to cross the country – we only stumbled across one foreign license plate. So you get approached by locals who are very curious about you. We had a little car with Czech plates on it and they were fascinated by this saying –what are you Czechs doing in Kazakhstan, why are you coming to visit? And we’d tell them we were going to Mongolia and they’d say –really, Mongolia, that’s so difficult, how will you ever make it? And we’d say – well, we’re not sure how we made it here, but we are proceeding along.
And then there was the unforgettable experience of crossing into Mongolia. Crossing the Russian border to Mongolia meant a 27-hour-long wait at the border. There is so much chaos and bureaucracy and you have this growing sense of frustration. You are looking at the gate waiting to be let through and all of a sudden you are off and the tarmac ends and a dirt track begins, literally at the border, and you see this expanse of incredible beauty which is western Mongolia. “
Ota what were you driving?
“We were driving a little Renault Kangoo with a 1.2 liter engine from 2003 which we bought for a few thousand dollars. We used it because it was cheap and also to fulfill the requirement that the engine had to be very small. It was a really inappropriate vehicle because it was made for driving around the city not for taking on what was the equivalent of about 7,000 km of off-road driving where we were driving through dirt tracks, through rivers, through sand - some really very destroyed infrastructure that you have in those parts of the world. “
But it withstood all the hurdles and held out did it?
“Well, a few pieces fell off along the way. But we found the most useful thing – something called guerilla tape, which is a very thick tape – and some wires and we would reattach the bits as necessary as the car began to fall apart…. But one of the things about Mongolia that was so incredible was the friendliness of the people. You have a country which is the size of Western Europe with a population of 3 million people, making it one of least densely populated countries in the world. There is literally just one road across Mongolia that is a dirt track across the country that goes about 1500 km and there isn’t a single road sign so you are really tested to try to figure out how to get from one place to another. We didn’t have a GPS, we didn’t have a compass, but we did have a map and we had this urgency to talk to the locals. Now of course the locals don’t speak English, don’t speak Czech –they speak only Mongolian and you must be able to communicate what it is that you want to do – I am trying to get to this town –where am I? And we were amazed by how helpful individuals are, that they really are trying to help you along. Should your car fall apart they will immediately come with a few tools and start banging on your car and trying to help you repair it. If you needed a place to stay they would guide you to their homes… It was about this great reliance on each other. “
“I would say there was only one point when fear really kicked in. And that was right after we crossed the Mongolian border. There was a fellow on a motorcycle on the side of the road who was flagging us down. Luckily, I recognized him for a bandit by having done some research earlier. He would tell you that the road is broken ahead and lead you off the track and then his gang would rob you. We recognized him and we decided to ignore his calls for us to pull over and just drive on. We could see that the road was blown out ahead of us, but we knew there had to be a way around it and indeed there was. What we did not expect was for him to follow us. And then a little further down the road there was another gentleman on a motorcycle who also began to follow us –and then a little further down the road there were two gentlemen sitting on motorcycles who also gave chase. Now we are driving a little car that doesn’t go very fast. The roads are absolutely horrendous and they kept on following us and trying to get us to stop and we knew what their intention was. We pushed that little car as fast as it would go and found this road that led to the mountains and we drove and drove until it became dark and the road got so steep that the car couldn’t go any further up the road. And we managed to tuck it behind some stones and quietly, in the pitch dark, we set up our tents and waited hoping that we would not be surprised in the middle of the night with a knife or a gun. And then the next morning there was this incredible sensation as we looked over the valley –absolute silence and not a soul to be seen – and we realized we were on a spectacular mountain and had this incredible view from about 3500 meters and suddenly it seemed so ridiculous -that fear we had of being robbed. But I think that the truth was that we had managed to get ourselves so incredibly lost that even the bandits thought –oh forget it, we are not going to go and follow them. “
“I would highlight the fact that it really is a challenge to one’s physicality, that you are driving 12 to 15 hours a day, going about 13-14 thousand km, and it helps build your mental stamina. There were three of us in the car myself, a colleague from the US and a friend from Prague –so it is a test of patience. How do you put three individuals in a car for such a distance that they do not get on each other’s nerves? How do you not explode with fury when things go wrong? You learn how to be very patient, and it’s an opportunity to test your skills of negotiation. In Kazakhstan you are constantly stopped by police looking for bribes. So how do you avoid constantly having to pay them, how do you chit-chat with them and not be robbed by them…how do you figure out where to go? It’s a big challenge and what you get out of it is you get the opportunity to put your foot in places where tourists generally don’t go. See parts of the world that people do not go to and have a better understanding of those countries. It is an opportunity to see them with your own eyes – and to understand the way that the world is. “