Extreme summer travel: The Mongol Rally

One of the secrets around our business is that when summer comes along, so too come stories related to summer travel. And we are no more immune to this trend than anyone else. However, that doesn’t mean we’ll offer up the same old, same old “I took the family to the Grand Canyon and here’s the gear I brought with me” story. No, this episode’s guest, Ben Long, is taking a very unique trip that requires a just-as-unique collection of gear.

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Show Notes

To learn more about the adventure Ben is about to undertake, you’ll want to visit the portion of the The Adventurists' site devoted to the Mongol Rally. He also mentioned a few things he’ll be taking along with him (or recommends for those travelling this way). There’s the Fiat Panda (complete with marketing tagline “Simply More”), the BioLite CampStove, LuminAid pillow/light, gear from Solar Gadgets USA, and Big Agnes tents. He also mentioned the two charities supported by the Rally: Cool Earth and MercyCorps.

When not rallying across Europe and Asia, Ben can be found at Complete Digital Photography and in his many excellent Lynda.com photography training titles.

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This episode of the Macworld podcast is brought to you by Smile’s PDFpen 6—the all-purpose Mac PDF editor! Add signatures, text, and images. Make changes and correct typos. OCR scanned docs. Fill out forms. New in version 6: Microsoft Word export. Smile also provides the following transcript.


This transcript is sponsored by Smile.

Chris: Macworld podcast number 363 for July 10th, 2013, brought to you by Smile Software, makers of PDFpen 6 and PDFpenPro.

Welcome to another Macworld podcast. I’m Chris Breen. One of the not terribly well-kept secrets around our business is that when summer comes along so too come stories related to summer travel. We are no more immune to this trend than anybody else. However, that doesn’t mean we’ll offer up the same old, same old, “Hey, I took the family to the Grand Canyon and here’s the gear I took with me,” story.

Nope, this episode’s guest is taking a very unique trip that requires a just as unique collection of gear.

I’m joined by renowned writer, photographer, instructor and world traveler, Ben Long, who’s going to talk about his summer vacation. Welcome, Ben.

Ben: Thanks, Chris.

Chris: I hear you’re going car camping in the next week or so.

Ben: I am going car camping, as one does in the summertime. I’m loading up the car with a tent and some basic camping gear and taking a drive.

Chris: Really, where are you going to go?

Ben: Mongolia.

Chris: Mongolia?

Ben: Yes, Mongolia. More specifically, Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. I’ll be leaving from London. In fact, I’m flying to London this afternoon to go get in the car.

Chris: And drive to Mongolia?

Ben: And drive to Mongolia.

Chris: I imagine for a trip like that you’re going to want to drive something pretty robust. Is it going to be a Range Rover or a Humvee or some 4x4? What are you driving?

Ben: Well, you’re right. Mongolia lacks pavement of just about any kind. Long before you get to Mongolia, there’s still all of Kazakhstan, which is definitely road-challenged. Then of course, there’s the distance itself. This is going to be 10 to 12,000 miles. Yeah, ideally, you want a nice capable vehicle. I’m driving a Fiat Panda.

Chris: As I recall, I’m not a car expert, but as I recall, the Fiat Panda is something that will fit in my back pocket.

Ben: Pretty much. Like I said, ideally, you want a very robust car. This is not going to be the ideal car camping trip to Mongolia.

Chris: One, you’re limited in space. How big is the engine in that thing?

Ben: It’s a 1.2 liter engine, so that’s actually the size of the engine in my motorcycle. This is in a full-on car.

Chris: Okay so lack of room, tiny engine, 12,000-mile trip. Why are you doing this?

Ben: We should mention the very small wheels.

Chris: That’s right. Road-challenged, so you’re going to be dealing with dirt roads, bridges, a lot of bridges there?

Ben: No, not really just pretty much straight driving through rivers.

Chris: Okay. Small car, tiny wheels, there’s probably not a lot of clearance between the undercarriage and the road.

Ben: None, I think, like a skateboard kind of clearance.

Chris: Okay so why are you doing this?

Ben: Believe me, as my flight departure approaches, I’m asking myself that question more and more. The technical explanation is that I’m doing this as part of a charity road rally called the Mongol Rally. It’s put on by an organization of apparently insane people in England called the Adventurists.

The way this works is we’re raising money for a couple of charities. One is Cool Earth, which is an organization that works to save rainforests that are within 18 months of total destruction. We have to raise a certain amount. I find this curious, there’s someone sitting around the forest going, “Boy, I really hope that our forest is within 18 months of total destruction because then we’ll get some money.” Anyway, we’re raising money for this charity.

The rules are very simple. You can take any route that you want and different teams take wildly different routes. You cannot take a car that’s older than nine years old because we’re going to leave the car in Mongolia, where it will be auctioned off and that money given to charity, and basically, the Mongolians don’t want a bunch of junker cars brought into the country. Then finally, you can’t have an engine over 1.2 liters. The entire conceit there is you’re actually trying to make the trip impossible. I think only 60 to 65% of the people who start actually make it to Ulan Bator.

There really are no rules. It’s a completely unsupported race or rally. It’s not actually a race. There’s no time limit. That’s apparently why I’m doing this.

Chris: Typically, how long does it take to do this?

Ben: The Adventurists say you can do it in as short as three weeks, but if you do that, you’re probably not having a particularly good time. We’re thinking somewhere between four to six.

Chris: You say we, so how many people are going?

Ben: Right now, it’s me and one other person. There was a third person who had to drop out last week. Originally, we were going to take two cars. We actually bought two Fiat Pandas. We did that for a couple of reasons. One we figured, “Well, this is great. If one car breaks down, we can just pile into the other car and go get help or we can pull parts off of each car.” Also, one of us who is not me is six foot seven, so we decided there was no way we could comfortably fit three of us in a tiny little Fiat for six weeks. Actually, if anyone out there wants to buy a Fiat Panda, I’ve got one for sale.

Chris: Six foot seven, tiny car, how is this person going to fit in the car? Do they have to have their head out the window the whole time?

Ben: We don’t know because we’ve never seen a Fiat Panda in person.

Chris: You haven’t seen the car?

Ben: No, it’s in England. I bought it remotely through a garage, a mechanic there so I’ve never actually seen a Fiat Panda. They don’t sell them in the States.

Chris: Did you mention to the mechanic that you’re planning to drive this thing 12,000 miles to Mongolia?

Ben: This is a garage that actually offers this service of helping ralliers find rally cars. They went and checked it out and said, “Yeah, we think this car will make the trip.” I noticed they’re staying behind, but still, they said this car will make the trip. There apparently has been some intelligent thought put into this process, none of it originating from me.

Chris: How good of a mechanic are you?

Ben: I have no mechanical skill at all. I can work a zip tie or some duct tape. I decided not to worry about that because my dad is actually very good with cars and I talked to him about it and he said, “On a modern car, there’s not much that you can fix any way. You can’t just carry a set of points anymore and get your car working again. It’s all computerized.”

I’m figuring that the things that are really likely to happen, I don’t know, a broken axle or a bent wheel or something, your mechanical skill isn’t really the limitation there. It’s the fact that you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Chris: We understand the rules of the rally and we understand the charitable aspect of it. Personally, why are you doing this?

Ben: It seemed like a good idea at the time, actually, when we filled out that form online. Mongolia is definitely changing. I’ve been very intrigued by there’s still a traditional nomadic population there, but they’ve discovered gold mining in Mongolia over the last couple of years, and I think this is kind of a last chance to see the old Mongolia, or at least any kind of traditional life in Mongolia. I’m very intrigued by that. I definitely like the less “developed” part of the world. I would put developed in quotation marks there.

I always find that this kind of travel leads to really, really nice people and very interesting experiences. It’s obviously a fantastic photographic opportunity. I think I also just want to know if I can do it.

Chris: Have you planned your route, or as you just go along you say, “I think we need to go east and so that’s where were going.”

Ben: Most people had straight east, so they would go across, I don’t have a map in front of me, Czech Republic and make their way into Russia and head across that way. We’re going to go straight south through France and then cut across northern Italy, go down the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, and then we’re going to hang a left at Montenegro. This is about the extent of the mapping I’ve done is, “Oh, here’s Montenegro, I guess we go left.”

From there we go through, I guess, Kosovo and Serbia, through Bulgaria. We’re going to then go down through Istanbul and through central Turkey. We wanted to drive up through Georgia, but apparently that’s not really doable right now, so we’re going to ferry across the Black Sea into Russia. We go across a little bit of Russia and then across all of Kazakhstan, back into Russia and then dip down into the northern border of Mongolia.

Chris: Yes, but you’ll have a GPS with you, right, so no problem?

Ben: No, I’m not bothering because there’s no mapping data that I can find for Mongolia or Kazakhstan, parts of Russia. It’s interesting, if you just go to Google maps and look at Russia, it’s kind of a void. There’s just not mapping data or at least, Google doesn’t have access to any so no, a GPS, yeah, it would get us through Europe okay but it’s not hard to navigate through Europe. I don’t know that a GPS would really help us that much on the difficult parts so I have a map and a compass.

Chris: What kind of signage do they have?

Ben: I don’t know. I’ve seen pictures online that there are signs. They are of course going to be in no language that I speak or read and possibly not in an alphabet that I understand.

Chris: Great. I think this sounds like you’ve totally got this sewn up.

Ben: I’ve been busy with other things so I haven’t had a lot of time to put too much thought into it. I figure I can do that on the plane ride over.

Chris: Yeah. No, I think that’s the way most people plan these sorts of things. I’m sure that you have your AAA card with you. Given that you may be stranded quite literally in the middle of nowhere, what gear are you going to take with you to help you communicate and frankly, survive?

Ben: It’s strange. I’ve driven around rural Africa and rural Turkey and always been surprised to find that they have better cellular connectivity than we do here. I feel like it’s everywhere. They skipped wires and went right to cell phones. I’m kind of counting on the idea that I’ll have good cell coverage across most of the trip. I don’t know about Kazakhstan and Mongolia. I have a Verizon iPhone which has an unlocked SIM slot in the side, so in theory, I can just go there and get SIM cards as I go.

I don’t know that I could get a single SIM card that would give me coverage for the whole trip. I’m not too worried about having phone calls. I more just want data so I also got a Verizon, one of their MiFi hotspot things, so I’m hoping that if I’ve got cell coverage, I’ve got a way of communicating that way.

One cool thing about the Verizon gizmo is you can prepay for a certain amount of data so I just bought 10 gigabytes of data. I figure for two of us that’s enough to attach a couple of iPads and a couple of phones. That’s what I’m thinking for Internet access.

I have a spot gizmo, which I can press a button on and it, via satellite, sends a predefined message to a predefined mailing list so that’s a way of at least letting a certain group of people know my latitude and longitude. In the States, the spot gizmo can also summon search and rescue. I don’t believe that works internationally. Spot now makes a satellite phone that’s kind of astonishingly cheap. It’s 500 bucks for the phone and the service plans are very, very inexpensive for satellite communication.

I’ve been thinking about getting one of those but honestly, I’m not sure what I’d do with it. If my car breaks down, okay, well, I can call Chris and say my car has broken down in the middle of Mongolia, but what are you going to do? I don’t know yet how useful that is.

Chris: I could offer my condolences.

Ben: Thank you, yes. I would at least get to say goodbye.

Chris: Right.

Ben: I’ve been thinking that, “Well, okay, I could call you and you could then research how to get help to me,” but I feel like I should probably try that first. I should poke around and see what you would actually be capable of doing. I did find a list of 911 equivalents for every country in the world. I don’t know if that’s a reliable search and rescue thing or not. I’ve got, let’s see, about seven hours left, I’m trying to make the satellite phone decision in that time.

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Chris: I also hear you’re going to be traveling light because you’ve got a very small car. You have very little room. What else are you taking for day to day living? Is this really like a camping trip?

Ben: I’m thinking of it like a backpacking trip. Yes, we’re traveling light both because there’s limited space but also we need to be able … your bridges question was a good one. From what it looks like, there are a lot of water crossings in Mongolia that are bridge-free. I think it’s a lot of pushing and pulling and lifting the car out of sand and water and things like that. We don’t want to weigh it down with too much. Yeah, I’m treating it like a backpacking trip. I’ve got my small, one-person tent, a summer sleeping bag, a camping stove.

I have one additional concern, which is I’m heading into an area where people really enjoy eating sheep heads and other odd animal body parts. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was eight. I’m taking a whole lot of backpacking food and a backpacking stove for the second half of the trip. We’ve got all that.

Then it’s just about the other normal things you need, how to power the gear. One question we have is we’re not actually sure if there’s a cigarette lighter adapter in the Fiat Panda or not, and that’s been our main idea for how to power stuff.

If we get there and it doesn’t have one of those, we’re thinking maybe we get a second car battery and some kind of inverter that can attach to that and then we can just swap the car battery out every few days and charge our stuff that way. Mostly, I’m just thinking of this as an ultra-light backpacking trip.

Chris: Part of the idea of the rally is to live with the least impact on your surroundings. If somebody were to do this kind of trip, is there gear that they can carry that helps achieve this and also gives back something?

Ben: That’s a good question. This is a charity road rally, so we’re trying to raise some money for some worthy causes. Also, I always feel a little weird, here we are coming from an incredibly wealthy country, it is strange to go into areas of great poverty, especially as a photographer and basically exploit them, mine them for media so yeah, I always feel a little uncomfortable going in. You don’t want to go in and treat the locals like they’re exhibits or animals in a zoo or something. You want to try to be part of their world and not impact them too much.

I thought, “Well, okay, as long as we’re doing this to raise money for charity, are there ways we can do it other than simple fundraising? Are their purchases that we can make or things like that?” It’s interesting, if you start looking for this kind of stuff, you find that backpacking technology, a lot of it is being appropriated for use in disaster relief and for third world everyday living.

For example, there’s the bio-light camping stove, which is a very cool camp stove. It’s a little large, you wouldn’t want to normally use it for backpacking, but it runs basically on twigs. It’s got an electric fan in it that you charge ahead of time through a USB port, and then you just put twigs or any other combustible in it, and basically the fan gives you an extremely efficient burn, and obviously as long as you’re somewhere where there are twigs available, you’ve got a way of heating water. We, of course, will be driving across the Gobi Desert, so I don’t know how much we’re going to have in the way of twigs but what’s cool about the bio-light is that it captures heat while it’s burning, and converts that to enough electricity that you can charge your iPhone off of it or some other small device. I actually now have a twig-powered iPhone.

They make larger versions specifically for use in the rural Third World. I’ve been in remote villages in Africa before, and always been shocked to find people living in huts with dirt floors but they all have cell phones, because they can go into the local village and go to the community center and charge their phones there. With something like one of these bio-light stoves, they actually have a way of generating electricity on their own, which is very cool.

Some other things, LuminAID makes a really cool inflatable solar-powered pillow thing that’s also a light source. It makes a nice big diffused light, and if you order one from their website, they will actually donate one to a disaster stricken area where people might need light.

Once you start looking for this stuff, you’ll find that there are purchases you can make that will continue your effort to either have low impact or actually give something back. Obviously, energy consumption is another big one. Solargadgetsusa.com has a lot of … boy, everything from solar-powered flashlights to chargers to so on and so forth. That’s a way you can at least go through an area not leaving batteries everywhere. Batteries often end up in local dumps, where kids end up picking through the dumps for precious metals and get poisoned by that kind of thing, so being able to stay out of batteries is a good idea.

Finally, you might check … are you using equipment that is made responsibly? I’m using a Big Agnes tent, and if you go to Big Agnes and read their corporate policy, you’ll find that they’re very conscientious about the materials they use and their construction and the impact on the third world there.

Chris: Are you planning on leaving any of that stuff in Mongolia, or are you going to take it all with you?

Ben: That’s a good question. I’ve been wanting to talk to the Adventurists about can you donate gear along with the car? I’m not sure. We may never make it to Mongolia, so that part’s up in the air also.

Chris: Let’s say you do make it to Mongolia. What then?

Ben: I don’t know. I have to get home, and I’ll no longer have a car. It’s really weird, I keep buying these one-way plane tickets, which just feels strange. We’ve been thinking we could pick up another car and just keep going east until we run into ocean again and then fly home from there. Obviously, we can just fly home. I’m also a little intrigued by the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would go from Ulan Bator back to Moscow, I believe. It might be by that point we’re real tired of traveling.

Chris: I take it you’ve got all your papers and all the necessary paperwork you need to cross borders and that sort of thing?

Ben: Everything but the Russian visa, yeah. Here’s something that people may not know. You can have more than one US passport. If you are like me, finding yourself at the last minute having to get several visas, and actually as Americans, it’s interesting. For this whole trip, I only need two. I need one for Kazakhstan and one for Russia. Actually, as Americans you need a visa for any -stan, but the way we’re going, we’re only going to go through one -stan.

You have to mail your passport off to a visa service to get these things so I got a second passport. I sent one off to the Russian Embassy and I can use the other one to travel on while I wait or if you were may be a little farther ahead of the game than I am, you could send one off to get your Russian visa and the other off to get your Kazakhstan visa.

These second passports, they cost about the same as a normal passport and they’re only good for two years, but they’re a great way of managing the difficulty of if you’re needing multiple visas, having to send your passport around. They’re also good if you’re going to be traveling to countries that don’t get along with each other. For example, if you’re going to Israel, you can use one passport for that. If you’re going to Egypt, you can use another one for that and no one would have to know where you’d been.

Chris: Let’s say your Russian paperwork doesn’t come through. Is there any way to get to Mongolia without hitting Russia somewhere along the line?

Ben: Absolutely. I could drive right through Iran. You don’t need a visa there. You just tell people you’re backpacking.

Chris: Oh, perfect and you raise your hand and say, “I’m an American and don’t bother looking at all the gear I have in my car.”

Ben: “Oh, these little helmet cameras, they don’t mean anything, yeah.”

Chris: “Just passing through.”

Ben: The other option is you can ferry across the Caspian Sea. I don’t remember what it was. When I looked into that, I think there was complication that … I don’t know. There was some reason I couldn’t do that or it was prone to sinking or something like that. I don’t know. I remember there was some reason I decided that was a bad idea.

Chris: Right. Okay. Well, good. It sounds like you’ve got everything tied up in a nice tidy little package, topped with a bow.

Ben: Tea in a situation like this.

Chris: Yes, I could tell. Is there going to be any way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Are you going to blog this or take pictures? Are you pretty much just doing the adventure?

Ben: I have no idea because to have prepared a blog of some kind would have meant that I had done some preparation. Honestly, I just don’t know. Some of the blog entries I’ve read from people who have done this before say at least in the back half of the trip, you need to be prepared that at the end of the day, you are really tired. You might have grand ideas about, “Yes, at the end of the day, we’ll swap stories around the fire and I will prepare my blog and what not,” but you’ve been lifting a car out of muck all day long, so a lot of people say you’re just so physically exhausted you just make dinner and pass out.

I’m thinking I’ll play that by ear. I’m going to have a lot of time just sitting in a car, so maybe I’ll think about getting that set up as I go. If I do, I’ll let you know and you can put the word out.

Chris: I will and also, I expect, I think we have a very large Mongolian listenership.

Ben: Excellent.

Chris: If there are any vegetarian Mongolians out there listening now, even if you’re part of a horde, because I understand Mongolians travel in hordes but please, if there are any vegetarian among you, let me know and I will pass the word along to Ben. I’m sure that he would love to partake of your sheep head. I hear it tastes like broccoli.

Ben: Okay, well, that makes all the difference.

Chris: Also, is there anything people can do if they want to help contribute to the causes that are being supported by the rally?

Ben: Yes, there is a way that you can donate, and we would really appreciate it. Again, this is going to a very good cause. We’re raising money for two different charities, Cool Earth and Mercy Corps. I have a link here for Mercy Corps, and you can put that in the show notes or something.

Chris: Yeah, absolutely. Been: Great:

Chris: I think with all the preparation you’ve done, the ease of this journey, the kind of equipment you’re bringing and the food and the beneficence of the countries you’ll be visiting, I think this is going to go really, really smoothly. I expect to see you back here in about three weeks and we’ll check in with you then.

Ben: Fantastic. Yeah, I’m thinking I’m taking a drive.

Chris: Yeah. No, you are taking a drive. You’re absolutely taking a drive. Really honestly, best of luck with this. I think this sounds like a really amazing trip. I’m slightly jealous but not so much that I’d actually join you.

Ben: I’ll send you some pictures guaranteed to not make you jealous.

Chris: Perfect, I want to see you knee-deep in the muck moving your car somewhere as passersby on camels look at you and just shake their heads.

Ben: Exactly, yeah, eating sheep’s heads. I’ll get you all the media like that that I can come up with.

Chris: Excellent, thanks very much and thanks for being here, Ben.

Ben: Well, thank you very much, Chris.

Chris: That wraps up this edition of the Macworld podcast. I’d like to bank Smile Software and its PDFpen 6 and PDFpenPro for sponsoring this episode, Ben Long, and of course, you for listening.

If you have any comments or questions, feel free to drop us a line at podcastsatmacworld.com or you can leave us a voicemail at (415) 967-3622.

This is Chris Breen, reminding you that you can find more Apple, Mac OS, iOS and technology news, views, and information at macworld.com. See you around.

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