Extreme summer travel: The Mongol Rally

Macworld Podcast episode 363

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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.

Listen to episode 363

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.

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