Extreme summer travel: The Mongol Rally

Macworld Podcast episode 363

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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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