Exposure

The Mongol Rally Is a Guaranteed (But Super-Fun) Disaster

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Photo: Drew Gurian
How about this for a vacation idea? Fly to Europe, buy a beat-up clunker, then try to make it from England to Mongolia in one piece. There’s no official route and no official rulebook. Photographer Drew Gurian and his brother, Scott, did just that this summer as participants in the Adventurists’ Mongol Rally. They bought 990ML 60-horsepower Nissan Micras, and after 53 days, 18 countries, a couple broken axles, and an emergency extraction, they crossed the finish line. We talked to to the New York City–based photographer about some of his most memorable times on the road.

Photo: Every day brought a different hole that we needed to be pulled out of. Here, our friends and adventure mates Rosi Moore-Fiander and Jane Box help us out of a crossing that proved too deep.
Photo: Drew Gurian
The night before the race, the Adventurists hosted a send-off party near the starting line at the Goodwood Racecourse, a few hours south of London.
Photo: Drew Gurian
The next morning, the field, which included roughly 300 vehicles and 1,000 participants, gathered on the racetrack for a full lap before departing for Mongolia.
Photo: Drew Gurian
The Transfăgărășan Highway in Romania was an early highlight. This stretch was named the best road in the world by the TV show Top Gear.
Photo: Drew Gurian
We had to carry jerrycans on our roofs because we were often in incredibly remote areas with no gas stations for miles, and some countries we traveled through had really poor-quality gas. It was sometimes leaded, which could have burned out our catalytic convertor.
Photo: Drew Gurian
One of the walls surrounding the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran.
Photo: Drew Gurian
The “Door to Hell” in Turkmenistan. This is a former Soviet natural gas field that collapsed in 1971. Geologists lit in on fire, apparently thinking it would burn out in a few days, but it’s been burning ever since. It was one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever encountered.
Photo: Drew Gurian
The craterlike hole is about 200 feet across. Its massive scale and desert remoteness add to its surreal quality.
Photo: Drew Gurian
On the way out of Turkmenistan, we managed to not only blow our head gasket but also bust a hole in our radiator. Luckily, we found some amazing locals to help us out with the radiator. But we had no time to get the head gasket fixed since our visas were expiring, so we got a tow across the border into Uzbekistan.
Photo: Drew Gurian
You don’t miss much driving, and looking out the window was a constant draw. Here, a woman in a traditional Turkem dress.
Photo: Drew Gurian
We spent the next eight or nine days in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, waiting on a new head gasket to arrive from the nearest Nissan parts warehouse, which was in Dubai.
Photo: Drew Gurian
This local helped us with directions from Uzbekistan to the Tajik border.
Photo: Drew Gurian
Our first day on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, known as one of the most dangerous roads in the world due to unpaved mountain passes, high altitude, and earthquake-prone surroundings. What would be a challenge even for some 4x4 trucks took a toll on our tiny cars.
Photo: Drew Gurian
After driving well past sundown on our first day on the Pamir Highway—something we promised ourselves we wouldn’t do to minimize risk—we stumbled across a truck stop where we were fed and put up for the night.
Photo: Drew Gurian
For the first four or five days on the Pamir Highway, we remained some 150 feet from the Afghan border. The highway is the only continuous route through the Pamir Mountains and the surrounding region, which spans across Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. The route has been used for thousands of years.
Photo: Drew Gurian
As best as we tried to plan out our drive each day, we often grossly overestimated the distance we could cover due to the awful road conditions we encountered. This particular day found us camping at well above 14,000 feet, which we were completely unprepared for: most of us suffered from altitude sickness despite dosing up on medication beforehand.
Photo: Drew Gurian
Tajikistan presented some of the most epic landscapes I ever could have imagined. Out of the 18 countries we traveled through, this would be my top destination to revisit.
Photo: Drew Gurian
Our trusty 990ML, 60-horsepower Nissan Micras.
Photo: Drew Gurian
Surprisingly, the Micra is the most popular choice of Mongol Rally participants, and it apparently has the highest success rate of any vehicle. The cars and parts are readily available, and, in the end, the car is pretty steady.
Photo: Drew Gurian
Toward the end of the trip, we got stranded in a riverbed in the absolute middle-of-nowhere Mongolia. We had to get an emergency extraction from the National Emergency Management Agency, a Mongolian organization the amazing folks at the U.S. Embassy in Ulan Bator recommended to us.
Photo: Drew Gurian
While waiting for search and rescue to arrive, we found what appeared to be an abandoned house, where we set up our camping gear and cooked some food. To our surprise, this man rode up the hill to find a bunch of foreigners squatting in what turned out to be his home. Despite the language barrier, we shared some soup and tea before he headed back into the mountains.
Photo: Drew Gurian
Resources in Mongolia are sparse, and tow trucks are almost nonexistent. When you need a tow (during our extraction, we blew a tire and snapped our rear axle), a flatbed truck arrives and you have to find a hill or berm to load the car onto the truck.
Photo: Drew Gurian
A classic Mongolian ger, or yurt. They’re small compared to Western homes—roughly 20 feet in diameter—and often have solar panels and satellite dishes to provide electricity and television.
Photo: Drew Gurian
Fifty-three days, 11,000 miles, and 18 countries later, we somehow managed to make it all the way to the finish line in Ulan Ude, Russia, a day’s drive north of Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Pretty sure we got around 175th place.

Gurian and his brother produced a podcast of their adventures called “Far from Home,” which you can find here or on iTunes.
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