Mongol Rally on a Shoestring
May 29, 2019
Jenny Hunter was on the first Mongol Rally in 2004. Since then she has done it twice more in ever decreasing circles of tight-waddery. That makes her the perfect person to give advice on doing the Mongol Rally on the cheap.
We in the world of adventuring know that one of the biggest obstacles to fighting off the tentacles of monotony is the cost. Indeed, if you find yourself setting out much beyond your front hedge it’s likely to cost you some of your hard earned pennies.
So, you may be thinking, if stepping only slightly beyond the topiaried delights of my front garden costs me, how on this lumpy earth would I go about driving all the way to Mongolia?
If you’ve already tried selling your kidneys to stump up the money, it’s probably time to think about how you can do this behemoth of an outing without spending too much of your gold bullion.
Being experts in setting off to Mongolia with nothing but a packet of the cheapest oat bars we could find and some raisins, we’ve put some pointers together to help you out…
Jen (far right) in Almaty in 2004
The first time I did the Mongol Rally, I, like the 11 other pioneers of this new ridiculousness, had no concept of what it was likely to cost me to drive 10,000 miles to Mongolia. What I did know, is that I owned considerably more student debt than I did pounds sterling in my splendidly sad looking bank account.
I had spent most of the money I had earned washing up in a military kitchen by day and waitressing by night, on a 5 month stint in Russia, to study in St Petersburg State University. The Rally was due to set off, for the first time ever, in mid-July of 2004. Upon returning from Russia in mid-June, I had no team mate, no car, no charity fundraising and not a lot of money left.
Being the un-sensible type I am, loath to be bound by the restraints of preparatory and monetary scarcity, I decided to go anyway. Now I just had to make sure I did it on as little money as possible. After many hours supping on tea, I managed to come up with no ideas at all. But then what would be the adventure if it was all going to be easy? The Rally might take place on the road, but the work starts long before you first burst a shock absorber on a giant pothole in the pitch blackness of the Kazakh desert at midnight…
How then, did I go about this feat of monetary engineering? Well for any of you out there desperate to escape the mundanity of things like washing up and waitressing and wondering how you might do so without bankrupting yourself, have a read on. Some of this might help.
Keeping your expectations in check
Jen’s Fiesta on the edge of a canyon (2004)
The Rally is without a doubt one of the greatest escapades on earth. Anyone can jump in a car and drive somewhere, but to take up the gauntlet of doing that across 10,000 of the earth’s most difficult miles, in a car suitable predominantly for shopping at the supermarket, and alongside a host of like-minded ralliers is something altogether better.
If you’re as strapped for cash as I was, then keeping true to the spirit of Mongol Rally adventuring is key.
This adventure is about you and the people you meet on the road, the wit you have to employ when you find yourself in a pickle and the strange places you have to park up and sleep in because you’ve run out of roubles. Keep this in mind, and it doesn’t need to cost you much.
If you lose sight of the point, book into 4 star hotels, turn your car into an amphibian (in case you hit some deep puddles) and insist on avoiding the local food in case you catch dysentery, then it’s likely to cost you slightly more…
Find a team mate or three…
The first time I did the Rally, I had 1 team mate. The third time I did it, an unfortunate meeting between another team’s car and a wall meant I ended up with 3.
Team mates are useful companions on the road – for shouting at upon discovering your 17th puncture in 2 days for example, or for patting you on the back when you manage, despite your overtly visible nerves, to convince a border guard that the talcum powder in your bag is just that. But they’re also useful for sharing costs.
Obvious as it may be, and as tempting as it is to go it alone, actually having 2 or 3 mates along can work well for costs and general Rally camaraderie.
Share everything…even the chicken-skin gruel you have had to stoop to eating because it’s the cheapest thing you could find on the roadside hut non-menu.
Choose your steed with care
Ford Fiesta – More reliable than a Fiat 126
The rules of the Rally are fairly simple when it comes to the vehicles. Cars have to be tiny, and they have to be shit. So you’re aiming for the sort of car that your conventional grandmother might choose to pootle around the quaint streets of her retirement choice seaside town in.
Failing that, doing it on 2 wheels is a good option mostly because it’s phenomenally difficult to do. Honda C-90s are nice and cheap and you can’t pack very much, which means you can’t spend very much on “things” that everyone you speak to advises you to take. Like spare pants.
Either way, your vehicle is probably going to be the most expensive essential item for the Rally. So to keep costs down, you should take the time to research your steed purchasing properly. I personally opted for ebay and found a shining example of a Ford Fiesta for a reasonable price between two of us.
My choice in terms of spare parts was rather badly thought out. I was lucky enough to experience only one breakdown the first time I drove to Mongolia, but on my third outing, this time with a Fiat Panda, we broke down several times with a variety of engine failure predicaments. Both Ford Fiestas and Fiat Pandas are splendid vehicles, and I most enjoyed getting them to Ulaanbaatar, but the parts can be hard to come by and more expensive than alternatives. It’s worth thinking about the car markets in Central Asia and Mongolia before you buy your car, as this can really help in keeping costs down once your on the road and you need spare parts.
Get to know your engine
You can find yourself outpocketed by unscrupulous mechanics if you don’t know anything at all about your vehicle’s engine.
Imagine the scene…having forgotten to check your engine water levels for the last 3500 miles, and merrily juddering along an unpaved desert road at least 300 kilometres from the nearest civilisation, your engine stops. Something simple surely, you think to yourself and upon opening the bonnet ah ha! No water. Silly silly me. I shall use a little of my only drinking water (the water I brought with me to keep me and my dear team mates alive in the desert) to re-fill it, and all will be fine. Not so – the head gasket had split and all sorts of terrible engine associated consequences ensued. The only reason we were able to keep the costs of fixing it to minimum was because we knew what was needed from a mechanic and could, to a small degree at least, oversee the repair.
In situations that call for less of an engine overhaul, knowing your engine can mean you can fix bits of it yourself. You may need to source parts, if you haven’t wangled any before you hit the road, but you can fit them yourself, which saves a significant number of funny looking notes.
A rare road sign on the road to Tsetserleg
The more countries you traverse, the more money it’s going to cost you. That’s not really because of the time it will take, but more because of the number of travel visas you are likely to need.
There’s not much choice about getting travel visas for a lot of the countries in between the UK and Mongolia. Whatever your nationality, you’re going to need visas for somewhere.
Visas can be costly and the more you need, the more costly they become. For this reason, I kept to routes that didn’t involve expensive countries to get into, like Iran. The most visas I have ever applied for to do the Rally is 5. Before that, 3. And once, only 2 – for Russia and Mongolia alone. Generally, the more northerly your route, the less it will cost you in visas.
In any case, too many people overlook the adventure that can be had without turning south. Squeezing in as many countries as you can, is one way of doing things, but spending time in fewer countries and getting into as many pickles as possible as you do, can be equally as rewarding.
Think about what you really need to take
As I looked back at my front hedgerow in the rear view mirror, I realised that I hadn’t actually packed very much at all in the context of needing to get to Mongolia. What I did have, was some spare clothes (including flip flops), 6 breakfast bars, some nuts, a pillow, and a box of spare parts that I had very little idea how to use, but that were free.
This was considerably more than another team, who had a piece of copper pipe, the cities on the way to Mongolia written in biro up one of the team’s left arm and some dinner suits.
All of us made it to the dusty streets of Ulaan Baatar in perfect health, if a little scruffy.
So if you find yourself in your local outdoor shop, overwhelmed by the number and expense of all the various products to keep your socks clean, return to your list of things to take and cross off about 80% of it. You’re going to get pretty smelly and probably quite stuck whatever you do – and your wits don’t cost you anything.
Avoid hotels and eat local food
My lack of funds gave me no choice in this matter. I had to sleep in my car or in a leaky tent I had found in the attic, and I also had to eat the cheap local fare that everybody else was eating offal or not. No Waitrose ready dinners-for-two for me.
Actually, I think the Mongol Rally can only be experienced in it’s full marvellousness if you and your team are stuffed together like 5 day old sardines in your 4-wheeled tin for as much time as possible. It does get fraught I will admit, when, in desperation for just a short moment of horizontal-ness, and thinking he/she is asleep, you utilise your team mate as one half of a bed, or indeed, when the mutton stew recently consumed by one of your team causes them windy-ness. But all this is much more in the spirit of the Mongol Rally, and it costs you a darnsight less than the clean, crisp sheets of a hotel every night.
Set a budget, and however small it is (it may need to be bigger than £5 by the way), stick to it
There is always a way. If you’re even thinking you might like to undertake this most epic of adventures across planet earth, then you’ve made the first step. After that, it’s about being sneaky in order to go about doing it. If you set your budget early and give yourself time to sneak about getting things for free, or for cheaper than usual at least, and set about crossing the things you don’t really need from your “Need for Future Potential Expeditions” list, you’ll be able to do the Rally without it costing you a fortune.
Unpredicatable things on the road, which might crop up and slap you in the wallet and how to duck them
Beware of the Kahck
Hopefully, a whole of host of unpredictable things will happen to you en route to the finish line. The more the better of course, but there are ways of mitigating the risk that they’ll cost you more than you actually have in your meagre looking savings account.
Engine explosions and vehicular nonsense of other kinds: look after your car – checking the water levels in 50 degree heat is probably obvious to most people, but I forgot, and the troubles we had from there on in were related. Had I checked it earlier, I wouldn’t have had to spend a plastic bag full of Uzbek money units on fixing the engine.
Be nice and patient with everyone you meet on the way: you’re going to need the help of various people – mechanics, border guards, police officers, customs officials, waitresses, shopkeepers, possibly the odd moustache wielding mischief maker. The nicer you are to all of them, the less you’re likely to pay in repair costs, bribes and mischief.