When driving an oil-seeping Subaru across Kazakhstan, where fractured roads contain cattle-size potholes and snakes slither across the sun-scorched desert, there’s a high probability of things going irrevocably wrong.
“Not again,” I mumbled as our subcompact Justy smacked a toddler-size rock, causing me to crack my head against the roof and the car's bottom to scrape and clang. I peered out the dusty rear window. In the increasing distance lay a long, forlorn pipe. So long, exhaust system.
The driver, Andrew, braked and we exited our two-door hatchback — for weeks, a clown-car home to four increasingly surly men. We’d spent days cooped in this automotive cage, then nights cooped in a tiny tent, our patience shredded by proximity and exhaustion.
Andrew ran down the road to save the severed pipe from an oncoming semi, and lashed it to the undercarriage with scavenged metal wire. Exhaust fumes leeched into the car, causing lightheadedness and nausea. It was a problem we swore we’d address after getting a good night’s sleep, which was proving as impossible as driving a car to Mongolia.
I spent my youth crisscrossing North America, road-tripping to Alaska, California, Louisiana and Mexico, saving bucks by camping. But after a decade spent sleeping in tents, my back was out of whack.
Then, for better or worse, I stumbled across the Mongol Rally. Every summer, adventure-seekers drive from London to Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, in dubiously road-worthy vehicles. The 10,000-mile trek promised vertiginous mountain ranges, crooked police, incorrigible border-control agents, food poisoning, sandstorms, flat tires and automotive failure, all in the name of adventure.
It was time to dust off the tent.
I corralled a trio of teammates: graphic designer Andrew; software developer Mims; and photographer John. We began to arduous process of securing visas, immunizations and the aforementioned 1994 Justy, bought for about $600. No wonder: the engine and radiator both leaked vital fluids.
The tape player, however, worked. The Pixies soundtracked our departure, and that first night we bunked in pastoral Belgian field, awaking to quacking ducks.
“Well isn’t this lovely,” I thought, stretching in the dew-wetted field. We drank coffee in a cozy café and drove to Prague, where a lack of forethought meant sleeping in a parking garage. “Try not to get your sleeping bag in the oil,” Andrew said, pointing to the puddle spreading beneath the rusty Justy.
Accommodations did not improve in Latvia, where we set up camp after dark and, come morning, discovered we’d slumbered alongside used condoms. Across the Russian border, in a soft, grassy field, I discovered a horror worse than border agents: Mims’ chainsaw snoring and Jon’s sleep screaming.
“My girlfriend never complained,” he said of his night terrors.
“We’re not your girlfriend,” I replied.
Onward to Kazakhstan, where swirling dust storms rendered inoperable our tape player and made camping a unique challenge — namely, tying a bandana across your mouth to prevent yourself from inhaling nocturnal dirt. In Uzbekistan, we made friends with a restaurant owner who fed us thin-sliced horsemeat and let us sleep in private dining room, using tablecloths as sheets. In grassy, bucolic Kyrgyzstan, we camped on a mountaintop, our lullaby the sound of trucks straining to reach the summit. Next, we zigged back into Kazakhstan and zagged to Siberia, where a squall blasted our tent with rain and hypothermic air.
On day 28, we crossed the Mongolian border, encountering the roads that were washboards pockmarked with potholes. We were just 1,200 miles from the country’s capital, but deplorable conditions kept us from driving more than 100 miles daily. My sanity, like our car, was not long for this world. Days were bumpy drudgery. Nights in tents, sleeping on prickly, omnipresent plants, were deadened by our dwindling supply of Russian vodka.
The Subaru’s suspension soon gave out, the radiator rattled free from its plastic moorings. We limped along for five days until we blew our last tire. After a restless night of snoring, worrying and night terrors, we filled our deflated tire with instant flat fix, good for about 50 miles of driving. That, as luck had it, was the distance to Altay.
Our team sped to town, fast and reckless, fueled by adrenaline and vodka fumes. We found truck drivers willing to ferry the Subaru on top of slippery, freshly slaughtered goatskins. While the car rode atop carnage, we shoehorned into a passenger van and, cheek-to-jowl with cheerful Mongolians, ears filled with pop music, bumped 41 sleepless hours to Ulan Bator.
Upon arrival, we beelined to the finish-line bar — located near a large Genghis Khan statue — and downed several beers in quick succession. The more I drank, the merrier and sleepier I felt. Over five weeks we’d traveled nearly halfway around the world, visiting a baker’s dozen of countries. Travel had me tuckered out. I finished my final round and stumbled to a nearby hotel, which will forever remain nameless in my memory.
I dropped my bags, fell into the bed and pulled a clean white sheet over my adventure, and immediately began dreaming of the next one.