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Interview with Mongol Rally Team Unexpected Participants

Jim Yu October 9, 2012 Featured, Motorsports 18 Comments

Imagine a cross-continental race in LeMoms cars and you get the Mongol Rally. Read about in more detail here on the wiki site. Recently two different teams have contacted Hooniverse about coverage for next year’s race, including a close friend of mine, so expect to see a lot of Mongol Rally coverage here in the upcoming time. -KK]

Every year, adventure seekers race their beaters from Western Europe to Mongolia in what is known as the Mongol Rally.  This year, Carlos and Alex of Team Unexpected (based in Miami) completed the 10,000 mile drive in a little used Opel.  They were kind enough to sit down and share some of their stories.

“How did you pick your car?  What were the criteria?”

It wasn’t too hard to search for the car, but the deciding part was very complicated. Due to the rules of the rally, our options were extremely limited: the car couldn’t be older than 10 years, the engine couldn’t be bigger than 1.2 liters and we had to purchase it in Europe to evade the costs of exporting and importing an American car. 

We did a very thorough search of used car websites, newspapers and magazines in Spain (since we would begin our trip in Spain because we lived there before, spoke the language and knew the registration and insurance processes there) and we made the decision to take a short one week trip to Barcelona to look at the cars we had already shortlisted from our home in Miami in person. Once the list was made we hopped on a plane and started to move around Barcelona, looking for cars which would meet two requirements besides the rally rules: have a price of less than $2000 USD and be able to withstand three months or 10,000 miles of heavy driving in harsh conditions.

It took us several days and we saw many cars which fit the price range but would not make it all the way to the finish line and the other way around as well, until finally we were lucky enough to find a very nice lady called Afrika, who was getting a divorce and needed to get rid of her car before she’d have to divide it with her husband during the divorce trial. 

Her car was in perfect shape as she only used it to take her kids to school and go to the supermarket. It was a 2001 Opel Corsa with 1.2 liter Ecotech engine, which was great for the fuel consumption. She had a list price of over $3000 USD, but was very willing to negotiate, and as soon as we told her about our cause she gave in and dropped the price to within our price range. 

So both criteria was met, we had a 10 year old car, with a 1.2 liter engine, bought in Spain for less than $2000 USD and it looked like it would be able to hold 10,000 miles of the roughest terrain on the planet.  Plus, it was a German car.

What kinds of modifications did you make to your car?

We had a very limited budget, and we couldn’t spend too much money in tuning up or modifying the car. Yes, the routes we were going to have to go through called for lots of modifications (lifting the car, installing a snorkel, changing the shock absorbers, installing a metal plate to protect the bottom of the engine, installing rally tires, etc.) but we had no way of doing this, so we decided to modify it to the extent our budget allowed us to, which included an oil change, air filter change and installing a used plastic belly protector for the engine which was taken from a completely destroyed 2002 Seat Ibiza. We didn’t change the tires, we didn’t installed new shock absorbers, not even a new battery.

How long (time and distance) was the trip and which countries did you drive through?

The trip was a little over 10,000 miles long.  It took us almost two full months to complete it, driving an average of 6 to 8 hours a day (less time in European countries than in the Asian countries). We drove through 17 countries from beginning to end: Spain, France, England, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Moldova (Transnistria if you count breakaway regions), Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

How did you select your route?

The route was selected based on the countries we wanted to visit and experience. In Europe, we had planned to go through Bulgaria, which we changed on the spot for Croatia instead. In Asia, our original route was supposed to take us through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, as we had the visas processed and everything ready, but due to time constraints with these visas, we were forced to skip these two countries and go straight from Kazakhstan to Mongolia. 

We selected an ideal route, but we knew it was subject to last minute changes every step of the trip.


Did you have any mechanical troubles along the way?  How did you get out of trouble?

Luckily we didn’t have any major mechanical troubles along the way. At one point we were driving through the Gobi dessert in Mongolia, when a very strong sand storm hit us.  It was one of the most incredible things we had ever seen, strong winds were moving the car, we couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of us, we had to turn on the windshield wipers in order to remove the sand that was accumulating on our windshield, the car was almost getting stuck on the hills of sand. 

Suddenly we felt the car started to lose power, it did not pull through as strongly as it did just a few minutes before.  Since none of us were mechanical experts, we didn’t know what it could be, but through an on-the-spot elimination process we derived it had to be the air filter which was too dirty, hence not enough air was reaching the engine. We were smart enough to buy an extra air filter in Ukraine (where we did the last oil change), and we had to go out in the middle of the sand storm and change the air filter. 

After we turned the car back on we realized we were right, it was the air filter.  We kept going and got through the sand storm well and were able to keep on going.

Any corrupt traffic cops?  If so, where and what did they do?

We love this question.  We could write a 5000 page book on this question. Since we had temporary license plates (which are green and not white like all the license plates in Europe), we were an easy target for cops.  They just pulled us over to see why we had green license plates and a car filled with stickers. We found corrupt cops everywhere.  They all have one thing in common though, they want American money. Here are the highlights (of corrupt and honest cops), in chronological order:

We were rightly pulled over in France, on our way to Normandy to pay our respects to the fallen heroes of World War II. We passes on a no passing zone in a countryside one lane road.  Two police officers came out of nowhere and wrote us a ticket for 90 Euros (roughly $140 USD), which strangely enough you pay right at the moment the citation is given.  We paid, took a picture and went on our way.

In Germany, we got pulled over coming out of a gas station.  A cop car was right behind us filling up and as we started our engine they turned on the siren. They asked to search our car, and did an extremely good job.  They found our money (we were in Germany, never in our lives thought cops would be corrupt so we didn’t hide the money) together with an automatic Swiss army knife and two small pepper sprays which we packed for protection against animals while sleeping in our tent in the desert. They then proceeded to call one of us to the car and informed us that we had to pay $300 USD each for these items were illegal in Germany (they said $300 USD as they had recently seen we had American money and not Euros).  We said no way, and after a short discussion they lowered the fine to $100 USD each, we paid and were provided a very fake ticket together with a white piece of paper with a letter written in in German.  Right then, we knew we just paid crooked cops in one of the most developed, organized and supposedly not corrupt nations in the world.

After Germany we were shocked in Moldova (please read our blog post on Moldova; its has lots of corrupt police stories, crazy ones). In Ukraine we got pulled over 3 times but the cops were very young and just wanted to know where we were from and that we had all our papers in order as they did in Russia, where we got pulled over 4 or 5 times.

Then was Kazakhstan, the best country we visited, where the cops were extremely unprofessional, insanely corrupt, but way too nice. They ask for money but when you tell them you have none they tell you jokes and ask you where you’re from.  One time they gave us a souvenir ($1 worth of their local currency) as we said we had no money and they told us we should have Kazakh money, and gave us some. We also found out that Kazakhstan’s police and border guards absolutely love Skittles, more than love, they go crazy for them. We had a huge Halloween bag with Skittles as we were told it is always nice to have some candy to give to the kids when you arrive in small towns. It turned out that it was out best bargaining tool, as every single police officer we encountered (which were a lot, we got pulled more than 7 times) in Kazakhstan, every time we said “Do you want Skittles?” would smile, laugh and act like an 8 year old child, showing them off to their fellow workers after we gave some to them and giving us a hug showing their appreciation for giving them Skittles. This only worked with Skittles, as we also offered Starburst, Snickers and various other American candies and did not have the same reaction. 

Surprisingly enough, the police officers in Kazakhstan are very well educated and most of the time pulled us over to ask us where we were from, gave us tips about visiting their country, told us what they know about our country and politely asked for money. They knew about cities in the States, our president, past presidents, as well as about Colombia and Venezuela (our home countries) which was surprising and very positive, after encountering police officers who were aggressive and abusive in other countries.

Was it difficult to get visas and to go through customs at the borders with the car?

The visas were very easy to get.  As an American tourist, it is made very easy.  We don’t need visas in Europe and the visas for the Asian countries are cheap and fast to get with their respective embassies in Washington DC.

Going through borders was a completely different story. We had a car filled with stickers, we had lots of baggage and were three young men, with no cash, going from Spain to Mongolia (very suspicious), so we encountered lots of problems going through the borders, especially because we weren’t going through very transited borders.  We were going through the most hidden borders between non-tourist-friendly countries.

They searched the car over and over, made us wait for hours (especially Russia, where we waited for 5 hours the first time we entered, 9 hours the second time we entered and 20 hours the last time we exited). In the Russia borders you are given a set of paperwork to fill, and it is all in Russian.  After you fill it out incorrectly about 6 times and spend a couple of hours doing so, they finally give you the papers in English. You have to enter and exit many rooms, talk to lots of border guards and fall victim to their teasing, as they make you wait for no reason, treat you like a criminal at some points and are extremely suspicious of American citizens. Oh, and no one seems to speak English at the Russian borders except the high ranked officials, whom you have to wait several hours in order to speak to them. At the end when they figure out we had nothing illegal and had our paperwork in order, they asked us (in English) to tell them stories and show them pictures of the States, of our trip of our lives, our families and friends.

What is your fondest memory from the trip?

Kazakhstan and Mongolia, no doubt. We got to see developing countries first hand, countries where the people are good people, sociable and curious to learn about the world, eager to welcome you into their homes (literally) and teach you about them and their culture as much as they are eager to learn about you and your country. These two countries are pure, good and trying hard to develop, to grow and they are succeeding at it.

We were amazed by the nobleness and the kindness of the people from Kazakhstan and Mongolia, their willingness to help total strangers, to share. They had an innocence which we have never experienced before, a sort of innate well being, humbleness which is contagious.

It was the best surprise, our fondest memory, in the most unexpected places. It was all brought together to form when our car broke down, drowned in a river and we were driven for 4 days by a Mongolian truck driver, who shared the little food he had with us, allowed us to sleep inside his truck cabin and finally when we were 60 miles away from reaching our final destination and his truck got stuck in the mud, his delivery was going to be late and he might lose money on his load, he decided to call his brother and ask him to drive for 4 hours in the night, to pick up three strangers he met 4 days ago and take us to our final destination because he promised us he would take us there. 

That’s our fondest memory, meeting the best people we’ve met in our lives in the most unexpected places in the world.”

Images source: Team Unexpected. Check out their tumblr page and their Facebook page for more stories and pictures.

Hat tip to F1Outsider for putting me in touch with Team Unexpected.

  • So. Much. Win.

    What a dream trip. I don't know if I could even handle a trip that long, but I would love to try. I am jealous, a lot.

  • Van_Sarockin

    Cool story!. I'm going to lay in a supply of Skittles now for my next police stop.

  • Scandinavian Flick

    What an amazing experience! That's about as close as you can get to true adventuring in modern times without serious risk. Great read.

  • That statue is incredible.

  • wisc47

    There's an event called LeMoms? Mother will be most thrilled…

    Anyways, fantastic story, I could think of nothing I would love to do more than travel across Eurasia in an old(ish) eurobox!

  • Bren

    'Right then, we knew we just paid crooked cops in one of the most developed, organized and supposedly not corrupt nations in the world.'

    More likely you will get a reciept from the County which will be posted to the address on the licence you gave them – or not !

    • Carlos Unexpected

      We are still waiting for the receipt from the German authorities. We haven't lost all of our hope, but everyday that goes by we are more convinced that the money we paid has been consumed in beer!

  • Brian Driggs

    What needthatcar said. So. Much. Win.

    I think I'm a bit too chickenshit for something like this, but I'd sure like to give the Shitbox Rally down in Australia a try one day. Maybe 2014? We'll see. Already missing the British and German friends I hung out with this past June.


    • Tell me more about this race. Need an American teammate?

      • Brian Driggs


        I'm at an Outback Steakhouse right now (lol), but Google "Shitbox Rally." It's pretty similar, but without crossing all the scary stuff from "Long Way Round" (which you should also Google, IMO).

        Don't even know if I'm going down under in 2014 or back to the UK for Rally Day or Germany for ElbeTreffen.

        The world is full of Gearheads. We should grt together more often.

      • duurtlang_

        If you guys need a European connection for buying a LHD car or something else… just let me know. I'd guess you remember me from J.
        Due to my old Golf, a €500 AWD Legacy wagon for a similar but shorter rally and my DD Peugeot 406 coupe I don't really have parking spaces left. But I could be an interpreter of some sorts.

        • Representing the Netherlands! Welcome to Hooniverse.

  • Jay

    Bestest story I've read all month. I've always wanted to do an expedition trip along that route, and I've read about the Mongol Rally before, but I don't think I have the tenacity to do it in a 1.2 liter hatch across that kind of territory. By comparison, Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's Long Way Round almost seems like a pleasure cruise.

    By the way, Max Levell and a companion did a solo car trip from London to Saigon within the last couple years in a 1966 Porsche 912, to benefit the Mines Advisory Group. So if a 1966 912 can do it, a ton of relatively recent small hatches will too. But I'm still not sure which of those cars would be easiest to fix in the middle of nowhere.

    Absolutely amazed about the German cops, but what was said about border crossings in some countries is absolutely true. By the way, I wonder what I could get for a suitcase full of Skittles in Astana. A brand new Toyota Landcruiser perhaps?

    • I would love to do this too. We just need 3 months off.

      • Jay

        And that's probably the single most difficult thing to arrange, ridiculously enough. ::sigh::

  • Slow_Joe_Crow

    The Mongol Rally is a fun event if you can spare the time. My neighbor's son did it in 2005 in a Fiat Panda with team Roshambo. Their mods included 2 spare tires on the roof and they spent a lot of time fixing their broken car.

  • m4ff3w

    As my son gets older, this is something I most want to do with him.