We were stopped on a two-lane road, crowded by cornfields on either side; beyond the cone of our headlamps there was only the deepest blue of a night barely speckled by stars. I’d just awoken from a nap, not long after crossing the border into Ukraine

'Why are we stopped?' I asked Hilton. He and Brent were sitting up front, both of them leaning forward, squinting at the dark. 

'The guy was waving at us. There was a guy. I don’t know where he went.'

This sounded familiar. Someone had told us to never pull over for anyone trying to wave us down around here. 

'We should go!' Before I’d finished that sentence, I glanced behind our car and caught the shape of someone running towards us—his hand reaching for the handle of my door. 'Go go GO!' 

Hilton hit the gas and we sped off with a lurch. The car buzzed with the whining of an engine that would rather not accelerate and the collective racing of our hearts. Expletives filled the air. 

Two men and a woman in matching white Mongol Rally t-shirts and black wayfarer sunglasses stand in front of a blue European minivan covered in stickers at the starting line of the race
Contestants stand by their vehicle at the start of the Mongol Rally, a race that began in 2004 with just six participating teams © Britany Robinson / Lonely Planet

That was one of many times over 31 days when I had no idea what we were doing or why, or what someone was trying to tell us or do to us, or where we were, or why—or why in the hell we were trying to drive 10,000 miles over complicated terrain in a car meant for, at best, puttering around the suburbs. The only answer to any of it? The Mongol Rally and all of its delightful, occasionally dangerous, absurdity. 

That night would continue for many hours. We got lost. We nearly ran out of gas and had to circle back to the scene of the almost-ambush. We drove all night to reach Odessa on the Black Sea, a beautiful place, I’m sure, but I slept for most of the day in a stuffy motel room before a brief, bleary-eyed walk on the beach. 

Almost seven years ago, two friends and I crossed the finish line of the Mongol Rally in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia after thirty-one days on the road. Today, you can sign up to do the same in July of 2020. 

A blue European car is parked next to a white hatchback with a rear window wrap with a map printed on it. Between the cars stand two Mongol Rally participants studying a map. The landscape all around is a bare desert.
The Mongol Rally is an unsupported endeavor, meaning participants have to find their own way out of scrapes like getting lost, vehicle breakdowns, and even the occasional event of petty crime © Britany Robinson / Lonely Planet

What is the Mongol Rally?

The concept of the Mongol Rally is simple – until it’s anything but. You find a team of people who are crazy enough to drive the length of Europe and much of Asia. You pile into a little car (the almost non-existent rules stipulate 1 liter engines or less), and then you do your best to drive from a secret location just west of Prague to the Siberian town of Ulan-Ude, 400 miles north of Ulaanbaatar—and hope that both your sanity and your car can make it that far. (The start and finish lines have changed since I participated.) 

The Adventurists (the people crazy enough to come up with something like this) throw epic parties at the start line and the finish, and provide some organizational assistance before you take off. Beyond that, don’t count on them to support you – you’re on your own out there when everything goes wrong. And, in all likelihood, most things will probably go wrong. 

So what do you get out of all this madness and suffering? Well for one, bragging rights and memories that will stick with you like dead bugs on a license plate that’s been driving through a desolate desert for weeks. But you’ll also raise money for a very cool non-profit organization called Cool Earth.

Mongol Rally participants pose with a thin metal sculpture of a camel train, standing behind and beside it to look like they're riding the camels.
There are multiple routes participants can take from the Mongol Rally kickoff party to the finish line in Ulan-Ude, ranging from the Middle Eastern desert to the Arctic Circle © Britany Robinson / Lonely Planet

Driving junkers to fight the climate crisis

Cool Earth works alongside indigenous tribes to protect rainforests from deforestation – an urgent move in this time of climate crisis. Working in Peru, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Cambodia, and Papua New Guinea, Cool Earth seeks to empower local communities with sustainable livelihoods connected to the forests they rely on. By helping support the communities surrounding rainforests, Cool Earth protects the ecosystems that our world so desperately needs to remain in tact. 

It is unlikely that you will pass through any rainforests on this meandering journey of mayhem. But there is no set route – so it’s not impossible. Regardless, the Mongol Rally is an unusual opportunity to see a great big swath of the world pass by; to breathe the air of places you might never think to visit; to break down in places you might never want to visit again; to meet people and make connections across all of the crazy experiences you will have along the way. It will be hard. But it will probably make you love and appreciate the great big world we live on just a little more. And helping to protect it by fundraising for Cool Earth is part of the fun. 

It’s £695 to sign up now for the 2020 event, which kicks off on July 19. Each team must raise 1,000 for charity, at least 500 of that going to Cool Earth and the remainder towards a charity of your choice. 

To this day, it’s one of the best and worst things I’ve ever done. And I can’t imagine what you’re waiting for. Go, go, GO.

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Settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit (pop. 551) at the entrance to Scoresbysund in eastern Greenland.; Shutterstock ID 1579376257; full: 65050; gl: Lonely Planet Online Editorial; netsuite: Coldest vacation places on Earth; your: Brian Healy

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