The ultimate road trip

by Will Houtz ’95

Mongol Rally

After a night of driving around the desert near Beyneu, Kazakhstan, Thomas Schultz '10 and I arrived back in the town to ask for directions. That was when we realized that our fuel line was busted. We were stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I didn't think it could get much more adventurous than that. I was wrong.

Tommy and I were in the middle of The Mongol Rally, a driving adventure beginning in England and ending nearly 11,000 miles and 14 countries later in Mongolia.

After months of planning and prepping our 1993 Toyota pick-up truck, we shipped it from Norfolk to Liverpool. On July 14, Tommy and I (and 877 others) departed from Goodwood Motor Circuit in the south of England. We immediately got lost. Soon, though, we made it to Dover to cross the English Channel. Melodrama aside, crossing the Channel reminded me of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon; there was no turning back now.

Europe was the (relatively) easy part. The roads were great. We didn't speak the languages, but they were familiar. We didn't even have a real border crossing until we reached Ukraine. That's when the trip got real. The four-hour wait foreshadowed the bureaucratic nightmares that would come many times more. That was also the first time we really had to learn the valuable skill of communicating with gestures. Tommy kept saying that this trip was the "greatest game of charades ever played."

Despite our exhaustive preparations, we encountered many mechanical problems, too. There was the busted fuel line in Kazakhstan (which Tommy fixed with a piece of copper toilet pipe), wheezing over the beautiful 13,000-foot high Karakol Pass, and a dangerous leaking brake line. Though each of these events nearly ended our trip for good, they also provided opportunities to meet locals and to experience their hospitality first-hand.

Along the way we met many other teams in the Rally. We would travel together sometimes for more than a week, sometimes for only a day or two. With a group of Italian ralliers, we drove to Muynac, Uzbekistan, where we saw six gigantic ships stranded in the desert that was once part of the Aral Sea.

We saw amazing ancient cities, such as Khiva and Samarqand, which I would venture to claim is the eastern equivalent of ancient Rome.

When we weren't getting stuck or helping someone else get unstuck, we were being pulled over by corrupt, curious, or sometimes just bored police officers. Some nights we slept in hotels; other nights we were in someone's home or camping just off the side of the road. One night while camping we were awakened by two bulls: one stomping on our tent, the other trying to mount our truck.

In western Mongolia, we and a small group of teams from the Rally spent the night with a man and his family. At first I was skeptical and I became more so as we drove through a ghetto to get to his house. However, his walled compound disguised a beautifully decorated home inside. The family fed us and invited us to watch the Olympics with them in the main house. They even had a 47-inch plasma television.

Finally, we rolled into Ulaan Baatar on August 17 and celebrated our victory over the deplorable roads and pathways of Central Asia.

Yes, we were looking for a grand adventure, but we were also raising money and awareness for charities. The Mongol Rally itself supports Locus Children's Centre in Mongolia, and we raised money for Rett Syndrome research.

We are very thankful for the support we got from our sponsors, particularly Ted Wright '89, owner and president of Fizz Corp., a marketing company in Atlanta. I'm not sure we could have pulled off the Rally without him. His support, both financial and moral, came at a time when we were suffocating under complex logistics. His enthusiasm for our trip really fired us up.

The Rally was the most amazing thing I have ever done and I want to do it again. To have done that and seen all of those places made the world seem really big and yet so small at the same time.

If I take anything away from the Mongol Rally, it is that one should learn to appreciate living in the moment (because you have no idea what's  around the bend), appreciate what you have (because most people have a lot less), and to realize that the world at large-especially the Central Asian region-is not as it is represented in our media. It's a place populated by genuine people just trying to make their way through a much rougher set of circumstances than we experience on our worst days. Also, it got me hooked on adventures, and I'm already planning the next one. Mototaxi Junket, anyone?