Need a break from the Greek debt crisis? European summits not keeping your heart rate up? Join the starting grid of the Mongolia Charity Rally 2012, urges charity trustee David Griffiths
This summer, the Mongolia Charity Rally, an epic 15,000 km charity road trip from London to the ancient Mongol capital of Ulaanbaatar, will be winding its way through Belgium on the way to Mongolia via a host of countries including Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. The annual charity event, run by international aid charity Go Help, encourages its charity ralliers to take part in the event using ambulances, motorbikes, and commercial vehicles that are donated on arrival to Go Help, for use in its ambulance project or to support the many worthwhile projects pioneered by this innovative charity.
Last year, Go Help linked up with the London Ambulance Service to take possession of seven ambulances that were slated for decommissioning in the UK. Following a launch from Horse Guards Parade in central London, the rally teams set out on the adventure of a lifetime, covering a quarter of the surface of the globe to deliver the ambulances to Mongolia, where they have found a new lease of life serving hospitals, orphanages and other facilities where they are badly needed.
EUROPE TO ASIA
Teams can take any route they like to make it to Mongolia, though most like to head south towards Turkey. After crossing the land bridge between the European and Asian continents, teams typically head for Istanbul for a couple of days of R&R following the long drive from London. After a Turkish bath or two, they then have a choice between heading across Turkey to Iran, or driving north to Georgia, winding their way along a route set on the edge of treacherous cliffs framing the Black Sea, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful driving experiences on earth. The path then traverses the Georgian mountains to Tblisi, and into the oil state of Azerbaijan. A ferry from Baku goes to Turkmenistan, where teams can link up with other charity ralliers who drove through Iran.
And this is where the real fun starts. This is the testimony from one of the 2011 ambulance teams fresh back from Mongolia: “Arriving in Turkmenistan by ferry was like something out of a Bond movie,” recalls Stacey. “As the ferry docks in Turkmenbashi, a Caspian Sea port with rocky crags surrounding it that make it look Iike the surface of the moon, you are approached by a phalanx of customs and immigration officials dressed in Soviet-era uniforms with massive mushroom hats.”
Having cleared immigration and customs, teams move forward to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan: vast, new, shiny, Soviet-style buildings, no doubt built using the proceeds from the country’s enormous natural gas reserves. And not a person in sight – until, as the Charity Rally team members describe, they were arrested: “We were standing on a patch of grass, filming this enormous pedestal, could have been a hundred feet high, topped with a gold statue of the late Turkmen leader, that rotates to face the sun,” they recalled. “We’re not quite sure whether the statue was some secret Austin Powers style rocket, or whether we were just done for standing on the grass, but either way, we were whisked off to the local police station.” On arrival, the team sat around for what seemed an eternity, to finally be confronted with a jovial police chief, not unlike Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons.
Uzbekistan follows Turkmenistan on this epic journey, with teams winding their way along the infamous Silk Route, taking in ancient cities like Samarkand and landmarks such as the Blue Mosque, a building dating back to the 14th century. After that, it’s on to Kazakhstan. “Borat doesn’t really do the country justice,” observed one of the ralliers. “It’s an amazing place, the size of Western Europe. And it takes a long time to drive across it.”
Arriving in southern Russia, teams take in cities like Barnaoul and drive through Russian dacha land: wealthy Russians keep scores of holiday homes in this pristine wilderness, where white water rafting rides costs ¤5 – safety optional. The drive through southern Russia is short, but it takes teams into the Altai mountains, the gateway to Mongolia and the highlight of the trip.
“Madness, in hindsight, but brilliant, simply brilliant”
This is what the team had to say about it: “Driving into Mongolia was, simply put, amazing. You would be driving along a dirt track and then be confronted by a mountain. No road up it, no road around it, and so you just put your ambulance in low gear and over you go. We also had to drive through rivers with no bridges, the water so deep that the wheels of the ambulance were submerged – madness, in hindsight, but brilliant, simply brilliant”.
“IT IS THE ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME, AND ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN”
It isn’t all fun and games though. “The Mongolia Charity Rally site has a disclaimer when you sign up; it reads: ‘You may die’. That really brings it home. It is the adventure of a lifetime, and anything can happen. We were fortunate; the worst breakdown we had was fixed pretty easily, and the only casualties were our stomachs after the local Mongolian mechanic refused to fix our vehicle unless we spent the night with his family, drinking Mongolian vodka – lethal, by the way – and eating goat meat served with Yak’s milk.”
Arrival in Ulaanbaatar isn’t the end of the trip. Participants hand their vehicles over to Go Help so they can start a new lease of life, and then teams catch the train to Beijing on the trans-Siberian railway. “Crossing the Gobi desert on a train was magical. Entering China, the tracks wind their way in and out and under the Great Wall, it’s quite a sight. Chinese station masters salute the train as it goes through. It’s just a different world.” The teams finally end up in Beijing, a modern contrast to the month spent traveling in rural wilderness.
“You don’t need to know anything about cars, or have been in the Scouts, to take part. This trip is for everyone. There was one guy we met, an American doctor, who was 88 years old and driving his ambulance on the Mongolia Charity Rally. The experience will stay with us forever. Anyone considering it should take the plunge, not only will they not regret it, but it will change their lives for the better. There’s still plenty of adventure to be had in this world, you just have to go out and live it.”
For further information visit mongolia.charityrallies.org or email Go Help at firstname.lastname@example.org