Welcome to the Mongol Rally: the greatest motoring adventure on the planet.

The Mongol Rally thunders 10,000 miles across the mountains, desert and steppe of Europe and Asia each summer. There’s no backup, no support and no set route; just you, your fellow adventurists and a tiny car you bought from a scrapyard for £11.50.

If nothing goes wrong, everything has gone wrong.

Bollocks to tarmac, ABS and gadgets that help you find your navel. The Mongol Rally is about getting lost, using your long neglected wits, raising shedloads of cash for charity and scraping into the finish line with your vehicle in tatters and a wild grin smeared across your grubby face.

Neither your car, nor your life, will ever be the same again.

The rules of the Rally are gloriously simple…

  1. You can only take a farcically small vehicle
  2. You’re completely on your own
  3. You've got to raise a £1000 for charity

Day 28 – Davaza Gateway to Hell to Tejen, Near Mary, Turkmenistan

The walk through the desert was a steady maintained pace across a variety of terrain, meeting a variety of wildlife – spiders, lizards, and even a desert hedgehog. It took approximately 90 minutes for us to walk across the sand and rock until we heard the crater first – a constant roar originally mistaken for a passing train on the nearby railway, or possibly even a passenger jet flying overhead at high altitude. The view we took in from the initial sight to the edge of the crater reminded us off the massive bomb fires seen at firework displays, with a light intensity similar to a sunset.

The crater roared away in front of us, standing just 2 metres from the edge without any safety fence or barrier, the heat soared up and around us. Waves of hot gas could be seen shooting upwards into the night sky, with the opposite side of the crater becoming heavily distorted from our viewpoint. Remnant of the former soviet gas rig that had collapsed here nearly 40 years ago could be seen around the edge, but nothing that would identify any particular structure. We took in the view for what seemed to be hours, taking quantities of photos and videos for our own interests, and for Hartley’s documentary footage. While we took to setting these shots up and exploring the immediate environment of the crater, we hadn’t yet noticed 2 other travellers who had also walked to the crater from the roadside. Originally from Japan, these 2 had been travelling for 3 years and 10 months respectively, happening to meet quite by change at their chosen hostel in Ashgabat. It was quite interesting to hear their stories and how far they had travelled, heading very much in the opposite direction to us, East to West. Describing to them our Nissan Micra and about the Mongol Rally, they mentioned there was another small car nearby, in fact just opposite that may well be on the same lines as what we described. Thanking them, we headed over to find WalleyRalley – an Italian team with a Fiat Panda shaped to look like Mount Vesuvius. We called out in case one of their team was close by, but no sight of tents in the immediate area and with no one in the Panda, we did wonder where they may have ended up for the night.

Answers came around with the first light of dawn, Thomas spotted 2/3 tents over to the east of the crater. Sure enough, the Italians had camped up with a French expedition of 2 Mitsubishi L200 utility trucks. Hartley, who had stayed with the team from some time through Europe took the plunge to wake them early, and with warm greetings between Alpha Squad and WalleyRalley, we exchanged a few stories of our journey, notably how the Italians had managed to drive to the crater and where the track actually lay once off the road. Dawn also brought on a sense of worry for Oli – too much sunlight over the Micra’s rest spot for the night would attract unwanted attention, so with the tracker and compass baring, made a bee line for the roadside, making it within 30 minutes and discovering an untouched and intact Micra, set about checking fluids and tidying up from last night’s off road attempts that had filled the foot wells with sand. Rhys, Thomas and Hartley stuck with the French expedition, braking ice and seeing if the tour guides would be willing to offer a lift to the rest of the team back to the highway.

Once we were reunited, car, team and cameraman, we set about heading to a secondary objective for Davaza – a failed Mongol Rally car 40km north of the gas crater. The background information Hartley was able to gain from the team “The Fault In Our Car”, was that following a gearbox problem, the team had ground to a halt in the middle of the highway, and with limited space in the vehicle they hitchhiked with, they had no choice but to leave personal effects and survival gear behind.  It was down to us to recover what we could and return it to them upon meeting with them on the route ahead. We had no idea what to really expect, and guesses as to what could have gone wrong were bounced around the team. Given the environment we were in, most ideas settled on heat-related issues; the coolant had boiled off, a heat gasket failure, and in combination with the gearbox problem, there would be no going forward. We were prepared not only to tow the defeated car back to civilisation but if repairs were possible, drive it back to a pickup location.

The reality however, was more grave. After cruising at their only selectable gear – 4th – they hit a field of 2” deep pot holes, and combined with single-ply tyres and a low tyre pressure, the pothole took out 2 steel rims on the of side of the car. With no way of fitting the spare tyres to the rims they had on the roof, “The Fault In Our Car” called it a day. We quickly found the best entry point into the Panda was the rear quart panel window – left slightly open, we took a screwdriver to the inside hinge and with that out of the way, the door catches were opened, and the kit list checked over. The easy items such as sleeping bag, tent and a large duffle bag of clothes and trinkets the team had collected over their journey. These were bundled into the Micra, then we moved into what could be done with the Panda in terms of recovery or salvage. With no keys in site, it appeared the only thing we could attempt was to break the ignition barrel and get passed the steering lock. Oil and fluid levels all looked fine and the battery held a solid 12.5v charge – all seemed fine in the engine bay aside from the suspect gearbox. With the ignition barrel defeating us and no way of really getting passed steering the car, we looked to the other areas for salvage – taking a couple of repair kits and an AA recovery bag, and draining the fuel tank of some 40 litres of petrol, we considered the recovery a success. WalleyRalley, showing up a short time later, salvaged a new wing mirror for their own needs, having lost theirs to a lamppost a few days prior. The Italians headed North, and we South back to Ashgabat and a chance to resupply and replenish from a day in the Turkmenistan heat.

Returning to the Yimpas Shopping Centre, we quickly sat down to a large meal and plenty of fluids, meeting Worst Case Ontario who were also planning on visiting the gas crater later on in the day. Also driving a Nissan Micra, the patched team of 3 (taking on 3rd member Steven from a failed Yaris team) had suffered a 4th gear failure, but were making steady progress. Hartley was on hand to help the team with accommodation for Worst Case Ontario; a contact he had made in Ashgabat was close by to guide the team to an AirBnB house he had nearby. The American-voiced international student was also incredibly helpful in providing a cheat sheet of a 3-language request for accommodation or camping, written in English, Turkmen and Russian.

Feeling our timeframe for our next scheduled stop was closing in, we wished the team good luck, exchange contact details and made a move for Tejen – a smaller town West of Mary – explicitly denied by Turkmenistan customs for any stopping, reasons for which we were still unsure about. The beauty and colour of Ashgabat faded away into the distance, and we arrived in Tejen after dark. The roads returned to rough pothole-filled tracks, and the houses far more traditional, courtyard facing and brick built. No marble or gold to be found here. Driving through the town at a snail’s pace, we looked for any signs of accommodation and decided to utilise our contact’s cheat sheet straight away.2 local men happened to be walking down the main road, and with a short introduction, we handed the paper over. A short discussion was had between the 2, and with some smiles and nods we were guided not 2 metres down the road into a farmstead with a raised platform in the courtyard. Sleeping bags were setup, and with farm animals close by and a vine covering our immediate skyline and warm draft, we settled down for the night in the warm open air.

Day 27 – Ashgabat to Davaza

We woke to a quiet, air conditioned hotel suite, marble lined bathroom, city views of white and gold. While last night’s arrival was something very colourful indeed, the morning gave true light to Turkmenistan’s jewel of marble and gold in the desert – a nod to that pinnacle of glamorous architecture, Dubai. We made our way down to the breakfast hall – a 20-foot ceiling with vast decoration and chandeliers, 3 waitresses all on station greeted us with smiles, but no other guests were seen. It seemed for all its splendour, the Hotel Ascabil was almost empty – maybe a dozen guests at most for a hotel that could cater for 200. We were treated to a breakfast of multiple courses; nuts, fruit, toast, omelettes, cereal with hot milk. The plates kept entering and exiting the table. If Reza could see this now, we all thought.
For today a few key objectives were required to get us underway for the next stage of the rally. With Hartley now on board as well, there was a need to sort out an Uzbekistan visa, as well as replenish money supplies, especially after the Turkmenistan border had eaten into our reserves. We would all head out to the international bank, return to the hotel sans Hartley who would get his visa process for Uzbekistan, wait till the afternoon to collect the visa then pick up supplies for Davaza and the Gateway to Hell, and head north to enjoy the fiery spectacle. Taking Mickey out for a rare inner city commute, we collected US Dollars with relative ease; credit cards were thankfully very much in common use here, so the need for local currency was not on the priority list. The process and waiting time as compared to other countries was almost instantaneous. As with everything so far in Asgabat, the scale of the bank was large and spacious, the people few and far between. We later learned this city was home to just 750’000, and the country totalled just 5 million citizens, with a population decrease seen in more recent years.
Leaving Hartley to the Uzbekistan Embassy, we returned to the Hotel, checked out and enjoyed a morning in the lower floor spa – a 20 metre pool, hamam, salt room, and massage rooms. With a scorching desert awaiting us just outside the city, this was preferable; waiting out the intensity of the day for the cooler night air. Hartley returned by lunchtime, his visa application successful, to be processed ready for the afternoon, and so getting back into the outside world, we repacked Mickey and headed for the Yimpas Shopping Centre, a multi-storey setup with your classic supermarket on the lower floor, clothing and then restaurants on the respective upper floors. We stocked up on food and water, taking in a small but significant scene of the supermarket’s fruits and vegetables section, with barely a single plastic package to be seen anywhere.
The desert road to Davasa, even for the early evening, was akin to driving through a tumble dryer. There was no rest bite from the heat in this part of the world, especially where temperatures reached 50C in peak-summer. The Micra was unfazed, having survived the extremes of Iran, this was just another desert to soldier through without issue. That was until we had to fill up at the Bokurdak petrol station – trying twice to fill up the Micra’s tank resulted in the sender needle only reaching ¾ full. We decided to allow a few minutes for the sender to settle – the first time we had experienced this problem through the rally, but a fairly minor one, as we knew from the average consumption how much Mickey could take on board, and how many miles to expect from each tank.
Watching the sunset across the flat horizon, and dusk turn into night, we were treated with our first views of the Persoid Meteor Shower – streaks of light dancing across the night sky, already flooded with stars and the ever-present galactic arm, as we had seen on the Bulgarian-Turkish border a few weeks before. It wasn’t long before we passed a family stranded on the side of the road, the bonnet up on their large van, the father on the phone seemingly requesting help. Oli quickly put an open question to the car – do we stop and help, or carry on? We decided to turn around and offer what assistance we could, and for starters we switched on the roof LED bar to illuminate the scene, and offered the family water and some fruit which they were very grateful for – having been stuck on the desert highway since the afternoon. The symptoms of the van indicated a couple of major faults – the battery was flat and didn’t have the necessary power to turn the engine over, the alternator was possibly not sending the required power to the battery, and the expansion tank had over boiled, sending the contents out of the cap threads and all over the engine bay. A few minutes were spent just taking on the symptoms over, and deciphering exactly what could be done. Much to the amusement of Rhys, the driver described the noise the engine made as “dahdahdahdahdah”, translating literally to “yes yes yes yes yes yes”, confusing matters in the broken conversation of charades and Russian-English. Oli first resolved the expansion tank issue, checking over the tank or any leaks and topping it up with water. Next was the problem of why the engine had failed in this fashion, a lack of power may account for an electric water pump failing, and as a result, the water was not being circulated through the radiator effectively, resulting in the boil over. The expansion cap may have been blocked up – forcing the built up pressure out of the cap threads or forcing a crack in the tank seams. With the fuses and voltages looking correct, we attempted a jump start using our mobile jump pack – a glorified laptop battery with capacitor set that would dump power into the car’s power system for 20 seconds – enough to start the engine and disconnect the jump pack again. This worked, but only briefly, and a drive down the road only got the van 2km at walking pace. We had to try something else, and while we tried to avoid using our spares, and also failing a towing attempt from the Micra (then appreciating we would have never succeeded from the gross weight of the van), we did have a spare battery in the boot. Replacing this and using our Iranian bought hammer to wedge the smaller battery into place, the van jumped back into life on the first start – it was time to head for the nearest town, Yerbent. We made speeds of 40-50kmph, and Yerbent was on the horizon, much to the relief of everyone.
The unfortunate ending to this good deed, is that with every town and district through Turkmenistan has police stop zones, where good vehicles must stop, and other traffic is at the whim of the police on duty. We were pulled over, and with that, the expansion tank couldn’t hold the heat and pressure of the engine coolant, sending it pouring across the police layby. Thankfully the father of the family and his wife were more than happy to defend our position – we were simply trying to help them reach the town to seek a mechanic and shelter for the night. It took a lot of convincing and pause for thought on the side of the law. Finally, after much deliberation the police let us go, and without hesitation (or our hammer and spare battery) we said our goodbyes to the family and continued north to Davaza. Other van drivers were on hand to assist at this stage, and with the police watching our every move at this checkpoint, it was best to leave quickly.
Another hour driving across the desert we were met with The Adventurists’ Tea Party location from the week before – the moustached classic racing character with a large hand pointing left stood out for us, offering a key pointer for how close we were to the open gas crater. Unfortunately, the one thing we couldn’t find was the track leading there; after several passes at the closest point, and an attempt at going off road that landed us in a sand bunker and braking out the waffle boards, we conceded that finding this track in the daytime was not possible with the time and resources we had. Checking the maps and taking baring for both the car and the gas crater, we found the best path through the desert, securing the car away from the roadside and heading east across the sand dunes. The orange glow of the crater tempting us closer and keeping us on route.

Day 26 – Mashhad to Ashgabat and the Turkmenistan border

With an early start in the Misban Hotel, Mashhad, admin work and packing were completed in short order; aiming for the Iranian border crossing before closing at 13:30 local time meant no time could be wasted this morning. The drive was estimated at 4 hours to the border town of Bajgiran, but given the continued reports of a closed border there, we instead had to make it to Lotfabad – approximately 70km to the south east. This included an additional 90km of mountain road pass that none of us could have envisaged at the time; surprisingly this crossing was used usually by lorry drivers; quite the border pass for any heavy goods vehicles.
Once the turn off was made from the main highway for Lotfabad, the scenario became clear – we had to make this pass rapidly, and with a lot of co-driving. It would seem that Iran was the true start to our rally – one of precision driving on this 90km mountain pass, to make it before the 13:30 closure. In the driving seat was Rhys, co-driving from the back seat, Oli and Reza. Colin McRae would have raised an eye-brow to Rhys’ driving ability in the 75 minutes of hair-raising tight turns, 10% climbs and falls, taking wide births for each corner, accelerating through each one to account for the weight distribution inside the car. The van tyres screeched through almost every corner, but Mickey held fast. A strategic stop had to be made prior to Turkmenistan entry on top of this feat of rally driving – fuel was running low, and it was apparent from the Maps.Me feature points that gas stations on the other side of the border would not feature until Ashgabat. The gas station chosen was off Azadi Square, Dargaz. Much to the station attendant’s amusement, a small British car pulled up, with 300’000 Rials immediately thrust into his hand, and the occupants running around the car to check the odometer, fill up the tank and to readjust ratchet straps that had come loose through the newly found 90km WRC Road Rally stage. With the final stretch burned through in a matter of minutes, passing a queue of lorries awaiting x-rays, and their own list of border requirements, Reza was in his element for this carnet and customs check. Even at the height of 0-hour for him returning home (having to make a flight from Mashhad at 20:00 local time), he pushed us through the border crossing, making sure we had all the paper work required at every desk.
Finally, after 90 minutes of push pull between desks and windows, being barged out of the way by lorry drivers, and ensuring the car was in the correct queue, we made it to the end point – passport stamps and a final check were all that were required from Iran to exit the country on good terms. We made our long heart felt goodbyes to Reza- exchanging our gifts and thanks to our new-found friend, from the faraway land of Iran. Reza even went as far as to assist us in paying the customs charges and settling dinner bills on the final night, something that at the time of writing must be settled through indirect transactions. With passports stamped, we shook hands with the final Iranian border guard, and drove gracefully into no-man’s land, passing a string of lorries al waiting the same fate of the ill-reputed Turkmenistan border checks… or so we thought from the string of stories and rumours circulating Turkmenistan’s border forces.
At this stage we recommend reading the guide, “How-to Iranian-Turkmenistan border” for the more administrative side to a smooth crossing at Lotfabad.
The Turkmenistan crossing was to put it mildly, an escorted one. Once through the initial check at the border gates, we were whisked through the process by 2 seemingly assigned border guards, with much, “This way, now, please.” Oli went in one direction as “Driver Machina” (car owner), Rhys and Thomas went the other as “citizen Britaninia”. Bag searches for both were prompt and thankfully without issue – Turkmenistan has similarly strict policies for digital and media content as Iran. Meanwhile in a small office crowded with customs officials, Oli was subjected to a stringent driving route examination – a direct spoken and a repeatedly affirmative official sat at his desk asking for route details and finishing points, asking for additional maps and detail to confirm exactly where we intended to go in his native country. Finally, after much deliberation, our route was drawn onto our customs declaration, and Driver-Machina was allowed to continue forward to the next section of car checks and contraband searches. The car search was one of smoke and mirrors, much to our advantage. The border guards took note of Oli’s large shoe size (UK-16) and subsequent jokes allowed for the doors to be shut and the central locking switched on – much to the disappointment of one guard who was looking through the passenger doors. Once the customs declaration was cleared with the desk outside, the car was searched through; the guards taking advantage of the sweets and cigarettes deliberately planted to keep them and other visitors inside the Micra distracted. The crossing took 4 hours, and by historical reports of this border, a record breaking time. 3JD in 2009 suffered a 24-hour crossing here, and a team preceding them had been stuck in the open desert for over 3 days due to a visa discrepancy.
Celebrating a massive victory and a +1-day advantage to our schedule, we headed straight for Ashgabat and the Hotel Ascabil (formerly the Hotel President) – a prize to ourselves for completing Iran and the Iranian-Turkmenistan border. With phone signal found once again, we made contact with our new cameraman, in this case in need of rescuing. Hartley, our second fly-on-the-wall observer was stuck quite firmly in Ashgabat without means of escape, sleeping rough in a shopping centre for the past 2 nights, we were his escape from the model city of marble and gold. We entered the city to a scene of perfect roads, smooth driving speeds, fountains and coloured lights decorating the roadways, all the way through to the hotel – itself a model of the skyline, brightly coloured and maintained to a flawless standard. Mickey carried with him more dust and sand than perhaps the rest of the hotel and its grounds had seen in a week. With smiles and friendly demeanours, we shook hands with the reception staff of this vast complex; the main hall chandelier bigger than our kitchens at home, marble and gold covering almost every surface. We asked with fingers crossed for 2 rooms for the night; including our newly found cameraman, playing away at the grand piano in the lower reception lounge. We were accepted as guests – much to our relief from previous rumours of Turkmen hotels refusing guests.
We went straight to our rooms to refresh and relieve ourselves of the Iranian dust and traffic fumes we had accumulated, freshly clothed and feeling far more human, we headed to the bar for our first proper drinks and dinner in over 2 weeks. The barman was happy to offer guidance to the city from the views out of the large panelled windows, and pointed us in the direction of the international bank, located only a few kilometres north-east of the hotel – a 5-minute drive, if that. Seemingly a world away from the chaos, hustle and bustle of Iran, yet less than 100km from its border.

Day 25 – Mashhad Day Tour

The morning started off with the traditional sweet Persian breakfast of cucumbers, tomatoes, flat breads and jams, something that as now taking its toll on sugar intakes across the team. We explained to Reza over breakfast the scenario “5 Fools and No Mechanic” had found themselves in, after some broken English explanations, he agreed that extra time could be taken this morning to try and assist the Swiss. Returning to our hotel-apartment, and some nifty VPN connection work, we managed to make contact again with both Mathjis (the Dutchman intended to drive one of the Swiss cars) and the Swiss Team Captain. Unfortunately, even after much deliberation and brainstorming, he Swiss could not justify the risk to their vehicles or us at the border crossings; reports from the Public Notary they had met with described vehicles and their drivers being held at the border for several weeks with high risk of vehicle seizure and hefty fines. The Swiss gave up, and considered the best course of action was to reverse course and head back to the Turkish border and try their luck through the Caspian Sea ferries.

Feeling as though the risk factor of the Mongol Rally had been lost on the Swiss, we headed out with Reza; destination Imam Reza Shrine. We had driven both under and around the Shrine upon entry to Mashhad, and while the scale was somewhat apparent, walking up to the Shrine built up both the atmosphere and the vastness of the 2nd most important site in Islam. The crowded streets changed hands from street merchants and general populace, to a dedicated, religiously driven flow of devotees, both too and from the holy site. Instead of the common greetings and curiousness we had become so used to in the Iranians, we were subject to a London commuter sprawl – everyone with heads down, or in a deep religious focus. Entrance to the shrine was a more thorough security process than we had previously been subject to; security guards would pat everyone down and scan for any metallic objects. Cameras (through, not smartphones) were not permitted on site, catching us short, where Rhys had a small rucksack and was refused entry. We headed across to a bag collection area- a temporary scaffolding structure outside the shrine that didn’t resemble anything official. With a pretty significant amount of trust on this not very official looking setup, our bag, as with everyone else’s, was filed away.

The Imam Reza Shrine dates back to the Qatar Era of Iran; the original site built in the 16th Century, it now stretches across 600’000 square feet, with 10 open public squares within the site, the majority of which could fit the Shah Chirag Mosque within their walls. Small English towns could fit within this site; walking across just one of these courtyards in the heat and bright reflective surfaces all around resulted in almost blindness and a constant thirst for water. We moved through passed the inner-courtyard, catching a glimpse of the inner temple, but that was it – entrance for non-Muslims, especially given the upcoming birthday celebrations for the Imam Reza, were forbidden beyond certain walls. We were guided by our Reza to the International Relations centre – a small hallway and prayer room where we were greeted by the shrines representative – a rounded, middle-aged man who had a good grasp of English, sat us down to watch a factual video of the shrine; providing us small gift bags with a tourist’s guide of the entire site. After a short discussion with the shrine’s representative, we were introduced to a cleric who was willing to answer any of our questions – quietly spoken, he offered a more personal viewpoint of the shrine and the upcoming celebrations for which there was heavy decoration across the entire site. Our questions probed more towards how the site had developed, over any religious context, much we feel to the cleric’s disappointment. We finally headed across to the library of the shrine – a building of the complex that dwarfed many British university or city libraries; the tour was a quiet and prompt affair as many students were actively studying in each of the book halls. With Reza and our own appetites craving lunch, we headed out of the site – taking half an hour even as the crow flies – towards a restaurant in the city centre.

Restaurants in Mashhad from looking in through windows, and our eventual decided watering hole take on a different approach to catering – it was akin to school dinners or a military programme of feeding hungry mouths – the menu was limited and everything cooked in quantity to cater for vast numbers of pilgrims, though it seemed as with the rest of Iran, availability of even a limited menu was guided by food supply to the restaurant. Even with several revisions to our order, Rhys found himself without a meal – vegetable rice had run out, the last falafel had been sold off as we entered the restaurant, and any amount of trying to convince the waiter into ordering “a kebab without the meat” was met with confusion. It was at this last stage of the Iranian tour that Reza finally took note of Rhys’ Vegan Passport phone app – a multi-lingual guide for the travelling non-meat product consumer that could be shown to anyone abroad in the hope that they could offer meals without meat products in them. Rhys had been showing this application at regular intervals to restaurant staff all through Iran, but only now had Reza realised what this truly meant. It took a lot of patience from Rhys to explain this “belief”, after mentioning it so often throughout the tour.

After lunch was finally dealt with, we headed for the Nader Shah museum – a war and memorial centre dedicated to 2 historic figures – the namesake, Nader Shah, a brilliant military mind who maintained the borders of Iran (then the Ottoman Empire) through the Qatar Era, and a Mashhad Hero (NAME) – the first pilot of Iran who fought through the First World War for Germany. He was unfortunately beheaded following unrest against the authorities shortly after the war. Tired from the long walks and heat of the city, we returned to the hotel by the whim of a crazy taxi driver, taking all manner of shortcuts and dodging oncoming traffic as he whisked us to the hotel at great speed. Rhys at this stage was rather unhappy and disturbed by the scenes at the shrine, also having been stared at threateningly by so many at the shrine, decided against a night time return visit, instead backing up photos and photos form the past week and moving a film in the hotel room. Oli in the meantime took a power nap and shortly after wrote letter templates for the border crossing the next day – the invitation to Turkmenistan, citing all the key visitation points of the intended journey in the following week.

With the letters complete and the media backups underway, Thomas and Oli headed out to find Reza a thank-you present for his time guiding us through Iran, providing his extensive knowledge of the sites and cities. Settling on a box of assorted chocolates for his family, a prompt return to the hotel and avoiding Reza at the hotel reception kicked us off for our night time tour to the Imam Reza Shrine. Again a different atmosphere – one not driven by intense sunlight and heat, filled the shrine. Staying close to our tour guide, we ventured inside the inner courtyards and the inner tomb room itself, to witness a scene of pure committed devotion to the Imam’s tomb; devotees being pushed, shoved, carried across others simply to touch the shrine and pass on their prayers and wishes. We stayed for a relatively short time, sitting down inside the inner shrine for a couple of minutes only to witness the push and pull of the crowd around the hallways.

The experience of the shrine, both day and night, was a numbing one; an impression left on naive Western minds to a concept of religion so devoted and so heavily engrained on people’s lives and ideals and until that point, really not been seen or witnessed.

 

 

 

Day 24 – Damghan to Mashhad

Whilst Damghan was a stopover ultimately to make Mashhad with good rest and a paced drive, there were still sites to be seen. One such mosque had a lower prayer shrine with acoustics that allowed a preacher or Mullah to fill the hall with his voice. Each section had a acoustic chambers built within each pillar; the guard of the mosque demonstrated this by whispering into the pillar diagonal to where we listened, and his voice could be heard clearly. The Fire Temple Mosque – the first known mosque in Iran was built here – also showed its age with large mud/straw covered pillars of a once much grander outer courtyard.  We headed out of Damghan to the first Mongol memorial we had seen on this rally – a large tower built as a tomb, dating to early Mongolian settlement of the area. The site was devoid of any other ruins, a lonely testament to the vast Mongol Empire.

Oli continued the first leg, heading into the northern stretch of the Iranian desert we saw our first warning sign for camels and shortly after, the first herd of camels of the rally – much earlier than we anticipated. We pulled up, secured the car and headed across the rocky and shrub-covered flatland. The shepherd of the camels was quick to spot us, shouting for us to stay clear so as to avoid scaring the herd away from their watering hole.

Lunch was another on-the-road affair from Sehever; the team split up to cove the bakers, green grocers and mini-market simultaneously, returning to the car with a feast including an olive-paste, cheese with walnuts, flat breads and fruit.

Mashhad, Iran’s 2nd largest city (3 million) had a different image, approach, atmosphere to what we were used to from the past week. A pilgrim city for the 2nd most important Islamic site in Iran, people’s priorities were focused elsewhere – on either tending to, or being involved with the mass pilgrimage, unfolding throughout the time we spent there. While locals were still happy to see westerners, there was a sense of focusing on religious belief over curiousness or wining business over from Tourists. This didn’t stop us from working as one team, where a motorbike and driver were found strewn across a highway pass outside the Imam Reza Shrine, we quickly got out and assisted with tidying biker, motorbike and large boxes of kitchen good across to the side of the road, ensuring he was okay and able to continue with his journey.

Finally, after rerouting several times; u-turns and asking locals for guidance, we made it to our hotel – off a side road, it offered secured underground parking and a sizable kitchen, double en-suite setup in the room. Reza, tired from the week decided to call it a night early, and we took our baggage up and saw to any rally-related messages. Oli took interest in a Swiss team’s call for help. Five fools, no mechanic needed to get an Opel Aglia across Turkmenistan and into Uzbekistan, and were happy to offer full legal compliance and expenses paid to any team that could assist. We made contact and over pizza in a nearby restaurant. Five Fools very kindly paid for dinner and wouldn’t accept taxi fare either. We said our goodbyes and thanks, and headed back to the hotel to rest up for a potentially busy day ahead.

 

Day 23 – Isfahan to Damghan

We decided to take a different approach to the drive today where usually an early kick off was a necessity, today we opted for splitting the team and ticking off a few boxes and freeing up room in the Micra. – Reza escorted Thomas off to the Isfahan bazaar to purchase a tea set, carpet and have them shipped to the UK. Rhys and Oli remained at the hotel to back up phones, camera memory cards and update the online presence, recovering for the long drive through the desert. Thomas, securing deal returned to hotel by motorbike, picked up the shisha pipe purchased in Turkey and hurried back to the bazaar to send everything off in one package.

By coincidence, mosque call to noon prayer kicked off as Oli and Rhys’ internet capacity was reached, showing up red warnings on laptops and smartphones in Farsi. We took this as a bad omen, unsure of what the Farsi was trying to indicate (worries of the Iranian Internet firewall) and hurriedly packed up for the off, awaiting Reza and Thomas’ return to the hotel.  Packed up and ready for the off, we came across a French tour group who were also heading through Iran, and compared highlights of their trip through, notably without a tour guide. The one notable difference between tours was how much more hospitable the Iranian people had been for them – going out of their way to offer them accommodation, food, and any help they might need; a certain filter through Reza that we never got to see.

Space freed up in the back of the Micra, we moved onto Damghan – a midpoint town planned by IruntoIran, for the sake of reasonable journey times across Iran. Shortly after exiting Isfahan, we were pulled over by a black Mercedes – hazards on and gesturing us to slow down. A family had seen some form of report or news on the Mongol Rally going through Iran and upon spotting our car, simply wanted to meet us, and give us a gift of a large box of Nougat. We were quite surprised by this chance meeting – the hospitality of Iranians towards foreign travellers seems to know no bounds. We said our goodbyes and thanks to the family and continued on towards Qom and the “Shrine to Shrine” highway. More intense heat poured through the windows as we drove across the desert plains, sighting pilgrims on their way to Mashhad from Qom for the Imam Reza’s birthday, and our first herd of camels – a sight rather early on for the rally, geographically speaking. Damghan drew in closer as the night sky filled out with the galactic belt once again.

Reza took this opportunity to find out more about UK life and traditions, specifically weddings and funerals, and how they compared to Iranian and Islamic traditions. A quote from Iranian’s budding tour guide,

“There is a reason why women wear white at a wedding, and men wear dark suits. For the wife, her brightest days are ahead of her in starting a family and having security in her life. For the husband however, his darkest days are ahead of him, becoming his wife’s servant, having to do whatever she says.”

A quote we all hurried took note of for passing onto related events in our collective futures within the team.

Damghan provided us motel accommodation of sorts; a spacious room and good showering facilities were a welcome sight from the hot desert roads. Thomas ordered in pizza from a local fast food shop, and we took the time to relax in the peace and quiet of our room.

 

Day 22 – Shiraz to Isfahan via Persepolis

Shiraz was all very nice, with its sweeping views and the Shah-e Chirag Mosque, but our other reason for visiting the city was set in the mountain range just north, back into the highway pass; Persepolis. The pinnacle of the Persian Empire, Xerxes’ jewel of the kingdom was our main goal of the day, with the intention of making it early in the morning to as to avoid the intense heat of the high summer day.  Reza hoped we could at least visit the Shiraz Bazaar to kick off the day, something the team weren’t especially keen on – we appreciated the thought and it was always nice to see complete contrast in how shopping day to day was done in the middle east, but once you have seen one bazaar, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

We returned to the hotel to meet our tour guide operator for the first time – Laleh Sadir – a young woman who was a local resident of Shiraz and had very much been behind the scenes of many Mongol Rally teams over the past few weeks. We were pleased to finally meet each other and had a brief chat about how the tour had progressed, and how Reza fared as a tour guide, all being very positive. We had a group photo with the Micra and accepted a gift of fruit jellies and nougat, a welcome addition to on-board snacks.

We took the route back north out of Shiraz and headed for Persepolis. Not 500 metres for the main entrance Oli spotted Toyota Yaris with red stickers blurred through a hedge row, in what seems to be a campsite. Immediate stop and turn around, we were greeted by Yak on Track – a multinational team consisting of an Argentinian Girl, Milena, and 2 New Zealanders, Mogan and Henry. Until this point, given the lack of interest we had form other teams in the planning stages, we through we were the only team to venture so far south in Iran. We exchanged stories and contact details, and managed to assist with Yak on Track’s lack of V5 documentation. A pro tip for teams is having copies of the V5 car paperwork. Even without the genuine version, you can get through every border requesting it, from Bulgaria to Iran (and at the time of writing, at least as far as Uzbekistan). They were intending to have the official document shipped over from the UK by DHL at a staggering $80. Oli quickly suggested an alternative – have the document scanned in the UK, emailed across and have high quality copies printed off in Iran, saving a great deal of time and money.

We said our goodbyes and made our way into Persepolis. Its vast, stretching ruins in varying states of preservation or complete ruin, depending on the fate each side of the city had suffered, much at the hands of Alexander the Great. The Persian capital was magnificent, even in what remained. The heat from the sun and the reflection from the surrounding stone work was intense – a strong suggestion of Reza’s to get there early was wise indeed. Meeting Yak on Track again at the Entrance on our way out, we said our good-byes and wished them well, heading now for a return to Isfahan.

The combination of headwind and slow but infuriating steep climb back out of the Shiraz Province made for a horrible fuel consumption, aiming for a steady ETA as best we could at the expense of additional fuel stops.  Stopping in before Abadeh for additional water on-board, we hoped to reach Isfahan in the evening, and while that was the case, we had not accounted for its spectacular rush hour traffic. Busses attempting u-turns across a 6-lane highway was just 1 highlight of the flowing torrent of cars, again 5-lanes’ worth to 3 painted. It took over an hour to finally reach the Traditional Hotel again, ending the night with bags being ejected from the car before parking to save a few moments of packing logistics. Exhausted from the drive, we did our best to run through some clothes in the bathroom and hung them out in the hotel’s courtyard – the 30-dgree heat taking care of the drying.

 

 

Day 21 – Isfahan to Shiraz

It’s been 3 weeks since we started out from a green and pleasant land; Goodwood and the UK seem like such a distant memory. We are now very much accustomed to the daily routine of the Mongol Rally – a proactive morning routine, planning the day ahead with any WiFi available to check in on the road ahead and likely border trouble, then head onto the road to see what we find. As always, heading East.

The Traditional Hotel in Isfahan offered the first actual breakfast cereal since Europe, albeit chocolate shapes made almost entirely of sugar. The dining hall as converted from another courtyard next door to the original hotel building, with a large lightweight roof covering the space to make for a 2-story highly stylised eating area. Forgetting who exactly had the key, we managed to lock ourselves out of the room. Rhys considered scaling the courtyard walls onto the roof and landing inside the room’s private courtyard. Reception also came to the rescue with a very large set of keys and the unenviable task of finding the one that fitted our room. We ended up finding that keys to other rooms also fitted our lock – glad nothing was left here unattended! Reza meantime had made a for the bank – changing up dollars for RIals for some spending power.

Ucci took the first drive of the day, meeting his nemesis from Istanbul once again – tight back roads with little to no breathing room. With traffic down a 3 metre market lane up to UK high street capacity, he ended up having to drive the Micra through a pseudo 3-point manoeuvre to avoid a flood of traffic from both directions. Isfahan bid us a farewell (for now) with a view out across the city from the southern highway bridge, quickly entering into the hill and mountain ranges almost entirely comprising bare rock and few hardly grasses.

Lunch was in Abadeh, with Mickey getting his first tank of the day. We were introduced to Sahid (Sayd) – a young teenager running front of house for our chosen restaurant; he was extremely sharp, and from Reza’s conversations with him a good sense of humour for his age as well. Rhys and Oli went for the Huel choice – our powdered space food for a money saver, Thomas the chicken kebab and salad. In a slight change to the norm, a leaf salad was served with the bread which had a peppery lemon flavoured leaf – almost a cross between lamb’s lettuce and lemon balm. What shortly followed lunch was a small dust storm, gusting through Abadeh and coating us in a layer of road dust, grit and anything light enough to catch flight in the wind. Lunch was promptly finished, choosing to sit outside meant any food left was full of dust.

On the route down as Reza’s suggestion, we detoured for the ruins of Parsegarde – resting place of Cyrus the Great, the creator of the Cyrus Roll and the first recorded human rights. With but a few foundations left and glass dividers to prevent any further damage from Alexander the Great’s raiding of the palace and tomb. We made the visit as prompt as possible so as to reach Shiraz in good time for the evening, with 3 sites on the agenda there.

Shiraz was a bustling city bordered to the North by a substantial mountain range, cut though by both arterial roads and rail line, the journey itself made us feel very small indeed, surrounded by sudden, grand mountains. Wasting no time, Reza guided us to the first of 2 stops pre-hotel; the Hafez tomb was a nod to Iran’s Shakespeare. A peaceful garden in memorial to the poet Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī, who lived in Shiraz in the 14th century. A short journey later saw us at the Karim Khan Palace – the foundation of the Zand Dynasty of the early 18th century, complete with a full citrus orchard in the central courtyard, and lacking foundations, 2 of the guard towers had drifted away from the main fortifications.

The 4-star hotel, the Karim Khan Hotel, was an upgrade last minute by our tour guide operator, Laleh Sadir through IruntoIran. We made use of the free lobby WiFi as the room connections cost 3000 Rial, per connection, per hour. Something resembling extortion. We freshened up and headed back out to the gem of our southern Iranian tour – the Shah Cherag Mosque, via a restaurant for dinner. In keeping with the Persian theme, Kateh Mas Traditional Restaurant was a tourist hotspot for the live traditional Iranian music and certainly the Maître D’hôtel’s sense of humour.

Shah Cheragh beckoned. The mosque’s outer and inner courtyard were sizeable and magnificent in their own right, with mosaic lined portals in and out of each section. We cautiously entered the inner shrine after several local visitors asked for photos of us, and found ourselves welcomed to a half filled shrine with mirrored walls and crystal lined domes. Speechless, breath taking architecture, where the light was reflected across every facet of each pillar and dome. Hastily ushered through to a more public area of the mosque, a cleric who was very keen to show us around the enormous site as a private tour, while giving us particulars on the mosque and the Islamic faith.

A taxi back to the hotel saw us complete or 3rd week on the road, still stunned by the beauty of what we had just seen.

 

 

How to Iranian Highway.

Iran’s road systems require an art of driving unlike any other country we have so far visited. For this reason, Alpha Squad presents the not-complete guide of “How to Iranian Highway” and how to best keep an eye on literally everything on the road. Whatever you thought was uniform and neat in traffic management is forfeit in Iran. Some prerequisites:

  1. Get your eyes tested and glasses prescription renewed if necessary. If anything for the car insurers who will likely flag up that your glasses are unsuitable for your short/long sightedness, otherwise it’s best to have sharp vision.
  2. Iran highways are long and the city roads are action packed. Slow reaction times will not help you here. Get a healthy, long sleep in every night.
  3. Long term experience in driving – In Alpha Squad we have a combined 20 years’ experience on UK and continental roads, with Oli taking up 11 of those. It would pay to have a good experience of the car you’re driving; its blind spots, driving dimensions (that is, knowing where the front, back and corners are to within a few inches from the driver’s viewing angle) and how it handles on intricate steering and braking.
  4. Get a dash cam front and rear. The rear cam helps greatly with reversing if you have large hiking bags in the boot blocking the window, and the front and back combined will not only give you some nice video footage of scenarios on the road, but of any accident you might see and (hopefully) not get involved in. It pays to be prepared in having good clear evidence ready for any law enforcement.
  5. Take a compass and roadmap of Iran – the roadmap will help you only so much; the compass will help you with orientation and judging distance for your next major turnoff and ETA into a town or city.

So with that out of the way, here are Alpha Squad’s observations and guidelines on driving in Iran.

  1. Road signs on the highways and in towns are in 2 words, minimal and immediate. These are not the types of signs you’ll see on UK highways – brightly displayed, large readable text at 200 metres; these are usually within 100 metres of the junction and half the size you might expect.
  2. Toll booths feature around the major highway zones, most of which are north of Isfahan. International cars are often considered as guests of the country and are let through without any fee. On rare occasions the toll officer will charge you (1 time out of 12 for us), likely pocketing the money for himself. Language barriers and playing dumb will also find you being let through for the sake of traffic flow.
  3. Lorries and coaches are big, old, smoke-bellowing and kings of the highway in Iran. Do not try to assert any right of way against them; you may find yourself being cornered, or cut across at a left-hand intersection.
  4. Speed bumps (sleeping policemen) are not marked, look out for 2 rumble strips within 50 metres, and slow down. They come in 2 forms – plastic stripped and sudden, and large launch ramp style. They also feature at some highway slip roads, so you can’t initially speed up to enter the highway.
  5. The edge of the highway is often immediate, and bordered by a gravel hard shoulder. If you like your paintwork how it is, keep a sharp eye on the road edge.
  6. Driving on the right is optional, more often than you think. Locals will often drive slowly against the flow of traffic and even reverse up the highway side.
  7. Lights should only be switched on with the last glimmer of sunlight at dusk. Early evening headlights will find you getting flashed down and beeped at repeatedly from local drivers.
  8. Highway lane division is merely a suggestion. 3-lane highways in busy traffic will result in 5 lanes of cars, and they are not uniform in the slightest – think of your car as a leaf floating down a river, with a hundred other leaves all trying to get to their destination.
  9. Motorbikes and pedestrians share the same space. They will walk or drive out in front of you, go up the wrong side of roads, or stand in the road respectively, and bikers will often use pedestrian walkways and footpaths in the evening, especially to drive up the wrong way of a 1-way street.
  10. You do not have to stop for pedestrian crossings, and pedestrians do not have to stop for cars. Iran takes many pages from the Vietnam style of highway and pedestrian traffic in this regard.
  11. Side streets often have an open drainage channel running down either side. By open drainage, we mean 2-foot-deep and without any warning. To get stuck in this would likely cost you your suspension and wheel alignment on your car.
  12. On a lighter note, you will find yourself being waved to, beeped at in greeting and asked many times where you’re from and welcomed to the country. Many drivers are happy to see you in Iran and are grateful for your custom and your visiting, speaking on many occasions as if they themselves represent Iran as a whole.

Day 20 – Tehran to Isfahan

Actual mechanical work had to take place on Mickey this morning – a brake light that had been indecisive in operation since Istanbul was finally changed out – a marked level up in repairs – actually replacing parts on the Micra is something we had so far not carried out – a good sign, we hope. While the repairs were carried out, a Canadian team were in the restaurant trying their best to battle with the WiFi and its various blocks and filters. Oli allowed them access to his laptop and the Tor network configuration – while at a cost of speed, this tunnelled through to a more open world wide web.
We set off for Isfahan, witnessing the construction of Tehran’s fast-access rail network to the international airport and a stark contrast in landscape within 50km – fauna went promptly from trees to bushes to shrubs, grass became gravel and rock, riverbeds were completely dry. We had entered the desert and with it the heat, something we thought we had become accustomed to, with the intensity belting down from the sun. Realising out water supplies were not in check, we pulled in to a service station early, where Rhys and Thomas proceeded to buy half the store – snacks and sweets galore with 6 litres of water.
When we approached Isfahan we missed the junction taking a redirection of about 20km. Iranian road signs are in 3 words, short-notice and minimalistic – in the literal sense. Turkey’s nod to UK road signs, with large blue boards and text that can be read at 200 metres are sorely missed out here. It is best to have a clear understanding of where you need to head in Iran, with a good road map and basic compass skills so you can predetermine your junctions and estimated arrival times. See the Iranian Highway guide on our site for more information. We continued driving and found a lorry in state of breakdown with 3 men attempting repairs, and with and exchange of greeting and some water, they directed us to an “untrue” road (single rough lane) that could see us back onto the highway.
We arrived into Isfahan early evening to the “Traditional Hotel” an old-world styled Persian hotel with wood-framed windows and a courtyard featuring raised seating areas and a large fountain. We considered this a marked improvement on Tehran’s accommodation and settled into the large suite with its own private courtyard and very efficient air conditioning. What was not efficient however was the WiFi. Of all the places visited thus far, Isfahan presented not only the Iranian global filter but a 3-stage authentication process which did not work as intended. Aspirations of contacting loved ones and updating this blog were quickly extinguished in a flood of connection errors and speed issues.
With the hotel check-in complete we ventured out to the highlights of Isfahan – the Nash-e-Jahan square is the 2nd largest public square in the world, second only to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, bordered by both the Shiek Lotfollah and Jameh Abbasi Mosques, surrounded on all sides by the Isfahan bazaar. A large water pool with fountains cut through the middle, and horse-drawn carriages took families and tourists around the square. It gave a true sense of community spirit even in a city as large as Isfahan. Losing the main group for a brief moment, Oli met an inquisitive girl, Hojan, who had just finished her college degree. She asked after our group and what we were doing in Iran. Exchanging contact details, and with a farewell we headed into the Bazaar to see if there were any bargains to be had. Mistaking a man for the shopkeeper, we enquired about postcards and stamps to send them on to the UK. Enter the actual shopkeeper who, upon seeing this conversation unfold with his stock being sold by a stranger (who later turned out to be an addict, as described by Reza), set upon him, throwing him away from the store front and wrestling him to the floor, kicking the man in the ribs and holding him in a headlock. Thomas attempted to involve himself in the struggle, but was kept away by Oli on the basis that any involvement in a physical fight, in Iran would have much greater consequences. We made for a swift exit of the scene and met a well-spoken carpet shop owner who invited us inside for tea and discussion on possible purchases, with credit cards accepted. This was an attractive proposition for us- Iran’s sanctions forbade MasterCard/Visa and other global banking transactions. This man’s solution was, very cleverly, to use a 3rd party in Saudi Arabia to process, then send the money across to him. This came at a risk for us, as the 3rd party was unknown and could potentially take more through the card details than simply payment for a carpet. We decided that on returning to Isfahan in 2 days, we would make a decision then, taking in the sites of Shiraz in the meantime.
We headed out into the late evening sprawl, crossing the “33” Bridge or Khajou Bridge, named for the 33 major arches connecting one side of Isfahan with the other over the arterial riverbed, currently dry from the high-summer season. Several locals were happy to see us walking through and asked various questions about the UK and surprisingly, a lot on the political situation, especially the EU referendum – something we had put in the back of our minds. Inkeeping with themes on names, we visited the “Traditional Restaurant” recommended by a local man – a heavily decorative Qatar-era themed establishment with high quality food, at an equally higher price when compared to previous restaurants. Dinner choices included a fish grill platter (400’000 Rials) and grilled chicken pieces in a very tart pomegranate sauce, both served with an abundance of rice and flatbread.
Filled with cereals once again we walked off the heavy meals back over the Khajou Bridge and returned to the Traditional Hotel to take in the evening air. A chance moment of working WiFi allowing a few emails and calls to be sent through.