September 29, 2010

by Stephen Jan in Irkutsk, Russia

I wasn’t only the Mongol Rallier on the #5 train toward Moscow. I was joined by “Yak to the Future”, Catherine from team “Two Girls in Tutu’s”, Charles from “Grand Roadway Bazaar” and this other team whose name I forget, but I was the only rallier traveling alone. I shared a train compartment with a Russian lady in her 50’s traveling also to Irkutsk. She spoke absolutely no English but I’ve gotten pretty use to communicating with people who don’t understand me. As far as I could tell by reading her gestures, she sold printers and other electronic accessories. I explained Mongol Rally to her by extending my arms in front of me like I was holding a phantom steering wheel, repeating the word “London”, and repeating the word “Mongolia”. After convincing her that I was in a word “crazy”, I passed the time by showing her videos and photos from the rally. She smiled, nodded approvingly and mixed me hot cocoa.

Each compartment held 4 people, plenty pretty spacious for two. But four or five stops in, a Russian (i think) joined us. The three of us traveled in silence for about 5 hours until we neared the Russian border. There from a middle of nowhere train station, in the middle of the night, a Mongolian hopped aboard one stop before the border lugging several giant bags crammed with merchandise and souvenirs. He wordlessly hung jackets on every coat hook, tucked handbags away, and buried toys all over the compartment - like a squirrel hiding acorns in preparation for the winter. We waited maybe 5 hours at the border, nothing compared to a crossing by car. Eventually the border guard comes in to check our documents through out cramped space. It was all pretty annoying. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but with 4 people in the compartment plus all the excess luggage, it was a pretty uncomfortable wait. Once we got past the border, the Mongolian dug up all his crap and disappeared into Russia.

I arrived in Irkutsk at 2 in the afternoon, but this time I was on foot. This time i was without my team of silly westerners. And this time I’d be like every other traveller who passed through the city, except for the fact that I wore Vibram toe shoes and sported a Mongolian hat. I did my best to haggle with the cab driver who started at 400 rubles then 350 then 340. The Russian lady in the train said 250, but I decided that 11 dollars it wasn’t too bad. I arrived at the BC (sorta like a YMCA) to surprised looks (again) but welcoming embraces.

I had gotten the impression that most grocery stores here were like bodega’s in Manhattan - small spaces stocked with a limit selection of random goods. But Sasha, whom I affectionately dubbed “The Last of the Mohicans”, because he looks like Daniel Day Lewis, showed me otherwise. They took me to a place that seemed to be a clone of Tesco or Walmart, also presumably a 24 hour shop because we were there at midnight. The interior was brightly lit and the giant hall contained aisles and aisles of just about anything you can imagine, with the exception of anything I really wanted.

I have to admit that the Last Mohican was a pretty crazy driver. Speeding down tiny alleys at break neck speed, swerving and swooping left and right, had I not been on the Mongol Rally for the past 40 days, I might even been frighten when he almost sidewiped a car. But I look it all in stride. We came across an unusual sight of cars stopped over a bridge. From a distance, all we could make out was that something was on fire. As we drove by, it turned out to be a mysterious Lada engulfed in flames parked in the the middle of a bridge. There didn’t seemed to be any sign of accident nor injury. No police, no ambulance. Just a burning car. Welcome to Irkutsk.

I spent the first several days wrestling with the computer situation and trying to figure out how to upload 2000 photos on a Russian Firefox running on Russian Windows. Next I spent about a week organizing my scattered Mongol Rally thoughts and impressions, slowly recounting to myself things like how i ended up in an international arm wrestling showdown and how exactly I got across the Kazakh border drunk. And finally, I spent one week slowly churning out a narration for my fragmented story.

In between toiling in front of the computer, I’ve enjoyed walks along Angar river, an Irkutsk culture fair that featured free vodka samples, Tibetan mantra rolling workshop, an Abba party, a sushi party, spur of the moment Russian lessons, and a spontaneous beer and vodka night that ended with my “Brattan” Ilia crawling on the floor and howling at the moon.

Truth be told, there isn’t much here. The city isn’t much to look at and the food selection is limited. I’ve heard that there are five night clubs and two pubs in the entire city. I go for a run and i my eyes are locked on the path in front of me concentrating on avoiding hazards like pebbles, glass, and other objects that’ll make me say “ouch” if I step on them with my toe shoes. I wanted try my hand at cooking my hosts some “Traditional Chinese food”, maybe more appropriately called “Stephen’s Bachelor Survival Food”. It turned out that the China Town that they claimed to be sizable were five shacks crammed into a market reserved for illegal immigrants from all corners of Europe and Asia.

My diet is still largely consisted of instant ramen noodles mixed with cans of “sprotes”, I think that’s sardines. Sometimes I’d swap them for some other fish that I can identify. I mean, the wrapping is all in Russian so I have no idea what I’m buying. So long as I see a fishy picture somewhere on the can and no skull and crossbones sign, it should be good enough. Aside from eating my version of fast food, I generally mooch off my hosts, stealing what whatever food available in the kitchen that they forget to secure. It’s true that in New York, you can find just about anything you want. And I do miss the burger from down the street, roast chicken from up the street, and coffee from that mouth watering bakery called Georgia’s. But the enjoyment of wrapping up my journey among friends from far away is totally priceless.

In hindsight, I am amazed at just how lucky we were to complete the journey. Born from a chance conversation with Scott back in November 2009, this idea hatched from a drunken promise into a bright shimmering idea of “genius”, finally to a personal mission to drag a team of two to Mongolia. We’ve endured scorching heat(Azerbaijan), missed planes(Paris), loss of significant property(Berlin), crazy hitchhikers(Serbia), normal hitchhikers(Ulan Ude), hospitable people(Turkey), angry people(Serbia), warm waters(Black Sea), and cold waters(Caspian Sea). We’ve braved the difficult borders(Baku), quick borders(Germany), slow borders(Azerbaijan), wrong borders(Kazakhstan), smelly borders(Baku), hot borders(Baku), cold borders (Russia), comical borders(Kazakhstan). We’ve been extorted (Baku). We’ve gotten food poisoning (Baku). We’ve driven over mountains(Greece), steppes (Kazakhstan), and desert (Kazakhstan). We’ve crossed borders by car, by boat(Baku), and by plane(Baku), and waded through an ocean of paperwork and a sea of bureaucracy. And when the local people asked us “why?” the reason we had was “Why to get to Mongolia of course!” And when they ask “Why Mongolia?” the response would always be, “Cuz it’s far away!”

I’ve spent alot of time reflecting about the journey. My new friend Sergei here in Irkutsk, a hitchhiking traveler himself, predicted that I would be processing the impressions from the journey for a long time. Even though his English is sometimes hard to understand, he seems like a pretty smart guy, so I think he’s probably right. In any case, I promised myself that I’d share a couple thoughts.

First thought. I spent a significant portion of the journey worrying about the team. As the one who pulled all the people on the team together, I felt a huge responsibility in both their safety and the experience they would receive - even though I had little control over either. I didn’t except to worrying so much about it, but I did. I was more concerned with morale than I was of what to eat, how much we slept, and how soft our beds were.

Second thought. The most amazing things that happened to us on the journey stemmed from locals being hospitable. But in order for those to even have happened, the team had to be open to them and willing present themselves in right circumstances. It often seems like everyone looking to make a buck, and it’s easy to feel that hospitality doesn’t come free. But there are many people out there who value new friends and connections just as much as that quick buck. Perhaps the hospitality I saw in Turkey, Siberia and everywhere else does actually exist in big cities like New York, except I just have to be patient enough and open enough to see it.


I consider myself lucky to have found 3 great teammates willing to plunge into the unknown with me and willing to beleive in me. To Lillie, thanks for standing by the team despite all the uncertainty and thanks for your hard work in wading through the paperwork to acquire Penny. To Judy, thanks for rearranging your life for the opportunity to come aboard and for all the work you put into supporting pre-rally logistics. I will miss shouting profanity in the back of the ambulance at the top of our lungs. To Tom, your enthusiasm has carried us through many trials. I will miss our 4AM roadside food stops.

I would also like to thank the great people that I met along the way. To team Divine Fiat, Peter and Mark thanks for sticking around every time our ambulance broke down, and not killing us when we led the convoy to Omsk instead of Semey. To the motorcycle brotherhood Francesco and Danielle, thanks for cooking us the best Italian food we’ve ever had in Kazakhstan. To Beer Bongolia, thanks for being great sports about being poked fun at in our blog. To our friends in Gorele, thanks for making Turkey hands down the most hospitable place. To my friends in Siberia, thanks for tolerating me for the weeks I’ve been here. I do clearly recall myself saying I’d be staying only a couple days. Ilya thanks for lending me the laptop i’m using right now that i’ve commandeered for the past 2 weeks. Olga, thanks for always looking out for the American sticking out in the crowd of Russians. Natasha, thanks for translating all those Russian jokes that make no sense in English. Sergei thanks for offering me your wisdom. Anton thanks for the late night beer discussions about food around the world. Sasha, thanks for not crashing that car into the burning Lada.

I would also like to thank all the people back home who helped me make this happen. Madolen, thanks for your persistent encouragement and your never ending stream of ideas. Pasquale, thanks for designing an awesome logo. Rolando, thanks for your unwavering support even before I decided to do the rally. Fedde thanks for stopping Rolando from joining our team (Just kidding Rolo). Scott thanks for telling me about the rally. Chris, thanks for your sponsorship and offering the best advice I ever received about fund raising. To the Sacklers, thanks for buying T-shirts for your entire family and extended friends. John Gonzalez, thanks for the supporting me and fencing against me whenever I stop by. Lionel, thanks for letting me crash on your couch every time I come to Berlin. To the Cohens, thank you for your sponsorship and Jaguar Conservation Foundation logo. To my uncle, thanks for supporting me before I even explain the project. To my brothers, thanks for putting up with my constant requests for donations. To Sophie, thanks for your unconditional super enthusiastic support. To Judy’s parents, thanks for letting me crash in Brooklyn and lending me their key that I forgot to return. Of course, the biggest thanks would have to go to my parents for unquestioning support at every possible level. The list goes on and on. I will have to personally thank everyone when I see them. None of this would have happened without all the help that we received along the way in the shape of donations, advice, encouragement, discouragement, and simple attention. I hope that you are all proud to have played a role in helping Mercycorp do good work around the world and helping an ambulance reach a Mongolian hospitals in need of an Ambulance. Your support has also helped us leave an international trail of good impressions (I hope) of three Americans and a German trying to get to Mongolia in a yellow ambulance.

Three days before departing to Berlin, I visited Ivy Lane Auto shop discussing last minute preparations with Steve the mechanic and Aaron, Steve’s client who just happened to be there. I will never forget the hour that Aaron, who had apparently been deployed to the Caucuses for many years as an Army Ranger, spent peppering me with questions about worse case scenario’s and contingency plans: “Do you have any weapons?” “How will you hunt for game?”, “How will you purify water?” “Do you have a Map?” “Do you have a Satellite phone?” (I answered each question with a “No” or “I don’t know”) . Aaron correctly concluded that I was completely and utterly unprepared and ill-equip for the possible disasters that laid ahead. Steve pointed out that we all have ideas and dreams that we want to make happen. I may have been completely inexperienced and unprepared, but it was okay. This was a just a first step toward making this grand idea happen. Not only that, he predicted that this would not be my last journey. At the time, burdened with the difficulties in getting the project off the ground, I remember clearly thinking that the suggestion to do anything like this again was ludicrous. Today, as I sit in the common area of a Buddhist Center in the middle of Siberia, drinking 2AM fake Kozel beer, I can honestly say that he was right.

Thanks for reading.


-Stephen Jan