After six weeks of little to no privacy, numerous breakdowns and punctures, freak storms and 10,500 kilometers of pure adventure – the Wrongolians made it back to the UK in one piece. The mission to raise money for Cool Earth and the Kent Air Ambulance Trust. We were glad to be able to catch up with Dom Bowcock, Tom Finnie, Benji Singh and Ope Paul-Lawal after they’d completed the epic Mongol Rally 2017 in a rather stoic Renault Clio.
Unsurprisingly, we had some questions about their life on the road…
So, most important question first… what was the soundtrack to the trip?
There were a few road-trip classics that we quickly wore out, but nothing beat a bit of Pitbull for inspiration and that open-road vibe. He is Mr Worldwide after all…
Moby and Oasis would always seem to work as great driving music too. When Porcelain or Champagne Supernova came on it always worked with the epic landscapes. One thing we learnt is that when you do find internet, make sure you start downloading music as soon as possible. Ten hour car journeys seem a lot longer with the same songs you’ve been listening to for weeks on repeat!
Did you experience any cultural or local music whilst out on the road?
We would always put the local radio on when entering a new place, it made us feel a bit more involved. There were plenty of strange genres we came across. There was one point in Baku, Azerbaijan when we somehow found ourselves in a karaoke battle with a bar full of locals. We belted out some classic western singalongs and the locals would respond with an 8 minute Azerbaijani ballad of their own. Neither side really took to the others genre but it was all in good nature (we think!) We also got the chance to see an international military band marching competition outside the Kremlin in Moscow which was pretty impressive!
What was the Wrongolians’ favourite city or location?
There were so, so many amazing places. A lot of which we’d have never even thought of being worth a visit on paper! But, one of our favourites had to be Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia (bordering China). For a place we had barely heard of, ever, it had amazing mountains and lakes, incredibly friendly locals and a fascinating history with the ancient Silk Road trade route between China and the Mediterranean.
When we first arrived at Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek, it was fascinating as it was basically untouched by tourists but incredibly lively and bustling with activity. In terms of a favourite ‘rural’ setting, the main attraction of the country has to be Lake Issyk Kul. Issyk Kul has sandy beach shores and is surrounded with snow-capped mountains and national parks. Every local was happy to take you on excursions and clearly adored this area of outstanding natural beauty. It was near lake Issyk Kul we attended an amazing Bird of Prey festival where the locals showed us how to hunt with gigantic Golden Eagles. And to wrap things up they played Buzkashi, which is essentially polo with a sheep’s carcass. Definitely the maddest sport we’ve seen, especially in person.
On the road again…
What were the best and worst modes of transport you encountered?
Aside from our own? The worst was definitely the 36-hour ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku to Aktau. 35-degree heat, no air-con and 40 Kazakh truck drivers for company… It wasn’t exactly a 5* cruise. We passed the time by playing Uno – a lot of Uno. On the return crossing we were forced to wait 32 hours at Aktau port and told we couldn’t go back to Baku as we had ‘checked in’. Let us check out again! Please!
Where would you say had the most welcoming locals?
We were always treated well by the locals but the Kazakh locals were by far the most hospitable. Anywhere we went, they would go out of their way to help us, including being taken out by members of the incredibly friendly Kazakh military. After being in the desert for a few days we arrived in Aktobe, a reasonably sized city near the Russian border. At a restaurant we got chatting to these Kazakh soldiers and they insisted we stayed for a couple more drinks. Fast forward to the early hours of the morning and here they were bringing out the home made Vodka for us, which we did our best to be polite and hold down. This overwhelming friendliness rung true for all the Kazakhstanis we met (even the police fining us). At one point we were running low on fuel in the desert and were lucky to come across a small and remote village with a petrol station. We got chatting to a man filling up next to us and it turned out he had worked in Farnborough near London, not far from where a few of us are from. This was quite mind-blowing considering we were in one of the most remote places on the planet. He ended up driving us around for supplies and taking us to a local restaurant where he bought all of us ‘local meatballs’ and mash. After the much appreciated meal he drove us to the road we needed to take and was off on his way. What a guy!
Did you find any sights or activities off the beaten track, beyond the tourist traps?
To be honest, most of the places we visited outside of Europe were untouched by tourists, but Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, was a great city and welcome surprise. I imagine Tbilisi will start to get overrun with tourists before long because of it’s stunning location at the foot of the Caucasus mountains and its incredible vineyards. The city centre has small historic streets full of charming bars and cafes. The Mtkvari river runs through the centre of the city and commanding over the land is the Narikala Fortress, which gives amazing views across the area. It’s also cheap which is always a bonus!
We weren’t in Tbilisi for long, but did manage to fit in some sightseeing of the castle and Old Town. We used our time here as a bit of a resting point as it was the first time we had stopped for more than one night since Bulgaria. We unfortunately didn’t get the chance to go to the infamous hot spring baths, but apparently they are amazing.
Can you recall the best and worst roads to drive on?
The best road had to be the Transfăgărășan, the road that Top Gear voted best road in the world. The worst, we discovered when taking a “shortcut” through the Kazakh desert – bad idea – the tarmac was so ruined with potholes the size of our car, we had to take the equally battered dirt track next to it. However, a few punctures and a smashed up exhaust later and we made it through.
Lads on tour!
Where would you guys like to revisit?
It would be great to go back again to Mongolia. Despite driving the entire length of the country, there were still a few parts we missed that would’ve been good to see, like the Gobi Desert or the glaciers. There were times when you’d just find an epic area of plains and mountains. We found a goat herder in a mountain pass with his trained Golden Eagle. He let us hold her which was amazing considering they are one of the biggest birds of prey in the world.
What was the longest stretch you did without stopping?
On one of our stints, we set off driving to the Russian border really early in the morning. Believe it or not, we didn’t get into Russia until 03:00am the next morning. This was hardly an exciting stint of our trip but certainly one of the longest times we were sat in our cars. Needless to say, as soon as we were through border control, we stopped by the side of the road and slept in the cars!
If you could only relive five minutes of the trip, which five minutes would it be? (Nothing scandalous!)
Not that we’d ever dream of doing anything scandalous! I think one of the most outstanding memories would have to be setting up camp and playing cricket at on the Kyrgyzstani border at the foot of the snow-capped mountains. That must have been the most scenic wicket I’ve ever seen!
It’s only a flesh wound…
Are you doing it again next time?
I think doing it all over again might be a bit of a stretch but the experience has definitely given us the taste for epic road trips and challenges like this. Who knows what we’ll get up to in future – watch this space…
What recommendations do you have for our Diversity Travel team that will be entering next year? 😉
I’d say definitely do plenty of research and plan your route well to make sure you’re seeing everything that’s worth seeing, otherwise it is so easy to drive straight past some absolute treasures! Also, maybe make sure that everyone in your car can drive before you set off, we failed to do this (only 2/3rds of our troop had licenses) and it’s something we wish we’d considered before setting off on a 10,500 km journey!
Did you attempt any new languages?
With 17 countries in 6 weeks, there were so many different languages in such a short space of time that it was actually really hard to keep up. So like any good Brit abroad we decided not to bother and just stumble our way through our journey – we always managed!
Can you recall any funny language-barrier moments?
Embarrassingly one happened in Germany… The other car bought a sticker at a petrol station and stuck it to the back of their car. After a few days they finally translated it and it turned out to be a rather offensive political slogan which they had been displaying on the Autobahn for a couple of days. Needless to say, it was removed pretty quickly.
Any scary experiences?
I think our scariest moment was being taken off into a warehouse for 2 hours of intense interrogation on the Kazakh border. They didn’t seem to understand the purpose of our journey and wanted to search our car and everything in it. It took a while for them to realise that they weren’t going to find anything, but they did eventually give up – although this was after unscrewing and scanning our seats and a thorough run over from the sniffer dogs too!
The Wrongolians spent 6 weeks crossing 17 borders and driving 10,500 kilometres to reach their goal of the finish line in Mongolia. However, their overall aim was to raise money for their chosen charities Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance, and Cool Earth. This is something that Diversity Travel was excited and proud to support and sponsor. As the boys said it themselves – watch this space for their next adventure!
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