CRACK!!! I hear a snap noise and suddenly, shhhhhhhhhhhhhh… The motorbike is moving in neutral, and no matter how hard I try to accelerate or slow down, it does not respond. Luckily, the brakes do work and I manage to stop in the middle of the road. I turn the engine off and look around. There is little to see; I‟m in the middle of the Mongol desert, and the only thing I can hear is the sound of my own movements and the background noise of the blowing wind. It is clear that I broke the chain, but I am far from being worried, the exhaustion makes me reach that state of internal peace when I don‟t care anymore. I‟m going to look for the chain which fell about fifty metres back. It is lying on the ground all covered in sand. At picking it up I realise it cannot be repaired and in no way cut one more time.
I have been travelling for almost two months and I am still about 500 kilometres from the finish line. My only hope is that a truck passes by on its way to the capital willing to pick me up. I lost 8 kilos from severe diarrhoea that dragged on for weeks, and I know the best thing I can do is to drop down on the ground to rest and wait. When I get to put myself somewhat comfortable, I look up at the sky. It is spectacularly blue. I am asking myself how I got here: exhausted in the middle of nowhere and unconcerned about everything.
The image of the Tinta Roja bar comes to my mind as a mirage. I remember it was the 27th of February, 2010, just a year ago, when I went to the Mongol Rally presentation. The organizing company, The Adventurists, had picked this picturesque place to present the sixth edition, since one of the starting points that year would be Barcelona.
“How many of you are thinking of running the Mongol Rally?”
Everyone raised their hands but me.
“It can‟t be!” I thought. “Well, Ricardo, it‟s impossible that everyone here can afford to stop working for more than a month and has the money for an adventure of this calibre.”
I went there in the mood of just informing myself on it, but deep inside I knew that if at a certain point I saw that the adventure was feasible, I would do everything possible to join the next edition.
“Keep calm for now”, I tried to comfort myself. “Listen and we‟ll see what happens.”
The first time I had heard about the Mongol Rally had been a year earlier during one of those afternoons with friends and beers when you watch one YouTube video after another. That day we ended up looking for motorbike routes across the Himalayas and from there we moved to browsing for trips across the most inhospitable places on Earth until one of them particularly caught our attention. Cars without any extra preparation as those you can normally see in the city appeared running around at full speed across Mongolia. In one of the images you could read “Mongolia Rally” so we googled it. It was the discovery of an incredible adventure. In 2004, a group of friends decided to do a road trip to Mongolia. They were only six cars, but they made it. At getting there, they were overwhelmed to realise the needs of the kids living on the streets, so it occurred to them that they could organize a charity rally to raise funds for a new orphanage.
Could we do something like that? We were enthusiastic and already imagined ourselves rolling across the desert on my mom‟s old Renault Kangoo. None of us had a very stable job, neither a relationship so formal as to take it really seriously. For a few summers I had been alternating crappy contracts as a lifeguard and pool attendant with jobs that never raised much interest in me. That particular year I was working as the maintenance operator of a luxurious gym and was experiencing a work conflict with the company, so I wanted an exit from all that as soon as possible. Travelling by motorbike had always been one of my greatest passions. I had travelled in Morocco, Turkey and to Cape North, but I had been wishing to so something special for quite some time. I was willing once and for all to go somewhere far, really far, and I thought that maybe the opportunity had come to give way to all that restlessness.
There are moments when even we, the greatest sceptics, cannot avoid thinking about the laws of destiny. I remember that a few days later I received an email from Bernardino Rosendo, the famous Spanish motorcyclist who, among other adventures, travelled around the world on a motorbike back in the ‟80s. I had gotten in touch with him quite some time ago after emailing the SoloMoto magazine where he published articles on his adventures. I was curious to find out if he was still travelling and where he was based, but the magazine‟s editorial desk went further and put me in touch with him. We quickly turned into online friends. I wrote to him once in a while, and Bernardino would reply kindly to all my emails telling me he was living and working in the Netherlands and that he now had little time to travel for pleasure.
That day, however, he sent me an email which would, without me knowing it then, turn my life around. He was telling me that the organisation of the Mongol Rally had invited him to Barcelona for the presentation of the 2010 edition, and he suggested me to attend, so that we meet in person. I would, at last, meet face to face the man who had aroused my interest in the journeys on a motorbike when I was a youngster. On top of it, I would be able to get first-hand information about what that rally across Mongolia, which I had stumbled upon a few days earlier, really consisted of.
Tinta Roja is one of those charming establishments in the El Poble-sec neighbourhood of Barcelona. That night it was packed, but everyone listened carefully in silence.
“Above all, you should know that the Mongol Rally is not a competition, but a journey of adventure and a charity project. The order of arrivals does not matter; what counts is to arrive at Ulaanbaatar. The route and time you take depend on each of you. Once you‟re there, your vehicle will be sold at auction and that money will be part of your donation apart from the 900 euro registration fee and the 1500 euro that you pay as contribution.”
The organiser was a bloke under forty, red-haired and tremendously freckled, who expressed himself in a forced Spanish, with an accent in the style of Dennis Noyes, the U.S. motorcycle journalist. He explained that that year there would be three starting points in Europe: one in London and two more in Milan and Barcelona.
“You‟ll have to reach Klenova, a village near Prague, in three days. There we‟ll get together with all the teams coming from the rest of the world and you‟ll receive the formal documents. The vehicles will be checked and after a party night the rally will start for real. Are there any doubts or questions?”
No one said anything. It was as if everyone but me had it all clear.
Our private Dennis Noyes explained that only cars of less than 10 years of age and not exceeding 1300 c.c. were allowed, as well as motorbikes of up to 125 c.c. no matter their age. A third group of vehicles which could be of public service were also accepted: from ambulances to fire trucks and even coaches. It was clear that the organisation was not taking responsibility for whatever might happen during the journey across Europe and Asia.
“This is neither a race, nor an organised caravan, so you yourselves will have to resolve the issues that come up on your way, without our help. We do all the paperwork for you so that you can leave Mongolia. Remember that there are places within the country, drop off points, where you can leave your vehicle if you can‟t keep on going to the finish line. So if you‟re left stranded in the middle of the desert, the best you can do is try to reach one of those points however you can.”
Back then I could hardly imagine that one day I‟d have to recall those words.
“No one should fool themselves; this is fun, but dangerous. You should understand in what you‟re getting involved. If you get robbed or experience a mishap on your way, the organisation will not take responsibility. Have in mind that the police in many of the countries you would cross are corrupt which is an additional complication. Roads are rather dangerous, so choose your route well, drive with great caution and do not do it during the night. Any doubts?”
“Will the organisation help us with visas?” a guy in the last row asked with a timid voice.
“Of course. However, it is just an optional service we offer and it is paid separately. If anyone wants to manage their visas by themselves, no problem. You have freedom in that sense, too. More questions?... Okay, then I‟m leaving you with Bernardino‟s presentation. I‟ll be around anyway, so if you want to ask me anything, do not hesitate to do so.”
It was then when I realised that I had Bernardino Rosendo next to me. We greeted each other very quickly, happy to have finally met, and he went to show a number of slides with which he illustrated some of his adventures.
Shortly after the presentation ended, a man came to me asking how I was thinking to go. He was a man of white hair and beard around his seventies. He had a bulky belly and glasses for close-up vision which were hanging around his neck. He was dressed for the occasion, in a beige safari vest… He was only missing an Indiana Jones hat and a pair of binoculars to complete the kit of the perfect urban adventurer. I replied that it was impossible for me to do it that year, so I was just attending to get information.
“What will you be travelling in?” I asked out of courtesy.
“There will be two of us going in an ambulance that a company sold us at a good price.”
“What‟s your approximate budget?” This was actually what had me most worried about the adventure.
“For one thing or another, about eleven thousand euro.”
It was clear that this guy wasn‟t going to be my source of inspiration, but I took the opportunity to get the answer to another question, as I had absolutely no idea how much time was needed to go from Barcelona to Mongolia.
“About a month… Well, in fact we‟ll have to make if for less, as my teammate won‟t get so many days off.”
His answer made me smile because I started feeling that the odyssey could be feasible. Thus, I got inspired to talk to more people, although I did not know anybody. A couple told me how the year before they were 300 km away from Ulaanbaatar when the timing belt of their old Renault Twingo said it was enough. They had not done anything special with the car, neither changes to the shock-absorbers, nor special tyres. They only paid attention to driving with care and did not even get a flat tyre.
After a while, I finally managed to find myself alone with Bernardino and enjoy the stories of his adventures with a few beers until we got interrupted by my future ex whom I had convinced to join us after work. I owed the little Russian I spoke back then to her, as she was from Moldova. I still remember her very pretty, with long blond hair and a charming smile, although when she cast a serious look at you, you could feel the pressure of the whole KGB on your bones. I tried to pass on to her that adventuresome spirit that was intoxicating me at the time. In a way, it was an endeavour to lay the groundwork for admitting that I had made the decision to run that adventure in a more than imminent future.
Little by little, more people were joining us and between beers and jokes we decided to go for dinner at a pizzeria next-door. There I met Manuel, a very nice fellow from Cadiz who could not be more than 30. He said he was going to do the rally on a motorbike and he was calling himself Mosquito Team. I instantly realized he was indeed “my kind of guy.”
“What kind of bike are you riding?”
“A Yamaha XT 125. That is why Mosquito Team, for the noise from the engine.”
“Haha… Have you travelled a lot by bike?”
“I haven‟t gotten my license yet! This would be my first time. So far the closest to travelling by motorcycle I‟ve done was when I went from Cadiz to Los Caños de Meca1 on a Vespino SC. We were with a friend, both in wetsuits and I was riding pillion with two boards, one under each arm. When the police saw us, they stopped us… but we all ended up laughing and they didn‟t even fine us.”
1 A village about 60 km away from Cadiz.
That lad was for real, I loved him. He was on board of an adventure, like the one before, without having any experience. I saw myself giving it too much thought, being too cautious. Sometimes one just needs to go with the flow and see what happens later. We ended up having dinner with the feeling of having shared a great evening. I said a warm goodbye to all of them, especially to Bernardino whom I did not know when I was going to meet again. I wouldn‟t meet the rest of the group until the day of the rally‟s opening at the Barcelona harbour.
I wouldn‟t miss that moment for anything in the world. I felt moved by the reencounter, and although that morning I still wanted to leave with them, I promised myself that I would do everything possible to try this next summer. From that day on and during the following weeks I switched my computer on impatient to find out how it was going for good fella Manuel and his friend “Ati”, a motorcyclist from Madrid who had chosen to do the rally on a Yamaha TW. The anticipated news appeared on social media about one month later.
“Hello, everyone! I‟m informing you that, although you may not believe it, I did manage to reach Ulaanbaatar by motorbike! And on top of it, we, together with Ati (Kame House team), were the first ones to do it on bikes. Hugs for all.”
They did it in one month and without any experience! It was fantastic, I was very happy for them. Seeing them achieve it gave me the push I needed. That same September I deposited the registration fee as soon as they opened the process for the next edition.
“There‟s no turning back now,” I thought. “Next year going to Mongolia on a motorbike!” And the phone rang.