This summer, Seth Beck will embark on the mother of all road trips. The 29-year-old Bristol resident and three of his friends have registered for the third annual Mongol Rally. The roadrace begins July 22 in London, England. If all goes well, it will end a few weeks and several thousand miles later in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia.
The daredevil drivers aren't looking for a smooth ride. What would be the fun in that? The point of this trek is not to post a record time, but to have the best adventure -- the "winners" are the ones who complete the trip in the most unsuitable vehicles. The race website, www.mongolrally.com, suggests that the ideal chariot might be a cherry picker. The grand prize? Unbeatable stories.
"The Mongol Rally," the jaunty website explains, "is an 8000-mile dash across 1⁄4 of the earth's surface in cars that most people consider underpowered for doing the shopping. We have no entourage of support vehicles, there is no carefully marked course, there are no professional drivers, fast cars, or even good cars. It's just you, your pants-mobile and thousands of miles of adventure."
An April press release warned, "Previous entrants have been arrested, chased by bandits, deported, accused of spying and been lost hundreds of miles from civilization."
Sounds like fun to Seth Beck. "There are two types of people in this world," he observes. "The people who say, 'Why in the world would you do this?' and the people who ask, 'Why haven't I heard of this yet?'" The lanky engineer, who works as a project manager for Waitsfield's Northern Power Systems, is proud to belong to the latter category. Even so, he finds it hard to describe why he wants to drive a crappy car over some of the world's worst roads. "When it comes down to it," he says, "it's just something I want to do."
The Rally was spawned in 2001, when two young men from the United Kingdom bought an old Fiat in Prague and decided on a whim to drive it to Mongolia. They were turned back part way for a lack of travel visas, but decided they'd stumbled upon a worthy quest.
In 2004, they organized the first Mongol Rally. Six cars made the trip. In 2005, 43 cars left from London; just 14 made it to Ulan Bator. This year, 200 teams, with names like "Dude Where's My Camel," "Drivers of Rohan," and "Genghis Can!" have registered.
Each team is required to pony up a 220 pound entry fee, and kick in an additional 1000 pounds for charity. The race will raise roughly a quarter of a million pounds for groups that fight poverty.
Beck and his buddies have formed two teams, "Mrs. Tigglywinks," and "Lil' Larry." Both will compete under the aegis of Beck's Bad Colonies Motoring Cooperative.
The name is a playful jab at the U.K. Most rally participants hail from across the pond; Beck's teams are two of just five from the U.S. "We're the colonies that went bad for them and spoiled the whole empire," Beck explains. It's the kind of joke a seasoned traveler would make.
Beck certainly qualifies. Raised on a sheep farm in Orwell, he loves survival stories, and has always possessed "a strong desire to travel." While he was an engineering student at Clarkson University, Beck spent a year in New Zealand. Upon graduation, he worked for six years repairing gas turbines for General Electric, and traveled extensively in Europe, South America and Southeast Asia. During that time he got in a lot of recreational travel, and went snowboarding in New Zealand and the Alps.
It was through an obscure snowboarding website that Beck first heard about the Mongol Rally. He talked it over with his wife, and sent out a few emails to recruit some friends, who were as taken by the idea as he was.
Preparing for the rally has proved no small feat, but Beck says that's part of the fun. Even signing up was tricky. Beck had to wake up in the middle of the night to be online when registration began. The 200 available spots filled up in two hours.
Beck began organizing in earnest in November, and now spends a couple hours a day finalizing the logistics. He spends his time updating the whimsical BCMC website, www.badcolonies.org, complete with blog, team bios, and a downloadable fold-up Bad Colonies car.
Beck's also still looking for a real car. So far the BCMC has only one, a white Seat Marbella with 53,000 miles on it that's being housed for them by another team, coincidentally just outside Bristol, England.
As for car #2 -- "It might come down to we just buy one off eBay right before," Beck says.
He's also been scrambling to pay the entry fees, which are fairly steep given the exchange rate. BCMC has held two fundraisers so far, at Positive Pie II, and at the Bobcat Cafe in Bristol. A third Vermont event is scheduled for June 28 at the Two Brothers Tavern in Middlebury.
People who attend can buy space on the cars -- Beck will print up vinyl stickers to attach to the ignominious vehicles. And he's selling t-shirts with the BCMC logo and their motto, "Too lazy to climb Everest." The money they raise will be donated to Mercy Corps, a Scotland-based organization that funds emergency relief efforts, and Send a Cow, a group that provides livestock to impoverished farmers in Africa.
Plotting the route and securing visas has also been a chore. Standing in front of a wall-mounted map in his home office, Beck describes the path his teams will take to Mongolia. The race organizers don't specify which course teams must take, but they recommend various routes, and provide checkpoints for each.
Some are more dangerous than others; for example, Beck will steer his teams clear of Turkmenistan and Iran. They've chosen one of the safer paths, through countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. "None of the countries is on the U.S. watchlist," he notes hopefully.
Beck says the BCMC plans to head from London to Prague, and then either to Moscow or Kiev, they haven't yet decided. Either way, the next stop will be through Kazakhstan to Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Beck has set up a Google map on his website to illustrate the route. If you click on the map pin for Samarkand, a window appears bearing a photo of a mosque and this legend: "Genghis came here for silk and butt kicking. Mrs. Tigglywinks will settle for a beer (or some Windex) and a new clutch."
From Uzbekistan, BCMC will travel through Kyrgyzstan, up through Russia, and into Mongolia. Beck estimates the trip will take about four weeks. That's the length of his vacation from work. "It's gotta take that," he says, "unless I'm imprisoned."
In addition to the entry fees, he's budgeting about $800 per car for gas. He says it should be readily available for most of the trip, but plans to carry a few cans "for the lean stretches after Uzbekistan."
Beck's biggest worry right now, besides slower-than-hoped-for fundraising, is how U.S. foreign policy will play out in the months ahead. "It really worries me that we get into some kind of major conflict with Iran during the trip," he admits.
Beck was in Hong Kong in 1999, when the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Up until that point, he says people had been very friendly. "It was amazing how quickly their attitudes changed," he recalls.
Beck is also still trying to figure out how to fly the BCMC home. Once the race is finished, the cars are auctioned off to the Mongolians, bizarre stickers and all.
"I just envision some sheep or goat herder driving it around the steppe," muses Beck, "owning it for 10 years to come." Like the race itself, it's just hard for some people to imagine.