Most people dread losing their way. Unreliable maps, unlabeled roads and unclear directions may have ruined countless roadtrips.
But some seek the unknown, getting lost, relying on their wits and the kindness of strangers in the Mongol Rally, a 10,000-mile race with no course, route or guides.
The Mongol Rally is a charity race that begins in Prague, Czechia and ends in Uli Udi, Russia, just north of central Mongolia. Jake Leland, a Carnation native and Cedarcrest High School graduate will race with hundreds of other teams alongside his wife Madison and younger brother Jaren Stevenson.
“I think it’ll be a fun adventure,” Jake said. “But it’s also bigger than that, we want to make an impact and raise as much money as we can.”
Jake grew up in the Carnation and Duvall area before moving to Chicago with Madison. Stevenson graduated from Cedarcrest this year and will join them for about half the race.
Jake and Madison worked in Chicago for about five years when they said they began to stagnate in their lives. This led them to quit their jobs in favor of traveling the world.
They set out to simply visit various locations and learn about diverse cultures, when Madison discovered the Mongol Rally. A friend tagged her in a rally Facebook video of the race, saying, “This is crazy, you should do it!”
“The more I thought about it,” Madison said. “The more I thought, why not?”
This was in January so Jake and Madison scrambled to prepare for the start date, July 15.
“The whole culture of the rally is that you drive the crappiest car you can,” Jake said. “Luckily we’ve found ourselves a trusty steed to lead us through this journey – a 20 year-old Ford Fiesta that we bought for £100 from some guy on Facebook.”
The three rules
The rally lists three rules: “Small and s**t”; “on your own”; and “save the world.”
The first rule requires rally teams to drive the smallest and least functional vehicle possible, with a 1-liter engine or smaller.
“They want your car to break down and have those meaningful interactions with local people and figure out how to fix your car and get where you’re going,” Jake said.
“It’s a car you can fix with shoelaces and zip ties,” Madison added.
This rule honors The Adventurists and their undying pursuit to make life less boring.
“Four wheeled rally machines must be crap and have an engine no bigger than one litre of yak’s milk (1000cc),” The Adventurists wrote on the rules webpage. “With a small car, you’re more likely to break down so you’re more likely to interact with the locals, so you can remind yourself you’re alive without jamming a fork into your eyeballs.”
The Adventurists created and ran the first Mongol Rally in 2004. Six teams competed and four made it to the end, which reflects the overall average completion rate of 70 percent.
The second rule requires each rally team to make the trip on their own, with no outside support other than the strangers they meet. While teams can make friends and convoy together at times, the spirit of the rally is for teams to be on their own, Jake said.
“We could tell you everything you need to know about all the countries, roads and borders between here and Russia to ensure you have a safe, uncomplicated journey,” The Adventurists wrote. “But if it’s not dangerous and you aren’t lost, you’re not on an adventure.”
The Adventurists reported that 240 of the 296 teams completed the 2017 rally. The third rule asks each of these teams to raise £1,000 for charity.
At least £500 will go towards The Adventurists’ chosen charity, Cool Earth, an environmental charity that works with indigenous rainforest populations to preserve forests that would disappear within 18 months without intervention.
“We sat down at HQ and pondered on what we could do that will actually save the world and continue the fight to make it less boring,” The Adventurists wrote. “Then it hit us … we must save every rainforest in the world so future generations have somewhere to get stuck … but because the world would be s**t without them.”
The rest of the teams’ money goes towards their own charity of choice. Jake and Madison decided to donate to Smile Train, which provides corrective surgery for children with cleft lips and palates.
Jake had a cleft lip as a baby and said that the charity resonated with him. Jake and Madison visited a Smile Train surgeon and patients in Jaipur, India as they were traveling and raising money earlier this year.
“It was never a big impact on my life because I could get the surgeries,” Jake said. “But I didn’t realize that many other people around the world didn’t have that option, it really is a big impact physically and socially. All the operations cost about $250 and that can change a child’s life.”
The Adventurists have raised more than £7 million for charity between their various adventures over the years.
The group organizes seven recurring adventures, anything from the Kraken Cup, an eight-day Ngalawa race off the coast of Tanzania, to the Icarus Trophy, a 1,000-mile motorized paraglider race across South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The Adventurists also work to develop new adventures constantly, with the 11th adventure on the way. Promotional videos indicate the event will put racers in a chair, strapped to numerous whether balloons, thousands of feet in the air somewhere above Africa.
The big adventure
Jake and Madison said they began this journey out of a desire to find adventure and get out of a mundane routine.
“We’d been set in our ways,” Madison said. “We’d been in Chicago for five years and wanted to get out of that.”
They began teaching English in Sri Lanka earlier this year and are now in the United Kingdom preparing for the rally.
Rally teams can finish the race between Aug. 10 and Sept. 15 and there is no established route. The Adventurists call this the “un-route.”
“It’s brilliantly simple,” they wrote. “We give you a start point and a finish point but where you go or what you do in between is entirely your steaming bag of adventuring magic. We recommend that you don’t spend too long planning your route or poring over useful maps or guidebooks. Find out what’s there when you arrive.”
Some teams have traveled as far north as the Arctic Circle, while some go as far south as Iran.
Most teams take one of three general routes that all go east through Europe and Turkey to the Caspian sea. Teams will then either go north through Russia, south through Iran or hitch a ride on a cargo ship across to Turkmenistan.
Jake and Madison decided to take the central route across the Caspian sea with a quick stop in Georgia to send Stevenson home in time to prepare for college.
“He was really excited but really nervous to tell our mom,” Jake said with a laugh. “He did leave it for us to mention. My mom wasn’t all too excited for [Jaren] to come on this trip, but I promised her I wouldn’t leave him stranded hungry in the desert, and that seemed to help win her over.”
Jake and Madison are expecting to be wildly out of their comfort zone but are excited to go off the grid, getting away from social media and the technology they use every day. The trio will set out on their adventure after the launch party on July 15 with 300 other teams ready to get lost and see the world.
“Travel can be a really important thing in experiencing cultures and interacting with people who you think are so different from you,” Jake said. “But you realize we’re not really all that different. We all laugh, we all cry and we all have our religions. So I think all this can open your eyes to the fact that all humans are the same.”