This summer I drove an ambulance 10,000 miles from my hometown of Bristol to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The trip was part of an annual event called the Mongol Rally where teams raise money for charity as well as donating their vehicle to the Mongolians at the end.
You might think that this is a fairly unique thing to have done but as I bragged about the rally in the run up to us leaving in July, I increasingly found that everyone knew someone who had done the trip before, or was about to do it. Every year this event attracts about 300 teams with an average of four team members, most of whom are students. I rarely meet anyone from the University of Surrey, an establishment about 12 miles away from Royal Holloway, but I did manage to find a ‘Surreyian’ in the Gobi Desert, washing himself with a mobile shower that he had attached to his Peugeot 206. We both marvelled at how close our universities are and yet we had managed to find each other 10,000 miles away in the middle of a desert.
You might also think that this sort of experience would bring you closer to your team-mates but unless you went to a boarding school, two months in the back of an ambulance with four of your friends will amplify all the little irritations you might have had with them at school by about ten thousand times. I still fail to find funny the hospitalisation by alcohol poisoning that my good friend Rob brought upon himself whilst in the Ukraine. Rob, a self-proclaimed turbo-lad, had managed several vodka shots, absinthe cocktails, whisky, long island iced teas, gin and tonics, champagne and wine before being admitted to the Odessa General Hospital – described by his doctor as being ‘like a horror film’. The twelve hours following Rob’s self-inflicted illness were among the most bizarre of my entire life. The Odessa doctors condemned Rob to up to a week in the Odessa infections centre, a place crawling with crickets and helpfully described by a patient in the ward as ‘the most dangerous hospital in the Ukraine’.
We decided that our friend was in mortal peril and that the only way to save him would be to steal him from the Ukrainians and drive overnight to Kiev where the British Embassy would give us sanctuary and find Rob a nice, clean, well-funded hospital. By the time we had come to this decision the Odessa doctors had closed off the dormitories, where a semi-conscious Rob was discovering what it feels like to have 10 litres of water pass through his rear-end via a bucket and hose. I pretended not to understand the doctors request for payment and after something of a struggle, Rob was out of the hospital and, amusingly, in the back of an ambulance.
But at least it was our ambulance, our sturdy mountain-climbing Land Rover ambulance, that had been checked by two garages and declared to be invincible. It came as something of a surprise, therefore, when the back-right tyre blew out and then disintegrated during the six-hour journey to Kiev. Even more debilitating was the steam that began pouring out of the engine, creating rainforest conditions in the cab.
We arrived in Kiev with Rob still taking toilet stops at an in-human rate and the ambulance wildly over-heating. Turns out that the British Embassy for Ukraine is, honestly, open Monday-Friday 09:00 to 17:00. The Americans had six security guards but, again, shared the same opening hours as the Post Office. Fortunately it did not take a huge amount of initiative to find the nearby American Medical Centre where we left Rob to be rehabilitated. In the intervening hours we were rescued by a benevolent friend of ours who turned out to own a number of Land Rover garages in Kiev (as well as a string of coffee shops, an island, a fleet of Maseratis, a yacht and several powerboats). A few days in the lap of luxury soon sorted out Rob and apart from border delays and a wheel falling off in Mongolia, the rest of the trip passed without any more major hold-ups.
The Mongol Rally is just one of those experiences that is easier to complain about than to be positive about but in reality we all had an incredible time and I would recommend anyone to go on it. The stockpile of potential Facebook profile pictures will last well into your thirties and you will hold all the trump cards in conversations about holiday disasters. We got to see Prague, Vienna, Amsterdam, Berlin, Kiev (don’t go there) and Beijing (go there, it’s cool). We got to hold a golden eagle, shoot an AK-47 and swim the Beijing Olympic swimming pool. We learned how to fix an engine with gaffer tape and how to bribe foreign policemen with copies of Nuts and 20p coins. We also raised over £5000 for charity, £2000 of which paid to equip a new St. John Ambulance local support vehicle in the UK. The remaining £3000 went to Mercy Corps and CNCF in Mongolia and our ambulance is now used by a children’s hospital in Ulaanbaatar. It is not organised by a gap year tour programme – you are on your own, there are no safety nets and you get to decide what you want to do. It takes two months, your friends will annoy you and you will end up with a Gordon-Brown-sized hole in your finances but for sheer entertainment value and travelling experience, you will not be disappointed!