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The Hardest Part of the Mongol Rally

isn't the physical distance.  by Paula Wood, Team Captain

Originally posted to Medium on March 20th, 2016

The hard part about the Mongol Rally isn’t the distance we have to drive, nor the physical endurance. But before I get to that, here’s how it started.

I found out about the Mongol Rally in a design blog, of all things. I had been considering what to do for my 50th birthday, which at that time was only three years away (yikes!!!), and I wanted to do several long overland road trips to celebrate. Route ideas included the entire west coast of Africa through the Sahara and down the coast to Cape Town, the length of the South American Andes, and a trek across Central Asia. How would I do it alone? Could I get anyone to do it with me? Would I be safe?


Then I read this article on Cool Hunting. Holy shit, I thought. This is it. Drive all the way across Central Asia with a bunch of other people nominally following my route. It was relatively cheap as spit, because all you needed was a 1-liter-engine hatchback, nominal supplies, and las huevas. I could travel solo, but also maybe have the possibility of backup if I needed it.
And then I realized I couldn’t do it alone. I had to find a team.


I have long been a proponent of solo travel, and have gone many places by myself, most recently traveling solo after a group photography trip in Cuba directly to Namibia, where I rented a Toyota Hilux 4WD pickup truck and drove myself through the nearly deserted countryside to Sossusvlei, and then up the Skeleton Coast. I’ve enjoyed solo travel specifically because I can control the details, I can come and go as I please without a big discussion, and I don’t have to rely on other people’s process to get the trip happening in the first place.


But the Mongol Rally, consisting of a 10,000 mile drive in a shitty 1-liter-engine hatchback, really couldn’t be undertaken alone. As much as it made me a little (OK, a lot) anxious, I needed other people.


Finding a team

So I started trying to find a team. My first teammate was a Boeing engineer and motorcycle-riding gearhead. Perfect! But he ended up not being able to commit to the length of the trip. Then no one volunteered. I looked for months, almost giving up hope that I would find people who could take that much time away from work and their lives.

During the 2015 Rally last year, I started re-posting photos and video of the 2015 teams driving across some of the most insane geography in the world in those tiny underpowered hatchbacks. I was becoming obsessed, and I figured other people would, too.

The Nerdventurists with Team Hop, Skip, & a Jump, on the 2015 Mongol Rally. Photo by TRAVELSTACHE.

I once again posted a call for teammates. And I got responses! At one point my team was me and two other women, with an average age of maybe 52 years old. YAS! But they also couldn’t commit. Then my most excellent sister-in-law, Tabitha, said yes! We had a team of two! Tabitha is a professional writer and social media expert, so that would come in handy! And also, I am so happy that she joined my family last year. She is one of my favorite people in the world.

Last autumn, Tabitha and I started working on a travel consultancy called WeLive Trek Collective, which will help individuals undertake life-transforming travel with mindfulness and coaching. (“Take the trip you need, not the trip you want.”) So we decided that the best test case for this venture was the Mongol Rally and our team building efforts. Little did I know at the time that this process would work every challenge I had when it comes to trusting people and building relationships.

(The name WeLive is from another wonderful friend of ours, Wynne, who says “Woman, we live!” when things are good. She also says it with different inflection when things are not so good — “Woman… we live” — to remind ourselves that we are living life no matter what.)

One of my oldest friends referred me to a friend of hers, Brianna, so we asked Bri to write a pros/cons list to see if there was a fit. We were astounded at the message we got back. She had studied sociolinguistics in college and would brush up on her Russian! She had hitchhiked around Turkey, Georgia, and Iraq the previous winter! She had ridden motorcycles through Cambodia and Laos! She had Red Cross contacts in the ‘Stans. But what we loved the most was when she said she wasn’t sure if she’d done any really big trips. She was perfect for this adventure! Plus she makes cool clothing and accessories: Ministry of Culture.

Then Tabitha’s longtime friend Megan, a professional photographer, asked if she could join. She put such thought and heart into her “why I want to do this” emails that we SO wanted her to come too (see her essay on why she’s doing this). And also, I knew the little engine on a 1-liter hatchback couldn’t haul 4 people and their stuff across 10,000 miles of difficult terrain, and through temperatures that will crest 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

One car becomes two

So we became two cars, short of one teammate. Two cars driving in tandem meant there might be a spare car to tow the other out of trouble, or to make the run to the next bit of civilization to retrieve help.

Bri, Tabitha, Megan, and me. This was the team by the end of 2015.

I’ve done 15,000 mile van tours with bands around the USA, and I stick to the premise that not only do you need a competent driver but you also need a reliable co-driver who reads the map, watches for road signs and hazards, fetches the driver any snacks or beverages, and generally keeps the driver alert, awake, and amused. We could do it with four, but I’d feel better if we had five, so we had a backup person who was fully rested.


Besides, we could be the 2016 version of Fox Force Five.

So we looked. And looked. We had a couple of guys briefly join us, and they were imminently qualified with much travel experience, but they dropped out. No one seemed to be able to commit. And I was all like: “Leave no Megan behind.” Man, it was stressful for Megan, who had done a lot of soul-searching in order to commit to going, only to have the second car in constant uncertainty.

At the beginning of 2016, we cast a wider net. We decided that we really wanted to be an all-woman team. I found a “find a teammate” forum hosted by the organizers of the event, The Adventurists, and it was there that we found our fifth teammate, Alice. WHAT A TEAMMATE. She is a professional solo female traveler and blogger, Alice Teacake, and has had adventures that most people only dream about.

The dream team!

This is the final team. Me, ex-roadie, ex-Creative Director/department manager and lover of spreadsheets. Brianna, rugged traveler and linguist. Tabitha, writer and social media expert, and getter of so many cool free products. Megan, graphic designer, photographer, and videographer. Alice, solo female traveler, blogger, and experienced in media kits and getting sponsors.


Me, Bri, Tabitha, Megan, and Alice. Team #WeLive, Mongol Rally 2016.

And here’s the hard part...

Now comes the hard part, at least for me. Trust. Teamwork.


I have to learn how to trust these women. I’m not very experienced in trusting other people. I didn’t have much supervision growing up, I was moved from school to school, I was a bit feral. I never really had the secure home life that establishes a stable emotional life as an adult. I like people at arm’s distance, or more. And that’s not what this is.

I constantly want to apologize for my occasional lapses into defensiveness and doubt. I keep thinking I’m too much, I’m coming across as a bitch, that I’m pushy, obnoxious. These women will never want to put up with me for that long of a journey. Maybe they won’t even like me after the first 100 miles. All of that deep doubt that is fairly easy for me to ignore on a regular basis is welling up and pouring out of me. My therapist says it’s good for me, but it feels like hell.

People are so much harder for me than anything else. I want to trust my teammates, and I’m having an uneven time if it. Ask me to drive an underpowered car 10,000 miles across the roadless wilds of Central Asia? Sure! Ask me to trust, and even love, my teammates? I’ll be under the bed, chewing out all my fur.

What I thought was a journey of external discovery of new places and countries and people turned out to be the biggest journey of internal discovery. And that’s the point of WeLive. Sometimes the most difficult journeys are inward.

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