Mongolia seems to inspire people and make them engage in kickass travels all the time. Equally kickass as ‘GOLFING ACROSS MONGOLIA’ is the adventure of the Rolling Cones and their pink Ice Cream truck travels from London to Ulan Baator, the capital city of Mongolia.
Laid off from his corporate finance job in 2009, Joe Pyrek, prepared to do what anyone in his predicament would do: drive a pink ice-cream truck halfway around the world to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to raise funds for charity.
Participating in the 2009 Mongol Rally, Pyrek and three teammates logged more than 10,000 miles making their way across deserts, mountain ranges, large bodies of water, and 18 countries in Europe and Asia. They arrived in the Mongolian capital 35 days after they pushed off from Chichester, England — though without their truck, which had broken down in Tajikistan, some 2,000 miles from the finish line.
In spite of that they ended up raising about $5,000 for Mercy Corps, a Portland, Ore.-based global charity.
The entire experience, he says, was absolutely mind blowing: “There was a point on the trip, in the middle of Turkmenistan, where I am on my belly in the middle of an extremely hot, scorpion-infested desert, digging sand out from under the back tires of the truck — and I couldn’t believe I was enjoying it.”
Pyrek first considered entering the event in 2007, after meeting rally participants during a trip to Ulaanbaatar to see a friend. He had himself just completed an autorickshaw rally across India during a month-long assignment there with Capital One. Pyrek was a financial analyst at a bank before they laid off 15 percent of its workforce four months after he signed up. Though his job loss has been a financial strain, Pyrek says “it made the decision to take the trip that much easier.”
His teammates were Bert Muhleman and Pyrek’s childhood friends Andrew Ritz and Alex Neuhausen. Neuhausen, helped raise funds and recruit sponsors. Ritz, a programmer and certified mechanic “worked with me many, many late nights and weekends, building the truck and planning the trip.”
The Rolling Cones and a Pink Truck
Their truck — really a 150,000-mile-old newspaper delivery van — needed a lot of work, which Pyrek and Ritz did themselves. As for the ice-cream idea, Pyrek says: “I wanted to make a splash with the organizers, other ralliers, and people along the route, so an ice-cream truck seemed like a great way to do that. Then, you need a fun, witty name … and ‘The Rolling Cones’ came to me. Alex thought a pink truck would be great. Andrew designed the striping and flames, while I designed the map decal layout with a good friend that runs a local sign business.”
All were less than confident about the truck’s stamina for the expedition. “We wanted to make it a challenge but feared that a truck specifically not designed for what we wanted to do with it would not make it.” Their fears were realized when it broke down.
But that is more than normal in a rally where the organisers tell future ralliers: “If you want a full support crew (or any support crew), you’re in the wrong place. If nothing goes wrong, then everything has gone wrong. If you’re worried, stay at home … you are supposed to be on an adventure, not in a nursery class …”
And adventures there were indeed, even before the rally.
Pyrek had arranged to ship the truck out of Baltimore at the end of June to arrive in Southampton, England on July 11, a week before the rally began. The team would fly to Britain to pick it up. “I got a call on July 1 saying that the ship had an issue and that our truck was to be shipped out the following week and arrive in Southampton on July 20th. This wasn’t suitable, as the rally’s start was July 18th.”
Working furiously to find a solution, Pyrek ended up arranging for the truck to be sent to Germany instead, where it would arrive a week before the rally. “We flew to the U.K. and then flew to Germany, picked up the truck, and drove it back to the U.K. to have it there for the start.
“A member of another rally team that we had never met before was kind enough to fly to Germany too to help us drive it back nonstop.”
Among the trip’s many happy moments, Pyrek recalls, was the team’s arrival at the rally campground the night before the start. There was an online forum for rally participants, “so everyone was aware of our troubles with shipping and that there was a chance we would miss the start. Everyone was also aware of how much time and effort we had put into the truck, so when we got there, we literally got a standing ovation from the other participants.”
Helping one another, sharing, and making friends for life, he says, was a common theme during their travels, and not just within the rally community. They were touched by the generosity of families and individuals along the way. “People would invite us into their homes to feed us, perhaps because we were a novelty passing through their small town, or more so, because we were travelers, and well … this is just what you did for travelers.”
There were many delicious meals, but the best, Pyrek says, was in T’Bilisi, Georgia, a repast of pork, cheese, and wine. The best bread was Uzbek. Across the Caspian Sea, mutton was the local meat of choice.
The team also drank some real “knock-off Coke,” prepared street side. First made during the Soviet era, the water-and-syrup mixtures are still drunk by local people in the former Soviet republics, Pyrek says, despite the availability of the real thing today.
From the Rolling Cones’ perspective, the opportunity to meet local people and experience their cultures with them was the core reason for the trip. But they themselves were an object of interrogation for the locals. “Everyone we met just had so many questions; they were curious why we were there, where we had been, where we were going, and what this giant pink truck was.”
The scenery, natural and manmade, was humbling. “Some of the places had little impact from humans, and at night, you’d see a sky full of stars brighter than you had ever seen before,” Pyrek recalls. The cities, with their massive engineering structures, including a 3-4-mile tunnel in Tajikistan, were equally remarkable. Taking time to explore cultural sites, the group found Bukhara especially enchanting.
The good times far outweighed t
he bad: “when we had to dig our truck out of the sand; border crossings that took over 50 hours; days when it was 130 degrees; many, many days without bathing or other basic amenities; days with little sleep.” When remembering those moments, he and his friends have “ended up in tears, laughing so hard” about the adversities.
There were, nonetheless, some dire moments.
One of them being the ferry crossing of the Caspian Sea and its aftermath. “The sister ship to the one we were on had sunk in 2005, with only one survivor, but, more than that, this ship was in horrific shape. The lifeboats were made of rotting wood and had many holes in them, and I had little confidence that the ship’s crew could deal with any sort of emergency.
“The crossing isn’t very far, only about 90 miles from Baku to Turkmenbashi, but it took more than two nights for us to get there, and then they kept us in the harbor without allowing us to dock. This wouldn’t have been that bad had it not been for the 110-degree heat and the fact that the ship had run out of water. It wasn’t so much the fear that you’ll die, but being in a spot where you can do nothing.”
The saddest occasion, Pyrek says, was easily when “it sank in that we were going to have to leave our truck. The roads — and lack of them — had destroyed our radiator tanks. Without the ability to cool the engine, there was no way for us to go forward with the truck. We had the option of jerry rigging it and using other radiators, but our backs were up against the wall with visas — even if we got it fixed, we probably would not have left the country on time.” The buyer was an ex-Soviet cognac factory, he says, “where it will hopefully have a long and continually hilarious life — it came so far from being a simple newspaper delivery vehicle.
The worst was when they arrived in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital (by hitching a ride after selling the truck), only to learn that many flights had been grounded due to the terrorist bombings of the presidential offices, police cars, and the airport. “We didn’t think we could get flights out and would then be thrown in jail for visa violation.” Moreover, Pyrek was unsure whether the cash sale of their truck was permissible. “I was really sweating when we went through customs, afraid that they’d ask about the stamps in my passport regarding the truck.”
They got out after finding a flight, with literally hours left on their visas.
Are there more rallies in his future? Absolutely, says Pyrek, citing events in South America, Africa, and India that he would like to be part of. The team, he says, has joked about “doing the Mongol Rally again and trying to buy back the truck in Penjikent and take it the rest of the way.” He would indeed like to try again in 2011: “part of me still wants to make it to Ulaanbaatar with my car.”
Pyrek, who is currently a financial consultant would recommend rallies to anyone of reasonable health. To new graduates, he offers this particular advice: “Time only becomes more valuable. Too often, we try to grow up too quickly — immediately get what we think is our dream job, get married, get ‘settled.’ Many may dismiss an adventure like this off the bat due to time and cost. In the grand scheme of things, a month isn’t that long. Take advantage of the freedom you now have, and don’t worry about spending an extra buck or two on life-changing experiences. You have the rest of your life to sit behind a desk. Take a chance, step outside your comfort zone, and experience the world around you.”
Enduring friendships almost certainly will be forged along the way. Perhaps more incredible than the adventure is “the fact that I was able to find three likeminded idiots to go with me,” Pyrek muses. “It’s not everyone about whom you can say: ‘Oh, him, yeah, we drove an ice-cream truck halfway around the world together.’”