Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.
Who drives across a third of the world’s surface on a 10,000-mile road trip and doesn’t know how to change a tire? If you guessed Steve Priovolos and Leon Logothetis, the team driving from Britain to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, on the Mongol Rally, you have guessed correctly.
When things go wrong with our car we are always in the unenviable position of having no idea what to do. None.
Tuesday would have been a good day to know what we were doing.
While driving through Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, the front right wheel started to make terrible noises again. Our pothole misadventures of the previous days had caught up with us.
Driving to Uzbekistan was going to be impossible. We needed a mechanic. Pronto. The problem? No one spoke English, and we don't speak Russian.
I returned to the hotel where we had stayed the previous night and pleaded with the bellman to take us to a mechanic. After some arm tugging he obliged. We eventually found the world’s worst mechanic. No way was I going to let this man touch the car.
The bellman took us to another named Vapa. He was first rate, and the car seemed to me to be in safe hands. The next challenge was explaining exactly what the noises were. Here came the stroke of genius.
In Ukraine, we met a man named Eugeny. He had given me his number; he could speak Russian to the mechanic and explain what was wrong with the car. I took out my trusty satellite phone and prayed he would pick up. He did.
After catching up with Eugeny I passed him over to the mechanic who now understood the problem. He fixed the car and even refused payment. I insisted on giving him something, so I took one of the bottles of vodka I had purchased to bribe Russian police (I hadn't needed to) and gave it to him instead. His smile told a thousand words.
Finally we could continue our journey. Or so we thought. Thirty-five miles outside of the capital and about 500 miles from Uzbekistan another more worrisome sound began. This time we were on our own. Being on your own when you don’t know what to do is—how shall I say this?—unfortunate.
There are times in life when you meet people who inspire with their boldness. This was one of those days. We had been downcast these last few days and wondered whether we should quit the rally. As I was pulling up to the Uzbekistani border I noticed a European-looking chap sitting in the scorching heat, next to a bicycle. I was intrigued.
His story was stunning. His name is Francois, and he's French. He quit his job as a software engineer in Paris and decided to ride his bicycle to India. He had been on the road for 91 weeks.
But why? He was fed up with spending life in a cubicle and wanted to free himself from the material world.
His perseverance was astonishing. From facing near deportation in Serbia to riding through the deserts of Uzbekistan without water, this man was unstoppable. He reminded me that humans can achieve whatever they put their minds to.
Driving 10,000 miles across two continents, as we are doing in this Mongol Rally, is an achievement. But riding a bicycle for nearly two years is a tour de force. Francois, if you are reading this, keep riding, my friend.
As the sun disappeared over the horizon, Steve and I were about to be saved. Our angel for the night was an Uzbekistani man named Sunat. We were trying to drive to the city of Samarkand, home of the Registan, which was the center of the ancient city. It was said to be so beautiful that Alexander the Great stopped his pillaging to marvel at its charms.
We never made it to Samarkand.
The roads stopped us again, and we had no choice but to look for a field where we could camp. Setting up a tent on land that belongs to someone else without asking might cause a problem. I got out of the car and started to speak to random Uzbekistani men. It was more like sign language really. My mission was to find someone to let us sleep in their field. I finally found someone willing to help.
Sunat came to our rescue. His hospitality was exceptional. He and his family operated a roadside melon business, so he fed us melons. Within a few minutes of our arrival word had gotten out, and about 20 of the villagers joined in the festivities. After our melon feast he insisted we set up camp next to his stables.
All in all a successful evening of bonding with half an Uzbekistani village. The screeching trucks on the highway didn’t enhance our night’s sleep, but it was all forgotten in the morning when he made us breakfast. (More melons.)
It was a magnificent experience.