Two friends enjoyed the adventure of a lifetime as they drove 10,000 miles across more than a dozen countries in a 13-year-old Nissan Micra.
After speaking with a friend about doing an epic challenge, Oliver Craig, of Morpeth, discovered the Mongol Rally and decided to give it a go.
Fellow University of Hull student William Hardie, from Nottingham, came on board a few weeks later and the two men joined hundreds of people at the start point – Goodwood Circuit in Sussex.
They saw some spectacular sights and were both delighted to meet so many friendly people in places such as Iran and Uzbekistan.
Mongol Rally organisers The Adventurists (its ethos is to ‘make the world less boring’) describe it as the greatest motoring adventure on the planet as it involves travelling from England to Mongolia in a small and cheap car.
They also did the challenge to raise money for mental health charity Mind and the total amount donated so far is about £3,300, including Gift Aid.
In Europe, France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria were among the countries they went through.
The journey also included going across Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and parts of Russia. After the ‘fascinating landscape’ of Mongolia, they reached the finish just over the border in Ulan Ude, Russia.
Oliver said: “It was a bit strange when we got to Ulan Ude because we were both excited and exhausted and we said to each other that we’ve done something incredibly epic, how do we top that?
“In the Asian section of the challenge, many people spoke to us about what we were doing and asked us where we were going.
“A lot of people make assumptions of Iran based on news coverage, but we found that the Iranian people are very friendly and there were occasions when we were driving slowly where motorists drove next us to us and handed us some fruit.
“We had some great experiences. For example, when we reached the Uzbekistan border, one of the border guards recommended a nearby restaurant.
“The people there didn’t speak English, but we used hand signals to communicate and it was a fun evening. They treated us as special guests and we were frequently given shots of the local brand of vodka.
“We were also invited to people’s homes a few times.
“There was a bizarre moment when we were in the Altai region of Russia and we camped next to a river near an actual camp site with huts.
“At about 1am, William woke me up saying ‘there’s a woman in our tent’.
“She was muttering to herself and it looked like she had consumed a few too many drinks. We tried to send a message using Google Translate and she eventually left – we laughed about it the next day, but it was scary at the time.
“The scenery in Mongolia is spectacular. It’s a fascinating landscape and it was definitely the least globalised country we visited.
“There were yaks and camels walking across the road and eagles soaring in the air.
“The longest stint was about 1,000 miles from Sofia in Bulgaria to Ankara in Turkey as we needed to make a visa application by a certain date, but we had enough time for a small detour to see the Buzludzha Monument (located in the Central Balkan range in Bulgaria).
“It was an amazing sight as it looks like a UFO sat on top of a mountain.
“We had windscreen cracks, exhaust issues – which were fixed by friendly Mongolians – and the rear shock absorbers were completely worn by the end of the challenge.
“But we never had any engine problems despite the various terrain we covered. The Micra was fantastic, it’s the ideal car for such a journey.”
William added: “The stickers we had on our car were a good way to start a conversation with people, particularly the one with the world map showing where we were going.
“We visited some amazing places, one of which was the Door to Hell fire crater in Turkmenistan.
“We were part of a convoy of Mongol Rally cars heading to the site. We had to stop and pay 10 dollars for the local 4x4 service because of the number of potholes, but it was well worth it as the crater was an absolutely fantastic sight.
“It felt great to reach the finish point of the challenge after all that time, but it was also a bit sad because it signalled the end of our journey.”
They said the road networks were very good in Iran and Russia, but potholes caused problems in places such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and in Mongolia, roads turned into dirt tracks and at some points they drove no faster than 20km/h.
They also had to cope with temperatures of between 40 and 50 degrees Centigrade in Iran and Turkmenistan, as the region was experiencing a heatwave at the time.
In parts of Asia, they travelled with two Brazilian men who were also taking part in the Mongol Rally.
Speaking about the highlights of the first two weeks of the journey and raising more than their £2,500 target, Oliver said: “We were allowed to drive around the famous Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit in Germany after taking some items off the roof.
“It was an absolutely brilliant experience, even though we were probably one of the slowest cars on the course.
“I celebrated my 22nd birthday in the beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic. We picked up some hitchhikers in Hungary and stayed in the same hostel as them in Belgrade, Serbia, where we had a good chat.
“We’re absolutely over the moon with the amount we have raised so far for Mind and we’re very grateful to all those who have made a donation.
“It meant I wasn’t just doing the rally for myself and I’m glad we’re supporting a very worthwhile charity.”
After completing the challenge, they got on a flight to Moscow from Ulan Ude and Oliver also spent some time in St Petersburg after getting a train from the capital.
He was impressed with both cities and said the Russian people he met were very friendly.
After two months abroad, he went back to the UK on a plane journey to Newcastle from St Petersburg via Copenhagen in Denmark.
To make a donation to Mind, go to www.justgiving.com/mind-matter