Borders, Bandits, And Baby Wipes: A Big Adventure In A Tiny Car
Inspired and challenged by his quests of “getting there,” Bassam Tarazi and two friends signed on for the infamous Mongol Rally, a nearly 10,000-mile road trip from London to Mongolia, through terrain that would make a mountain goat’s knees buckle, in a vehicle that was little more than a go-kart.
Borders, Bandits, and Baby Wipes is Tarazi’s incredible tale of what comes with life on the go and off the map. It’s a dive into cultures and cop cars, big thoughts and meltdowns, and what it means to be human while covered in a constant sheen of awe and grime. It’s a story about the kind of adventures we all said we’d have one day but never do. It’s about a world beyond our expectations, and of our place in it.
The following is an excerpt from the book, “Day 15,” the team’s blitz through Turkmenistan in search of the “Door To Hell.”
The sheer enormity and unforgiving nature of the 135,000-square mile Karakum Desert was unleashed on Day Fifteen. Saying that the terrain was barren would be like calling the Himalayas “hilly.” Justice is only meagerly done with a description. All around us was solitude the color of uncooked pizza dough. The trillion grains of sand glittered in the sunlight like disco balls, so no matter where our gazes fell, our eyes were pierced by galactic bayonets. It was perpetual parchedness in a sea of sunshine.
Somehow, our car (call sign: Donata) handled herself shockingly well, but we couldn’t say the same for ourselves. The breeze provided by the slipstream of our open windows felt like we were downwind of a fan in the boiler room of a frigate. The dry air was a straw sucking moisture away from us before we even had time to sweat. The struggle against the heat was an act of physical combat. Brooke could not withstand the assault. Under a makeshift hijab, she was constantly battling chapped lips, watery eyes and blotchy skin. I kept reminding her to drink plenty of water because I was drinking twice the amount she was and my mouth had still turned into a desolate wasteland.
With Brooke wilting in the back seat, we followed the jet-black asphalt artery that twisted this way and that; its existence was not engineered, but conditional, determined by the desert’s good graces. If the wind shifted, the sand could slither over the roadway, erasing our umbilical cord to civilization. Thankfully, the single-lane road soon turned into multi lanes.
Despite the unpleasant reception we received from the topography, one of the things I’ll always remember about Turkmenistan is that random drivers on the highway greeted us with more friendship and cheer than in any other country. Either they respected that foreigners had figured out how to get into — and travel through — their country, or they knew about the rally passing by at this time of year. Whichever, we were rock stars.
If you open an atlas and turn the pages to Turkmenistan, the thing that you immediately notice is the absence of roads. You’d think that the cartographers miscommunicated about who was going to finish the map. There is one road that goes north-south through the entire country. One.
Our convoy drove north on that one road out of Ashgabat, hoping to reach Darvaza. Darvaza was the location smack in the middle of Turkmenistan that only existed as a destination because of a Soviet engineering failure. Back in the early 1970’s the motherland was tapping the area for natural gas, but when the ground underneath the drilling rig collapsed, it left a 230-foot-wide crater. The risk of fumes billowing and poisoning the locals was not ideal so they decided to set the gas alight, hoping it would burn off in a few days. It was now sixteen thousand days later. To-may-to . . . to-mah-to. This locally dubbed “Door to Hell” is a burning pit in the middle of the desert. We didn’t know if there were any signs for it but we were going to do our damndest to find it.
Beneath a postcard-worthy sunset we snapped photos and videos, zigzagging and overtaking one another while trying not to kill ourselves in the process.
From the east, a few lonely stars dragged their black paint behind them, covering the blues, pinks and oranges that the long-lingering sunset had brought. All of this, and yet still no crater. I don’t know what we thought would happen when we reached Darvaza, but we expected some sort of sign, some sort of glow, some sort of tire marks, some sort of something. For those who have driven on I-95 between North Carolina and South Carolina, we were guessing it was Turkmenistan’s version of South of The Border.
But there was nothing. We reached the railroad tracks, which according to our maps meant we had gone too far. You can imagine our dejection.
We asked a police officer stationed in a booth there. If anyone would know, it would be him. Turns out, he had never heard of it. Every single rally team we talked to who had done the trip had said that if we were going through Turkmenistan, we had to go see the crater at Darvaza. And this guy, who was from the country of the crater and probably the closest human to the thing, had never heard of it.
This would be like asking a Parisian taxi driver to take you to the Eiffel Tower and him saying, “The Eiffel what now?”
We decided to drive back south a bit to see if there was an inroad we had missed. In the eastern distance we saw vagrant car headlights ricocheting on the dunes. This must be a good sign. We soon found tire tracks veering off the road. A local drove by and confirmed for us, “Yes, big fire,” so we were in business, except that “in business” was at the far end of a dark horizon buried in sand.
Some of the ralliers got out and assessed the path. The Spaniards in the Peugeot had the most muscle and had seven (not kidding) spare tires, so they made the first attempt into the dust. From the road, we saw the headlights carom back and forth, while redlining RPMs and bumper cracks saturated our ears. Eesh, I’m all for a side trip, but there’s a difference between being adventurous and reckless. Our car was probably the least equipped of the group to make this off-road ramble, so like any smart team would, we let every other car go first to see if this jaunt was even possible.
The Irish, God bless their confidence, got stuck in the really loose stuff, turning their tires into sand flingers. After digging them out with shovels and pushing the car with all our might back onto some packed sand, the remaining vehicles found the line that provided the best opportunity.
At some point on a trip like this, you can’t say no. You have to try, even if you think that there is no way you are getting out of the mess. With that, Greg drove into the powder. Donata huffed, puffed, swiveled and screamed but she reached the hard sand intact. I was proud of her. Really. I’m not a car guy but it was one of the rare moments in my life when I truly anthropomorphized an automobile.
The next leg of the journey was ambitious. It was a slight uphill drive that ended with a steep climb that spit us out onto a leveled plateau. The Peugeot went first. We heard the growl of the engine and saw their headlights go skyward and then swing down like a guillotine when the car went back horizontal over the lip of the plateau. Shit. That looked violent.
The remaining teams eyed the path repeatedly and those not driving stood with flashlights highlighting the best line up the hill. Part of me wanted someone to fail so that we could say, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” but every car summited. And so it was Donata’s turn again. Greg punched the gas and somehow maneuvered her up that hill and over the edge without tearing our sump guard or puncturing our gas tank.
He brought her to a stop behind the rest of the cars and we all celebrated our mini victory. Donata looked at us stoically, like an unheralded fullback. She acted like she’d been here before, that this was what she was made to do, that she was enjoying the Mongol Rally as much as we were. She believed in herself more than I did. I wanted to have sex with Donata.
Our celebration was short-lived. We were now further from help, had no real idea where the crater was and the night was total black. However, we did see a group of headlights below us off to our left that turned out to be other ralliers. They told us we were indeed in the right area, but there was no way for any of our cars to get to the crater. For ten dollars each, though, some locals would shuttle us back and forth in their two Toyota 4Runners.
Right then, said locals appeared. The 15 of us stuffed ourselves flank to shank inside the trucks and headed to the fiery pit of lore. Any notion that we could have made this trip in our own cars was erased as the 4Runners labored heavily for most of the 20-minute ride.
Suddenly, there it was, just as described! A burning hole in the ground about 50 yards deep and 100 yards across, spewed hell and brimstone in all directions. It might as well have been an open volcano. There were no railings, no signs, no nothing. If we had wanted to, we could have walked right over the edge without breaking stride.
When the wind shifted toward us, we had to hide our faces, turn, and run because it was too hot to endure. When the breeze was in our favor, we stared in complete bewilderment at what the earth hid in its bowels and what humans could do when they uncovered such power. It was one of the most shocking things I’d ever seen.
We rode the 4Runners back to our cars, made camp and bundled up. The difference in day to night temperature was easily 70 degrees. In our hoodies and sweatpants, we wolfed down our ramen noodles and talked to each other about where we’d been, where we’d go, but most importantly, where we were in the moment.
The stars that littered the sky that night were something to behold. The 2,500 or so stars that enveloped my vision were enough to get me to hyperventilate at the incomprehensibility that what I was looking at was only 0.0000025 percent of all the roughly one hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Fragile little me, spinning around on a rock in space, peering into a tiny spot of our galaxy, and yet that spot is the most limitless thing I could ever see with my own eyes. It was a mental M.C. Escher moment complete with Mobius strips, infinite planes and stairs to nowhere. I felt like I was trying to hold gravity in my hands. I knew it was there, but I couldn’t grasp it.
American born Bassam Tarazi is half Palestinian and half Dutch. He is the founder of Colipera, a motivational blog, and an author, speaker, and international traveler. A wanderer at heart, Tarazi co-founded the Nomading Film Festival, has traveled to 7 continents and 72 countries, and is always looking for his next adventure.