The story of “Going out of the comfort zone” – a Mongol Rally story

This is a story of searching for the outside of my comfort zone… and fully finding it! It was the summer of 2019, my two teammates and I were in the second week of the Mongol Rally and we were preparing to leave behind even the last sight of Europe by entering Iran. We were constantly saying that Europe is just an easy warm-up and that the real rally will begin when we’ll get more into Asia.

Everything is changing when you leave Europe, the landscape, people, cultures, but most importantly… the paperwork you need to do in order to enter a country. You definitely want to be sure that when you exit a country you have everything you need in order to enter the next one, otherwise… I know some fucked up stories about the process going wrong on the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The situation is even messier when you overland by a car/motorcycle that you own because there are a lot of countries that require some extra papers for vehicles, some kind of car passport let’s say and yes! Iran is one of those countries and yes! We didn’t have papers for our cars…

We decided not to do the papers the official way because it was insanely expensive, instead, we heard some rumors that in between the two countries you can find some dudes that can fix you up with those documents. Obtaining official international documents in a shady way with some dudes you’ve never met in a crowded place you’ve never been to? The “90s Romanians” in us woke up and said hell yea, let’s do it!

We started the day “close” to the border, just 300 Km away… in order to reach it early, get into “no man’s land”, and have time to find and sort everything out. As we exited one country we had our first shock to see the smallest “no man’s land” ever, with space to park only around 4 cars in between the gates of the countries, and we were occupying 50% of this space. After the gates of certainty closed behind us, I found myself in a first building in a long passager queue to passport check while my teammates remained outside with the cars as owners on a different path. I tried to take as long time as possible before reaching the office so that my teammates have time to sort things out with the cars, but staying in line with a big ass Mongol Rally logo on your T-Shirt doesn’t really make you blend in. A guard saw me and with the biggest openness and customer orientation attitude ever started to make gestures to me to skip the line and go directly to the immigration office, I tried to gesture back that it isn’t necessary but people with guns, speaking to you in a language you can’t understand tend to be more convincing, as we will constantly learn through our journey. I entered the office and found some other ralliers already there but like the well-prepared and conscientious west Europeans that they were they left in about 5 minutes, having all the paperwork they needed. I, on the other hand, tried to smile the best I could and look with the biggest curiosity ever at the empty walls, in order to avoid looking at the office lady the same way you avoid the look of your teacher when you didn’t learn the lesson for the day, hoping you will not be asked, in this case, why are your teammates taking so much time with the inspection of the cars? To add an extra layer of smoothness, our SIM cards were not getting coverage from the previous country by this time so we couldn’t communicate with each other anymore.

After smiling for a small eternity, thinking that I will actually get into Iran with just my clothes on and some pocket money while the guys would turn back with the cars, meaning that I would need to do hitch-hiking with other ralliers until Uzbekistan probably, they actually went into the room all of a sudden along with some shady-looking guys (good sign at this point), looking like they just did two half-marathons (not so good sign). All three of us started to rush from office to office, understanding along the way that it was a national holiday and the whole border was going to close pretty soon, meaning that we might not get to do the thing for the cars that day. The whole station was a crowded madness, we even got into some queues through some metal bars at one point, getting a prison-type feeling, not really a reassuring feeling when you are in the middle of doing shady stuff.

In the middle of the second eternity, we run out of time. The shady guys said “Stop! You go tomorrow” and before we could ask or understand what that means we all started another race, we left the car’s documents at an office, we got outside and we’ve been told to get what we need from the cars. We each managed to take a backpack with some clothes and before we knew it we were put in an old Peugeot with no number plates on and taken into the small town a few kilometers away with one of the shady dudes. The car stopped in front of a small hostel, we went into the reception and found an old guy full of smiles but less in English words. He pointed to us then pointed to the ceiling saying “room”, then again to us saying “passport for room”, simple until now. We gave our passports for the official registry, he took them, put them into a safe near the desk, and locked it up, all with the biggest smiles you ever saw. After our initial shock, we tried to argue to get them back but of course, it was no use, we also argued with our shady dude that was our guide by now but again no use. We said that we want to go out and eat and can’t do it without them but the whole “negotiation” ended with our lovely receptionist who handed us each the hostel’s business card saying “here, this is your passport”. We all went up to the room, through some large hallways with carpets all over the place, smiled at the other guests that all looked local, and ended in our room for which we had no key, because what can you do with a key if the lock is not working? (again, undebatable reasoning). Our shady guide promised to be back at 8’o clock the next morning to take us to the border and continue the paperwork and then left, but not before taking a downpayment for his services of 50% from the whole sum, which meant 500 dollars and almost all the cash we had on us. We had our bank cards with us but in Iran, they were as helpful as our non-working sim cards.

We started talking about the whole situation wondering if we will ever see the shady guys or our cars ever again. As we were trying to figure out the whole situation we started noticing some loud noises from outside from time to time, getting louder with each one. After a while, we were wondering what could it be, it was sounding more and more serious. We didn’t even get to finish our thoughts when the next bang came across the street with a building exploding in a huge fireball! We were stunned! For a few moments, we were just looking at each other and didn’t say a thing. After a while we burst into laughter remembering what we were thinking in the last days, saying “You wanted a real rally? You got a real rally! We’re in Asia now!” then we went to the window to film the building that was on fire and still exploding from time to time and feeling the heatwave from it (we later found out that nobody was hurt in the blasts).

When the whole excitement from outside started to go away we realized that we were finally exactly where we wanted to be all along, at the moment that we were searching when we left home. We wanted to get out of our comfort zone and out of the ordinary of the day and we found that place and feeling so it would not make any sense to worry about the things we couldn’t control and just go with the moment. We went outside to explore the small city and search for something to eat because we were starving. We found great people in the street, colorful stores, and a great barbeque meal done in front of us. In the evening I got a great sleep in that unlocked room, recharging my batteries and my teammates went for dinner where they made friends with an Iranian truck driver that paid for their meal (it was the first of many to come from Iranians while on our way).

In the morning, the shady dude picked us up from the hostel as promised, with the same car with no license plates, and continued with the rest of the paperwork because after all, he still wanted some money from us and having some abandoned foreign vehicles in the small border wasn’t in the best of his interest either. Not only that we found our cars and things on the roof rack intact but someone also glued back together the “hopping thingy” we had stuck to the hoods of our cars and broke as we were approaching the border. With all the “official” formalities done, we went on our way and had one of the best weeks of the rally in Iran with the most welcoming people we have ever met in our journey and in our life. We can’t wait to get back to Iran!

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