How two Northern Irish lads tackled three continents and over 11,000 miles in a clapped-out Citroen Berlingo.

Sponsorship. Route planning. Team bonding and fundraising events; van-cramming and graffiti-acquiring. Even the work that goes into preparing for Mongol Rally – a death-defying charity odyssey from the UK to Mongolia – is a mammoth undertaking. Buying up a scrap-heap-ready Citroen Berlingo, which the spirit of the rally dictates should be scrawled all over (read: covered in sticky-taped Tayto packets and welded shopping trolleys) was the first part. Next, Dirty Sanchez star Mike Locke (aka Pancho) was persuaded to aid in the fundraising and promotional efforts by allowing donors to staple notes directly his equally scrap-heap-ready body. This, though, was only the start of a journey that was to take to Belfast lads around almost half the globe.

The aim of the Mongol Rally, ostensibly, is to deliver used cars for auction in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and raise a lot of cash for charity along the way. However, Norn Iron duo Steve Neill and Barry Keenan (and, for a large portion of the journey, Steve’s wife Sarah), tagged on a few of their own personal aims. They live by the motto “For lust of knowing what should not be known”, a quote, appropriately, from early 20th century poet James Elroy Flecker’s ‘The Golden Journey To Samarkand’, and was determined to unveil a ludicrous number of oddities along the way. Aside from seeing far-flung corners of the globe, the team that would be come known as Team Charolastra (space cowboy in Spanish) also intended to cram their sizable van with helpful charitable donations, ingratiate themselves with the local police by handing out gifts of t-shirts from one of their main sponsors Tayto and generally get by on a wing and a prayer.

The van itself was an exception to the rally’s generally accepted rules – a more practical vehicle than most pushed past the left-field organising committee and into the contest as Barry and Steve believed it would prove to be more useful at the far end. Despite the restrictions presented by piloting a shoddy 1.8 litre shed, the space cowboys chose one of the rally’s more challenging routes, a pathway incorporating the historic Pamir Highway through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and a jaunt through Iran commonly rejected as too difficult. In short, things were set to be just a touch intense.

The real fun started in Eastern Europe. Cruising down Transfăgărăşan – the Romanian military highway Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson named as ‘the best road in the world’ after tackling it in a supercar – Team Charolastra paused to photograph the view, together with a few ‘on location’ shots of their beleaguered Berlingo. When a colourful frog entered their eye line, Steve decided to photograph it on the Berlingo’s bonnet. However, Steve soon found himself winding down a cliff-side road with lights and colours swirling before his eyes. “I hadn’t realised that the frog had deposited some poison on the body of the camera,” Steve explains, “so proceeded to spend the next half hour using the camera and got the frog poison in my mouth.

“Twenty minutes later we were driving past Dracula’s ‘homeland’ and I started to feel the effects of what can only be described as a hallucinogen.” A 100-mile race down the mountain – aided by their GPS, which fortunately still worked in Europe – the picture of the frog and some comedy body language explained the situation to the staff of the local hospital. Following a short period of blindness and a hasty buttock injection from a syringe containing something unidentifiable, the shabby Citroen was back on the road.

In hindsight, however, Steve remembers Europe as being “very normal”. Heading east, the most abrupt change takes place in Istanbul, where you’re welcomed to Asia, and western Christian-based society is quickly replaced by predominantly Islamic surroundings. “If you listened to the mainstream media you’d believe that places like Central Asia and the Middle East are just crazy,” Steve explains, “but some of the hospitality is unlike anything else we’ve ever experienced. Something like this does so much to reaffirm that we’re all just the same underneath. People just want to be healthy and safe, have a roof over their heads and not be hungry. The trip blew apart for us the tabloid myth of certain places being aggressive or dangerous.” The bottom line in Asia, however, is still somewhat more nerve-wracking: “You have to accept that, essentially, you’re on your own. There’s no back-up.”

With the route taking on a path not dissimilar to the old Silk Road in reverse, Team Charolastra soon found themselves in Iran. Observing the cultural revolution of the modern world – which essentially flowed east to west – Steve and Barry decided to deliver a bit of western ‘culture’ back to various areas of the east along the way. With Guinness and Jameson presenting an obvious border-crossing problem, they chose to do so in the form of Tayto crisps (“They gave us silk, the basis of medicine and philosophy. We gave them cheese and onion crisps. And that’s it!”). The team were blown away by their cultural encounters: Persepolis in Iran still stands as it did several centuries ago, and in Steve’s well-travelled view, “totally eclipses numerous world heritage sights”. Walking the very same stone paths as Alexander The Great, the pair ate and slept under the exceptional hospitality of the local families, many of whom invited entire villages to greet their western guests.

The hospitality was so charming, in fact, that the team found themselves having to drive 800 miles in a single 24-hour period as they’d simply been slowed down too much by the local welcome. “It’s a crazy juxtaposition.” Steve explains. “It’s almost embarrassing. A conversation turns into lunch, accommodation… if Iranians could get visas to come back to the UK and Ireland, this would never happen. They’d just think we’re assholes. The friendly stranger is almost demanded culturally; the stereotypes couldn’t be more wrong.” In another town, a group of Iranian girls in a car pulled back their veils to show trendy American clothes and invited the boys to party; unsurprisingly the same town was one of the first to kick off when the Iranian revolutionary efforts came about early this year. Last July, the ‘anti-authoritarian’ feeling in this strictly controlled corner of the world was already bubbling heavily under the surface.

It’s difficult to think of the team’s next leg, Central Asia, without a certain ‘roughing it’ image coming to mind.  In the hottest desert in Asia, the Karakum in Turkmenistan, the team joined in a drinking session alongside the relentlessly burning remains of a Soviet attempt at building an oil well – the so-called ‘Gates of Hell’ – a site that years of attempts have failed to extinguish, and failed similar spectacularly with ‘recycled beer’ from the edge. 40-degree heat also forced a few air-conditioned hotel pit stops, while picking up a satellite dish in Turkey – combined with a web address that ends in .tv – didn’t help with border crossings, where several guards convinced themselves that Irish TV companies travel in decrepit Citroens. All this despite the ‘best vehicle’ trophy duct taped to the front of the car in honour of their graffiti-fuelled flamboyance. In places like Turkmenistan, where beer is “regarded as a soft drink” the trip took a distinct turn towards the drunkenly shambolic.

Bribery became a part of everyday life. Outside Europe, says Steve, “Nothing has a fixed price, and you can forget the idea of authority figures being in any way trustworthy. Romania, though, probably remains the worst.” Turkmenistan administered a $100 fine for ‘a dirty vehicle’; Takijistan’s border guards accepted a Tayto t-shirt in lieu of a $30 border bribe, while the team took to “talking shit” to avoid paying. The Belfast accent combined with random gifts proved an ideal mix of ‘philanthropy’ and frustration, and almost every attempt to extract money was eventually evaded.

By the time the team reached the notorious Pamir Highway, the car was almost literally held together with duct tape. Travelling with an Aussie team who snapped their suspension on a large rock (and had it patched up with odds and ends in exchange for beer) led to an unwanted trip to Jalalabat, Kyrgyzstan, at the time in the middle of some serious ethnic cleansing issues. The tattered cars drew into the city as the curfew came down, and the teams headed out on the lash surrounded by Kalashnikov-wielding locals and watching the smoke rise from a city crumbling around them. Extremely potent fermented horse milk and some ‘friendly’ Tajik drinking partners led to stolen phones and empty wallets. Who knows just how many suspicious substances were imbibed by mistake, but it sat well with the overall intoxicated feel of Central Asian travel.

The Pamir Highway, incidentally, rises to 4,500 metres, making it the second highest road in the world. It rarely allows the vehicles out of first gear, and fills the car with a swirling, relentless stream of dust. In its heart, staring into the birthplace of Buddhism and worrying about their limited food supplies is an experience that Steve describes as “sublime in the truest sense”. Later, driving along the highway’s single lane, cliff-side border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the team heard the thud of military hardware across the mountains, while the locals simply smiled and waved (“If you believed the Daily Mail, they’d be shooting at you”) from the wrong side of a river dividing a country at war and a country at peace. Then came a jaunt through Kazakhstan before, finally, the teams emerged into Russia, where a border party in no-man’s-land deteriorated into skidding donuts and camera confiscations.

Sadly, not everything finished quite the way the team might have liked. Already inside Mongolia, their van veered from the road and barrel rolled in an almost cartoon fashion, an event that Steve is still unable to recall. It left him with several broken ribs, and prevented the beleaguered Berlingo from ever reaching Ulaanbaatar or fulfilling its intended role. Another team – who in a bizarrely suitable twist were driving an ambulance – delivered the team’s equipment to the finishing line, while Steve and Barry trailed behind in a 72-hour 4×4 ride, completing a mad dash on appalling roads. Come the end, Steve – in true Mongol Rally spirits – chose to forgo the local hospital in favour of the finishers’ party. The crash, though, had done nothing to spoil the memories. “When we look at the roads we’ve driven, the mountains and deserts we’ve passed through, the war zones we’ve stopped in… I hesitate to say it because there’s nothing worse when you’re travelling than meeting someone who loves to talk up their own experiences, but it really, really was pretty fucking hardcore.”

Heady, frantic and incident filled, we still need barely dig below the surface to learn why such trips shouldn’t be taken as lightly the team’s giddy experience suggests. The 2010 Mongol rally was the first to suffer fatalities; Team Charolastra delivered all their valuable charitable equipment to its destination – minus its battered vehicular container – and Steve and Barry returned home well enough to treasure every frenetic memory. The team had made it all but 1,000 kilometres, and dragged the important parts of their ramshackle arrangement over the line with the aid of a sleep-deprived Kazakh 4×4 driver. The former contents of their forlorn van now fills a Mongol Ger tent, where it is used to assist in the upbringing and education of deprived local children under the care of a ‘Ger mother’. Proof, if it were needed, that a corporate sponsored, alcohol-fuelled, multi-continental rollercoaster in a junkyard Citroen van – taking in amphibian hallucinogens, cartoon crashes and cultural awakening – really can be far more than just a euphoric journey of self discovery. Just ask the tiny population of Mongolia with an electrical generator and an essential selection of extra toothpaste, condoms, bandages and vital charitable cash tucked into their back pockets. Or, perhaps, the owners of a Ger tent somewhere in rural Inner Mongolia that is now home to a widescreen TV, sound system, mini fridge and sizable electric generator. After all, they do say it’s the little things…

Barry and Steve were raising money for the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation, which helps vulnerable kids in Vietnam and Mongolia. Visit www.cncf.org to find out more.

For more Wacky Racer style stories, or to donate to Steve and Barry’s charitable efforts, visit www.charolastra.tv

As published in AU Magazine Issue 72, April 2011.

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