French in Normandy Mongol Rally for Charity
In 2016, the French in Normandy team decided on an adventurous way to raise money for the school's favourite international charity Friends of New Heart children's home in Malindi, Kenya by doing something unusual and exceptional: the Mongol Rally. The Mongol Rally is a route that took us from Rouen, France to the Russian town of Ulan-Ude and had us driving halfway across the world in possibly the worst car we could find!
The rally is something that everyone should do at least once in their lives. The rules state that the vehicle you choose must not exceed 1000 CC, so this means no 4X4, no air conditioning, etc. You are also encouraged to use the oldest, most dilapidated thing on four wheels that you can find. It is not a “who comes first” sort of rally but more a “can you do it and stay the course” sort of thing.
You choose your own route and your own timing, although there is an official start and end date. How you get from A to B is entirely up to you!
Our Miracle Fruit
Our team, the French in Normandy Superstars, was comprised of one former student and two members of the staff plus myself.
Gustavo, our former student, was a brilliant map and visa planner as all of that needs careful attention. It is tricky trying to estimate how long you will need to cross countries such as Turkmenistan, and distances cannot be calculated as if you are driving happily along a French motorway. It was, therefore, even harder to estimate the visa window we would all require. On top of this, Gustavo was also our main driver as he had the knack of negotiating the biggest potholes in the world and not grounding the van on some of the most amazingly difficult ‘roads’ that you invariably have to travel.
I took care of the basics - food supplies, equipment, first aid, and the tool box with some advice from a local mechanic. Naturally, we also had spare tyres, kits for punctures and so on - we truly expected to use these frequently. Luckily, French in Normandy never does anything by halves! It may sound amazing but we did the round trip (to Ulan Batar and then Ulan Ude and back) on only one set of tyres!
Any problems we had were much more exciting, like the engine overheating systematically, a phenomena that started on Day 2 and which we solved somewhere in Turkey. We realised that it was a design fault and that if we kept the passenger seat up at all times, then the engine underneath could breathe and so the problem was solved. A little bit of creative thinking goes a long way!
A little bit of creative thinking goes a long way!
Another surprise that caught us was the suspension - it konked out and we had to spend a day in Kulov waiting for the repairs before attacking the high route through the Pamirs. The next two days were our most uncomfortable in the van, especially when combined with the altitude sickness along the 5000+ metres route. Thankfully, the view of those magnificent mountains kept our spirits high.
People often ask me, "What was the highlight?" With such an incredible journey, there was no one outstanding thing - all kinds of memories flood my mind, such as:
- the meal in Istanbul with Mehmet,
- the Black Sea coast,
- being lost in Armenia, Tiblisi, and Baku,
- the food,
- the ferry to Turkmenistan,
- saving the Beaver Fever Team by towing them through the black desert in 50 degrees with a washing line,
- Kivah, Bukhara, and Samarkand,
- seeing Afghanistan across the river, the far distant Oxus,
- finding a “Morrisons” plastic bag in Osh,
- a goat eating my shoes in Turkmenistan and finally buying some sensible footwear in the bazaar in Osh,
- listening to the Archers in a bath in Dushanbe,
- the scenery at each and every turn,
- the mountains and altitude sickness,
- the delicious melons,
- people’s kindness,
- the weird and wonderful places that we stayed,
- camping in the Russian Province of the Altai, Mongolia,
- meeting our Italian friends along the way,
- dancing in the middle of a ‘road’ in Mongolia,
- the smell of yak,
- seeing the statue of Genghis Khan in Ulan Batur Airport,
- and within 20 hours of leaving the space and beauty of Mongolia, being washed and spruced up for Alphe London!
We raised over €16,000 for the Friends of New Heart children's home in Malindi, Kenya.
I did not know how it would be or what problems we would have to encounter and solve, but I have such happy memories of the 8 week trip - so much more than the photographs below can share.
More to the point, it was not just personally good for me but we also raised over €16,000 for the children of Malindi, Kenya. We were thrilled to be able to donate so much to the New Heart children's home, which provides food, shelter, medical care, support and education to dozens of children.
The rally is really good at reminding you that we have such an easy life, no real dangers or problems; it pits you against yourself or the team’s collective wits to solve situations that vary from the petrol cap key breaking when you desperately need petrol, to being held in an Uzbekistan border control overnight with no certainty about what tomorrow would bring.
Two things I'd like to add:
- The first is to repeatedly say thank you to my friends in the language travel industry who supported me and who sponsored French in Normandy starting with Markus Badde from ICEF, who did not hesitate and said yes at once when I submitted the project to him and who is a true friend and rock of support. As well, thank you to all the schools in IALC who had confidence in me and who gave so generously, as did other friends in the industry such as DID in Germany, Guard Me, Study Travel Magazine, Inline Marketing and The PIE.
- Would I do it again or another one with a different route? YES! And to anyone who reads this and would like to do something similar, please let me know and I will be happy to share my advice and the wisdom gained from such a marvelous and challenging adventure.