Ulan-Ude or bust: The Mongol Rally on 125cc adventure bikes
I take a look at Paul and Holly's Mongol Rally story and their Sinnis Terrain 125cc adventure bikes.
So many people, at some point in their lives, dream of going on some sort of massive adventure around the world to find some hidden treasure within themselves. Whether it be time, money or just work getting in the way, many of these dreams just don't come true. This wasn't the case for Paul Cottee and Holly Waller. For many years, Paul had gone on adventures around Europe and Asia but the Mongol Rally had always peaked his interests. Shortly after telling his partner Holly about the rally (and without his knowledge), she signed them up for one of the best experiences of their life, the Mongol Rally.
WHAT IS THE MONGOL RALLY?
Starting out in 2004 the Mongol Rally has attracted many keen adventurers and strives for participants to use unconventional methods of transport. Now I don't mean going thousands of miles on a unicycle, but more so smaller engined cars and motorcycles. To be more specific, cars must not exceed 1.2L and motorcycles must not exceed 125cc. This leads to some participants buying some hilarious cars for the rally and then decorating them in hilarious ways, for example, one team bought a Smart Fortwo and made it resemble a Little Tykes car. Starting off in Junk Town, Prague and ending in Ulan-Ude, Russia (although originally it was Ulan Bator, Mongolia, hence the name), the rally lets the participants choose their own route. Each team must adhere to the above criteria with regards to their vehicles but they must also raise at least £1000 for charity before the start of the rally.
LOCKS, SOCKS AND TWO SINNIS BIKES
Six months went by, during which a lot of preparation was taken for the rally, from organising underwear and toothbrushes to visas, and sponsors to help fund the trip. Most importantly they had to source their vehicles.
Paul and Holly eventually settled with Sinnis for their bikes. Now if you know your higher end budget bikes, then Sinnis might sound familiar to you as they import almost identical Chinese bikes to the likes of Lexmoto but with a few differences. One motorcycle that they offer here in the U.K. is the Sinnis Terrain 125cc. You may think at first that it might just be a 125cc trials come commuter bike but the Terrain has a difference. It is an almost fully fledged adventure style bike. That's right, a 125cc adventure bike! The Terrain has crash bars, hard luggage as standard and looks not too dissimilar from the BMW GS and Suzuki V Strom. All for a price of just over two and a half grand!
For the fact that they're only 125cc, the Terrain's really look the part and aren't hampered down too much by the extra weight.
So with two bikes sorted, along with all the visas and paperwork needed, the two set off for the rally's start point in Prague. From Prague, their journey would take the two through Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and into Mongolia before officially finishing the Rally in Ulan-Ude, Siberia.
Funnily, out of the more than 800 participants, only 6 chose to do the trip on motorcycles. When they learnt this, Paul and Holly started to realise that things along the way could get tough as many participants weren't first timers and they were still doing it in cars.
The team found themselves transitioning from leisure riders to full on explorers. Like Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor, this made for many special moments for the team of two along their massive adventure.
THE DEATH ROAD
During their time they travelled along one of the most notorious roads known to man, the D915 or as it's more commonly known, Death Road. If you've seen the Top Gear Bolivia Special, you will know exactly where I mean. This road is notorious for deaths with it's narrow passages and sheer drops. Not only that, Death Road is stupidly busy for the fact that driving along it is like rolling a dice with death. Paul described his experience on the road: "The most intense part came after reaching the highest driving point, you find yourself with a drop of a few hundred metres as you start to descend on switchback hairpins with gravel, rocks, flowing water and no barrier. It certainly leaves you clenched throughout, however goes on to reward you not just with scenery that came straight from a fantasy novel, but an overwhelming sense of achievement, and also of being alive.".
Scary stuff then. I also think that the Death Road is one of those places that you will be scared out of your wits to travel on, because let's face it there is no turning back on those narrow roads. But the rush you must get once you have finished the road, knowing that you have survived it, must feel amazing.
THE BEAUTIFUL PAMIR HIGHWAY
One of their other highlights is the Pamir Highway that traverses Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This mostly unpaved road with many obstacles was a dream for Paul when planning the trips route several months earlier in The Tea House Theatre in London. Gladly the beautiful scenery didn't disappoint when they were at this portion of their journey and even though it had several landslides and roads with surfaces that left a lot to be desired when riding a 125cc bike, the route made up for it with views that had yet to be largely tampered by people.
Thankfully this also proved to raise their adventurous spirits as travelling on this unpaved road proved a challenge for them whist on their adventure. The two never came along for an easy ride now did they?
Wow... Just wow. What I would give to see those mountains in person
TREACHEROUS MONGOLIAN ROADS
The days in Mongolia (the most sparsely populated country on Earth) became difficult, not only to ride their bikes but also navigate, as sand, gravel and mud became a common enemy; as soon after they entered Mongolia the team decided that it would be right to turn off towards Murun. This would get even more confusing as directional signs would become all but a distant memory and tracks made by the locals would be the main sorts of road they would be travelling on.
WATCH THE TEAM CROSS A RIVER IN MONGOLIA:
THE FINISH LINE
Paul and Holly eventually arrived in Ulan-Ude in Russia where the rally finish line greeted them like a long lost friend. They had done it, miles and miles of terrible roa-, well, tracks, culture and endless scenery. They loved every moment, but would they do it again? No... In Mongolia they had been robbed at least twice which meant that a lot of photographs were lost, which we all can understand, being robbed can be a massive kick in the leg. Paul also had a crash at some point in Turkmenistan (one of 23 times the bikes were dropped/ hit the floor) which meant he had to have one of his ears stitched back together (ouch)... Plus people weren't always the most friendly and welcoming, especially in Mongolia where they had to retaliate to someone trying to rob them by threatening the robber with a tent hammer (thankfully it worked).
The main reason why they wouldn't do it again though, is that they've already done it now! The thing is with the Mongol Rally, you are stuck to quite a tight time schedule so that you arrive at the finish line on time. When they do venture to that part of the world again (and they do have plans to), then they would do it a lot slower and enjoy what they're experiencing more. Either way, taking two bikes that aren't really built for this sort of thing halfway across the planet is a challenge in itself and one that I am sure Holly and Paul are extremely proud of. The Mongol Rally is a life changing experience for anyone who undertakes it and I am sure no matter what happened during their trip, even with the down moments, they wouldn't change it for the world!
The finish line in Ulan-Ude. The tag line on the banner says it all...
SO HOW WERE THE BIKES?
Paul and Holly would have had a drastically different journey if they went by car but after everything that they have been through together with them, I thought it best to ask Paul what they thought of them.
As Paul put it when I asked him, these weren't things things that he couldn't live with, but they were things that needed improvement: "First off the gearbox is clunky and heavy. The seat is not comfortable after a few hours (which is expected) and the front brakes squeak ( which is a common problem on the Terrain)." He then went on to say that "Personally, I'm not a fan of the linked braking system but Holly is. This might just be a me thing as I am used to riding larger bikes whereas Holly was still on a CBT (Compulsary Basic Training) licence before we started the trip."
After riding the Terrain's for that long though, Paul and Holly had several points that they thought were great about the bikes: "The styling is spot on as it looks the part of a mini adventure bike." Paul also said that: "The engine felt bomb-proof as despite the long days, crap oil and high temperatures, they never let us down. Even though we had the storage boxes full and extra gear strapped to the outside, when we were riding on what we would call a normal road, we were still able to reach at least 62mph, which for a 125 is fantastic. Finally, these two fantastic 125's were really simple to work on as with them not having any seriously advanced electronics, maintenance was very easy with just some basic tools."
The Mongol Rally can be a life changing experience and it certainly has done that for both Holly and Paul. Even though they have had ups and downs, they still enjoyed every moment (almost). It does show the possibilities of what you could do on a 125, even if its just locally. Something like a Sinnis Terrain or Honda Varadero 125 would be perfect for anyone who want's to live out their dreams of travelling around the world but on a smaller scale and with much better fuel efficiency. I know that I would definitely consider a Terrain when I eventually get back on a bike. It would be perfect for those short weekend tours and what Paul and Holly have proved is that almost anything can be done on them, at least what a lot of riders (and people who go out to buy a BMW GS but just ride them locally) will need them to do.