By Karen Nitkin, For The Baltimore Sun
6:47 PM EST, January 26, 2014
In summer 2009, Alex Insel, now 24, and his friend Rich Rinaldi drove a small used Ford Ka 10,000 miles from London to Mongolia on a fundraising adventure known as the Mongol Rally. At the time, he thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He was wrong.
Insel, a special education teacher at Bay Brook Elementary School in Baltimore, is collecting money so he can again travel the dusty, mountainous route. But this time, he's planning an even longer, more difficult trek.
The Mongol Rally, an annual event launched in 2004 by a group called the Adventurists, requires little more than an inexpensive car with an engine of 1.2 liters or smaller, a promise to raise 1,000 pounds (about $1,640 at current rates) for charitable causes and a zeal for bumping along the proverbial and literal road less traveled.
"We fight to make the world less boring," says the Adventurists website, which also promotes arduous-to-the-point-of-insanity challenges on horses, bicycles and rickshaws.
About 300 people a year from around the world participate in the Mongol Rally. Each team must donate about half of its money raised to a charity chosen by the Adventurists, which this year is rain forest-protector Cool Earth. Insel's team will give the rest to the Lotus Children's Center in Mongolia, which serves at-risk youngsters, said Insel.
"As an educator, I love working with children," he said. His team plans to visit the center when they reach Mongolia.
The Mongol Rally is not a race or a supported ride. There are no water stops, no hotels dotted along the route, no helpers for the inevitable flat tires and breakdowns. Once the ride begins, participants are on their own. Even the use of GPS is discouraged because, well, that would be boring.
"You wake up in the morning, you have breakfast, and then you just drive, and you don't really know where you're going to end up that night," said Insel, who lives in Remington.
Insel grew up in New Jersey and graduated in 2012 from Washington College in Chestertown. He's been working at Bay Brook since then. He and Rinaldi went to summer camp together, first as campers and then as counselors. They learned about the Mongol Rally from a counselor who had participated the previous summer.
Insel was the one who wanted to do it, said Rinaldi, who graduated from Georgetown University and now works at a year-round YMCA camp in Hawaii.
"He convinced me," he said. The friends purchased a car, sight unseen, on a British auction site. Rinaldi, who was a substitute teacher at the time, remembers hitting the "buy it now" button on his computer while proctoring a test.
They raised money to support the Christina Noble Children's Foundation and traveled for 30 days, camping most nights. Their adventure included a car crash and a Mongolian snowstorm. Some days, they only progressed 15 or 20 miles because of the poor driving conditions, Insel said. Yet they met interesting people, many of whom welcomed the young Americans into their homes, feeding them and attempting communication despite language and cultural barriers.
When they returned, their story was featured in Washington College Magazine. A reporter asked Insel if he would do it again.
"Maybe when I'm 40 and having a mid-life crisis," he replied.
This time, Insel plans to travel what he calls "one of the most challenging highways in the world," the Pamir Highway. The mountainous terrain will take the drivers through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and close to Iran and Pakistan, he said.
Since Rinaldi doesn't want to give up his year-round job as a camp counselor in Hawaii for the adventure, Insel connected through a Facebook group with Eric Geraci, who lives on Long Island. Geraci in turn tapped his friend, Ida Tahri, who lives in Sydney, Australia.
Rinaldi remembers the rally as the adventure of a lifetime.
"It was a real test of my independence and my willpower," he said. Traveling through Kazakhstan and Mongolia, "I wasn't surprised by the kindness I encountered," Rinaldi said. "What shocked me was that there were no roads to drive on."
Insel plans to pack lighter this time, but he wouldn't mind getting another Ford Ka, if he can find a used one at a reasonable price.
"It was pretty reliable," he said. "It got in an accident and it still drove." But the car conked out in the Mongolian desert with just a couple of hundred miles to go, and had to be towed to the end by another rally participant.
"This time I am looking to get the car over the finish line," said Insel.
To support Alex Insel's team, visit the website, breakingkhan.com.
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