July 25, 2006 5:46 PM PDT

London to Ulaanbaatur in a Ford Fiesta

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In the Darpa Grand Challenge, robotic cars raced to get across the desert first. In the Mongol Rally, human contestants are trying to cover 8,000 miles in cars the size of a Geo Metro.

The race, which got under way earlier this week, asks teams of two drivers to travel from London to Ulaanbaatur, Mongolia's capital, in a beat-up economy car. The 8,000-mile route forces them to grapple with two continents; five mountain ranges; several large deserts; a lot of unkempt, potholed roads; and a despotic government or two.

Mobile in Mongolia

The idea isn't to come up with a scientific breakthrough. Rather, organizers say they want to inject a sense of adventure and fun into a world gone small. Drivers are also expected to raise 1,000 pounds (about $1,850) for charity. Also, according to founder Tom Morgan, the rally extends an illustrious history of British eccentricity.

"You can only use a car with an engine of less than 1 liter that is generally considered to be crap. Motorbikes are limited to under 125cc, ideally scooters," states the first rule on the organizer's Web site. "You should be careful not to limit your own fun though. The Mongol Rally is not about making sure you reach Mongolia but the fun you have trying. Exceptions will be made for vehicles of notable unusualness with high comedy value."

Completing the circuit should take about three to four weeks. This year's rally launched in Hyde Park, London, on July 22, with 200 cars entered in the race. Last year, the event raised about $79,000 for charities like Send a Cow and Save the Children.

Six cars participated in 2004. The following year, 43 cars showed up for the rally. Fourteen completed the course, while one car snapped completely in half. Two teams were robbed at knifepoint, while three others saw the engine fall out of their car. Three teams were banned from Turkmenistan for a year, while another was rammed off the road during an argument about watermelons.

The 2006 racers have been sending dispatches.

"Broke down in the middle of Latvia with a suspect gearbox leak at midnight. Excellent. Who needs oil when you've got hopes and dreams?" wrote team Mongol Mary on July 25. Anthony Small and Simon Watson, two 21-year-old aircraft technicians, are the team's members, and they have a 1994 Fiat Panda.

"Got asked for $2k to enter Ukraine-so have taken all the stickers off the car and gonna try a different border," wrote team Mongol Mocha. Its car is a 1984 Nissan Micra. Like most teams, Mongol Mocha still needs donations.

But it's not all mechanical failures and sneaky policemen.

"Somewhere 100 km into Romania. Camping in a field and a local farmer is bringing his schnapps! Trying to get to Ukraine tomorrow during the night," wrote team Mongol Rally Madness.

Team Pedal Faster, meanwhile, extolled the natural beauty of Romania and added that the mullet is still the fashion of the day.

Along with cops and mechanical problems, drivers must parry politics as well. Though the race has no official route, drivers inevitably have to cross through countries like Iran, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, and other countries where bureaucracy is king. Race organizers recently reported that drivers coming into Mongolia from the Tsagannuur border will have to put down a deposit of $3,500 to cover the entry tax.

The TechNomads, a group of four students from MIT, plan to take a route that will lead them through France, Croatia, Turkey, Iran and China, among other countries. The group is still waiting for visas for Turkmenistan.

While some, like the MIT crew, are taking a southern route, others are taking the northern trek, going up through Scandinavia and the Balkans and then across Russia.

Organizers, however, warn that drivers are pretty much on their own. There is no support crew tooling around Central Asia.

"It's an adventure, not a petting zoo, so we can in no way guarantee your arrival at the destination, or your safety," the Web site says.

 
Correction: This story incorrectly reported the amount of money participants in the Mongol Rally are expected to raise for charity. They are asked to raise 1,000 pounds (about $1,850) each.

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