A Crazy New Kind of Amazing Race: International Car Rallies

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Navigating India in an auto-rickshaw. (Photo: Hit the Road: India)

Picture the scene. You have been driving for over 15 hours. The monsoons are thundering down. You and your friend are in an auto-rickshaw, laboring along an ink-dark road in the middle of nowhere in India. Oncoming trucks barrel toward you, blinding you with their headlights. The rickshaw dangles within inches of the road’s shoulder.

It’s a test of wills on the ultimate road trip: an international rally. The whole idea dates back to 1911 in Monte Carlo, when 23 cars rallied on public streets to a finish line. It was one of the first recognized road rallies.

The quest for more authentic — and more adventurous — travel experiences has created an even more extreme subculture of road tripping. These days, the idea is not just navigating from point A to B or who can go the fastest, but, rather, to pair up with like-minded adventurers and drive an inappropriate vehicle that is slow and might even break down. The result: you can have genuine interactions with locals, see corners of a country that a typical tourist would not see, and challenge yourself at the same time.

The other benefit of these rallies is that anyone can participate; you do not need any special training or skills.

Several companies, such as Large Minority and the Adventurists, create and organize rallies. Each organization puts its own spin on the event. Some organizers provide the vehicles, while others don’t. Some of the rallies have set routes, while others simply tell you where the finish point is.

Here are seven awesome and challenging rallies spanning the globe, plus interviews with participants who have lived to tell the tale.

Rickshaw Challenge: Mumbai Xpress

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Ready to rally. (Photo: Hit the Road: India)

What It Is: The Rickshaw Challenge: Mumbai Xpress is a journey through India in an auto-rickshaw — quite possibly the most inappropriate vehicle for a long road trip, with just three wheels and only seven horsepower. Participants are provided an auto-rickshaw for the rally, which begins in Mumbai and ends in Chennai. You witness India in all of its glory, from the bustling metropolis of Mumbai to the brilliant beaches of Goa.

Time and Distance: 14 days; 1,250 miles

Entry Fee: $1,900 per team

Dates: August 8-21, 2015

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(Video: Hit the Road: India)

Greatest Challenge: “The roads and the traffic in India were nightmarish,” explains Keith King, a former participant of the Mumbai Xpress. “A 20-mile mountain drive in a rickshaw could take four hours. The traffic in the big cities like Bangalore was a fear-inducing experience: we competed against every type of imagined vehicle and animal on the road.”

Related: What I Learned About Life and Love Driving the Roads of India

Highlight: Keith’s team set a rally record by running out of gas 16 times. “The rickshaw did not have a fuel gauge,” he said. “We ended up spending a lot of time in gas stations manned by 10 to 20 men — which provided a lot of opportunities to take pictures and joke around.”

Caucasian Challenge

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Navigating the backroads of the Caucasian Challenge. (Photo: Caucasian Challenge)

What It Is: Starting in Istanbul and ending in Armenia’s capital of Yerevan, the Caucasian Challenge also traverses Georgia and the unrecognized country Nagorno-Karabakh. This rally puts the choice of the vehicle in the drivers’ hands: the more unsuitable the better. One participant drove a 1989 BMW motorcycle, while another competed in a 12-ton Dutch Daf truck.

Time and Distance: 11 days; 2,500 miles

Entry Fee: $600 per person

Dates: August 18-28, 2015

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A suitably unsuitable driving choice. (Photo: Global Gaz)

Greatest Challenge: “No matter the distance we needed to drive each day, it always seemed to be incredibly long,” said Mark Olsen. “Sometimes it was the bad conditions of the road. Sometimes, we spent hours traversing switchbacks and crossing mountains. And sometimes it was simply getting lost.”

Highlight: “Don’t be surprised if you end up drinking with the locals,” Olsen said. “One night we were befriended by a group of Georgian men who broke out some homemade wine. It was a fun but late night.”

Lanka Challenge

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A tuk tuk parade in Sri Lanka. (Photo: Christophe Beaumont)

What It Is: The Lanka Challenge provides you with the opportunity to navigate Sri Lanka at a gentlemanly cruising speed of 20 mph. You will be driving a three-wheeled tuk tuk. In this small yet diverse country you will spend time on the beautiful beaches of Mirissa, check out the wildlife in Wasgamuwa, and finish in the capital of Colombo.

Time and Distance: 11 days; 1,000 miles

Entry Fee: $2,600 per team

Dates: September 4-14, 2015

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East meets west. (Photo: Lanka Challenge)

Greatest Challenge: “The roads are always tricky. But I guess that is the fun part,” said Chris Beaumont, who lives in the Netherlands. “We started calling the bumpiest roads ‘Sri Lankan Massages.’”

Related: I Wanted to Live in a Duran Duran Video so I Went to Sri Lanka

Highlight: “The one thing I won’t forget were the surprised looks of the Sri Lankan tuk tuk taxi drivers when we drove by them. One time I was waving at a few of the locals, and I kind of crashed our tuk tuk into a tree. Luckily, there were no injuries and the bonus was we made everyone laugh,” Chris was happy to add.

Cambo Challenge

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The challenges of Cambodia. (Photo: Lianne Dawes)

What It Is: The Cambo Challenge introduces you to the highlights of Cambodia. You’ll get to see the gritty capital of Phnom Penh, the tropical beaches of Sihanoukville, and the splendor of Angkor Wat. To increase the fun quotient, participants drive in an auto-remorque. The auto-remorque is a native vehicle of Cambodia that mashes a motorbike with a carriage.

Time and Distance: 12 days; 1,000 miles

Entry Fee: $2,600 per person

Dates: October 17-28, 2015

Pedal to the metal. (Photo: Cambio Challenge)

Greatest Challenge: “The monsoons came late and in massive quantities. That left the rivers really swollen and rural areas under water,” said Cambo Challenge veteran Lianne Dawes. “More than once we were driving through knee-high water.”

Related: For Daring Drivers Only: The World’s Scariest Roads

Highlight: Cambodia is best known for the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. “Camping within Angkor Wat was amazing. We arrived at night with fireflies guiding the way to our campsite through a pitch-black forest. We awakened in the morning to find ourselves alongside incredible ruins,” Dawes said.

Ice Run

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Siberian white out. (Photo: Chris Plough)

What It Is: Possibly the most dangerous rally is the Ice Run, which takes place in the dead of winter in Siberia. You will be piloting a dated Soviet motorcycle with a sidecar over frozen Lake Baikal, the deepest and largest fresh water lake in the world.

Time and Distance: 11 days; 1,250 miles

Entry Fee: TBD

Dates: TBD 2016

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Pit stop. (Photo: Chris Plough)

Greatest Challenge: Adventurer Chris Plough said his biggest obstacle was the bone-chilling weather. “Most of the time, it ranged from -20°F to -30°F. This led to an incredible number of motorcycle problems, from fuel freezing to metal parts snapping off. Even worse was the camping. One night, we camped out and it hit -46°F. I’m grateful that we made it through.”

Highlight: “We went down a road that ended up being too difficult to traverse due to excessive snow. While backtracking we ran across a father and son with their broken down snowmobile,” said Pough. “We ‘rescued’ them and took them back to their village. They ended up inviting us to their home for a night of never-ending homemade food and vodka. What really gets me is this family had so little. Yet, they were willing to share everything with strangers.”

Mongol Rally

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The perils of the Mongol Rally. (Photo: Sherry Ott)

What It Is: The Mongol Rally is considered the most challenging in terms of distance and time. For some adventurers, the rally will take over 100 days. It begins in London and ends in the Siberian city of Ulan Ude. The Mongol Rally abides by the “Crap Car Rule.” You must purchase a vehicle whose engine maxes out at 1000 cc.

Time and Distance: 2-14 weeks; approximately 10,000 miles

Entry Fee: $750 per team

Cost: starts July 19, 2015; open-ended finish

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The open Mongol road. (Photo: Sherry Ott)

Greatest Challenge: “The biggest challenge is living in a small car with your teammates for five weeks, making stressful decisions each day,” said Sherry Ott, a veteran of the Mongol Rally. “If you don’t kill each other in the car and are still talking at the finish line, then it’s a success. In our case, we started with four people and ended up with three.”

Related: I Told My Boss I Bought a One-Way Ticket to Kenya and Wasn’t Coming Back

Highlight: “In my lifetime, I never expected to end up in a police car as a criminal. But that is what happened to me in Kazakhstan,” divulged Sherry. “I ended up being held in a Kazakh police station for a morning, trying to play the role of helpless woman in order to avoid the $500 fine we ‘owed.‘”

Murmansk Challenge

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Whoops. (Photo: Murmansk Challenge)

What It Is: Starting in Calais, France, the Murmansk Challenge is a sprint to the Arctic. The goal is to reach the northern Russian city of Murmansk. This rally provides ample time to explore the desolate Arctic regions of northern Europe. Participants choose their own vehicle, with an emphasis on old and decrepit.

The Distance and Time: 2-3 weeks; 4,000 miles

Entry Fee: $150 per team

Dates: starts July 31, 2015; open-ended finish

Greatest Challenge: “We took a wrong turn somewhere in northern Russia, and ended up driving to Murmansk on an unfinished highway,” said former participant Marek Nusl. “The road was terrible mud and rock. Part of the car’s sub-frame sheared off. It ended up taking us 21 nonstop hours to make it to Murmansk.”

Highlight: “George, my co-driver, needed to stop by the side of the road since he had a call of nature. As I was thumbing through the map, George comes running back to the car, waving his hands madly and screaming,” said Nusl. “It was like a scene from a comedy. He then explained how a swarm of mosquitoes ambushed him as soon as he unbuckled his pants.”

Ric Gazarian writes at GlobalGaz. He is also the producer of the adventure-travel documentary, Hit The Road: India. For more rallies, click here.

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