Last year, Stephen Jan rose to his feet and eyed his classmates in Bronx Community College’s engine-repair class. Students recited the usual reasons for enrolling: a love of cars, mechanic aspirations, dreams of driving and repairing Corvettes. Mr. Jan, a 30-year-old software engineer, had a different reason for being there. “I’m driving an ambulance between London and Mongolia and my car might break down,” he said to stares.
Mr. Jan was not a medic. He was preparing for the Mongol Rally, a 10,000-mile journey between London and Mongolia where points are awarded for the smallest, oddest vehicles least likely to achieve success—or emergency vehicles that can later be donated. With the trip, Mr. Jan joined a small but intrepid group of New Yorkers who eschew traditional vacations in favor of loosely organized, multiweek rallies around the world whose key selling point is their potential for fiasco. These rallies, which send participants riding auto rickshaws across India or navigating a motley assortment of vehicles through the Sahara, attract business-school students seeking to test their crisis-management skills; older executives shaking off a midlife malaise; and people keen on seeing firsthand little-known parts other countries.
Participants at these events usually find their own vehicles, arrange their own visas and plot their own routes. And if trouble arises, “you’re pretty much on your own,” said Mr. Jan, who was introduced to the rally idea by a friend. “We were at a bar and of course after some drinks you’re like, ‘Oh, we got to do it, we got to do it!'” His friend ultimately dropped out, but Mr. Jan was hooked. He flew to Berlin to find a car, despite not speaking German. He scraped together a four-person team, and his group, dubbed the Magical Mongolian Mystery Tour, raised more than $7,000 for charity, along with the roughly $1,200 entry fee.
For Mr. Jan and others like him, the chance to escape normal New York life and attempt an overland crossing is too tempting to resist. Rally organizers gleefully play up the potential for unpleasant, unexpected catastrophe—catnip for the type of New Yorker who thrives on attempting arduous feats, from monthlong juice fasts to autorickshaw journeys. “We tell people that it’s going to be difficult and they’re not going to get any support and they’re on their own,” said Andrew Szabo, an ex-New Yorker who went to the City University of New York and went on to found the Budapest-Bamako rally through Africa. “Basically they’re buying the right to struggle and suffer in the Sahara.”
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