Week 1 of the Mongol Diaries - UK to Poland: Testing Out the Concept "Mongolia or Bust"

Memory is a demonstration of human fallibility, but we won't forget the following lessons that we have been humbled by in our first week in Mongolia.
07/24/2013 06:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Shout out to my teammates: Tian Feng, Forrest Funnell, Leo Markel, and Ed Preuss


Studies conducted in recent years have hypothesized that the best part of a trip is the planning portion, while the actual vacation may elicit only varying degrees of delight and/or result in distorted memories. Separately, the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, refers to a conflict between our experiencing and our remembering selves, such that individuals may confuse the level of happiness experienced daily in their lives with the memory of how happy they were once upon a time.

Since hitting the road in early July on a 10,000 mile road trip with four other MBA classmates, I have had plenty of time to contemplate the above two schools of thought when viewing our "last hurrah" of a summer vacation before the semester starts.

We started in London and we aim to reach Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia by mid-August. At the conclusion of the first week, our team has already crossed out of Poland into Lithuania. Of course, this is not without the initial hiccups common to expeditions -- long periods of traversing empty stretches of land, growling stomachs, and the typical storming and norming when a group is first developing its cadence.

However, the beauty of such a vacation that stretches for multiple weeks across an enormous landmass means that we are constantly plotting our next move. Given literal crossroads, our planning has never really ceased as we cope with new obstacles and insights. Thus, our team has been forced to integrate Kahneman's experiencing and remembering selves so that we live in the moment of our travels, as well as relish the time it takes us to reach our next destination, be that the Baltic countries, or Russia, or any of our other far-flung endpoints. We're in it for the bucolic beauty of the countryside, for the decadent local cuisine, and for the enduring camaraderie that springs from being with one another 24/7.

Memory is a demonstration of human fallibility, but we won't forget the following lessons that we have been humbled by in our first week:

  1. Fundamentally trust in people and believe in the best.

Truth be told, we honestly did not think we would even make it as far as Poland. On our first day, we excitedly drove from London to the Port of Dover, marveling in its famous white cliffs, and disembarked as excitedly at Dunkirk, France. Seventy kilometers later, our vehicle had completely stopped on the side of a highway. Considering the implicit motto behind every rally team on this type of road trip is "Mongolia or Bust," we would have been sorely disappointed to bust this soon.

Fortunately, the issue turned out to be as simple as replacing a leaky transmission fluid pipe. On an interesting note, our vehicle formerly belonged to the UK police force and was marked as such on the hood. The amazing mechanics in Lille, France rightfully believed us to be idiots attempting to drive through Russia with a former police car, and spent extra, uncompensated time scrubbing off the offending word. And we're in contact with our car dealership regarding the hassle of the breakdown on the first day. The world isn't out to get us and we are indebted to many people that assisted us in this trial.

  • Protect yourself through preparation.
  • When our vehicle stranded us several kilometers away from Lille, France, two of the devices we were carrying became lifesavers. Our smartphone rented from CelloMobile.com enabled us to search online for nearby mechanics while an international Passport SIM powered by Telestial allowed us to make emergency phone calls. The vehicle breakdown was fairly traumatic because of what it possibly entailed for our entire vacation, but our devices helped us with logistics and thereby decreased the duress. While it might sound appealing to be disconnected, think before chucking all of your devices on vacation.

  • Stay flexible.
  • Our team had pondered the merits of either the Chunnel train or the Port of Dover ferry up until the day of our departure from the UK. Lille was a completely unexpected stop in our itinerary as a result of the leaky transmission pipe. Then we had to make up for the lost time by bowling through Germany. Not to completely refute the above point, but the moral is that no amount of preparation will ensure a smooth passage. And that's OK, because we want the stuff that adventures are made of.

    The studies on measuring happiness pre- and post-vacations and Kahneman's discussion on interpreting wellbeing remind me of how to live for my trip now, as well as what I have to look forward to in the future. Happy memories come from positive thinking now. As such, expect the initial trials of this first week to fade away so that the only recollections will be fond ones, and that these memories consist of the languid afternoon in St. Christopher's Place, of walking in the shadows of the Lille Cathedral, and of drinking in the frenetic night performances in Krakow's main square. These are a source of deriving future joy, these memories in the make.

    Diana graduated from Rice University in 2010 with a BA in Economics and is an incoming MBA student at Harvard Business School. Check out photos of the journey @superuberonda.