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It's a mad, mad, Technomad world race

Technomads: MIT students setting off on wild race round half the globe

By David E. Williams
CNN

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Nadem Mazen, Syed Fareed Ahmed, Javad Golji and Abdulbasier Aziz (l-r) pose in Amsterdam before the trip.

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(CNN) -- A group of MIT engineering students will probably have a pretty good answer to the question, "What did you do on your summer vacation?"

Nadeem Mazen, Syed Fareed Ahmed, Javad Golji and Abdulbasier Aziz, who call themselves the Technomads, set off over the weekend on the Mongol Rally -- an 8,000-mile charity race from London to Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia.

"We did it on a whim, I guess," Mazen said in a phone interview from Amsterdam before the race. "We got an e-mail from friends in the U.K. and almost immediately I said, 'This is a really fantastic thing, let's do it.' And the guy said 'Are you serious,' and we sort-of just ran with it." (Watch the MIT students prep for the race -- 2:47)

The trip will carry them a quarter of the way around the world. It's the equivalent of driving from the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Los Angeles, California, and back -- and then making a side trip to Denver, Colorado.

But instead of U.S. interstates with gas stations and Waffle Houses at practically every exit, they'll be driving through countries that many Americans wouldn't think of visiting -- such as Bosnia, Serbia, Uzbekistan and Iran.

"We're fairly confident. We have friends in each place, who have given us a heads-up on cultural nuances and things to look out for, so I think we're in good shape," Mazen said.

Race rules require participants to drive an underpowered, preferably ridiculous, vehicle that's completely unsuited for the trip. Race organizers said the point of the trip is for participants to have an adventure, not to squire themselves around in sturdy SUVs.

"What would the point of the Mongol Rally be if you could do it in a Land Rover? The only hurdle you would face would be remembering to fill the petrol tank," organizers said on their Web site.

The four Technomads will be squeezing into a silver, 1995 Renault 19 hatchback with about 120,000 kilometers (74,564 miles) on the odometer.

"We were very lucky to get a Renault with such little mileage that's fairly new for, I think we paid about 500 euro, so about $700," Mazen said.

He said it took a couple of tries to jam their clothes, supplies, cameras and computer equipment in the car.

"It's just a game of Tetris, I guess, in the back trunk there," he said.

In an e-mail from Sarajevo, Mazen said the car was running pretty well, but said they had a "scary moment" when the engine quit on the roads of Bosnia "with a huge truck bearing down on us."

"All is well, though," he wrote.

The team is pretty much on its own on the road, but the guys do have a satellite phone.

Mazen said they weren't too concerned about the potential dangers of the trip.

"Don't tell our parents, but we just got an e-mail from some guy who's, like, 'You know what, you guys are absolutely crazy and you're all going to die,'" Mazen said with a laugh. "So we don't know who this guy is or where he came from but obviously he's concerned."

They've raised more than $5,000 that will go to Mercy Corps, which helps the poor in rural Mongolia and Send a Cow, which provides livestock to African farmers.

They plan to reach Ulaan Bataar by August 19.

"The contest people have set up some sort of gala dinner and they're planning to have some sort of grand reception," Mazen said. "I really don't know how they plan to negotiate logistics of that. We don't know when everyone's going to finish, we don't know whether everyone's going to finish, so I guess we have no idea what to expect when we get there."

After the trip they'll fly to Beijing, China, before going their separate ways. Mazen plans to stay in China for awhile, Ahmed and Aziz are returning to MIT and Golji is going to the University of California at Berkeley, for graduate school.

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