Rainer Zietlow on His Record-Setting Drive Across Eurasia

Earlier this week we reported that Rainer Zietlow and his trusty Volkswagen Touareg had arrived in Lisbon, Portugal. On its own, not an amazing achievement—though Lisbon is a pretty harrowing place. No, what was really impressive was where he and his team took off from less than a week before: the shores of the Pacific Ocean. We were so impressed by what Zietlow and his team achieved that we reached out and he spoke to us about the drive.

Geography buffs and fans of communist cinema will no doubt know that Russia is—as the map makers say—friggin’ huge. It goes all the way from the top of Europe, over the Middle East, past the ‘stans, across China, and finally crashes into the Pacific ocean. And that was Zietlow’s starting point, along the Pacific coast, in Magadan, Russia. Although there are technically towns farther east than Magadan, none of them can be reached by car. The drive from Magadan to Lisbon—Eurasia’s Westernmost capital—is the longest stretch of road on the continent and as a result has attracted adventurers before. Until Zietlow’s trip, the world record for completing the drive was a little over eight days.

Zietlow is no stranger to driving record-setting distances. In his time, the German has driven through 110 countries and set countless records, three of them in his trusty Touareg. And it was that experience that allowed Zietlow and his team to set their record.

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Completing the trip across Eurasia doesn’t just require a map and some snacks. The drive needs to be planned carefully, because of the poor quality of the infamous Road of Bones. “It’s like climbing  Everest,” says Zietlow, you have to plan for the weather and there’s only a narrow window of time when the drive can actually be completed. When the roads get wet, they can become nearly undriveable.

Zietlow and his team were cunning, though. Instead of taking off from Lisbon and trusting distant weather predictions, they decided to take off from Magadan, even though it meant adding weeks to the whole trip. That way, they could use the town as a sort of base camp while they waited for a stretch of good weather. Doing that still isn’t easy. The team had to get the Touareg to Magadan, which meant driving it there—albeit not at a record setting pace. On their way there, the team faced rain and poor condition, and suffered multiple flat tires, Zietlow says. Luckily, the plan paid off, and on their record attempt they had only good weather.

Even at the best of times, driving the Road of Bones is no cakewalk. “The rocks are so sharp,” says Zietlow. Many sections of the Road of Bones aren’t paved and others could accurately be described as completely abandoned. The road is made out of big, sharp rocks that have been blown off nearby hills with TNT. As a result, they can turn tires into Swiss cheese. To prevent that from happening, the Touareg was fitted with Kevlar reinforced tires for that section of the drive. The Kevlar worked a treat, keeping Zietlow and his team on the road and moving forward.

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After getting everything right and covering that dangerous 3,000 km (1,865 miles), the Touareg finally got back onto regular roads, put on regular tires, and could make up time. Once they reached Europe it only took the team a day to make it to Lisbon. Through all the deadly roads, the traffickey European cities, and fuel stops, the team managed to average nearly 60 miles an hour. “That’s quite good,” says Zietlow. To put the achievement into context, the average speed record at the 24h of Le Mans, set by cars racing on a baby-butt-smooth track going as fast as human technology will allow, is only about twice as fast as Zietlow went in his heavy, off-roading, Kevlar tired SUV. And the Touareg drove for six-and-a-bit times longer than do the Le Mans prototypes.

As a result of this remarkable speed, Zietlow has set his fourth world record with the Touareg and is “running out” of records to set. Still, the German adventurer says he isn’t done. Zietlow says that his next trip hasn’t been planned yet, but there some ideas being tossed around. As ever, the record-setter will be driving a VW, but the Touareg might get a break. With a suite of new Volkswagen SUVs coming up, Zietlow is spoiled for choice. What improbable trek he chooses to complete next remains to be seen, but we can’t wait to find out.

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