Mathias Boyer and Eugene Bregolat arrived in China 30 years ago as toddlers. After graduating from ISB in 2002, the pair studied together at university, first in Beijing and then in London. The Shanghai-based friends participated in the Mongol Rally last summer, traveling 17,000 kilometers across 23 countries over 35 days.
Bursts of gunfire echoed outside. Mathias Boyer and Eugene Bregolat had been asleep in their tents before hearing the unnerving sound of cackling semi-automatics across the border. It was 3 am and the pair were camped along the Panj River, the powerful torrent that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. They were at the scenic midpoint of the Mongol Rally, an epic journey that began in Madrid and would eventually finish in Ulan Ude, Siberia.
Earlier in the day, the river had swallowed a road including a truck carrying 10 people. Now, there was the sound of bullets piercing the chilly mountain air in the Wakhan Corridor, one of the few regions in Afghanistan mercifully spared by the Taliban.
“The river was narrow enough to throw a stone across it. Part of the road had collapsed due to flooding, so we had to drive for another 300 kilometers to another checkpoint,” Mathias said.
Retracing the Silk Road
Mathias and Eugene spent a year planning for the Mongol Rally. Their journey took them through France, Italy, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Everything had to be meticulously organized, from obtaining visas for ex-Soviet states to crossing the Caspian Sea aboard a leaky ferry. The pair were joined by two of Eugene’s Spanish friends for the rally. Their vehicle, a second-hand Renault Kangoo, was a bubble-shaped minivan more suited to down- town couriers than cross-continental adventurers.
The rally was as much a test of will as skill. The team drove 18 hours each day in up to 40-degree heat across deserts and mountain ranges. They slept and ate at irregular intervals and left modern, urban concepts of personal hygiene in their rear-view mirror.
Eugene said the rally was an invitation for him and his companions to leave their comfort zones and see the world from a new perspective.
“After the first time I said to myself ‘never again.’ After the second time I said to myself ‘never again,’” he joked. “But the opportunity to share that experience with a good friend was too good to pass up.”
Naturally, the trip had its twists and turns. As the Mongol Rally states on its website, “If nothing goes wrong, everything has gone wrong.” On the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, the world’s second highest international road at a dizzying 4,655 meters above sea level, the team’s car broke down. Stranded in one of the remotest parts of Central Asia, the team relied on Eugene’s linguistic skills and a bit of luck to get them through.
“My mother is Russian, so my Russian helped a lot. It was a real challenge because we didn’t know if we would be able to get to the finish line,” he said.
While the terrain could be inhospitable, people proved to be the exact opposite. Locals welcomed the Dane and three Spaniards with open arms, sealing an unforgettable experience.
“Many times we ate and slept in people’s homes. Everywhere we went people were extremely warm to us,” Eugene said.
Friends from first grade
Eugene and Mathias arrived in Beijing 30 years ago as toddlers. They met as first graders at ISB, before their third-culture kid lifestyles separated them for several years; Mathias went to Brussels, while Eugene had stints in Canada and Russia.
Mathias returned to ISB in Grade 8, with Eugene joining him the following year. The pair soon discovered their shared passion for travel.
“IB geography with Mr. Green had a lasting impression on me. It definitely fueled my interest in travel and the diversity of the world in terms of cultures, religions, and geology. I thought about Mr. Green a lot (during the rally), thinking ‘oh, that reminds me of the volcano study we had in IB geography,’” Mathias said.
As members of the Class of 2002, Mathias and Eugene were among the first students to graduate from ISB’s Shunyi campus. The duo stayed in Beijing for an extra year after graduation, perfecting their Chinese at Peking University before they both went to London for university.
Today, the pair live in Shanghai where Mathias works for Danish sovereign wealth fund IFU and Eugene is treasury director of fashion giant Zara for the Asia Pacific and South Africa regions. Entrepreneurs outside of the irregular work, Eugene runs a wine distribution company he founded three years ago while Mathias and his wife have a business importing Nicaraguan specialty coffee beans
Worldly influence of ISB
While China has changed dramatically over the nearly 20 years Mathias and Eugene have been in the country, the pair’s reputation as inseparable friends has endured.
“A lot of our friends joke that to find either of us, you just need to find one of us,” said Mathias.
As the first alumnus to serve on ISB’s Board of Trustees, Mathias participated in implementing the school’s Strategic Plan IV during his tenure from 2012 to 2015. In the same spirit of the Mongol Rally, he said the greatest rewards come from navigating new frontiers while giving back to an institution that has given him so much.
“As a Board, we were able to explore and take risks by embracing project-based learning with broad support from our parent community. Education is changing, so we really started to think about how to position ISB strategically for the next generation,” he said.
Reflecting on ISB’s 35th anniversary, Eugene said his education had given him a strong sense of global- mindedness and pride of belonging to the “ISB family.” “Those five years I spent in Beijing from the ages of 14 to 19 are still the best memories of my life. Back then we had a small (expat) community and we all knew each other. It really felt like a family,” he said.
“Nowadays Beijing has all sorts of cinemas, malls, and restaurants, but back then there wasn’t much to do. To compensate for that lack of entertainment, we built really strong personal relationship.”