Transmongolia – Part Two: Hitching a Ride

Transmongolia: Part Two – Click above to watch video after the jump

After gaining my bearings in Ulaanbaatar and making a few friends over rocket propelled grenades, I set off for Ölgii – a dusty city of roughly 29,000 people and the capital of the remote province of Bayan-Olgii Aimag.

From Ulaanbaatar, the flight to Ölgii Airport was just 2 1/2 hours in a noisy Saab 340B. Flying over the wide expanses of the Gobi desert and Altai mountains, it was difficult to imagine that I’d be traversing everything that was passing below me in just under a week.

Joined by Mel, a journalist from an English newspaper, I arrived in Ölgii without much of a plan; to get a ride into town and hope to hitch a ride. But in order to find a team to ride with, the only thing we could do was sit by the side of the town’s one main road and wait – hoping that whoever came along would be willing to pick up two outsiders carrying cameras and notepads.

So, we waited. We wandered markets and sat by the side of the road. After just a few hours in the sun, we were relieved and exhilarated to see a convoy of four brightly painted cars and one ambulance heading in our direction. We were no longer lost in the Gobi; we had found the chariots that would (hopefully) take us across Mongolia.

Transmongolia – Part Two: Hitching a Ride

Luckily for Mel & I, we quickly made friends with a team dubbed Party of Five; consisting of a team of three (one member had dropped out) friends from Australia and their mutual friend from England. They were proudly commandeering an old Ford ambulance that they had named ‘Olive’ – a reference to the lovely interior paint job in the back of the ‘ambo’, which had served as their home for the past several weeks. With just enough room for two more people and our bags, we hopped in and got on the road; eager to begin our journey.

It was short lived; only a few kilometers down the road, we encountered our first breakdown – a car that had left Ölgii before us had lost the use of one of its tires after slicing through the rim of the wheel. The unforgiving nature of the dirt tracks that served as highways here, suggested that we’d see many more breakdowns in the coming days. The dust, rocks, and bumps would surely put everyone to the test. So after a quick push to turn it the broken vehicle around for towing, the convoy packed up and headed out to scout for the evening’s camp site.

Finding the perfect spot wasn’t very complicated; we pulled off to the side of the road, looked for a flat place to pitch our tents, and set up camp for the first night in the wilderness of Mongolia.

For more information about the Mongol Rally, including how to sign up for the 2012 rally, visit the Adventurist’s website.

Transportation was made possible by the scholars & gentlemen at the Adventurists. No editorial content or opinions were guaranteed, and nor was anyone’s safety or hygiene.

Transmongolia – Part One: USA to RPGs in 24 hours

“Traveling is for sissies, come and get stuck in a desert.” The moment I first read those words, I knew that the Mongol Rally was something that I needed to experience in my lifetime.

Imagine: a 10,000 mile adventure across some of the world’s most rugged terrain, in some of the most unsuitable vehicles imaginable; no GPS devices, no support crew, and no single set route from the starting line in Goodwood, England to the finish line in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar. In the words of the Adventurists (the group responsible for the rally), the Rally is simply: “10,000 miles of adventuring bliss through deserts, mountains, and steppe”.

So, when I got the opportunity to fly to Mongolia and join one of the 300 teams competing in the 2011 Mongol Rally, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. I needed to know what it was like to race across the steppe, fix major breakdowns with only duct tape, and meet the type of people that were capable of completing something so amazingly bizarre.

Transmongolia is an exclusive five part video series that documents my journey from the fringe of the Russia/Mongolia border to the finish line in Ulaanbaatar.

See what it’s like to get hopelessly lost in the Gobi desert, break down hundreds of miles from any sign of help, and discover the sheer beauty of the vast Mongolian countryside from the rear window of a dusty ambulance…

Transmongolia – Part One: USA to RPGs in 24 hours

For more information about the Mongol Rally, including how to sign up for the 2012 rally, visit the Adventurist’s website.

Transportation was made possible by the scholars & gentlemen at the Adventurists. No editorial content or opinions were guaranteed, and nor was anyone’s safety or hygiene.

10 crazy cocktails from around the world

Snake WineWhatever happened to the days of just drinking vodka mixed with juice? Maybe some fruit added in, a sugar stick, or a mint leaf garnish. Apparently, these simple recipes are being replaced with edible scorpions, dead birds, and fermented rodents.

Snake Wine, Vietnam

In South East Asia, snakes are considered to be good for the health, with the thinking being that a shot or two can cure all ailments. According to, this wine is created by infusing an entire snake into in rice wine or grain alcohol. Apparently, there is even a snake village in Hanoi, Vietnam, which features numerous bars and restaurants where customers can sample the wine, among other snake delicacies, such as snake steak and fried snake skin.

Scorpion Vodka from EnglandScorpion Vodka, England

This vodka is five times distilled and is produced 100% from single grain wheat. Who really cares about that, though, once you find out it is also enhanced with a real, edible (farm raised!) scorpion. Right on the website, the company promises that the scorpion’s “diet and environment is controlled to assure their good quality” and is “processed for human consumption, according to high quality food preparation standards”. Thank goodness!

Lizard Wine, China

This unique wine, according to Florin Nedelcu, is made by fermenting Ginseng, Gecko lizards, and rice wine in a clay vat for a year. The final product is green liquid (hmmm, wonder what that’s from?) and is said to taste similar to brandy, as well as improve vision and ward off evil spirits.

Seagull Wine, Arctic Circle

While my mother always warned me never to touch a dead bird, the people living up towards the North Pole must have been taught differently. The recipe for this wine is very simple, take a dead seagull, stuff it into a bottle of water, and leave it to ferment under the sun for a few days. I am not sure how they discovered that drinking dead seagull juice could get you drunk, but it apparently does the trick.

Mezcal, Mexico

While many people have heard of the tequila worm, it is actually a bottle of Mezcal that you should purchase if looking to swallow the worm at the bottom. Like tequila, it is made by distilling the fermented juice of agave plants in Mexico. The worm that you will sometimes find in the bottle, according to, is actually “the larvae of one of two moths that live on the agave plant”. While the reason for adding the worm to some Mezcals isn’t set in stone, it is believed that it shows drinkers that the proof of the alcohol is high enough to keep the worm in tact.

Deer Penis Wine, China

I’m sure you’re probably thinking that the name must be a joke but, alas, this drink is exactly what you think it is, a deer penis fermenting in wine. According to, the cocktail is said to cure sports related injuries, even being banned from athletes during the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to the fact that it is thought to contain herbal ephedrine, which would lead to athletes being disqualified if found in their systems.

Cricket Cocktail, USA, New York

Known as “Summer” at the bar White & Church in TriBeCa, New York, this Piña~Colada-type concoction is a frothy, sweet cocktail and comes with bamboo (inedible) and crickets (edible). In the mood for a different species of garnish on your drink? The restaurant also features a martini topped with scorpions and a frozen margarita-type drink containing spicy worms.

Baby Mouse Wine, China

Is there no end to the animals you can ferment to make wine? Like snake wine, the product of drowning a family of baby mice in a vat of wine and letting it ferment for a year is supposed to be good for your health, curing liver problems, skin ailments, and asthma. I think I’ll stick with taking vitamins.

Fermented Mare’s Milk, Mongolia

Called Airag, this horse milk is said to “refreshen and sparkle the tongue” and tastes “slightly sour”. With only 2% alcohol it probably won’t get you drunk, but you should get used to the taste anyway. According to, it is a tradition in Mongolia to offer guests this drink when they enter your home, and guests who refuse it are seen as impolite.

Snake’s Blood, South East Asia

Like many of these wild drinks, drinking snake’s blood is believed to have health and wellness properties, such as increasing sex drive, helping repair eyesight, and keeping hair loss at bay. According to, this crazy cocktail is made by slicing the snake’s body and draining the blood directly into a glass. While snake’s blood can be drank by itself, it can also be enjoyed with alcohol.

The world’s top ten most desolate countries

most desolate

According to a Harvard study
, the earth’s population will hit seven billion humans in a few months. Earlier this summer, Gadling labs profiled the effects of increasing populations on finite land resources by showcasing the world’s most crowded islands. The earth is, in its own way, an island, and 21st century humanity will be presented with the challenge of adapting to rising population levels and static resources.

While countries like India have wrestled with the conundrum of feeding and housing booming population levels in Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai, the countries on this list bear no similarities to the billion strong Indian subcontinent. These countries are the ones with open space – lots of it. Countries like Greenland and Mongolia may someday be utilized for their vast expanses of open terrain, but today they are simply great places to go when you have tired of other human beings.

So while this extraordinarily hot summer may have included elbowing your way through thronged midtown Manhattan in 100 degree heat or hesitantly inhaling the stink rising off the sweaty crowd at Bonnaroo, this list is intended to take you way away from the crowds. From riding a horse through the empty steppes of Mongolia to exploring the glacial highlands of Iceland, each of these countries offers exercises in sweet sweet solitude. None of these countries have more than ten people per square mile.

most desolate

10 Mauritania
Location: Northwest Africa
Population: 3,069,000
Population density: 8.2 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Nouakchott International Airport
Primer: Mauritania is a sand swept country offering desolation and one of the lowest GDPs on the African continent. Even the well-traveled must consult an atlas to correctly place the country on their mental map. Heavily mined in the east with empty beaches in the West, the country is one of the least visited locations on the planet. Credit cards are not readily acceptable, rain is scarce, and desert covers over half of this one time French occupation. Throw in strained African/Arab relations and you get a very challenging country to visit.

most desolate

9 Suriname
Location: Northeast South America
Population: 491,989
Population density: 7.6 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: The Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport
Primer: Suriname is a whisper of a nation on South America‘s north-Atlantic coast. Most Surinamese call the coastal region home, and the interior of the country is an impenetrable rain-forest, inhabited by toucans, parrots, monkeys, deer, and the elusive cock-of-the-rock. 60% of Suriname residents speak Dutch with the rest speaking a collection of fourteen other languages, including Sranan Tongo – a creole dialect. Most tourists come to Suriname for the Amazonian rain-forest, though the northern beaches are surprisingly good — and empty.

most desolate

8 Iceland
Location: North Atlantic Ocean
Population: 318,452
Population density: 7.5 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Keflavík International Airport
Primer: When multinational aluminum producer Alcoa decided to build a smelting plant in Iceland, they encountered an extraordinary problem. The Icelandic government required Alcoa to pay specialists to inspect and survey the proposed building site for elves, gnomes, trolls, and fairies – so called “hidden people.” The situation strained Alcoa’s management because paying specialists to search for “hidden people” seemed to be a bit of a boondoggle, especially from a shareholder point of view. But, Alcoa paid for the service. The intricate search process took six months. This is the type of place Iceland is – unique and folkloric, awkwardly straddling the modern and ancient worlds.

Iceland’s geographical diversity spans a wide range. From the fires of active volcanoes to glacial carved fjords, Iceland’s landscape provides a full suite of awe-inspiring natural features.

most desolate

7 Australia
Location: South Indian and Pacific Oceans
Population: 22,672,063
Population density: 7.3 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Kingsford Smith Airport
Primer: Australia truly needs no introduction. Its inclusion on this list stems from the vast open quarter that consumes much of its central and western landmass. Roughly 80% of Australians live in the eastern states, and while Australia is one of the world’s largest countries geographically, the country’s entire population equals that of the Bangkok metropolitan area. This human sparseness is evident to those that venture into the country’s vast interior. As one of the most visited countries in the world, Australia boasts both open space and cosmopolitan metropolitan areas. Also: koala bears.

most desolate

6 Namibia
Location: Southern Africa
Population: 2,108,655
Population density: 6.6 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Windhoek Hosea Kutako International Airport
Primer: Namibia is home to an abandoned German mining town, the world’s oldest desert, lots of big cats, and an underground lake thought to be the largest on earth. The dunes of the 80 million year old Namib desert rise off of the desert floor like mountains, and cheetahs prowl the nation’s back-country, competing with lions and leopards for bush snacks. Throw in penguins, a 50 ton meteorite, and Ovambo tribesmen that oddly cling to the Lutheran religion, and it is easy to appreciate Namibia’s diverse offerings.

most desolate

5 French Guiana (France)
Location: Northeast South America
Population: 217,000
People per square mile: 6.2 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Cayenne – Rochambeau Airport
Primer: French Guiana is a throwback to the era of European imperialism. An overseas region of France, the country is the last South American country still considered to be part of Europe. It is almost entirely unsettled wilderness, and one of the most notorious prisons in the world was once located just offshore. The foreboding-sounding Devil’s Island housed a number of prisoners, including Clement Duval and Alfred Dreyfuss. Today, half of the population lives in the capital city of Cayenne, and many also live in the unlikely space-town of Kourou. The city of Kourou is the launch site for European Space Agency satellites. Space-related business accounts for 25% of French Guiana’s GDP and has been a boost to the local economy since Charles de Gaulle opened the space-travel base in 1964.

most desolate

4 Western Sahara
Location: Northwest Africa
Population: 513,000
People per square mile: 5 per square mile
Primary Airport: Hassan I Airport
Primer: Western Sahara, a disputed region in northern Africa, is perhaps the epitome of desolation. With a long coastline lacking credible beaches, a heavily mined military zone, and the topography of a vast arid desert, it is a moonish destination for sure. The temperatures soar during the day and plummet at night. Independent travel is commonly restricted in the region. Literacy is thought to be below 50%. Not exactly selling points, but for those with a taste for sandy adventure, a hatred of tourist hordes, or an interest in political conflict, Western Sahara may just be the country for you.

most desolate

3 Mongolia
Location: Central Asia
Population: 2,754,685
People per square mile: 4.56 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Chinggis Khaan International Airport (Chinggis Khaan is the Mongolian name for Genghis Khan)
Primer: Mongolia is twice the size of Texas, but with less than three million humans and over sixty million heads of livestock. Nestled between Russia and China, Mongolia is an old kingdom of master horseman and nomadic tribes. The mongols first appear in written history as barbarians who invaded China and prompted the construction of the Great Wall. Today, Mongolians are a welcoming bunch, and the capital city of Ulaanbaatar is stationary – it used to move three times per year.

most desolate

2 Falkland Islands (U.K)
South Atlantic Ocean
Population: 3,140
People per square mile: .65 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: RAF Mount Pleasant
Primer: With 2,400 people and 700,000 sheep, the Falkland Islands boast a rather robust sheep to human ratio. A storied past includes the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom, as well as a series of various European occupations. Today, the sleepy chain of 200 islands is visited by expedition cruisers en route to Antarctica. The visitors to the remote island chain are able to observe five different species of penguin, as well as seals, whales, and a rare indigenous bird of prey – the Striated Caracara.

most desolate

1 Greenland (Denmark)
Location: North Atlantic
Population: 56,615
People per square mile: .069 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Kangerlussuaq Airport
Primer: The Greenland misnomer hearkens back to the age of Erik the Red – a viking known for his issues with Norse law. Having been exiled from both Norway and Iceland, Erik came upon this hulking breast of an island further west. To entice future visitors, he coined the island Greenland, and it stuck. Many Nordic settlers moved to Greenland at his urging, probably stumped by its misleading name – 85% of Greenland is covered by a thick sheet of ice. Allegedly, the southern coastal region is actually very green, especially in the summer months. Last year, Gadling labs sent an explorer to the island to comment on its greenness. His findings? It is, in fact, quite green.

While the national dish of boiled seal meat may fail to conjure up a sudden urge to visit the Arctic island, the glacial cut fjords, polar bears, and colorful houses make visiting Greenland an extraordinary experience.

top flickr image via Atli Harðarson

Marco Polo: travel writer fraud

Did Marco Polo exaggerate his travels?As a child, I was fascinated by stories about Marco Polo. History told us that the 13th Century Italian merchant and explorer famously traveled to the Far East, where he witnessed the wonders of Chinese and Mongolian cultures, and even served as an ambassador to the court of Kublai Kahn. For more than 24 years, Marco wandered throughout Asia, where he traded with the locals and became intimately familiar with their way of life.

Eventually, Marco returned to Venice, where he mesmerized people with tales of his far-flung adventures. Those stories would later be documented in a book entitled Description of the World, a work that was incredibly popular, even long after Polo’s death in 1324. Many historians consider it to be amongst the first travel books ever written and it helped to cement Marco’s stats as a legendary figure in history. So much so, that 700 years after it was first published, we still revel in the tales of Polo’s fantastic travels.

But what if the famous merchant wasn’t exactly honest about his exploits? What if he hadn’t traveled as far and wide as he claimed in those tales? What if Marco Polo was a travel fraud?

That’s exactly what archaeologists have now come to believe after pouring through Description of the World and lining up what Polo described in the text with what we now know about historical events and places. In fact, according to a story published in The Daily Telegraph a few days ago, historians now believe that Marco Polo never even went to China. Instead, they think that he picked up his stories from Persian merchants that he dealt with directly along the Black Sea. Polo may have then taken those stories, embellished them a bit, adding in his own details for good measure.For example, when describing the fleet of ships that Kublai Khan used on his failed attempt to invade Japan in 1281, Polo claims they had five masts, when archaeologists know that they had just three. Something he could easily have forgotten or overlooked you say? Agreed. But his book doesn’t mention the Great Wall of China at all, nor does he make even a passing reference to drinking tea or using chopsticks while visiting that country. Marco also uses a variety of Persian words to describe locations in China as well, which also indicates that he may have been getting his stories second-hand.

Dr. Frances Wood, the head of the Chinese section of the British Library, also says that there was nothing from China ever found amongst the Polo family’s possessions and that throughout his book, Marco rarely mentions that he witnessed something first hand. She believes that he actually came across a Persian guide book on China in his travel and simply used that for the basis of his tales.

So, let me get this straight. Marco Polo not only helped to launch the travel writing industry, he also became one of its first writers to plagiarize and exaggerate his content? This guy really was ahead of his time.