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.

Buzkashi – goats and gladiators

In central Asia, men play a strange game on horseback. Instead of a ball, they use a goat carcass. Instead of goals, they must ride until free of challengers. Instead of minutes, the game can be measured in days. This is Buzkashi – goat grabbing.

Long established as the national sport of Afghanistan, Buzkashi is polo’s drunken uncle. The sport is also played in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. It is a sport of the Stans – where the masters have ridden for centuries, gloriously along the steppes they call home. The game starts with the placement of a goat carcass in the center of a horse circle, and from there, the riders stare each other down while gripping tightly wound whips in their gleaming teeth.


During the Taliban reign in Afghanistan, the sport was outlawed, but today it has seen a resurgence as the national pastime. Two variations are played, Tudabarai and Qarajai. In both versions, the field is separated into two teams. Tudabarai is the simpler more traditional form of the game. To win, a lone rider must carry the goat until free and clear of all other riders. The riders use their boots and whips to discourage any sort of advance, though horse tripping is strictly forbidden. Qarajai is the more complex version of the game, and requires players to take the goat around a marker and then place it in the team’s designated scoring circle.

The winning team receives a bevy of prizes, from televisions to fine turbans to camels. Games have been known to last for days, and it is a rough demanding sport. It is said that only the masters of the sport, called “Chapandaz,” are truly adept at retrieving the carcass and absconding with it to glory. Unlike a running-back in the NFL, these masters do not hit their peak until much later in life. Most are well over 40. They have spent a lifetime training, and their horses are equally prepared. A good Buzkashi horse must train for five to ten years and can fetch over ten-thousand dollars. This amount is 25 times the average laborer’s yearly wage in Afghanistan and would be comparable to paying $1,000,000 in relative terms in the United States.

Since Afghanistan is a war zone, it is best to catch a game of Buzkashi in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, it is possible to catch games during the late August Independence celebrations. Community Based Tourism arranges a number of tours in the region.

flickr images via U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

AirBaltic expands, spruces up

Yesterday, Latvian airline AirBaltic launched two new routes: Riga-Madrid and Riga-Beirut.

Riga-based AirBaltic is an airline to watch. Little known in North America, the airline is notable for its low starting fares and the inclusion of most of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations on its route map. But what really sets the airline apart from the pack is its range of underserved destinations across Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Nordic countries.

These less well-served destinations include Baku, Tbilisi, and Yerevan in the Caucasus; Almaty, Dushanbe, and Tashkent in Central Asia; Amman, Beirut, Dubai, and Tel Aviv in the Middle East; and destinations like Kuopio, Tromsø, and Visby across Nordic Europe.

The catch is that most routes fly in and out of Riga, a beautiful city that is sadly not exactly top-of-mind among most visitors to Europe. While AirBaltic’s fabulous range of destinations can best be accessed from a starting-point in the Baltics or the Nordic countries, the airline’s fares for connecting flights from cities across Western Europe can also be quite competitive.

In anticipation, no doubt, of the summer traffic to come, AirBaltic also upgraded its site yesterday. The visual changes are minimal, but they go some way toward making the site more streamlined and enjoyable to peruse.

(Image: Flickr/Londo_Mollari)

Trekking Tajikistan

The mountain countries of Central Asia have been a bit of a hidden gem for adventure travel in recent years. While the vast majority of people can’t find Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan on the map as of yet, the more adventurous travelers have begun to hear tales of rugged, remote mountain trails that weave their way through mostly unspoiled backcountry with some of the most stunning views on the planet.

That’s exactly what London Times reporter Caroline Eden found when she traveled through the High Pamir mountains of Tajikistan recently. She wrote about her experiences trekking amongst the 7000 meter peaks of the Geisev Valley, describing crystal clear mountain lakes, wide open skies, and tiny, remote villages populated by friendly, hospitable people. Best of all, the country has few tourists, which meant she often had the trails to herself, and many of her nights were spent staying with locals, which gave her a very personal glimpse into their daily lives.

The travel experience in Tajikistan has a lot to offer on the cultural and historical level as well. The former Soviet satellite has long been a crossroads for trade between the East and West, with major routes along the Silk Road passing through the country. Islam is the predominant religion now, but there are elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and even Zoroastrianism, each having an impact on the people that live there.

While that culture and history is interesting however, the big draw for the country is what it has to offer adventure travelers. Aside from the amazing trekking, there is plenty of rock climbing, horse and camel riding, and backpacking to keep you occupied for week, and mountaineers are also discovering the challenge of the “three giants” of the Pamirs, namely Peak Somoni, Peak Lenin and Peak Korzhenevskaya, which have earned there place amongst the top alpine climbing destinations in the region.

Trekking Tajikistan

Adventure travelers enjoy a great trek, and will go to the ends of the Earth, sometimes quite literally, to find one. The more remote, desolate, and free from other people, the better. Over the past few years, some of the classic treks of the world have become increasingly crowded, which is why some of the countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have become hot spots for adventure travelers looking to discover new places to hike.

Tajikistan is a perfect example of this. The former Soviet satellite, which borders Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, has a landscape that is dominated by mountains, and remains mostly cut off from the modern world. In fact more than 50% of the country sits above 10,000 feet in altitude, which gives you an indication of the terrain that visitors can expect when they visit the country.

Visit Tajikistan is exactly what travel writer Tiffany Kary did for an article that she wrote on the experience. The author found that once she left Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, her only options for finding a place to stay, were either in the home of locals or her own tent. Just to get out to those regions, trekkers will need letters of invitation and special permits allowing them to travel the countryside, but Kary promises it is all worth it, thanks to the nearly unspoiled scenery and unique cultural attractions that mix Buddhism, Islam, and even Zoroastrianism.

Exploring Tajikistan is a rather inexpensive endeavor, at least once you get there. A few hundred dollars will get you a multi-day trek that includes meals and lodging. Best of all, you’re unlikely to come across any other tourists the entire time.