Before traveling to Ireland a few months ago, I’ll confess I knew very little about the island and its history. I had this vague notion – like I think a lot of people – that there had been some fighting in Northern Ireland in the past, but that it was all over now, everyone had moved on, and things were more or less back to normal. So I was surprised to learn that in many ways, that was very much not the case.
Tuva is famous for its style of throat singing, which the local people call khoomei. It’s an ancient practice created by the nomadic people of Central Asia who were trying to mimic sounds of nature like the songs of birds, a babbling brook, or even the growls of a camel. Experienced singers can produce up to four pitches simultaneously, creating an effect like a bagpipe or a didgeridoo. And these are sounds I didn’t even realize it was possible for a human to make!
For more than 80 years, Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market had a reputation for supplying some of the freshest and best quality seafood anywhere. But having been built before the Second World War, it was a relic from an earlier era, and over the decades, it had become overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe. After years of planning, the city decided to move the market last fall to a larger and more modern facility about a mile-and-a-half away.
Like most people, I had originally assumed that this surely couldn’t be a safe place to go, and it probably wasn’t even possible for outsiders like myself to get anywhere near it, but then I did some more research and learned that not only is it possible, but there are in fact a number of companies that take people visiting Kyiv, Ukraine on day trips to the site. Their brochures claimed that as long as you followed the tour guide’s instructions and don’t wander anywhere you’re not supposed to go, the dose of radiation you’d get from spending an afternoon in the area around Chernobyl was just a fraction of what you’d get from a long airplane flight. So early one Saturday morning, my friend Donna and I decided to sign up for a tour.
After driving 11,000 miles over the course of seven weeks, we finally reached the finish line of the Mongol Rally, and everything was suddenly over. There was no more waking up early to hit the road, driving 12 hours to make up for lost time, and arriving at our destination long after dark. No more tow trucks or tow ropes, restaurants serving meat from another strange animal, or sleeping in uncomfortable beds in sketchy hotel rooms that desperately needed a remodel. No more use for Google Translate or need to hand over bottles of vodka to police officers as bribes. And you know what? As crazy as it sounds, we kind of missed it!
Against all odds, after 53 days on the road, we eventually managed to make it to the finish line in Ulan Ude, Siberia, and although it turned out in some ways to be a bit underwhelming, we were still thrilled and felt a great sense of accomplishment!
After a series of bad decisions, my brother and I had ended up stranded with our friends at the bottom of an incredibly steep and rocky hill in a really remote part of Mongolia. We’d sent a text by satellite to the American embassy in Mongolia’s capital who dispatched a rescue team, and when that team couldn’t find us, they sent a second team. Help finally arrived after dark, but this would be no simple rescue.
After getting stuck while driving across a shallow river in Mongolia, my brother and I made the fateful decision to veer off the main path onto another trail that seemed like it might be easier. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before we realized we had made a terrible mistake.
Mongolia is a place with notoriously bad roads, where the main east-west routes are often little more than tracks through the dirt. Maps and satellite GPS are of little navigational help, and signs are few and far between. Throw in some river crossings for added entertainment, and traversing the country can be quite an adventure!
When my brother and I told friends we'd be driving across Kazakhstan, we got plenty of jokes referencing the cartoonishly backwards image they had of the country after watching Sacha Baron Cohen's 2006 mockumentary Borat. But we were about to find out that the real-life nation of Kazakhstan was almost nothing like what was portrayed on the screen!
We'd just received more bad news about our car. Ever since we replaced its faulty head gasket back in Uzbekistan, it had been acting a bit funny, and although we survived our latest breakdown, the mechanic was now telling us we'd probably only be able to make it another hundred miles. Our options were limited, so after mulling it over, we decided that the best we could do was to keep going for as long as our engine would last.
The mountainous Pamir Highway was precisely the type of terrain that our 1-liter Nissan Micra hatchback was not suited to handle. One of our friends had described it as a car "that you would expect a 60-year-old woman to drive to the supermarket twice a week," and now we were pushing it to ever-greater extremes, keeping our fingers crossed that it would somehow persevere. So we weren't totally surprised when our luck eventually ran out.
Our car was running once again, but now we faced a handful of new mechanical issues, just as we were about to embark on the roughest part of our journey yet: a 600 mile stretch of mostly unpaved and mountainous road along the Tajik-Afghan border that's considered one of the most spectacular and potentially dangerous routes in the world.
We'd been on the road for three weeks and had driven more than 5000 miles across all of Europe and the western half of Asia. While the journey so far had been enjoyable and we'd gotten to see a lot, it was also incredibly tiring. So when we learned we'd be stuck in Bukhara, Uzbekistan for a week, waiting for our car to get repaired, we were actually thrilled at the opportunity to finally relax and get some much-needed rest. But things didn't go according to plan.
In the three weeks since we started our journey, we'd broken down about four times, been to half a dozen mechanics, and tried all sorts of stop-gap measures to solve our car issues, but there was still some sort of big, underlying problem whose name we didn't yet know. Finally we were about to find out.
When it comes to welcoming foreign tourists, Turkmenistan is close to the bottom of the list. It was hard enough to get visas in the first place, and when we did, they were only good for 5 days. Now broken down with serious car problems, we have to try to convince officials to give us more time.
Driving a small, crappy car was a prerequisite for anyone participating in the Mongol Rally. The point was to make the journey more exciting and adventurous. We liked the idea at first, but now we'd broken down yet again, and our mechanical issues this time were worse than ever.
"Las Vegas meets Pyongyang." That's how our guidebooks described Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabat, and from what we saw, that seemed like an apt description. In fact, there was something about the entire country that was downright odd.
"Honestly, most Americans -- when they think of Iran -- probably think of 3 things," my brother said. "Desert, oil, and nuclear capabilities." And it was true. Before our road trip across Europe and Asia last summer, we didn't really have much of an idea what to expect.
Our eighteen country road trip across Europe and Asia last summer left us with a wealth of memorable stories and experiences. But if you asked me to name the single most fascinating and thought-provoking place we visited, the answer would clearly be Iran.
First there were a series of terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Ankara and a threat from Kurdish separatists vowing to target Turkey's tourism industry to inflict economic harm. Then an attempted military coup followed by a government crackdown on dissent. As we followed the news in the months leading up to our planned drive across Turkey, it was easy to feel nervous and uncertain about just what we would encounter.
It started at a highway rest stop in Germany. There we were, driving 11,000 miles on a road trip to Mongolia, and who do we meet but a group of young Mongolian tourists on a journey of their own across Europe!
So far I've told you about the massive amount of preparation this trip required, from planning our route to securing visas, getting vaccinations to buying a car and learning to drive stick. On my latest podcast, I pick up where I left off, on the day last summer when we finally embarked on our journey!
As my brother and I have spent the past several months driving 11,000 miles across Europe and Asia, those of you following us on Facebook and Instagram have seen what a fun and crazy adventure it's been. But while we've been going to all these places, meeting interesting people, and having incredible experiences along the way that we'll likely remember for the rest of our lives, we've also been trying to make a difference, raising money for several great charities whose work we support.
After reading Tim Wu's hilarious, cringe-worthy article at Slate about the "culinary horrors of Mongolia," we were curious what us two pescatarians will eat in the meat-loving countries of Central Asia, so we take a field trip to Cheburechnaya — an Uzbeki restaurant in Queens, NY — to find out.
I delve into one other task that's been keeping us busy over the past few weeks. It's one of the most important planning decisions we've had to make, and it's a common question our friends and family have asked us when we told them that we were planning an 11,000 mile road trip: Deciding what kind of car to buy!
Over the past nine months, while my brother and I have been busy getting our vaccinations and shuffling between foreign embassies and consulates to apply for visas for our trip, I've been recording many of our conversations with friends and family, and kept the tape rolling as we've figured out our route and searched the London classified ads for a suitable car to drive to Mongolia.
In less than two months from today, my brother and I will embark upon an 11,000 mile, 7 week road trip from London to Mongolia to raise money for charity, which we'll be documenting as part of the 2016 Mongol Rally.