Long Way There
By Russ Malkin | Written by Jamie Maddison
We were in Mongolia when we started to struggle. There are no roads, no fences, no signposts out in the wilds and every time we fell into the valley between two mountains our team would become bogged down in a quagmire of mud; even locals were getting stuck and came to us regularly to use to use our winches. This was Long Way Round, with Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, and I was directing the film-production as we’d traced our circuitous route from London to New York in three and a half months. None of us had really known what to expect in Mongolia, but I was struck by how beautiful the country was and – despite the difficulties – how thankful I was to be here. It had all been down to that long chain of small life events, chance decisions and fortunate encounters that had lead me onto the path of becoming an adventure film-maker, all the way here to Mongolia’s great and exciting lands.
I always had a great interest in making movies when I was young. At thirteen I was borrowing my dad’s standard 8mm film-camera to go out and make stock frame animations. I used to animate anything: billiard balls moving on a snooker table; I’d animated furniture going around and around the back garden, or toy soldiers charging along the ground. In truth, they were pretty rubbish as the exposure always went a bit wrong on the single frame, but at an early stage I was interested in being creative with film.
The teenage years hit, and all I wanted to do was race motorbikes. I had planned to leave education after my exams and race my bike, make money and hang out with my girlfriend; fairly standard stuff. And it was only through a serendipitous meeting with my deputy headmaster that I didn’t head down that path. He told me that you could get paid to do a degree, that you’d earn money just to study. So I went to university in the end, to study Civil Engineering and I got paid to do it. It gave me the chance to still race my bike but I also I started up a business in photography on the side. Suddenly from this interest in stills photography I was back in the direction of making films again, back on the road to Mongolia.
It had all been down to a chain of small life events, chance decisions and fortunate encounters that had lead me onto the path of becoming an adventure film-maker, all the way here to Mongolia’s great and exciting lands.
Try as I might the nut wasn’t going to be swallowed whole but the thought of biting into it was gag-inducing. Yet something had to be done; I was going to have to bite the ball…
One night out on the steppe it started to rain. I had put the tent up and was looking out over the rolling hills to a small collection of Gers (portable homes used by Turkic nomads) a hundred metres from us. There were some people outside who looked like they were training a horse but I couldn’t quite see what was going on, so I said to Ewan ‘why don’t we get a bit closer?’ We both walked towards the nomads and as we got nearer it became apparent that they were castrating a horse; it looked awfully painful. When they’d finished they waved us over cheerfully and asked us if we would like to come for tea.
I got Charley over and David, and we all sat in their warm Ger as they poured us out some of the tea they’d promised; white and milky-sweet, not too dissimilar to how we would it drink in England. We were all sat cross-legged (as it is bad manners to show the soles of your feet in a Ger) in the centre place of honour when one of the guys asked in English: ’would you like some nuts?’ ’Nuts?’ I replied, ’What like cashew nuts? Peanuts?' I thought this was an odd expression. ’No nuts, testicles,' he said, taking off the top to this cauldron. There, bubbling away, was two hundred floating testicles. They’d all been just chucked in; some still had all the ducting dangling off them.
They invited us to a nut each and Ewan ate all of his. However I’m convinced that they were all from different animals – everything from a goat up to a horse – so I still hold true that I was given one of the bigger ones. It came to my turn; the testicle was white and veiny and had sperm ducts hanging off it. It really was just not what we’re used to seeing, even though they were a delicacy there. So, I put it in my mouth and tried to swallow quickly in one go but it was effectively like trying to swallow a Kinder Egg.
Try as I might the nut wasn’t going to be swallowed whole but the thought of biting into it was gag-inducing. Yet something had to be done; I was going to have to bite the ball and then, when I finally did chomp down into the flesh, it popped and ran out in my throat. I tried desperately to swallow but gagged, threw it up and the testicle rolled across the floor to everyone’s great laughter. I just hoped I hadn’t offended our hosts. All in all, it wasn’t one of my best performances.
Adventures have always given me the opportunity to enjoy time with somebody else. We all see our partners, we all see our parents, we all see our friends, yet with work going on and energy levels low you don’t necessarily spend as much quality time with people as you’d like to. Expeditions gave me that chance to reconnect with people. However you do have to be careful, as trips will make or break friendships and sustained periods spent with others can often be as frustrating as they are enjoyable. I wrote this book called 101 Amazing Adventures. The publisher said to me that you wouldn’t have to do all the trips because most people would prefer just to write the book at home and get stock photos out from a library. But whilst I logistically wouldn’t be able to do every adventure, I was certainly going to try and get as many down as possible and it became a great opportunity to have an expedition or two with my girlfriend in the process.
One trip we both ended up on was to Guyana, to meet and live with the Vaquero cowboys. Two of them met with us early one day to take us to the lodge where we would be staying that night. It was an eight hour drive there along a track steeped in potholes, completely topped up with water after the rains. Eight hours of driving over holes you don’t know the depth of; we honestly nearly completely flipped the car over once on a particularly deep one. Then across a river; it was full of piranha, but ‘don’t worry, they’re not like how they are portrayed in the movies’, we’re told. It still livened up the experience nonetheless. Then we get to our room and there’s a massive frog – the biggest frog I’ve ever seen in my life – sitting on the toilet seat. Huge bats flit their way amongst the dark rafters. My girlfriend’s parting shot to me as I went to the bathroom that night was, ‘be careful not to step on the scorpions in there.'
That next day we spent sixteen hours sitting on a plank of wood in the back of a pick-up truck. I enjoyed every minute of it. If you said in London that you had to commute sitting on a plank in the Tube people would be up in arms, but here, in this place, it was different. Just leaving behind normality – even for a little while – and having an adventure has the power to turn even the hardest of trials into the best and most memorable of life experiences.
The day after the ball-eating feast had been wet. Because of the rain, the track we were driving down was slippy. I’m not sure exactly what happened but I think I had a puncture on the back nearside tire of the Mitsubishi that I was in. As I went over a small rise – I don’t know whether I was going too fast – but I didn’t quite catch the slip on the car. It didn’t respond when I put the steering into opposite lock, the tire was stuck in the wheel rut, and the whole car rolled over twice, completely demolishing itself. I was trapped inside the metalwork and couldn’t escape. Petrol was running out of tank on the top of the car and the engine was still running; in the midst of the carnage a track by Blur was playing; hauntingly it was about a car crash.
I thought, ‘Blimey if this thing ignites it’ll be where I’m ending my days, in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia, what a stupid place to crash your car.’ Stuck inside – a 6ft 5, 18 stone Russian trying to kick the windscreen out in front of my face, whilst I’m lying on my head – I thought about all the silly, stupid situations you end up in on trips like this. And what great stories they can make afterwards.
My interest in travel has always been within me. I can’t say why that is, I can’t say I was particularly interested in Geography at school. Yet the idea of an atlas or a globe or a map has always been a thrilling concept to me. In my house the shower curtain is a map of the world and I stand there every time I have a shower staring at this country and that country, wondering what it’s like to go here, what would I get up to if I just went there for a week? There’s so much fun to be had while travelling, when you just chuck up the tents informally and have an adventure. I still go wild-camping, just myself and my girlfriend Victoria. I don’t think you can beat that feeling when the light fades and you know everyone else is heading for home but you’re staying put; it’s just exciting.
It’s funny when you trace all these little bits and pieces of your life back. Where ideas came from and how things happened in your life through chance meetings that ended up taking you places and doing things you’ve since become quite proud of. What I’ve really taken from my mismatch of life events is the concept that you can take a wild idea, produced over a bottle wine or on a night out on the hill, and turn into something that will actually happen. This is the ethos I’ve taken when approaching my travelling and film work; you have to decide where you want to go, how you’re going to do it and how you’re going to fund it.
The rest is simple; just head out the door.
What I’ve really taken from my mismatch of life events is the concept that you can take a wild idea, produced over a bottle wine or on a night out on the hill, and turn into something that will actually happen.
Russ Malkin is a British TV Producer/Director. He has produced and directed motorcycle adventure TV documentaries including Long Way Round and Long Way Down featuring Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor, and Race to Dakar featuring Boorman.
Russ also founded the television production company Big Earth, dedicated to planning and composing international events, expeditions and adventure travel programme-making and he has written a book: Big Earth’s 101 Amazing Adventures.
Thanks to Claudio Von Planta for supplying some of the photography used in this article. Visit Claudio’s website for more information.