We’ve all been there – the bucket list, to do list, if only I could list, closely followed by should I, shouldn’t I, can I afford it, what if? Well, what if you don’t? This is my take on travel, the bucket list and why you should just do it.
Lake Baikal early spring
Where should I go?
The “to see and do before we die” list is quite long. And then one day we realise if we don’t get on with it we won’t be able to for any number of reasons that are creeping (or running) up on us.
For some time I’d had an urge to do something a bit out there. It had to be a challenge. I wanted the road less travelled. Crowds have no appeal, be they locals or tourists. I was looking for something that would change my life. I’m not a 20 something going to find myself. I just want to go and find everything else.
Late 2016 and we made a decision to just do it and go on an Overland Journeys epic tour. The 2017 Silk Road from Vladivostok to London itinerary read like a story book of names of many of the places I had read about and dreamed about since childhood. My great aunt had been to the USSR in 1969. She brought me back Matrushka dolls. Maybe the seed was sown.
Richard wanted to take the Trans Siberian Railway. I wanted to drive the Pamir Highway – among other things. He loves trains. I don’t mind trains. He likes driving. The train doesn’t do the Pamir, often the views are not so scenic, a lot of travel is at night, he has trouble sitting still, I wanted a big adventure – so the decision wasn’t that difficult.
We’ve always been a bit DIY in many aspects of our lives including travel. I started planning our ultimate itinerary and rapidly realised the logistics were going to be incredibly time consuming and difficult even without taking multiple visas, languages and border crossings into account, never mind shipping a vehicle ourselves. I Googled “self-drive Overland tours Pamir Highway and Russia” and found Overland Journeys.
We weren’t sure that group travel was our thing; we didn’t know if we would get enough time (however much that might be) in each place; we weren’t sure if we knew enough about our vehicle (she is old and “different” and we had only had her a couple of months); we didn’t know if we were young enough, old enough or fit enough (i.e. what the mix of the group would be); we didn’t know how much driving there would be each day and whether that was what we wanted to do.
It was a fairly decent chunk of cash and there were a few unknown costs as well – fuel, meals, insurance and other extras. I’d had that fund ear tagged for a little building project. True to our form we just did it and sorted all that as we went along.
Was it going to be safe? Well you know “they” are shooting at each other along the borders; there are big earthquakes and floods and landslides; there are things that bite (a bit like our near neighbour in that respect); the water is dodgy; the food is dodgy, it’s very hot; it’s very cold; it’s high altitude; it’s extreme; the people are ruthless – we’d get mugged or kidnapped or worse. Or so we’d been told. Add all that to language issues, driving on the “wrong” side of the road and why would anyone do it? Why didn’t we just go for a nice long cruise? It just shows you don’t want to believe everything you are told especially by people who have never done it.
After meeting with Greg at Queenstown Airport he thought we’d fit in ok and we thought we should just quit over thinking it all and just do it. He seemed pretty relaxed about it all and we figured if he wasn’t worried about taking a group of mixed abilities, health and backgrounds into those environments why should we worry. He’d been there. We hadn’t. So it was a case of commit and be determined to make it the best experience we possibly could for ourselves and our companions.
We really weren’t sure about group travel but as we very soon found out there are distinct advantages to being with like minded people. It doesn’t mean we lived in peoples’ pockets.
We saw guns – lots of guns on guards, patrols, borders, police, and security. None of us was shot at. In fact, I felt very safe the whole time. We got used to police checks. It’s just how they roll. As long as all the paperwork is in order, especially the insurance and the car registration, we had no problems. I’d like to think we did our bit for international diplomacy. I don’t think most of the very young policemen had seen a New Zealander before. Don’t take photos or film security guards, military or police, even train guards and there is no problem. If you ask nicely they may just let you or not. In which case smile & say goodbye.
Vladivostok had always been on my bucket list just because it was there in the Far East of Russia and nobody I ever spoke to seemed to have a clue where it was.
Vladivostok to Dushanbe was not quite halfway.
We drove across some massive landslips on the Pamir. Our intended route from Kalalaikum was blocked with a bridge out so we had to take plan B. None of us were hit by falling rocks or earthquakes. And if that was Route B then Route A may well have completely blown my mind. We’ll find out next time.
Had I been planning our route I might not have worked out that there are certain border crossings that, while on the map, may not be used by foreigners, only residents of the two countries on the border. There are lots of things that Overland Journeys organises that we would not have known about ourselves – possibly when it was too late. Some visas cannot be applied for anywhere except within your home country so thinking you’ll just take your time and wait and see when you get to a border is, often, not an option.
Things that bite
One of our group managed to get a tick embedded in his skin- and it was dealt with. Because we started out early in spring and it was still cool there were few mosquitoes and sandflies until later on and even then they were not in the plague proportions we expected. We didn’t see any wild tigers or bears or snakes or anything else remotely fierce or dangerous.
It was hot, it was cold, it was high altitude and low altitude, it was extreme in some respects and yet, at the time, it didn’t feel stressful or unbearable. We both had smiles a mile wide day in day out. At no time did we ever feel we wanted it to hurry up and end.
Yes, we had mechanical issues. Yes, we got sick a couple of times. Yes, we were challenged. Was it insurmountable? No. People pitched in and helped out when and how they could. We made a great team and that is part of the success of any group travel. We all knew that if someone needed something and someone else had it, it would be available.
Did we have enough time in all of the places? No, and would we ever? I rapidly came to the conclusion I may not have seen every single thing I thought I wanted to but I saw and experienced other things I had no idea existed. It was all new. It was all an experience that I would not have been having anywhere else.
In many of the countries we visited, tourism is a relatively new thing. We enjoyed local fare – sometimes what we ordered (or thought we ordered), sometimes not. More than once I said, “it is edible be grateful”. More than once we were stunned by a beautiful meal prepared with the most basic of facilities. Just don’t expect to order a fillet steak and fries on the side outside of the big hotels and do expect seasonal fruits and vegetables. None of us starved!
As one of our travel companions said “I’ve become a “yes” girl. If I’m asked if I want to do something I say “yes”. I may never have that chance again.”
I absolutely, completely agree.
We hope we were good ambassadors for our country and for Overland Journeys. We hope the people we were in contact with felt our appreciation and our joy at seeing their world.
Before it is too late
So there are places on our “to do list” that have been wiped off the face of the Earth by war and natural disaster or made inaccessible by political disagreements or have become so overrun and crowded by tourists that the attraction has diminished somewhat. Yes I know I am one of the tourists and there is irony in wanting to go and experience the world sans other tourists.
We never know what we are in for with our health or wealth despite the best planning and precautions for both. Since we have returned we have been especially shocked by the deaths of one of our group and the brother of a friend.
We have seen too many people plan to do it “later” and there was no “later”. We have also seen people plan their finances only to have someone else spend that money for them as an inheritance or a rip-off.
I hope that’s explained how I feel about travel and why you should just do it if you have the desire. It will be a long time before places like Syria will be back on our “to do” list.