21 February 2012

End of the Epic Overland Adventure - 2011 Recap

Having spent over ten months on the road, I thought I had better do a bit of a  recap. So for all of those lame-asses who haven't been reading my blog, this is your chance to catch up.

The idea was to travel from England to New Zealand without taking any flights. About 40,000 kms overland (or water). I had a very limited budget, and wanted to be as flexible as possible; basically travel with no plan. That meant no bookings, no travel agents, no stupid tour groups... Local transport, cheap hostels and Couch Surfing. I actually did a whole lot of Couch Surfing, so I really want to give a HUGE shout out to all of my hosts. You all rock! I hope I can return the favour one day.

Besides the CS hosts, I met some insanely amazing people on my journey. I don't really want to mention any names as (lets be honest) I'll probably leave someone out... but I will mention just one; Julia, my most awesome Swedish travel buddy of about five months! That even came back to New Zealand with me for a short trip around my home country.

So, what happened? I failed. I made it from London to Penang in Malaysia without flying. A total of 270 days, 44,620kms, 905 hours in transit, all overland.

Some of the highlights, lowlights, and funny stories...
  • I was robbed! On the very first day. Within four hours of leaving London.
  • The French Riveria, including Nice, Monaco, and Antibes. An unbelievably beautiful part of the world
    Monaco is in a world of its own, I have never seen anything like it. There is so much money in such a small place. The houses, the cars, the BOATS! It all screams over-indulgence. While in Monaco I visited the Princes Palace, providing panoramic views over the whole city, and the famous Monte Carlo Casino. Just to get in the gambling area is €10! So no, I did not go in...
    Having spoken to a few experienced couch surfers, it usually it takes quite a while before you have your first bad experience. Well, not me. I am currently lying on a pull out mattress in a crazy mans kitchen. Tomorrow I get to migrate to the hallway.
  • Cinque Terre, one of the most stunning strips of coast line I have ever seen.
  • Fun times on public transport in Italy
    • ...I bought a ticket from an automated machine with a €20, and instead of giving me my change - it spat out a credit note for €14.80. With about 10 minutes until the train left I quickly went to the ticket counter. The guy asked for 20c, which I gave to him in 1 and 2c pieces. That was not good enough apparently, so he went away and took what seemed like forever. When he finally did return he gave me a €10, a 80c in coins and four €1 stacks of 2c pieces! WTF dude? What am I going to do with 200 2 cent pieces? I grabbed them anyway and ran for the train. So here I am on the train with a stack of 2c pieces. I actually just had an interesting run-in with one of the guards. He asked for my ticket, which I gave him, but apparently you have to validate the ones you buy at the station (I had been buying them online up until now). He said he was not going to give me the normal penalty (€50 or something crazy), and would only fine me €5. I was pretty pissed,tried to argue that he just needed to clip my ticket and I couldn't use it again. But he was sticking to his guns. So guess what I gave him? The 4 stacks of 2c pieces, the 80c the ticket guy gave me in change, and the 20c in 1c and 2c pieces. Karma.
    • Florence; an amazing city filled with history and art
      One cool thing about Florence that you don't see everywhere else in Europe is the artists on the street. There are these people who set up their little easel and paint the most amazing pieces. There are also artists that draw on the street using chalk. I have seen this in other cities, but nothing compares to the skill of those in Florence. It is unbelievable they can create something with just chalk right there on the pavement. And they come back every day and make a new one!
    • Rome is my favourite city in the world without question. I could spend weeks in this place. The Sistine Chapel, Vatican, St. Pauls, the Colluseum... How can you go wrong?
    • Ephesus, insane ancient ruins in Turkey.
    • Cappadokia - the only thing I can compare this place to is Bedrock from the Flintstones.
      ...The only other alternative was to get on a bus heading for Istanbul, which stopped at the outskirts of Skopje. Me: How far outside of Skopje does the bus stop? Ticket man: Maybe 3 kilometers... not far Me: So I could walk it? Ticket man: Yeah, no problem Me: And how much is it? Ticket man: €10. Just pay on the bus And here is where I learned to never trust stupid travel agents. I got on the bus, we drove off, the ticket guy came around... I gave him €50, and he gave me €30 back. What the flip? No way man, the guy in the office said €10. We argued for about five minutes before he threw a €5 in my direction and turned and walked off. To put things in perspective - €10 is already a very expensive ticket in this part of the world. Part two of the lesson came when we stopped to let me off the bus. The bus driver pointed me in the right direction, I strapped on my backpack and I was off. In the distance I could see Skopje, and I thought it looked a little more than 3kms. I got out my GPS and sure enough it was ELEVEN! And that is a direct straight line from where I was, not following the road. GAH! I walked for a while before deciding there was just no way I was going to make it, at least not before dark. There were no taxi's or anything around, and just as I considered hitch-hiking I heard a beep from behind me. This is where my luck changed. One of those tiny Suzuki vans is hurling toward me. This old guy pulls up and with a big smile says 'Skopje?'. I jumped in! He could barely speak a word of English, but I managed to communicate that I wanted to get to the bus station. He was trying to tell me something, but I couldn't really understand what he meant. And then we turned off the main road to Skopje and started heading in the wrong direction. I was a little worried, and started sizing him up... I was pretty sure I could take him if I needed to. We pull up at a bus stop, he jumps out and goes to speak to the bus driver. He tells him where I want to go, then PAYS THE GUY! Shakes my hand quickly, then jumps back in his van and a second later is gone. So just as the world was turning me into a bitter, untrusting person, my faith in man-kind is restored! 
    • Having my lip pierced by a guy who had no idea what he was doing in Sarajevo
      I sat in the chair and the guy did his stuff. The first worrying sign was that he 'steralised' his equiptment by running it under hot water. He then proceeded to completely screw up the piercing - pushing the needle and piercing through, but not having the 'ball' ready to screw on the other side, so the piercing fell out. He spent the next couple of minutes trying to re-find the hole he had made, before he just forced the needle through and made a new one (at least it felt like that). It was pretty horrific. Sophia actually almost fainted. After some negotiation, and him refusing to give me any kind of discount... because apparently I was 'pushing my teeth forward' which caused the piercing to come out (wtf?), I gave him 75% of what he asked for and walked out the door.
      ...I was sitting outside a block of apartments where I had found an unsecured wifi network (scouring the net for a hostel or couchsurf host) when a guy cycles up to me and asks if I would like a juice or cold beer. 'Hells yeah!'. So five minutes later I am sitting on a bench outside Ivans house sharing a beer and just chatting about life in general. I am not exactly sure why he came up to me, maybe he just saw my backpack and decided to show me some charity, or maybe he just liked chatting to a native English speaker. Either way I enjoyed both the company and the beer. Soon afterward I got a SMS from a couchsurf host in Karlovac - PERFECT! We organised to meet later that afternoon. In the meantime, Ivan invited me into his house to meet his two boys and to share lunch and a coffee. I have been to a few places in the world, and it is rare to experience such random charity. Nice work, Croatia.
    • Draculas castle in Transylvania, Romania
    • Random scary guys showing me their tattoos and gunshot wounds while trying to order food in Ukraine
      ...A Ukrainian guy latched on to me and started having a conversation. You would think after the first five or ten minutes he would catch on that I did not understand a word he was saying and leave me alone, but not this guy. His total English vocabulary was 'My name is Andrew'. After I ordered he came and sat at my table for a good 45 minutes while I ate and drank. He would not leave! He just kept talking in Ukrainian, then saying 'My name is Andrew' and showing me his tattoos and his gunshot wounds (not kidding). My side of the conversation consisted of smiling, nodding, and the occasional 'I have no idea what you are talking about'. The only way I could escape him was to get up and leave, and even then he followed me outside. How do I attract these people?
      What was it like? Absolutely surreal. The town of Prypiat - about 3kms from the power station - is a ghost town. It feels like walking through a post-apocalyptic world... The town is now overgrown with huge trees, the streets are like forests, the buildings are all run down and broken, peoples possessions are scattered around, abandoned. The most creepy thing is that there was a fair in town when the accident happened, so all the rides are still all sitting there, rusting away, including a massive ferris wheel. The whole thing just did not seam real, I was having a hard time believing what I was seeing.
    • Soviet style Minsk, in Belarus
    • St Petersburg, one of the most beautiful cities in the world!
      The final thing I will mention about my time in this amazing city is the 'white nights'. At this time of year the sun sets for only a few hours, and even then only just over the horizon, meaning the city is almost permanently lit. What is cool is that people really get out and make the most of it. It is not unusual for the parks to be full of people hanging out at 2am, or people wandering the streets, just going out for a stroll. It is kind of strange to step out of a pub after midnight, slightly intoxicated, and having the sun beating down on you... 
    • Seeing Lenins embalmed body in Moscow
      ...A few more interesting observations for you... These are all about Russian men. 1. Russian guys like to take their shirts off. Sure, it's hot, but I really don't want to see your hairy man-boobs. 2. The next best thing is they wear those open-mesh t-shirts. I'm no fashion expert, but those things are just weird. 3. Russian guys have the strangest haircuts. It is like they are stuck in the 80's. Mullets, big fringes, flat tops... it's all in style in Russia. 4. They LOVE gold teeth. I couldn't imagine anything worse than two gold teeth right up front, but I have seen it five or six times. And almost every guy has at least some mouth-bling.
    • Travelling arcoss Siberia in a cabin with a cat and baby
      ...I get on the train with no hassles, find my cabin and it is empty. I start to organise my things when a young couple enters... with a baby. Awesome. They start unpacking their things and I hear a strange noise... After a few minutes it gets louder and louder. It is the unmistakable meow from a cat, coming from somewhere inside their bags. 10 minutes later when everyone is settled in they open a bag and out pops a cat. So I am sharing my cabin with a baby and a cat. I know you are laughing right now, but it is NOT funny! Within half an hour I can smell shit. Baby or cat, I'm not sure... That evening just after we turned the light out, the cat went mental. It was running, head first, into the wall, I guess trying to break out. I'm not joking. I could hear little cat feet running, then BANG!, BANG!, BANG! So it seems Russian cats are crazy, too!
      There are a lot of facts and statistics thrown around about Lake Baikal. Something about it being the oldest (30 million years), deepest (1,600m) and one of the most clear in the world! It contains 20% of the world's unfrozen fresh water, about the same as all five of the North American Great Lakes... combined! But forget all that, numbers are boring. Baikal is simply one of the most beautiful places in the world. My trip to Ulan-Ude was "interesting". I had an 'unreserved seat' ticket (could sit anywhere). As soon as I got on the train an old woman took me to her cabin and started feeding me meat and bread. I shared my coffee and we had a nice English/Russian conversation. She was a little strange, though. She kept telling me what time the train arrived... over and over. "Ulan Ude... 2pm!". "Yeah, I know...". She would also randomly burst into laughter, for no apparent reason. Anyway, she was nice enough and kept me entertained for a few hours.
    • The beautiful and unique Mongolian countryside, and the adventures travelling solo.
      The mountains, forests, rivers and lake are truly spectacular. After a few hours we saw a ger and decided to try and ask if we were on the right track. Just as well we did too. The woman spoke very little English, but from what we could understand, we were half-way along a river (Khurkhree) that had branched off the main river (Terelj). It had branched to the right, so we could understand why we didn't really notice - we were walking on the right the entire time. Apparently we had gone 12 kilometers past the junction. Shit! She must have sensed our disappointment, as she invited us into their ger. The whole family were there, including a grandmother and three children. They served us up some fresh yoghurt (Tarig) and well as dried curd (Aaruul), with clotted cream/white butter (Urum). Most was really good (I wasn't a huge fan of the curd and butter). When we were leaving she also gave us some smoked pine cones; you crack them open and eat the seeds. A lot of work for a small pay off, but they were still pretty good.
      Mongolians are extremely friendly and hospitable people. They always have time to sit down for a chat, even if they cannot speak English. They will just share a couple of moments in your company, then move on. They will also share whatever they have, even if they do not have a lot. They always seem to have a smile on their face, and sometimes all they want to do is stop and shake your hand.
      I am learning that nothing in Mongolia happens quickly. If you want to travel independently, you better have some time up your sleeve. Getting from place to place can take not just hours, but days! Paved roads and spacious buses are few and far between. These are replaced with bumpy dirt tracks and crammed, unreliable mini-buses. One thing is for sure - I am getting a truly authentic Mongolian experience. 
      ...There was no space on the bus, so we had to take a mini-van. First of all it waited around for almost an hour for people to show up. We then drove around town making house-calls, picking up packages (the mini-vans also run as courier services) and people. There was one free seat in the van, and the driver kept telling us to squeeze up. We soon found out why. We pulled up to one house and they bought out this guy on a wooden stretcher. I couldn't help but laugh, where was that going to fit? They spent the next 15 minutes trying to fit this guy in on his stretcher, along with THREE more people. The van was seriously crammed, something like 17 people in total. Besides that, after about two hours the van broke down; it was overheating. From that point on we traveled at about 50km/h and stopped about every 30 minutes to fill the van up with water, which meant fully unloading the van, and waiting for it to cool. In total the trip took about 11 hours, and toward the end I was almost going insane.
    • The traditional Nadaam Festival in Arviakheer, Mongolia
    • Travelling across the Gobi desert with some local Mongolians
      ...It was an old Russian van with no seats, but it wasn't too bad. There were 7 of us in the back for the 15 hours trip across the Gobi Desert. Not a comfortable experience. The driver didn't help; the whole journey went something like "Ruuuuuuuuuuum, screeeech, BANG!" as he floored it, slammed on the brakes, then hit a huge pothole. To top it off I had some.interesting co-passengers. One woman just got her boobs out right in front of me and started using a breast pump. Not once but about three times over the journey. Another woman kept applying wet paper towels to her face in order to keep cool. She looked like a paper-mache monster...
      The crossing from Mongolia is like nothing I have ever seen. The main way to get across (other than train) is in an old Russian jeep. On the Mongolian side it is like bumper cars. The drivers are on a mission to get through as quickly as possible. They literally ram into one another as they jockey for position, with little regard for their vehicles. Our driver was mentally insane - he almost ran over one of the Mongolian police man that was signalling for him to stop, but he just kept on going (seriously, it was so close! The guy had to jump out of the way). Then the jeep in front of us wasn't moving so he just drives up behind it and floors it... sand flying out everywhere from under the tyres, and pushes the guy along. At one point he called one of the border guards over and gave him a bottle of Airag (fermented horse milk) as a bribe I guess. The guard promptly stuck it down his shirt. I think the reason was because jeep didn't have any plates? Driving up to the Mongolian border exit one of the woman lay down behind us and we had to kind of sit on her to hide her. I was wondering what the hell was going on! But it turns out you are only allowed 3 across the back and we had 4. We were found out, so they made her get out and walk the 100m or so to the border. After which she just jumped straight back in. While driving between the Mongolian and Chineese borders the woman stuffed about 20 new and boxed cell-phones into the jeeps roof lining. I would have thought cell-phones would be cheaper in China but evidently not...
    • The Great wall, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace etc in Beijing
    • Terracotta Warriors in Xian, China, and more interesting - the train journey there!
      My next destination is Xi'an - most famous for the Teraccotta warriors. Apparently the best comfort vs cost train ticket to get is the hard sleeper. But when I went to buy one there was none left. Not even any seating tickets for the next week! But they do one thing in China I have never seen anywhere else; they sell standing tickets. For an overnight, 13 hour + journey? Crazy. I had no choice really, so I manned up and bought the ticket. The train itself was worse than I could have imagined. It was crowded! I had bought a little folding seat and managed to secure a little spot just out of the isle so I wouldn't be bumped all night, but the seat was extremely uncomfortable, so I ended up just sitting on the floor. Across the aisle was a screaming baby. They don't really use diapers here, so every time the baby wanted to pee, the mother just held it by the thighs in a sitting position and let it go for it... all over the floor right next to me. I learned one lesson from that trip - do NOT buy a standing ticket. But the way I see it - I have now experienced the worst. It can only get better, right? 
    • Climbing Hua Shan Mountain in Northern China, apparently one of the most dangerous in the world!
      ...There may be stairs, but this is no cake walk. The climb is hard-core. Some of the stairs are insane! I stopped at one very steep point that stretched out below me for about 50m to take a photo. My bag rolled down a couple of steps, almost out of my grasp. It was then that I realised - shit, this is STEEP. If I slipped or fell I would not be getting up afterward. There is also shops selling drinks and little souvenirs every few hundred meters up the mountain. It felt more like a tourist attraction than a mountain hike. Especially as they have installed a cable car, so there are thousands of tourists who just want to see the top of the mountain without actually putting in any work. The crowds around these areas are crazy - which feels really strange for being on the top of a mountain. 
    • Vegas of the East - Macau, China
    • The amazing karst mountains in Yangshuo, China

    • Yunnan province in China, a spectacular part of the world. This is right next to Tibet, so has a very Tibetan influence, as well as hundreds of other minority cultures. And monasteries like i have never seen!
    • Meeting Julia in the beach paradise that is Mui Ne, Vietnam
    • Vietnam in general was awesome; amazing culture, perfect beaches, friendly people...
    • Watching the NZ v France Rugby World Cup final with Simon in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    • Spending a night in the hospital in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
      The bus trip was one of the most horrible trips I have ever taken. The road was similar to what I described on the way to Koh Kong, and I just got more and more sick during the journey. There was no position in which I could sit without my body aching. I had a massive fever, but I felt so cold that I my body was shaking. I was having trouble breathing normally, and anything I did, even just standing up, completely exhausted me. After almost 6 agonizing hours we arrived in Phnom Phen. I went straight to a hospital where they decided to keep me overnight. Whether that was completely necessary, or they just saw a foreigner and thought cash!, I'm not sure... Julia found a guest house closer to the city, and I was stuck with about five different needles. The doctor was concerned that I might have malaria. Great! For the next 24 hours I was stressing balls waiting for the results. What is worse is that my insurance is three weeks out of date. I guess that happens when you keep extending your trip for months longer than initially planned. They put me in a very basic room with five small beds, ripped sheets, no blankets, a toilet without a toilet seat, soap or toilet paper, and a few cats running around and howling (I'm not joking). Then hooked me up to a couple of IV drips and left me to sleep. The following day they kind of just left me. I was feeling slightly better, but I just put that down to all the drugs they were pumping into me. I was asking when I would find out the results of my tests, but people could either not understand me and didn't know. It wasn't until around 2pm that a doctor finally came to see me. He told me that I did not have malaria, phew. But that my white blood cell count was abnormally high, indicating I had some kind of infection. I was pretty keen to get out of there. Even though I wasn't anywhere near 100%, I didn't think there was too much more they could do for me. And more importantly; I wasn't really sure how much this all was costing me, but I was sure it would be a lot! Foreigner tax. The doctor said I had to wait until 5pm when another doctor would come and release me. So we did that, the other doctor came, unhooked me, and I went down to pay the bill. US$70! Ouch. That is my budget for a week. Then another $20 in antibiotics and other medication (they gave me 4 boxes of pills, no idea what they all do?).
    • South East Asia in general is a really great place to travel. Easier than China as there is better tourist infrastructure, and more people speak English, but still authentic. And when I saw authentic I mean cold showers, non-flushing toilets, and insanely bad roads full of potholes!
    • The temples of Angkor in Cambodia. Mind blowing!

    • Getting scammed by tuk tuk drivers in Bangkok
    • Half moon party, buckets on the beach.and fire skipping in Ko Phangan, Thailand
    • Passing through dodgy areas of Thailand, and staying in the most dodgy hotel I've ever experienced
      We finally arrived in Sungai Kolok at just after 10pm. We wandered around looking for a hotel, but many were full. We finally found one that was run down and still quite expensive, but we weren't really in the mood to argue. The room had such a thick smell of smoke that you could taste it. Everything seemed greasy and unclean. The furniture was run down and broken. Then I saw it; mirrors on the roof. Ahhh, so this is one of those hotels where they charge by the hour...
    • Being robbed for the second time!
    • Missing our train, then jumping in to the back of a random guys car and ending up getting a free guided tour of Taman Negara - a spectacular national park. But filled with blood sucking leeches.
      Dragging our feet, we flung on our backpacks and made our way back toward the bus to KB. But just as we reached the end of the road a car pulls up, window open. There were two guys in there and they started asking about where we were heading. Back to town! We explained that we just missed our train, and the next one wasn't until tomorrow. That is when they said they were heading directly to Taman Negara (the national park, which was or planned destination) in about 15 minutes, and could take us along for free. OK... a little suspicious. What's the catch? It turns out that one of the guys was contracted by Tourism Malaysia to make a promotional video. The other guy was a guide he had hired. They were looking for foreigners to be in the video, but couldn't find any. You might think after all the lies we were spun in Thailand that we would be a little cynical and not trust this 'too good to be true' offer. But they seemed legit, the guide showing us his website etc. So it looked as though our luck was changing once again.

    • Malaysia in general - awesome! Amazingly friendly people and beautiful nature. And Kuala Lumpur, the coolest capital city in the world (probably!)
      ...The closer we got to the crater the more the landscape looked like the surface of the moon; a completely barren, rocky surface with steam rising from the ground. There were a couple of huge vents where steam was rushing out, as we got close the sound was overwhelming.The crater itself also looked like something from a far off planet; with steam and clouds swirling around the steep rocky walls, and the light green water that had collected in the basin.
      I just spent 2 days hanging out on an island. Nothing special, right? WRONG! This island is in a lake which formed in the crater of an extinct VOLCANO! I picked up a brochure on the place, and it stated that Lake Toba is probably the highest lake in the world! Probably is good enough for me; I'll claim it. The lake is bright blue in colour and crystal clear. And the island is like a tropical paradise, complete with swaying palm trees. Did I mention it is in the crater a volcano? How cool is that?
    • Indonesia itself is one of my favorite countries. Like Malaysia, incredibly friendly people and spectacularly beautiful. Plus it is full of volcanoes!
    • Bromo... just read!
      The Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park is a completely unique part of Indonesia. I'm struggling to think of words to describe it, so bear with me. Imagine a massive basin (10kms wide) surrounded on all sides by steep cliff faces. The bottom is a flat, desolate area of sand and volcanic rock. Rising from the basin are two huge, smoking volcano's sitting side by side. The volcanic rock and the way it has formed makes the whole area seem as though it is not from this world. In the distance is one more volcano, Semeru, which shows off by blowing out massive clouds of steam at regular intervals.
    • Bali - The highs (awesome monkeys!) and lows (Kuta beach)
      Everyone has heard of Bali, and it seems most people want to go there. Paradise on earth, apparently. Well, our experience shattered a few expectations; both good and bad. While I had never expected to find amazing temples and beautiful highland villages, we found just that. But the flipside; the beaches we visited were either not all that nice or full of rubbish and way over touristed. Kuta is over touristed like no other place I have ever visited. Kinda sad.

    So that's about it! More photos can be found here: Part OnePart TwoAnd videos here

    To wrap up, a few numbers from the trip as a whole -

    Duration: 290 Days (9 months, 15 days)
    Distance Travelled: 46,315km
    Hours in Transit: 960 (5 weeks, 5 days)
    Countries Visited: 29
    Time Zones: 9
    Transport Cost: €307.50 + £68 + TL 230 + LEV 46 + MKD 1205 + ALL 1700 + KUN 274 + KM 54 + CSD 100 + RON 174 + UAH 720 + BYR 54,000 + LTL 45 + LVL 10 + RUB 10,851.10 + TOG 116,200 + CNY 2,240 + HKD 190 + VND 1,700,000 + KHR 97,000 + THB 3,210 + LAK 244,000 + MYR 146.60 + IDR 560,000   FLIGHTS: MYR 130 + IDR 510,000 + USD 564.07
    Accommodation Cost: €275.00 + TL 100 + KM 30 + RUB 1,100 + TOG 51,000 + CNY 235 + VND 1,123,000 + KHR 78,000 + THB 1715 + LAK 135,000 + MYR 87.5 + IDR 647,500


    1. You absolutely did not fail!!! You might not have taken the last leg by sea but you had an incredible adventure. I'm most jealous about your adventures in the Balkans but this is one incredible trip. Are you able to summarise the cost in one currency?

    2. wowww! you are a really serious traveller!


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