IAmA guy who spent the last year and a half driving a car overland from Europe to Southeast Asia, through the Balkans, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India. AMA
I flew to Europe from Canada, bought the car in England, and basically started driving east.
Some photos of the car in interesting spots: http://imgur.com/a/x9N6e
Edit: Requisite blog here. I also wrote a short book about the 3 months I spent in Pakistan. It's here.
Weird... hmm. I almost crashed into an elephant in India. I was dodging traffic driving into the setting sun, so all the things in front of me were just dark blobs. I still don't know what happened with my brain, but there was this giant elephant blob all of a sudden in the middle of the road and I had to swerve to avoid it. I believe that elephants were so unlikely a road obstacle that I just had a mental block it was there in front of me. Kind of like the apocryphal story of natives not being able to perceive Columbus' ships.
Iran was a really friendly place. I was there when the British embassy was stormed, though, so tensions ratcheted up a bit just before I left. It was pretty clear from everyone I spoke with in Iran that the government was responsible for that event. I hung out with a lot of young people in Tehran, and they were fantastic, but suffering from the cultural oppression I think. We were smoking hookah with a bunch of girls, and they regularly let their headscarves fall off, and time after time, the shopowner would come by and tell them to smarten up - not even because he was opposed to it, but because the police would regularly check these places, and he would face a huge fine if such debauchery was discovered at his establishment.
Which place was this in India? I'm from here.
What country you were traveling in had the best tasting food in your opinion? I know it wasnt in the UK.
India's food was pretty outstanding, as was Vietnam's. I was quite surprised to find that Bosnia had such good food. A lot of starch and meat, but I'm down with that. The food in general was just quite well-prepared. I had an amazing burrito in Sarajevo in this texmex restaurant playing soft vocal-only covers of Michael Jackson songs.
I was actually in the UK (London) for only three days, at the height of the London riots. I ate the requisite fish and chips, acquired a car, and was out on the ferry from Dover lickety-split.
I saw one of your videos on youtube because I've always wanted to do such a journey and I googled driving through Iran or something like that. I found it cool that you left from Montreal (I live there) too. Perhaps going from Paris. Do you think it would be easier for two people to travel by bus/train or to take the dive and buy two motorcycles and get a CDP. Did you get your CDP in Canada or Europe? How much backpacking experience did you have beforehand? I ask because the people in Iran and Pakistan may have been friendly, but the area is still considered dangerous so it's an ambitious undertaking. edit: grammar and coherence
I met two Slovenians doing it by public transit. Seems like a viable option, and cheaper, but you lose a bunch of freedom with that. Also, to get to a place like, say, Ani (http://imgur.com/a/YuNLv#0), which is an incredible spot but in the middle of nowhere, would be rough, and probably not too cheap. Buying motorbikes in France might be difficult what with registration and such. I had an address in the UK, and it's cheap and easy to buy vehicles there. The problem with cars and motorbikes is the logistics of getting them back to the home country after, because it's difficult to sell abroad due to import regulations. Air freighting motorbikes place to place is way cheaper than a cargo ship, though, which is what I had to use with the car from India to Malaysia.
I got my CDP from Canada, but while I was in France. You get it where you are a citizen. I had a bit of travel experience before this - a 2 month Eurotrip, some time in Kenya, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Morocco.
I figured that I'd get a bike here, ship it to Europe, drive across Eurasia, and ship it to BC and drive it back. I guess that solves more logistical problems than it starts. How accessible were car mechanics along the journey, for oil changes and maintenance. How often did you rely on your own knowledge of mechanics? Thanks for doing the AMA!
Car mechanics were everywhere, and it seems most random dudes have some car knowledge from keeping their little cars alive well past their best before date. When my exhaust pipe sheared, I brought into the car market in Rawalpindi, and a guy welded it up a peach for $10.
That's a good way to do it. If you're interested, this was my favorite book of the trip. It's about a couple guys who do roughly the same trip but back in the 50s. It's awesome.
Do you like pakistan?????
Pakistan is great. I even wrote a book about it!
Did you have any car problems on your trip? Were you prepared with spare belts and hoses? What did you do with your car after your trip?
Very few problems, none serious. This happened in the middle of nowhere in northern Pakistan. The exhaust pipe had rusted through and sheared at the flange. I'm trying to fix it, and a little kid pops out of nowhere with a piece of wire, looks at me, and slides under the car, jerry-rigs it and smiles at me and leaves. Like a little elven mechanic.
My car is in Bangkok right now. I plan to drive it back to Europe via Central Asia and the Caucasus.
First off, amazing story man. It sounds like the trip of a life time. Question. So you're from Canada, and left your car in Bangkok. Where are you now? How are you just leaving a car in a foreign country in terms of parking? When are you heading back to get it? Any special plans for the drive back?
I'm back in Canada temporarily for surgery on my foot, but heading back to Asia as soon as that's done. The car is at my friend's house in Bangkok, and can remain there until March or so - can't remember the date exactly. The borders and police rarely seem to know what's going on with my car, anyway, and I'm not sure I'm that much more informed. I want to hit as many 'stans as I can on the way back, including Afghanistan. Need to repopulate my bank account first, though.
It seems like you had a really positive and enlightening experience. I've traveled to some extent, and as a woman, a Jew and an American, I feel really vulnerable in the middle east and south asia. Did you experience any anti-western sentiments during your journey? Were you ever concerned for your safety?
There wasn't much anti-western sentiment that was ever directed at me personally. If someone was hating on the west, they rarely if ever held it against me personally, and were more than friendly. I was only ever really concerned for my safety from maniac drivers, not anything political. I met a woman traveling solo around the Middle East. She had been doing it for a while, and hadn't had too many problems. She would never be addressed when we were together, though.
I'm thinking about doing something like this. Do you think there would be any more difficulties for a woman to do something like this, especially driving through places like Iran or Pakistan?
Tough for me to say, but I don't think you would have any major difficulties. Even in conservative places like Iran and Pakistan, they tend to treat Western women with a bit of deference, or at least realize that the rules are different for them. You still have to cover up and everything, and you'll get stared at A LOT, and I'm sure plenty of offers of marriage, but nothing serious. You'd get to see a completely different view of their society that I would never to get to witness, too. Do it.
Did you ever get unusually sick, and from what?
Got some really savage food poisoning one time in Pakistan, but it was just a 24 hr thing. I also had major heat stroke in Thailand. Ripped from my blog post about it:
Case in point: In a bid to offer you the vicarious experience, dear reader, of the ups and downs, the mountain-peak-vista highs and the crack-alley-lows of my itinerant life, I came down with a severe case of sunstroke that lasted four hellish days. A day of snorkelling in water-muffled tranquility around coral reefs, forgetting woes and worries and sunscreen was the train wreck; the aftermath was 48 hours of waking sleep and twisted Sisyphean dreams of trying to draw rectangles, only for one side to disappear as I was about to complete the square (math joke!). The rest of my time was spent in the bathroom in escalating hostilities with my digestive system and a small army of bird-sized mosquitoes. Like all wars of attrition, there were no real winners.
Did you ever get to a point where you were thinking "what the hell am I doing"? Did you ever want to quit? If so, how far into the journey were you?
In Peshawar (on the border with Afghanistan) I was being persuaded by a bunch of guys how I would make so much bank sending cars from Canada to Afghanistan and then smuggling them into Pakistan. I'm a little hazy on the details. Then one of them showed me his gun collection, and I said that I hadn't shot a gun before. We went outside and in the middle of this nice neighborhood just past dinner time, he handed me a handgun and told me where to aim. And as I unloaded the clip I definitely thought "what the hell am I doing?" But it was more in amusement than anything else.
Never really wanted to quit. I like moving place to place regularly, and in spite of the wretched conditions and traffic in Asia, the driving is a fun part for me. I did intersperse my trip with longer stays in certain cities, like 1 month in Islamabad, 1 in Kuala Lumpur, 1 in Istanbul, and so on.
I've wanted to do something like this in North/South America, but just don't have the funds. How long did it take you to acquire the funds to pull this trip off? Do you ever feel that it was a waste of money?
About a year and a bit. I really spent little to nothing, so virtually all of my money was being saved. Never felt it was a waste of money once. Never met anyone doing a similar thing who thought that either.
How did you manage to communicate with locals? Did everyone you came in contact with (border guards, garages, restaurants, bars etc) all have enough English to understand you?
I got pretty good at a rudimentary form of sign language. Very little English is spoken in Iran, but a place like Pakistan had many people who understood. It varied a lot.
Most frustrating translation experience: My phone got wet in northern Vietnam, and I wanted to stick it in some dry rice in hopes of reviving it. We drove around this tiny one-horse town for almost two hours, visiting every restaurant and business, and nobody could figure out what the hell we were trying to say. We were surrounded on all sides by rice paddies, like mirages in the desert. When we finally found an English speaker at the one fancy hotel, she didn't know how to say uncooked/dry rice in Vietnamese, because apparently their words for rice are either for the plant itself or for some variation on how it's cooked (fried, etc.). My phone didn't survive :(
1) how did you set your route? 2) take any special precautions to avoid trouble in pakistan or iran being that you were a westerner?
Originally I was heading to Australia, so I more or less aimed that way. I had thought Iran would be interesting to visit for some time, so I was eager to pass through there. Other than, it was more or less up to geography. I had also wanted to go through China, but 1) they are notoriously strict when it comes to admitting foreign vehicles and 2) I only arrived in northern Pakistan well into the winter, when the border at the Khunjerab Pass is closed for 5-7 months because it's snowed in.
No special precautions were necessary in Iran at all - they're extremely welcoming to foreigners, mostly because of the novelty, but also because they're instinctively a friendly bunch. We were pulled over by the police for going 117 in a 110 and they were super friendly.
In Pakistan, in the western part of the country, it can be unsafe, so the government assigns you an armed guard when you go through that area. I honestly don't know how much this would have helped - the guards were mostly retirement-age, glazed-looking old guys. Super friendly, but I wouldn't count too much on them. If there were any designs on our lives or possessions, they probably couldn't have done much. But again, the average Pakistani is incredibly friendly and hospitable, and I never had a bad experience because I was from the west.
Did you ever regret your decision to go driving?
Also, most picturesque place you've ever visited? It can be on the trip or not if you think you visited someplace better.
Sometimes, driving after dark in India for instance, desperately tired, and surrounded by traffic - human, animal, vehicular - on all sides, with everyone's high beams on, bus horns blaring at you as they drive at you in your lane at breakneck speed, I really wished I had taken a bus.
But driving was great for lots of reasons. It provided an independence that public transport couldn't. I was free to get up and go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. If I wanted to go see some awesome caves or something that were virtually inaccessible otherwise, I could just do it.
The most picturesque would probably be the Northern Areas in Pakistan. http://imgur.com/a/Urkk3 Just a mind-boggling place. Parts of Highway 13 in Laos were also flooring. http://imgur.com/Et4gr
Coming from a half Pakistani - half British child, who is used to get his native country getting a bad rep. Thanks!
Ironically, this might be part of why -
lol, but I too have heard that northern Pakistan has some of the most incredible sights in the world.
I took a photo of that because it seemed so out of place to me, actually. Everyone was so friendly everywhere I went in Pakistan. Even if they were frothing at the mouth against America, they never held it against you personally.
i've had a similar dream, but I just wonder about safety....how safe was your journey? and any tips for someone planning to do the same thing?
I genuinely never felt in danger from external actors, just my own incompetence.
One time, while driving in Pakistan, did make me feel slightly nervous, though. I just ripped this from my blog: Besides the odd camel or madness-inducing registration checkpoint every 20 minutes, there was little to stave off the abject boredom of driving across Balochistan’s wearisome barrens. On only one occasion did I feel legitimately nervous. Our guard was reclining in the shotgun seat, his gun tucked away in the footwell, army hat stuffed in the armrest. We were loping along at about 40 km/h, lazily dodging potholes when I suppose he spotted something on the horizon that he didn’t like. He sat bolt upright, donned his cap and fingered the safety on his gun. I twisted my head away from the road to see him staring straight out the window. “Faster,” he says to me, gaze fixed on something out in the desert. I could hardly go quicker without destroying the car, so I was having kittens for the next five minutes until he relaxed again. Maybe we had just avoided being kidnapped by the Taliban. Or, more likely, he mistook a wandering dromedary for marauding bandits.
Car: $5000 Visas, etc: $500 Carnet (which allows you to cross certain borders with the car): $1300 Fuel: Not sure, but a big chunk. Except Iran, where it was $7 to fill the tank. Shock replacement and car repairs: $1500 Shipping (Kolkata to Kuala Lumpur): $3000 Sorry - I don't keep any records of this stuff, so it's mostly off the top of my head. These are the big ticket items I can remember.
I am a pretty avid couchsurfer. But I only ever used it if I was genuinely interested in meeting the person, not just for a place to crash. I made some lifelong friends through couchsurfing in various countries.
Border-wise, you need the carnet for certain countries. Wikipedia describes it well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnet_de_Passage. Otherwise, it's just like crossing the border anywhere, but with more hoops to jump through. And some borders know what to do, while others have no clue. Malaysia/Thailand for instance. They don't get many European-registered vehicles there, so they get flustered.
I do have a blog, though I've been procrastinating so I'm only up to Thailand! http://overlandtoaustralia.com And I also wrote a book about my three months in Pakistan: http://www.amazon.com/Pakistan-Chronicles-Through-Dangerous-ebook/dp/B00AL1HPZQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1355206555&sr=1-1
where did you get all the money for this?
I mentioned elsewhere - saved all of it up beforehand. I don't spend much.
Did you have a travel buddy? If not then did you feel alone or unsafe in such a different environment?
I was traveling with my good friend for the first four months, and then with random travellers on and off.
I had long spells with nobody but my brain for company, though. Because I couldn't have more than a basic conversation with anyone, I would pounce on English speakers and talk their ear off when I found one. I got pretty used to being alone, however, and I don't mind it at all. That being said, it's definitely nice having someone to chat to in the car, or at least someone to share some of the nutty experiences on the road in developing countries.
Sarajevo, I think. Really vivid history, and an interesting cafe culture. Hong Kong was terrific as well.
Anything scary that's happened to you in the road?
Came pretty close to rolling the car in eastern Turkey. Just ripped this from my blog post describing it:
Driving out to Ani, the millennium-old ruins of an Armenian capital, we had a nice little snowstorm blow in on the road. Turning right into a long bend, the Nissan left gravity behind began an undesired, 50-mph 4-wheel drift toward the ridge above the fields below. As I’ve heard tends to be the case with these situations, everything slowed right down. The car was surely going over the edge as it plowed sideways through the fresh powder and ignored all commands from the steering wheel, throttle and brakes. My brain cued up some soft ballet music, and two thoughts danced through my head: “This is really going to mess up the car,” and “Rolling the car is going to look fucking sweet on the GoPro.” Within tenths of a second I had accepted my fate and begun to mentally edit the video of the car’s demise. But at the last second, the tires plunged into the soft shoulder and it was like the car caught up with all of the frantic steering and braking requests in one go. The car swung away from the small cliff and hauled us down to a jarring stop.
I'd say on the whole it would be about $20-25k including the car and everything. I saved the vast majority in advance, but I do some freelance work as well, so that contributes.
Tell us more?
Freelance writing and editing and such.
I can't quite work out how long you've been on this trip, from what I can see roughly 6 months is the best I can work out, is that right? $25k over 6 months 'aint so bad, about £15k. Curious why you shipped from kolkata to kuala lumpur though?
I've been gone from Canada for just under a year and a half. I had to ship because I couldn't get permits to drive through Myanmar, and the pass to China was closed.
I like the idea of overland travel. The shifts between cultures and geographies are often so subtle. If you fly into India from France, the culture shock is intense, but if you drive there, you barely notice it. It's cool to see how everything fits together.
What was the hardest country to get into?
We had some pains with the visas for Pakistan and Iran, but it was just bureaucracy, nothing about our nationalities.
We ended up waiting for the Iranian visa in Istanbul for a month. I'm pretty sure they do everything on telex in the Iranian embassies, and when they're trying to coordinate with Tehran and Ottawa and Istanbul simultaneously, it's a bloody mess.
what things do you bring inside the car? how do you prepare before you embark on an epic journey like this? is this a hobby of yours? (what you do is really awesome!)
I didn't bring a lot. I don't own much. Just a backpack of clothes, camping gear (tent, sleeping bag), a small rubbermaid container for books and random things, laptop, and headphones. My prep work was similarly minimal. I got the basics - paperwork and whatnot - and just kind of winged it afterward. Things tend to work out.
Thanks for doing this. Very interesting read. Did you camp in your car often?
No, but I want to get a platform installed on the roof so I can sleep on top of the car for the trip back.
So I take it you slept in the car most nights?
Nope, just once, in Italy.
What car did you choose and why?
Nissan X-trail: cheap, reliable, relatively small 4wd
How could you afford this? What job did you have prior to the trip?
How as getting a Visa for Iran and Pakistan?
Any problems at the borders (regarding your car)?
Camp out much?
Answered the others elsewhere.
Camping: mostly in Europe, where campsites were way cheaper than hostels. In Southeast Asia, it's so cheap to get a hostel room it usually doesn't make sense to camp. Also, it would be difficult to find a place to do it. We did camp in the Dasht-e Lut desert in eastern Iran, which was really fun. Amazing night sky: http://imgur.com/h2wp4 and http://imgur.com/Osi85
Was there a particular country where it appeared the speed limit was just a sign and that no one actually gave a flying fuck?
Who were the rudest drivers?
Who were the rudest people?
Having driven extensively through the Balkans, I can attest to Balkan food is all levels of awesome. Serbs know how to do pork like champs.
India was the worst for driving. Just chaos. Nobody followed any rules. It was bonkers.
Rudeness is a bit relative, I think, because what is polite changes from place to place. I didn't find any one place particularly egregious.
how did you get the car to south east asia? I thought you couldnt take cars through China, and I know I wouldnt want to try driving through Burma!
Shipped it from Kolkata down to Kuala Lumpur on a container ship. I was trying to drive through Myanmar, but it was a nightmare getting permits and such.
If you do the route sometimes again i'd suggest going through Slovenia, its pretty amazing ;)
We were there, but only to get through to Croatia. Would love to see a bit more of it, though.
What country had the worst drivers?
In Iran, everyone drove like they were on a racetrack. The roads were in good shape, though. In Pakistan, drivers would wander around the beat-up roads, but all of the little cars there can barely muster the speed limit, so it was just annoying. In India, the cars were fast, the roads were terrible, and the drivers were downright psychotic, especially the bus drivers.
What was the biggest case of culture-shock you experienced?
Biggest culture shock was flying from India to Kuala Lumpur. I was so used to seeing gradual change that culture shock was never a factor all the way to the Bay of Bengal. Then I left the chaos of India and arrived in the modern, clean metropolis of KL, where people waited for green lights and such, and I was floored.
After browsing up and down this thread, I'm extremely jealous. This has been my dream for a while, however its going to be quite a few years before I can get enough money together to do it, I plan to do Europe and Asia in one trip, then save up again and go for the USA. Like I say going to be a while before I can do a trip in a 4x4 going wherever I like, but I'm planning on WWOFing for a few months next year and getting some experience travelling that way.
How does it work going from country to country? Do you have to visit each countries embassys when you get there to apply to be there? Or are you mostly free to pass between borders so long as your not settling? I'm so jealous! Well done on your trip!
You need visas for certain places in advance, while others will issue a visa on arrival. These are all tourist visas. I can't thing of a single country on the planet that would let you in with a work visa on arrival or some such thing.
You need special documents for the car to pass through certain borders, which are expensive. In most countries, they just issue temporary import certificates at the border, you pay a couple bucks for some reason and you're on your way.
Also, some countries just straight up don't allow foreign vehicles in, or are very strict about it (I'm looking at you China and Myanmar), so you have to plan a route around these places.
I'm really curious as to how the 'right- and left-hand traffic' system worked for you, considering you bought the car in the UK, a left-driving country. Most of the countries you drove through carried traffic on the right, so I was just wondering if there was any special procedure for driving a left-sided vehicle? I'm not sure how to form this into a question that makes sense, but I hope you catch my drift.
P.S: Browsed through your flickr, spectacular photos, I am extremely jealous.
For me, the scariest part was driving on the left. Even if the steering wheel is switched, all of your road instincts are still intact when you drive on the right, which is what I'm used to.
I adapted pretty quick to the road rules, which, in places like Pakistan and India, are virtually non-existent anyway. But whenever I was in a parking lot, my mind would always revert to right-driving rules, and I upset more than a few drivers who couldn't understand why I was tying to squeeze past on the right.
I own an X-Trail myself. What kind of engine does it run on? Do you find the car reliable?
Edit: Also, are you still planning to drive to Australia?
T30 2.2L diesel. The car was a rock. Some minor things - like the exhaust shearing off (http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/15ss3g/iama_guy_who_spent_the_last_year_and_a_half/c7pjkov) - were just the result of abuse and not the fault of the car. It only had 136 hp or so, so when weighed down it was anemic. I had 6 people in the car driving around a hilly Thai island, and in first gear, redlining, it couldn't make it up a hill. I had to reverse down a few hundred yards and take a running start at it.
Would love to do Oz, but the logistics ended up being out of my budget so I stayed in Asia instead, and I plan to drive back to England at some point.
Awesome! I own T30 2.0 gasoline for a little over 10 years and could not be happier with the car.
Sorry to hear that you needed to change your initial plan. I'm from Indonesia and would love to hear stories about you navigate our streets to cross to Oz.
Wish you good luck for your return trip!
I desperately wanted to go through Indo. I've heard such wonderful things (and terrible things about the driving). That was a major sticking point when I decided not to go to Oz anymore. The problem was that there were no longer any ferries running from Malaysia or Singapore, and even the onion boats were no longer an option. So I would have had to put it on another container ship, and I couldn't afford to do that again.
How many Kilometers did you put on the Nissan?
About 42,000 km.
any interesting sights in pakistan?
Lots. The main attraction is definitely in the north though, where the three highest mountain ranges in the world collide: the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Himalayas. The scale of that place is indescribable.
Where's the cheapest gas?
Iran: We could fill up the tanks for $7. Turkey was the worst: A tank could easily be $120
Hey I spent 2 months in Northern Pakistan and I'm planning on going back this summer! If you were on the KKH, I don't suppose you were in Gilgit-Baltistan, were you?
Have you looked into travelling the CAR's? I'd love to check out the Pamir Highway.
I was in Gilgit for a few days, and then drove up to Attabad Lake (just beyond Karimabad). I'd love to check out the Pamir Highway as well. Hopefully when I drive back I can do it via Central Asia.
Is your vehicle a Toyota
No - Nissan X-trail
Do you work for Nissan?
Edit: Why are you not answering this question??
Well, fuck you. That was 4 days ago.
Sorry guy, must have missed your question.
What was the weirdest thing you've seen whilst on the road? What was the 'atmosphere' like in Iran?
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