This is the English translation of our interview with Matsch-und-Piste. You can view the original article in German here....
What was your inspiration to make a world trip?
Emma had previously travelled on expedition across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen as a production manager of a wildlife documentary series. In 2010, I needed a holiday and so we did a 10-day trip across the UAE and Oman. It became apparent quite quickly that we were good travelling partners. Later in the year via a Skype conversation the subject was raised of where we should go on our next road-trip. One of us jokingly said “lets drive around the world”. 1 and a half years later we set off!
How did you prepare for your trip? How long did the preparation take?
We spent about 1 and a half years planning. We spent a lot of time on the internet researching trips undertaken by other people. This is when we discovered ‘overlanding’, before that we were just going on road trips. We were unaware it had a name, websites and a whole community. Andy researched 4x4’s religiously and compiled a short-list of potential vehicles.
Why have you chosen the Toyota?
The second value of the Toyota Hilux Surf is very low, especially one that is 22 years old. The car has just a very basic ECU, so doesn’t require special software or a computer to fix it. One of the reasons we chose a Toyota Hilux Surf (apart from the fact we couldn’t afford a 70 or 80 series Landcruiser) for this trip was because of the availability of parts. The Hilux Surf shares many parts with other Toyota models including 4Runners, Hilux pick-ups, various Landcruiser models and some obscure models that are only available through South-east Asia. 4Runners are prevalent throughout Europe. Surfs and Landcruiser Prado’s (which share our 1KZ-TE engine) are widespread through Russia, Central Asia and South-east Asia. The only country we’ve travelled through where we didn’t really see many old Toyota 4x4’s was India.
How do you finance your trip?
We sold all our possessions, worked 2 jobs and moved back in with our parents to save money. We work a little as we travel, writing articles for magazines and doing the odd graphic design jobs. We prolong our money by doing work exchanges as we travel through websites like workaway.info
What does your trip approximately cost per month?
The cost per month varies depending on route, how much many work placements we do and other factors, but on average a trip like this costs about £0.25 a mile (or €0.32 per 1.6km)
How do you navigate? What equipment do you use to navigate?
Initially we had a Garmin Handheld GPS 60csx, this was stolen in Tehran when our car was robbed. We now use our smartphones. We use an app called Galileo for the iPhone (https://galileo-app.com). This works offline using opensource maps. We also use a similar app for Android called Maps.me (http://maps.me/en/home). Both are great, we might upgrade to a designated iPad for navigation soon. Another great map app and resource is iOverlander (http://ioverlander.com). We also carry paper maps which are much better for planning routes and overviews of the country.
How many countries have you been to? How many kilometres have you driven?
We are now in country 51 and have completed more than 140,000km.
What have been your most lovely experiences so far?
The real highlight for us was driving through Central Asia, especially the notorious Pamir Highway. Many overlanders have a holy grail; some want to drive the Bolivian Death Road others the Road of Bones in Siberia. For us, the infamous Pamir Highway in Central Asia had been on the top of our list for some time. It is the world’s second highest international highway; the surface is mostly unpaved. The road traverses the Pamir Mountains and travels through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan reaching an altitude of 4,655 metres.
Part of the highway requires a special permit as it passes through the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan. The scenery was wild in every sense of the word. We experienced landslides, rock-falls, earthquakes, floods, high winds and political unrest; all factors that rate it quite highly on the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Roads’ list.
Have there been any set backs? Any situations where you have experienced fear?
Like all long term trips you are likely to face set backs. Our trip has had many. Whilst in Central Mongolia we received news that both Andy’s parents had been diagnosed with Cancer. We decided that the best course of action was to return home whilst our visas still allowed us to do so easily. We turned around and drove straight back to the UK in a pretty impressive 15 days. We had to put our trip on hold which cost us a lot of money in fuel, losing insurance, Carnet fees and other expenses.
In Turkey we cracked the cylinder head on the car as it overheated. This was a costly repair and set us back a couple of months.
In Iran our car was robbed and we lost most of the contents of the car.
We have never really experienced fear – we have had a few near misses and avoided several accidents mainly caused by bad drivers. We’ve encountered a lot of wild animals – snakes, leopards and elephants!
You were robbed in Tehran. What did they take and how did you manage to get back on the road?
In an ironic twist of fate, we were robbed whilst in Iran making an overland documentary film about how great the people are. Entrusting our security to our guides and sponsors, our few habitual self-imposed rules that had kept us safe through 45 countries were temporarily broken. We never drive at night, we never leave the car in the same place for long periods of time and if we stay in a hotel or in a city we make sure the car is in secure parking.
Unfortunately in Tehran our situation was different and somewhat out of our control. We were assured by our Iranian TV director that the neighbourhood was safe but regrettably we had no secured parking and much to our unhappiness we had no choice but to leave the car on the street.
Being woken at 6am to be told the window on your precious home has been smashed was not a nice experience. In my sleepy state it hadn’t dawned on me that we might have been robbed. For some reason, in my naivety I just presumed our car had been vandalised because we were British.
We called the police immediately, and then spent a heart-breaking hour and a half peering in through the smashed window trying to work out the extent of what had been taken.
Two Iranian motorcycle policemen arrived and, with a complete lack of compassion, promptly told us the robbery was our own fault for parking on the street! They wrote down my details, told me to go to the nearest Police Station and left without even getting off their motorbikes.
And then it began… the long, painfully slow, soul-destroying job of filing a police report in a foreign country. In total the whole frustrating procedure, with lengthy discussions in Farsi translated to only a few English words, took 4 full days with multiple visits to four different police stations to attain all the correct rubber stamps, forms and signatures before an investigation could begin. Annoyingly and somewhat expectedly we haven’t heard from them since!
The thieves indiscriminately took 6 Flatdog Wolf Boxes containing clothing, car parts, medical kit, camping equipment and personal items. Sadly, this included the box that contained Emma’s travel diaries, all our used maps and books plus every sentimental little souvenir and gift we’d acquired en-route. They also took a few larger items including my tool roll, our recovery equipment, pop-up toilet tent and the cooker.
In total it would cost approximately £6,500 to replace the items that were stolen. The financial loss was devastating but the inconvenience and time wasted was really problematic. When you travel in this way every item you carry has a purpose and we had specifically spent a lot of time researching the products we’d purchased. Trying to replace some of the ‘essential’ items in Iran proved to be near impossible especially as our visa was slowly ticking away. The stress in the days that followed was crippling, re-living every detail and not knowing if we could feasibly continue with our trip.
Thankfully the people of Iran and our friends back home proved how amazing they are and came to our rescue helping us source and replace many of the items that were taken. Our friends in England set-up a donate page for us and people donated enough that we could carry on.
Fortunately the robbery didn’t dampen our adventurous spirit and we have continued our trip.
What countries did you like most? What countries would you most likely not visit again?
We loved the wilderness off Mongolia. The driving there was amazing and the people are extremely friendly. Morocco is great because it is so close to home and has much to see and do. The landscape and terrain is also very varied from sandy desert to high mountains and the Atlantic coast to lush green valleys. The whole of Central Asia was amazing – The Pamir Highway! We also loved Thailand. Andy would really love to go back to Russia and explore the far North west!
May 1st was your 800th day on the road. Your web site is named "Around the World in 800 Days". Were the 800 days actually a goal? Why did you choose this name for the site?
The name of the trip was inspired by Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’. For us though we prefer to take our time and so we added an extra ‘0’; Around the world in 800 Days! Our goal is to visit as many countries as possible in our car, we’ve had setbacks so reaching 800 days was a big deal for us!
Is there an end to your trip in sight? Or is overlanding your way of life?
The current stage of our trip is nearing an end as we have nearly run out of money. We will be heading back to England in July. We have started making plans so that we can continue to South America but this depends on lots of factors. We have been on the road (on and off) since 2012 and we are both a little tired. We have lots of plans to earn money in the UK which are related to overlanding! The dream is to be able to make enough money as you travel to continue this lifestyle.
What character traits does an overlander need?
Persistent, stubborn, a good problem solver, a little brave, a little stupid and most definitely ambitious.
If someone wants to do a world trip. What advice would you give him?
Don’t wait. People find too many excuses not to follow their dreams. Just do it! Even if you don’t think you can and you don’t have enough money, just go. You’ll have an adventure or you’ll die trying!
Never drive at night.
Never leave the car in the same place for long periods of time.
Keep on top of car maintenance.
Andy is 40 years old, a practising artist who has exhibited worldwide. Along side this he is a keen graphic designer and has a healthy interest in all areas of creativity, especially architecture.
Emma is 38, a biologist specializing in fresh water fish, ecological conservation and has worked as a production manager for a wildlife documentary series, planning and managing expeditions across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen.
This article was originally posted on http://matsch-und-piste.de/
The ‘Secret War’ in Laos was a covert proxy war, fought in the shadows of the Vietnam War and was fuelled by the belligerent global Cold War superpowers. The war was fought between the Communist Pathet Lao which was effectively organised, equipped and led by the Army of North Vietnam under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (which emerged under the Marxist/Leninist model of communism) and the Royal Lao Government backed (secretly) by the U.S. who wanted to quell communist strength across South-East Asia.
The wars in Laos and Vietnam were so intertwined that the CIA trained a guerrilla militia force of about 30,000 Laos tribesmen to disrupt operations along the Hồ Chí Minh trail, that was feeding communist forces in Southern Vietnam, without having any accountable direct military involvement.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. indiscriminately dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions; the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Many bombs were haphazardly dropped, killing thousands of innocent people, simply to get rid of them following cancelled missions over Vietnam.
Due to the U.S.’s relentless bombardment of Laos, the Pathet Lao were forced to operate from an extensive network of caves at Viengxay in the Houaphanh Province in the northeast. Four hundred and eighty caves were used in total during the 9-year period housing a hospital, a school, offices, bakeries, shops, printing presses and even a theatre.
The secret location was home to 23,000 people: locals say that farmers had to farm at night to avoid bombing raids!
The Pathet Lao leaders lived and directed the war from the caves. In 1973 when the U.S’s aerial onslaught finished the leadership built houses outside their various caves from where they commanded their troops in the concluding stages of the war against the Royalist Hmong forces.
For many years the Laos government denied any existence of the cave network; however, since 2009 some of the caves have been opened to the public and have become a valuable tourist attraction in the province. Most of the caves are named after the Pathet Lao leaders who lived there. To visit them you must take a knowledgeable guide from the Viengxay Caves Visitor Centre.
Our sobering tour visited 5 of the major caves starting with the large cave of Kaysone Phomvihane, leader of the Lao Communist movement from its formation in 1955, he remained unchallenged as head of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic from its inception in 1975 until his death in 1992.
Phomvihane’s cave has multiple exits, an office, meeting rooms and sleeping quarters. Each cave also featured a re-enforced concrete emergency chamber, behind a hefty metal submarine-style door, in case of direct bombing and chemical-weapons attacks. The chambers still housed the working Soviet oxygen filters.
The cave of the Red Prince Souphanouvong was one of the most fascinating. Our audio tour informed us that the prince was allegedly the first person to gain contacts, and ultimately aid and help, the Viet Minh Communist forces in Vietnam. His wife was Vietnamese and he started working in Vietnam after he graduated from a French university.
The house outside the Prince’s cave was somewhat more stylish and well designed than any of the other houses. His taste may well have been influenced by his time spent in France.
The other cave of great interest is Xanglot Cave (AKA The Theatre Cave), a massive natural cave in the karst limestone rock which housed a stage and hall where political rallies, meetings and even weddings were held. Festivals, theatre performances and music & dance performances by visiting artists from China, Russia and Vietnam also took place here. The cave housed more than 2,000 soldiers in a huge army barracks and was the headquarters of the Pathet Lao military effort.
The Laotion Civil War, as it is officially known, like most other wars, was a complex melee of politics. Unlike the Vietnam War, it wasn’t fought under the gaze of the world’s media which resulted in a near futile, senseless and often unheeded outcome. As a consequence Laos remains, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth, a fact I was ignorantly unaware of before visiting. Decades later, unexploded ordinance (UXO) literally litters the entire country and has killed more than 20,000 people since the war ended in 1975! Today over 80 million live cluster bomblets still scatter the country.
Cleaning up the unexploded ordnance is agonizingly slow, thankfully organisations like MAG do incredible work in clearing UXO’s and helping the Laos population to reclaim their land.
In 2014 The U.S. Congress approved a $12 million grant for UXO clearance and related aid in Laos, bringing the total up to $82 million. To put that into context the U.S. spent a relative $18 million a day, for nine years, bombing the country; that’s approximately $60 billion.
Considering the current population of Laos is just under 7 million, the U.S. could have paid the entire population approximately $9,000 each not to be communists! Unfortunately war doesn’t work like that!
Sadly the daily lives of millions are still affected by the senseless bombing. Long-term development of the country has also been disturbed; farmers can’t work the land and construction of schools, hospitals and factories are constantly delayed.
Our visit to Laos was eye opening and often heart wrenching, unfortunately history proves that we don’t learn from our mistakes. Considering the phenomenal amount of money the U.S. spent pointlessly destroying a country, most have never heard of, they (politicians and the war machine in the “developed” world) continue to invest ridiculous amounts of money developing new technologies to eradicate people in fields on the other side of the world, with sickening effect.
When we first set out in 2012 Burmese land borders were well and truly closed, so back then our option was shipping from India to SE Asia. In 2014, with a shift in political power, land borders opened up to foreigners. For once our delayed itinerary had gone in our favour and allowed us more country-crossing options.
To drive across Myanmar in your own vehicle requires being escorted by a government-approved guide plus numerous permissions, documentation, fees and taxes. Apparently it is possible to arrange the paperwork and permissions yourself but that would involve flying into the country in advance, costly and definitely stress-inducing. The simplest way is to travel with an agent-organised tour; the more people in your group, the cheaper it works out per person. The agent needs a month to organise your documents so you need to plan way in advance. Being flexible with dates also increases your chance of finding fellow travellers to join your group and reduce costs. We eventually went for a 14 day tour which, once we had joined a French family of four, was not much more expensive than an exhausting 5 day dash or shipping.
Our group comprised of us, the Pleau family (two adventurous French motor-homers and their two young sons) plus a ‘pilot car’ with driver, tour guide and officially appointed government guide. We still don’t know the purpose of our government guy; friendly enough but barely interacted with us other than to take the occasional video and photo reconnaissance records. He certainly had a nice holiday out of us!
Logistically, the Myanmar route is simultaneously relaxing and restricting. It was the first time we have ever had a guide which was wonderful; escorted through borders, explanations of menu items, ordering food, a constant enthusiastic source of local information and a mind of historical and cultural facts. Plus, a genuinely lovely bloke that we can now call our friend. Hotels are all pre-booked so the daily mystery of where to pitch that night is removed, itineraries meticulously scheduled so there’s no scouring the guide book for sights and activities and you follow the pilot car so no maps or GPS required. I have to admit that after the full-on experience of 4.5 months overlanding in India this was a lavish travel hug. It’s like cotton-wool-wrapped touring, 14 consecutive nights of the kind of luxuries we normally only treat ourselves to once a month; A/C, showers, clean linen, Wifi and breakfast buffets. So this is how normal people travel! No wonder other tourists always look and smell better than us.
But your cotton wool is wrapped tight and you lose the flexibility and freedom to stay longer, deviate, take a new route suggested by locals or stop to join in with a spontaneous celebration. Diverting, pausing and ‘getting lost’ is after all a huge part of the overlanding experience. Luxury without liberty. The cost was also eye-watering to us and as much as we enjoyed 2 weeks of increased comfort, we could normally travel for 3 months on what it cost us for 14 days (ouch).
We were certainly not disappointed by Burma as a destination- it is truly an incredible country. From the giant Buddha’s in Monywa, ancient temple plains of Bagan and Royal splendour in Mandalay to Buddhist devotion in the caves of Pindaya, floating culture and traditions of Inle Lake and the city splendour of Yangon with breath-taking Shwedagon Pagoda.
For me, what is seriously missing in this ‘exploration’ of a country is an opportunity to get out into the wilderness and experience the wildlife and natural habitats of Myanmar. The chance to sit by a river for a couple of days and watch birds in the trees and lizards on the rocks. With the countryside often a blur as you dash from town to town this is one area of visiting a new land that is a huge sacrifice through this arrangement.
In addition, there is a moral and ethical quandary of travelling in a country where human rights abuses are very real and being carried out at the hands of the peoples own ‘democratically elected’ government. In Myanmar particularly, where a large part of our travel budget goes directly into the hands of that same government in the form of fees, permits, visa and guides. Without the ability to choose your own hotels, you also risk financially supporting establishments owned by government officials and their families. The only way we could offset this in some way whilst travelling in the country was to eat at smaller restaurants and buy goods from small, independent shops. Travelling in a culturally-conscious way in a country so recently opened up to the potential negative influence of the ‘West’ is also important, with cultural and environmental damage a significant threat in Myanmar (no one, especially the Burmese, want to see arse cheeks hanging out of skimpy shorts rolling across the border from less-conservative neighbouring Thailand).
Quandaries and logistical changes aside, Myanmar is a stunning destination and an extended transit far more enjoyable than the alternative option of shipping. With opening land borders a step in the right direction for overlanders, hopefully one day the country will stabilise and the remaining militant rule diminish, allowing peace for the people and real adventure for travellers.
On the 6th November 2006, the administrative capital of Myanmar (aka Burma) was moved, with minimal explanation by the military government, to an empty-ish plot of land (now named Naypyidaw) 200 miles north of Yangon (aka Rangoon), the previous capital.
Naypyidaw is an eerily desolate modern-day ghost town, not one that has been deserted but one that has never been inhabited. The city has one high school offering basic education, very few shops and virtually no public transport network with the exception of one taxi company which is operated by the military!
This lack of infrastructure makes the city less than desirable. The current population consists mainly of government employees and administrative officials who were forced to move there. Due to the lack of facilities in the city many families were split up when the government forced it’s employees to move.
As utilisation of the vast new city is very low the consequences of such an immense project have been criticised by the outside world. With an estimated cost of $3–4 billion the national economic impact of such a huge construction effort, over a relatively short period, in such a poor country must have been considerable.
Due to the location of the new capital the cost of doing business with government has increased, this is due to the excessive journey time from Yangon, where most business offices are based.
It seems crazy that such money was, and still is, being spent on a huge city that no one wants or uses!
The rationale for moving the city is debateable, some theorists believe that the capital was moved because Than Shwe, the previous head of state, wanted a ‘vanity project’ to compete with those of other authoritarian leaders, especially in Central Asia, who may be seeking to amplify their own personality cults.
It is more likely though that the move was tactical and initiated to secure the capital and relocate it centrally away from the country’s borders: Yangon is a coastal city and vulnerable to a nautical attack. The new central location lends itself to the city becoming a transportation hub adjacent to the volatile states of Shan, Kayah and Kayin. It was felt by governmental and military leaders that a stronger military and governmental presence nearby might provide stability to those chronically turbulent regions.
Sadly the most logical reason for moving the capital is much less interesting; Yangon had simply become too congested with little room for future expansion.
In stark contrast to Istanbul, Tehran or Delhi driving is easy on the empty streets. The massive vacant 20-lane highways were designed to future proof the city for expansion but are also rumoured to be able to accommodate military aircraft landing.
We stopped outside the Parliamentary complex and presidential palace at the site where the Top Gear team had played football on the motorway and drag raced! The architecturally Stalinist buildings are gargantuan and gaudy, the only thing that roots them in local culture are the faux Burmese roofs.
Up until the 2015 landmark elections, the Parliamentary complex and presidential palace actually held little authority. True power was (and possibly still is) located in one of the cities Crystal Maze-esq named zones; the Commercial Zone, International Zone, Residential Zone, the Ministry Zone and Military Zone.
The top ranking military officers and important government personnel live in the secretive military zone, conveniently located 7 miles away. The whole area is shrouded in mystery, is strictly forbidden and apparently consists of a complex network of tunnels and bunkers.
We obviously stayed in the Hotel Zone, in one of the 12 huge, unfinished, Soviet-esq hotels that loom from the wide, empty streets.
The International Zone caters for foreign embassies, so far only Bangladesh has moved in!
The residential zone is one of the most interesting. The apartments are allotted according to rank and marital status. The identical apartment blocks, of which there are 1,200, have colour-coded roofs; the Ministry of Health employees live in buildings with blue roofs, employees from the Ministry of Agriculture live in buildings with green roofs. High-ranking administrative officials live in mansions.
Like Milton Keynes, where Emma grew up, this new city is a ‘masterpiece’ of town planning. Naypyidaw’s genius, unlike Milton Keynes however is not centred around roundabouts but focused on quashing regime change and nullifying dissent through urban design and cartography. Historically the public square has been the epicentre of democratic expression, most revolutions have started from protests in public squares where statues of dictators have toppled. Naypyidaw has no public squares! The wide streets are harder for prospective rioters to barricade and easier for tanks, helicopters and even planes to manoeuvre. The enormity of the city is designed to dwarf the individual and supress active participation within the metropolis; the scale is intended to intimidate the citizens to feel subservient to the power of the state. The presidential palace even has a moat!
In stark contrast to the rest of Myanmar, with its humble, friendly villages, towns and rural roads, Naypyidaw sticks out like an urban sore thumb. A disparity so evident you feel like you have entered some kind of twilight zone, a hollow existence in a void of a city the previous government tried to force on a population where the majority still live modest, subsistent, family-orientated lifestyles. Hopefully the new, recently elected government, spearheaded by Aung San Suu Kyi will make wiser decisions for the future of the country.