Most adventurous overlanders are typically drawn to the lesser-travelled, edgy countries. Travelling by 4x4 allows you to access some of the most beautiful, remote and sometimes inhospitable areas that most tourists generally don’t get to see.
Travelling in a self-reliant way in a 4x4 does however mean you cannot travel light; typically your vehicle is your home and this includes carrying everything from tools and laptops to the kitchen sink.
In most foreign countries a big muddy 4x4 with strange number plates, fully loaded with every conceivable extra is going to draw quite a bit of attention. As a result you, your vehicle and its contents can become a desirable target for criminals.
After we’d purchased Bee-bee in 2010, one astute bicycle traveller sensibly told me “the less you take with you the less you have to lose”.
These wise words are more pertinent having fallen victim to one of overlandings worst nightmares… robbery!
Robbed In Tehran
Way back in 2015, we were robbed whilst in Iran. The thieves smashed the drivers side window and indiscriminately took 6 storage boxes containing clothing, car parts, tools, 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.
The financial loss was devastating but the inconvenience and time wasted was really problematic.
What We Did Right
Thankfully cameras, laptops, phones, hard drives, credit cards, money and passports were all with us in the apartment where we were sleeping.
Both Emma and I carry a micro SD card on us at all times in a hidden pocket in our ‘Adventure belts’, this memory card contains digital copies of all our important documents including the vehicle registration, passports, carnet, visas, medical records and prescription details. We have also emailed ourselves and a reliable family member a copy of this digital folder that can then be viewed using any device connected to the internet. Had we lost the entire car we would have still had access to our vital documents, this would have certainly sped things up at the police station and embassy.
Photos are simply irreplaceable; the basic rule to follow here is - don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. We always make sure we have multiple copies of all laptop content, including photographs of diary pages (fortunately). One copy is hidden deep inside the car and certainly isn’t locatable in a ten minute break-in. This solution is still not great if someone takes the entire vehicle. To resolve this potential problem we also back up our files and photographs frequently to the ‘Cloud’, this is painfully slow in most countries due to internet speeds and is not really appropriate for larger files like film footage. Backing up to SD or Micro SD cards and posting home is also a fairly secure alternative, if somewhat costly, the drawbacks with this are that many postal systems are fairly unreliable in other parts of the world.
Being married to a compulsive list maker has its benefits; Emma had made a full inventory of every item in the car and in which box it was placed, neatly organised into a deftly formatted spread-sheet stored on our micro SD cards. This simple procedure made identifying what had been taken a fairly quick process. This list was then swiftly given to the police. In hindsight it would have been beneficial to have a photograph of every item we carry as the police requested information regarding some of the more unusual or easily recognisable items that were taken.
All the rear windows of our car are completely blacked out using thick self-adhesive black vinyl, this does two things, it keeps inquisitive eyes out and also makes the glass a little harder to smash. Most thieves are opportunistic, if items are out of sight this is a great first step to securing your vehicle.
All our external accessories like jerry-cans and the Hi-lift jack are all secured with heavy-duty cables and waterproof padlocks. Our vehicle is fitted with an immobiliser, I would also recommend installing another hidden battery isolator switch to completely kill all electrics to the vehicle- this would also be handy when working on the car.
As for personal protection, we carry very little. In the tent at night we opt for WD-40 (although it’s not mentioned as one of the 2000+ uses on it’s website), a screeching rape alarm and a fairly hefty Maglite. Being lovers not fighters, we took a few self-defence classes before we left on our trip. Some overlanders carry pepper spray, but this can be problematic crossing borders in some countries.
What We Have Learnt
There are many things you can do to protect yourself, your possessions and your vehicle. Avoiding putting yourself in a risky situation is always the first step, followed by security should you be robbed. Having simple rules, being aware of your environment and trusting your instinct hugely reduces your chances of being targeted. Prior to Iran, sticking to our self-imposed rules, we’d travelled through 45 countries without a hitch.
Simply being aware of threats in your local area is often enough to keep you safe. In Russia for example we were warned by truck drivers to be aware of scam pleas for help by distressed smartly dressed men at the side of the road. Local knowledge is extremely valuable but be aware that most people will exaggerate the dangers and untrustworthiness of people in neighbouring countries! Careful selection of wild camping spots is vital; we always make sure no one sees us leave the road and try to remain out of sight from roads and habitation.
It is important to maintain a level of security in your vehicle that does not become a hindrance on a daily basis but is secure enough to ease your mind when the vehicle is unattended. There are times when you have no choice but to be away from the vehicle and it is during these times that your security options need to be religiously enforced.
It’s nigh on impossible to make your vehicle completely burglar-proof, ultimately if someone wants to get into your car, they will. All a thief needs is time and an opportunity, the more you can do to increase the time needed to get into the vehicle the less the opportunity exists. Your vehicle should appear to be a hard target, this will deter most criminals who will look for an easier target.
Most people tend to prioritise securing items that are perceived as valuable; laptops, cameras, phones, GPS, etc. The logic here being that no one is going to want to steal used maps, personal diaries and prescription glasses. The truth of the matter is, thieves are generally indiscriminate. In our case they simply took all they could in the time they had. Storage boxes are practical but they certainly made it easy for the thieves to empty our car. In this regard maybe a fixed and lockable draw system is more secure.
In hindsight we should have treated items like diaries and prescription glasses in the same way we dealt with other ‘valuables’. If you need glasses to drive and someone takes them you have a big problem. Thankfully I always have a pair stuck to my face and keep my prescription details on my micro SD card.
There are many smaller products on the market that are useful for overlanders including Baked Bean tin safes, these can be hidden amongst your food stash and are great for hiding smaller items. Combination key safes can be bolted or welded to the underside of your car and can hold a full set of spare keys in case you manage to lose your keys.
External heavy-duty commercial van door hasps are somewhat unsightly but they are also a great security addition, especially in conjunction with a draw system that can’t be accessed whilst the doors are closed. If a thief smashes a window they won’t be able to open the doors which in turn means they can’t access the draw system. This set-up should prevent the thieves from taking anything at all.
Most car thieves are small-time opportunistic criminals but in some extreme cases your vehicle may be targeted by a more professional outfit who actually want to take the entire vehicle. The simplest way to prevent this is not to leave your vehicle in the same place for more than one day. Think carefully about promoting your overland website and blog on your vehicle. Most overlanding websites like to feature photos of the vehicle build, storage systems and the equipment carried, this information can easily be used by would-be criminals who spot your vehicle.
If you can afford it, a hidden GPS tracker on your vehicle might save you one very expensive loss. We also recommend downloading one of the many remotely operated tracking and recovery apps that are available for most smart phones and laptops.
It is important to address security issues when prepping your vehicle; window grills, secure cages, safes and locking draw systems are easily available for vehicles like Defenders but are not commonplace in the UK for Toyotas like ours. You don’t need to spend a small fortune to be protected; simply having a few simple self-imposed rules is the greatest way of keeping you and your vehicle safe. Unfortunately we broke our rules and paid the price for doing so. 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.
Fortunately the robbery didn’t dampen our adventurous spirit. It’s important to remember that most overlanders don’t ever fall victim to crime and the majority of people round the world are wonderfully friendly and honest.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien
“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
The internet is full of inspiring travel quotes floating wistfully over awe-inspiring landscapes. The general gist being that - travel broadens your mind. Thankfully I haven’t taken to wearing Thai fishing pants and eating with my hands, I have however garnered a whole host of insight that might fill you with wanderlust (or not)!
In this blog I’ll be attempting to add my wisdom to the pantheon of travel writers by summarizing 10 things I’ve learnt as a global overlander!
1) “Nothing says death like the smell of rotting flesh”
Before we embarked on our adventure I can’t say I was very au fait with the pungent smell of death. I have however, since travelling, become very familiar with the unpleasant odour of rotting animal corpses. Typically, circling raptors give us enough advance warning to wind up the windows before the rancid smell violates our nostrils.
2) “The more flags a country flies the less you can trust its government”
Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe and the whole of Central Asia like to fly flags. Countries full of nationalism and pride, countries with some of the friendliest people we’ve encountered and countries with fairly dubious governments.
Generally, the number of flags a country likes to fly is tantamount to how untrustworthy the government is. The more flags you see, the more you should be scared.
Nothing instils nationalism and patriotism in a country than hoisting a giant flag, preferably bigger than your neighbouring country’s largest flag. For a short time Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, held the world record with their 165 metre tall pole costing a whopping $3.5 million. Incidentally, over 200+ stolen luxury cars from Germany managed to find their way to the president of Tajikistan’s inner circle and associates of his family.
In Southern India the prominence of the Hammer and Sickle is a little unnerving at first.
For Westerners, the image is synonymous with the Cold War era Soviet Union and filled with negative connotations. To see this distinctive red and white flag flying so prominently is an indication that the people of southern India may have slightly opposing political values to our own.
3) “I went to India to find myself… I found out I was a @*$£!”
Most people go on a spiritual journey whilst in India. Certainly in Rishikesh and Haridwar we witnessed hundreds of Westerners “finding themselves”. After having spent more than 4 months in India I became “enlightened” only to discover I’d turned into an intolerant, short tempered, unreceptive and quite frankly horrible person.
My hard earned open-minded outlook was tested to the limit by people who think it is ok to spit in my general direction, open my car doors and get inside, push and shove and, worst of all, invade my personal space at every opportunity. Then there’s the rules and bureaucracy… and the Indian customs department and the filth and rubbish and… AND THE DRIVING!
Somehow I managed to maintain my polite English demeanour by not exploding into a tirade of abuse, but honestly, I’m not sure how! All the negativity slowly ground me down until the point I actually started to resent India and the monster it turned me into. Thankfully the duality of the situation meant we met hundreds of amazing, friendly and openhearted people who, on a daily basis, helped maintain a certain level of sanity.
4) “Never judge a road by a map”
Forget everything you’ve ever learnt about estimating travel times. On one occasion in Greece it took us 2 days to drive 10 miles. In North Eastern India, what should have been a 3-hour drive took 15 hours. Expect potholes, corrugations, mud, landslides, collapsed bridges and surfaces so ungraded that you question whether it is actually a road and if your really expensive tyres are up to the job!
What can look like a motorway on a map can often be the worst road in the country. Kazakhstan is a massive country and most of the roads are in terrible condition, if you need to drive all the way across it, make sure you have enough time on your visa! In Armenia some of the potholes are so large you can see them on Google Earth.
5) “Stupidity is rife all around the world”
The world is full of stupid people, myself included, from the poorest of the poor to the top ranks of the Indian caste system and from religious and political leaders to the average man on the street stupidity is demonstrated daily around the world. Stupidity out of necessity is endemic in poorer countries, if you have a family of five and a motorbike is your only form of transport you’re going to use it. Some might argue that you express a great deal of intelligence to solve the problem of fitting 5 people on a motorbike, but that is debatable.
In Armenia we were overtaken by a speedy Lada on an icy mountain road, 40 minutes later we caught up with the driver who’d lost control and skidded off the road. His car was on its roof about 10 metres down an embankment and was being pulled back onto the road by a tractor. Another 30 minutes passed and the same car overtook us again still travelling at 40+ mph, only now his roof was all battered.
We were also overtaken by a 6-year old driving through fast heavy traffic on the ring road around Almaty, Kazakhstan, whilst his father relaxed eating a sandwich. We managed to snap a photograph when we pulled up alongside them at the traffic lights.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Chinese are exploiting anyone and everyone in every country we visited. The respective governments are letting it happen at the expense of the environment and the people who inhabit it. The majority of the countries we visited have been ravaged by major wars, that have all happened during my lifetime. It’s tough to distinguish who is stupider; the uneducated or the “educated”; at every level greed generally outweighs common sense and, quite often, human life… Who am I to judge? I managed to loose my spare wheel and get stuck in the middle of an open field.
6) “It’s a big job but someone has to do it”
This entry should be #2 really - thankfully it's only got one photograph! When overlanding you certainly become more aware of your bodily functions. Due to diet change, dehydration and food poisoning I am amazed on a daily basis at what my body produces, especially in the length department.
Having previously read that monitoring your bowel movements on expedition was a key indicator to your health I decided to keep a “Captain’s Log”. The ‘log’ featured the date, a descriptive title, GPooS coordinates and a record of ‘firmness’ using the Bristol Stole Scale. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about here are a few entries from the Captain’s Log…
03/07/2012 - The Vulgar Volga Turf-out - 54° 46' 22.5912'' N48° 47' 59.6256'' E – BSS 5
30/07/2012 - The Secret Forest Foot-long - 53° 54' 26.694'' N109° 17' 23.1396'' E – BSS 4
08/04/2014 - The Sahara Sludge Pile - 29° 47' 12.6024'' N6° 3' 59.4468'' W – BSS 6
Having read that the largest fossilised human poo was 9 inches long my important ‘work’ may help archaeologists of the future locate specimens, which will clearly top this.
7) “Sleep with the planet”
I don’t mean a promiscuous overlanding lifestyle; getting in touch with your circadian rhythms really does make a world of difference to how great you feel. We go to bed when it goes dark and get up with the sun (well Emma does). This is occasionally problematic; in Norway it never went dark and in Georgia it was dark by 4pm. It is not unusual for us to sleep 10 hours a night – we’ve never had so much sleep. One of the benefits to all this is that not only do you get to watch sunsets you see way more sunrises too.
8) “Expect the unexpected”
Expect to be woken up by an Indian TV crew opening your tent.
Expect to be on TV in Iran.
Expect to be chased by sheep.
Expect the road to not exist anymore.
Expect rocks bigger than your car to fall out the sky.
Expect to see LOTS of guns.
Expect to wake up covered in snow.
Expect the bridge to have collapsed.
Expect to see a Kyrgyz nomad carrying a severed horse leg on the back of his horse.
Expect to see a holy man rolling down a motorway.
Expect an Iranian truck driver to just give you 40L of fuel… For FREE.
Expect to see a bus on its side.
Expect your front wheel to collapse.
Expect to see a truck half hanging over a cliff edge.
Expect a monkey to piss on your face.
Expect a 150cm Monitor Lizard to stroll through your camp.
Expect a wild deer to come and say hello in the evening.
Expect your ice-cream to be MASSIVE….
And these are just a few things we managed to photograph… We never managed to photograph the giant Cobra that passed through our camp a little to close for comfort, the Huntsman spider in our car or the numerous earthquakes we experienced.
9) “Less is more”
We sold nearly all our possession to fund our trip; it was a liberating experience. Living with few belongings shifts the focus of what is important. Materiality falls aside as basic survival comes to the forefront: finding water, food and fuel, keeping clean and dry and vehicle maintenance. Living this way helps ground you and brings a little perspective to life.
10) “Never get a haircut in Armenia”
No text needed for this one... Pictures speak louder than words.
As an overlander how your logo looks and the branding activities that accompany your dream trip may not be high priorities, after all, that Russian visa application is probably at the forefront of your mind! You should rethink this approach, and value the importance of your logo and branding.
The overlanding market is expanding at an exceptional rate. It is becoming increasingly important to stand out from the crowd. A strong brand is invaluable as the battle for audiences intensifies. It's imperative to spend time investing in researching, defining, and building your brand.
If you are planning your dream trip, setting up a new business or would like to overhaul your existing branding we can help. Being overlanders ourselves we understand the needs and wants of your customers, audience, fans and followers.
We can design you logos, brand your vehicle, print you stickers and even build you a website. We can also supply complete graphics packages for every social media platform making sure you have consistent branding at every point of contact.
Why Is Branding Important?
You may have a good operation running but if you are lacking in the visual department you could be hindering yourself. Humans are incredibly visually orientated. A logo is your face to the world and it is a key visual representation of what you stand for. A good logo helps people remember you and differentiates you from others. A professional appearance will gain you returning customers, an audience, fans and followers. Fan numbers and website hits can leverage sponsorship and sales. A decent logo helps…. and looks cool plastered all over your vehicle!
If you’d like some help with your branding please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
Today is a massive milestone for us as we cross the border to Laos! We set out with a dream nearly 5 years ago to see as much of the world as we could by car. 75,568 miles and 49 countries later we've lost a few pounds (weight and financial) and gained a few scars! Our trip has had it's ups and downs and on a few occasions we've nearly thrown the towel in...
TODAY IS OUR 800th DAY ON THE ROAD and we are incredibly proud of what we've achieved with good old fashioned hard work, grit and determination. Without the support of each other, our friends, family and the encouragement of all our supporters, fans and followers we'd still be sat at home on the sofa dreaming. THANK YOU!
To help celebrate we've selected some of our favourite photographs all featuring the third and arguably the most important member of our team Bee-bee!
Only a few kilometres from one of the worlds most visited monuments, The Taj Mahal, lies the Agra Bear Rescue Facility on the peaceful Yamuna River.
The centre houses and cares for 211 Indian sloth bears, all rescued from the horrendous former practice of ‘dancing bears’.
Historically, Indian Sloth bears cubs were stolen from their mothers, their muzzles pierced with a red-hot iron poker and a rope attached through their nose to force them on to their hind legs to ‘dance’; first for Mughal Emperors, then for local crowds and tourists. The bears endured a life of pain and suffering with health problems, cramped cages and poor food.
In 1996, research carried out by the non-governmental organisation Wildlife SOS revealed 1,200 dancing bears in India. Over the next 12 years, Wildlife SOS achieved the incredible task of rescuing and rehabilitating more than 600 bears until the last dancing bear was rescued in 2009.
We had a tour around the rescue centre in Agra, where groups of rescued bears roam in large enclosures, each group cared for by dedicated keepers. Their health is continually monitored as years of abuse and malnutrition, plus the physical scars of their nose piercings and canine teeth removal can cause them ongoing problems.
In a sad reminder of their past lives in servitude, their noses still show tears and holes where their ropes were tied and some bears still sway repeatedly, still haunted by years spent in confinement.
A visit to one of the centres two kitchens revealed the enormous scale of feeding over 200 large mammals; huge vats of wheat and millet porridge with honey and milk sat ready to be distributed to the bears for one of their three daily feeds, alongside boiled eggs, fresh fruit and cooked vegetables.
It was amazing to watch these majestic animals, finally free from their lives of painful performance and torture, now able to enjoy social interaction, good food, natural behaviours and a life in peaceful nature.
It’s an incredible success story for conservation and animal welfare in India and demonstrates what can be achieved in a relatively short space of time by dedicated and passionate individuals Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani and their team. Volunteers from around the world come to the facility to give their time to help feed and care for the bears, as well as raising awareness and much-needed funds for the ongoing work of the organisation.
Despite the trade in dancing bears being over, the threat of poaching of Indian Sloth Bears still remains. We met ‘Elvis’ who was recently confiscated on the border with Nepal on his way to China where there is still a lucrative market in bear ‘parts’ for medicine. Fortunately he was rescued in time and is now in quarantine at the centre where he is doing well.
You can visit the Agra Bear Rescue Facility and even arrange to spend a day with keepers to learn more about their work caring for the bears; http://wildlifesos.org/agra-bear-rescue-facility or follow their fantastic work with wildlife on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wildlifesosindia
About 5 years ago I came across a video on Youtube of an Indian guy hand-painting the gold pinstripes onto the petrol tank of a Royal Enfield motorcycle. In a country where traditional skills often haven’t been mechanised: the skill, craftsmanship and mastery of the brush was something sincerely Indian and completely fascinating to watch.
India’s relationship with the British built Royal Enfield Bullet began in 1949 when the Indian Army ordered Royal Enfield Bullets for border patrol use. The bikes were imported in kit form from the UK and assembled in Chennai.
Before long Enfield India Ltd soon developed and opened a production factory completely independently under licence in Madras. The 1955, Indian built Royal Enfield Bullet model remained almost unchanged for years and the Madras plant produced over 20,000 Bullets annually.
The Bullet is now produced in Chennai and has the longest production run of any motorcycle having remained continuously in production since 1948. The Bullet marque is even older, and has passed 75 years of continuous production.
The company has now reached cult status within India and has begun to cash in on its celebrity as the Indian economy grows. Trendy outlets selling the Retro Street range of Bullets can also sell you colour coordinated helmets, leather jackets and knitwear to complete the look.
The inspirational story of the Queen Farah Diba Pahlavi’s life is a complex one of fairy tales, politics and tragedy.
A commoner and young architecture student, she was chosen to replace the King Shah Mohammed Reza’s second wife, Soraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari, after she failed to produce an heir to the throne. Their engagement in November 1959 was announced to the world via the cover of Life Magazine where the glamorous ‘soon-to-be’ Queen was pictured wearing a stunning dress by Dior.
One month later, aged just 21, and 19 years the Shah’s junior, Farah Diba married Shah Mohammed Reza garnering worldwide press attention. Dressed in a gown designed by Yves Saint Laurent and wearing a newly commissioned Diamond Tiara designed by Harry Winston their marriage announced the arrival of possibly one of the most loved, stylish, forward thinking and inspirational royals to have ever reigned.
Just 10 months after the wedding she gave birth to a son solidifying her position; the occasion was marked by dancing in the streets. A succession of children followed; another son and two daughters.
After the birth of the Crown Prince the Queen was free to dedicate more time to activities that interested her. As time progressed the she became much more involved in government affairs. Using her husband’s influence and proximity she drew attention to causes that concerned and interested her, particularly in the areas of women's rights and cultural development.
Over time she became one of the most vocal and highly visible figures in the Imperial Government and became the patron of 24 educational, health and cultural organizations. Her significant contributions to social reforms and her influence in the emancipation of women played a vital part in bringing Iran into the modern era. During her reign women played an increasingly important role in public life and occupied important positions in all areas of administration; parliament deputies, senators, ministers, ambassador, lawyers, judges etc.
During the early 1970’s, her humanitarian role earned her immense popularity. She travelled a great deal within Iran, visiting some of the more remote parts of the country. Wherever she went, people cheered her and struggled to touch her. She would meet with local citizens earning her the title ‘The Empress of Hearts’.
Her popularity was not just confined to Iran, it was told that Charles de Gaulle liked her more than any other first lady, even more than Jacqueline Kennedy!
The Imperial Government in Tehran was aware of her popularity this was exemplified when she was crowned as the first Shahbanou, or Empress, of modern Iran. The naming of a woman as Regent was highly unusual for a Middle Eastern or Muslim Monarchy.
Visiting the former Royal Palace of Niavaran the Queens love of architecture becomes blatantly apparent. Designed by Mohsen Foroughi and finished in 1968 the building mixes traditional Iranian architecture with 1960’s contemporary design. The huge eccentric electric retractable roof has a hint of James Bond baddie lair about it whilst traditional Iranian furnishings bring the design back down to earth.
Located nearby, in a beautiful piece of 1970’s contemporary architecture, is the Queen’s personal library. The interior is designed by Aziz Farmanfarmayan and consists of three levels: the main reading room, a balcony and an underground basement for storing artefacts and paintings. Untouched for over 35 years the library is a fascinating time capsule, the collection of over 22,000 books reveals and typifies the Queens interests.
Mainly comprising of books about art, philosophy and religion, a quick glance across the shelves reveals a sneaky peak at how Iran’s future could have turned out radically different had the royal family not been ousted. Books about Islam share shelf space with titles like ‘Eastern Religion and Western Thought’ and ‘Western Modern Art’.
The library also houses a fascinating collection of autographed books, including a Walt Disney signed book presented to the young Prince, that highlight the relationship Iran had with the U.S. at that time.
Amongst her many patronages she supported the often controversial Shiraz Arts Festival which ran from 1967 until 1977. The festival featured live performances from Iranian and Western artists including avant-garde performances by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
The Queen’s interest in Contemporary art is also expressed throughout the entirety of the palace although the majority of the collection is now housed in a designated gallery. Impressive works by Warhol, Dali and Picasso share wall space with a fine collection of Iranian contemporary art from the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Her love of contemporary art was exemplified in 1976 when Empress Farah commissioned Andy Warhol to do her portrait after they met at a White House dinner hosted by President Ford. In the summer of 1976 Andy Warhol spent a week in Tehran to photograph the Empress with his Polaroid camera.
The Empress’ most enduring accomplishment was the founding of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. In the early 1970’s the Queen began assembling an absolute collection of modern and contemporary art, from the Impressionists (Monet, Pissarro, Renoir) right through to the cutting edge minimalists of the 1970’s (Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin). The Empress took advantage of a depressed art market and led a panel of experts who toured European and American auction houses in order to build the prestigious collection. More than 300 significant works were purchased, reportedly for less that $100 million. The collection was seen as a gift to the people of Iran. The museum opened in 1977. Two years later Ayatollah Khomeini deemed the collection to be unfit for Islamic eyes and the newly formed anti-western Islamic Republic promptly put the collection into storage where it remained mostly unseen for 25 years.
The collection which includes prominent works by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Braque, Miró, Magritte, Dali, Pollock, Johns, Bacon, Warhol, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Stella and Richard Smith, who I had the pleasure of working with in 2002, is estimated to be worth as much as $5 billion. It is considered the most comprehensive collection of modern art outside of Europe and the U.S.
The Queen was not only interested in contemporary art she took an active interest in promoting traditional Iranian art and culture to the world. Under her direction and through her patronage numerous organizations were formed to promote Iranian heritage inside and outside Iran. She oversaw the return of hundreds of historic Persian artefacts from foreign institutions and private collections and built national museums to house the recovered antiquities.
During her reign Queen Farah Diba Pahlavi was the epitome of style, the essence of sophistication and an embodiment of how far women had come under her husband's reign. Her significant contributions to social reforms and the emancipation of women continue to be associated with her name. She was an intellectual and stood up for the things she believed in, the quintessential Queen.
The Last Empress of Persia is now in her 70’s and has lived in exile since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Having a claustrophobic fear of road tunnels I was filled with dread at the prospect of having to drive through the notorious ‘Tunnel of Death’. Unfortunately the tunnel stood in-between us and a chain of seven serene mountain lakes in the Hisar Tizmasi range.
Cutting through roughly 3-miles of mountain underneath the Anzob Pass the tunnel has become infamous amongst overlanders. The tunnel is not nicknamed lightly; its lack of ventilation claims several lives each year. Carbon Monoxide poisoning is not the only danger; the tunnel floor is often reported to be under 60cm’s of water hiding a labyrinth of potholes, internal rock falls are common, abandoned tunnel machinery is strewn across the narrow one and a half lanes and to top it off the traffic is not regulated from either end.
We’d heard stories of 4-hour traffic jams and prevailing anarchy whilst you sit in the darkness, your headlights struggling to cut through the fumes of belching trucks as traffic from either direction refuses to give way.
Unfortunately the only alternative is to drive over the 3,372 metre Anzob Pass which is closed for most of the year due to the weather. The pass itself is classed as one of the most treacherous in Central Asia; avalanches are frequent, there is no safety barrier and the final 12 miles are a 7-8% gradient. In 1997 an avalanche so big it took 2 weeks for rescuers to reach the 15 buried trucks and cars killed 36 people.
With great trepidation we watched the GPS closely, mentally preparing for our next challenge, as we approached the mountain. Either route was less than desirable, but thankfully we were forced to take the lesser of two evils, the tunnel was closed due to flooding. Hoorah!
The pass was actually not as treacherous as we’d heard and offered some stunning views back down the valley we’d just travelled. Like the Pamir Highway the Anzob Tunnel is a right of passage for many overlanders travelling in Central Asia, for us it is one we can live without.