Central Asia Complete!
Key Trip Statistics: 2 continents, 16 countries, 10 months, more than 30,000 kilometres driven. Our Central Asia journey ended in London, England in mid February 2020. Our timing was exceptionally fortunate in view of the coronavirus pandemic!
The above map shows the final driven route of our April 2019 to February 2020 family expedition. My initial reaction upon compiling this map, then sitting back and really looking at it, was being briefly struck by what a visually large chunk of the world we covered! I should hardly be surprised, as it is just what I painstakingly planned to do back in 2018. Finally seeing the 'completed' route on the map feels like a real accomplishment, and I am pleased to be able to say that all major objectives for the trip were achieved (the original route plan page is here). Overall this was an immensely enjoyable journey, notwithstanding some not insignificant obstacles to overcome along the way. It goes with the territory to expect at least a few difficulties to arise on an undertaking such as this, some minor and some bigger. But through rising to these challenges we further build our capability, and confidence, to undertake this style of independent overland travel. It was wonderful to do this as a family.
I think I might have fallen in love with Central Asia! To many people all the countries out there are poor, end with '...stan' and are presumed to be a homogeneous bunch. Those following this blog will know otherwise! Kazakhstan (actually the 9th largest country in the world) is mostly desert, yet we travelled through an incredibly unique desert there offering such out of this world vistas that I somehow wondered if we'd ended up on Mars! And who knew they have a canyon capable of rivaling the USA's far better known Grand Canyon, or that Almaty is such a beautiful and cosmopolitan city?! As for Kyrgyzstan, which I was aware had been described as the 'Switzerland of Central Asia', this hands down must be one of the most stunningly beautiful countries on the planet! We thoroughly enjoyed Kyrgyzstan's high altitude lakes and mountain scenery that often left us speechless - and I don't mean because the air starts getting thin above 3,000 metres! Tajikistan presented the opportunity to go even higher up into those 7,500 metre high mountains of Central Asia - twice the height of New Zealand's Mount Cook - another otherworldly experience. And taking the remote Pamir detour through the Wakhan Valley neighbouring Afghanistan is likely capable of altering many people's world-view. Tajikistan was a personal favourite of mine. Even if perhaps the least touristed and well-known, this fascinating country has so much to offer - it's certainly somewhere I want to explore much deeper. Finally, Uzbekistan offered up the most tangible evidence of Silk Road history, with fascinating ancient desert cities Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva filled with stunning Islamic architecture. Mongolia, much earlier in the trip, was a vast and captivating wilderness. Sometimes green, lush landscapes flowing with rivers, while at other times we were fully exposed to blazing heat in the Gobi Desert. I recall following thunderstorms on our 1,000+ kilometre off-road route across Mongolia's remote north west; at one point the Pajero spun out 360 degrees on the slick mud - there are no real roads, just dirt tracks. Mongolia can be chaotic and exhausting at times - yet equally I can't wait to return there and explore deeper into both the northern wilderness, and the southern Gobi. Central Asia is a region with thousands of years of incredibly rich human history. A bazaar we visited on several occasions in Kyrgyzstan's vibrant little city of Osh has traded continuously in the same location for 3,000 years! It's simply not possible for the countries of Central Asia to offer up anything less than the richest and most vibrant cultures and traditions. Being 'poor' countries hardly has any bearing on their ability to tantalise visitors, with each '...stan' simply offering up it's own unique flavour of that incredible Silk Road history. Across all of summertime in Russia and Central Asia I will have fond memories of endless sunshine and the sweetest, most abundant fruit... including huge melons for sale everywhere... for pennies, too!
Such was the impression made on me by this fantastic journey that I returned home contemplating a new niche venture conducting guided tours through the most interesting and authentic parts of Central Asia. My specialty has for some time now been in plotting remote 4wd overland journeys through foreign lands, where it can be difficult to find route information. Well before this website was built I've twice plotted and driven 4wd routes between North Africa as far as Istanbul, with considerable off-road explorations in the Balkans. Considerable experience gained from those earlier journeys proved instrumental in our ability to independently go remote in Central Asia. Anyone interested in experiencing the most authentic aspects of Central Asia should expect to travel in a 4wd, this given the poor infrastructure in these countries, even when staying on-road. Most existing tour operators tend to put tourists on a coach and cart them around places a coach is able to access. But this mode of travel will necessarily miss out on some of the very best of what Central Asia has to offer, as seen and described as this blog has unfolded. While travel is ultimately the goal, my passion very much includes the significant freedoms gained by travelling in a well setup 4wd.
I've greatly enjoyed sharing my passion for overland travel through this blog over the past year or so, and in the long running feature article series I'm still writing for NZ4WD Magazine, but the ultimate would be to directly assist others to experience their own journey of this kind. I said a few times during writing of the blog that now is the best time there has ever been to visit Central Asia. Obviously, the current pandemic has put this on hold for the time being. Hence my idea for a unique new tourism venture in Central Asia has come at the worst possible time! Who would want to start a tourism business now - an international one crossing many borders no less?! Nonetheless the idea still holds appeal, so we'll see.
For those who particularly enjoyed following the blog for the captivating images shared from less developed countries across Central Asia, you'll likely enjoy the new 'Photo Galleries' section recently added to the website. Through this you can access a selection of the best photos from some of our past destination countries. If you view just one of these galleries then I highly recommend the Morocco Gallery. The Alps Gallery also includes some particularly captivating images, including some of huge abandoned fortresses high in the Alps along the French and Italian border.
The Final Leg - Finland to the UK
Until now the official end to the trip has been missing from the blog. To complete the record, here it is:
The second and last continent of this journey - Europe - was always going to be the quick and easy one. No more sandy, rocky deserts to navigate, remote rivers to cautiously cross, or 4,000 plus metre mountain passes to ascend. Rather it was motorways, ferries and hotels, but it was still loads of fun for me and the kids and made for a great end to this trip. Marcel and Anastazja were born in London during the decade we spent living and working there, with Marcel commencing school there. Accordingly, London holds far more significance and emotional attachment for us than just being a good place to ship a vehicle back home from. Also born in London was the mighty Pajero! It was first sold as a UK registered 'Shogun' and London is where I first set about modifying it into a globe trotting 4wd family tourer. I didn't even have a garage in those days, having to perform all mechanical, electrical and build works right outside our little London house. Little did I know when we drove out of London late in the summer of 2014 to commence our then first 'big trip', spanning from North Africa to Istanbul, that I'd be driving it back to London (via Central Asia no less!) a few years later.
There are a few differences when touring without Mummy. For one, there is no limit on the stereo volume! The Mighty Pajero came equipped from factory with the Rockford Fosgate 10 speaker stereo system, including factory amplifier and subwoofer. It can really crank... when it's allowed to... and now it was allowed to! Whenever the kids favourite songs came on the radio, all across Europe they were blasted out. This final leg of the journey was more 'road trip' than expedition.
To recap, Sylwia had left us in Helsinki, Finland, flying home to take up a teaching position. After weeks of delay and continual pushing for the engine rebuild to be completed, it had felt almost ironic being back in the Pajero just 24 hours following Sylwia's departure. For the first time the kids and me were able to drive to our unusually familiar little Helsinki aparthotel, rather than on and off various forms of public transport.
We awoke to a sunny but frosty Saturday morning in Helsinki on 25th January, the early part of which was spent packing and preparing the Pajero. We had the day to kill before a pre-booked ferry would take us overnight to Stockholm in Sweden. But before then I was conscious I should drive at least a few miles around Helsinki to test that the Pajero really was running perfectly. It would be a nightmare if any issues with the newly rebuilt engine weren't discovered until after we'd disembarked in Sweden, or worse still managed to get somewhere further across Europe. I decided we would test drive the route to the ferry terminal, which would also ensure I knew how to get there when the time came. Google Maps directions seemed to tie in nicely with little pictures of a boat on local road signs and so locating the ferry terminal went smoothly enough. Also still going smoothly was the Pajero's engine, giving confidence that the engine rebuild had been competently performed.
There exists an almost countless number of ferry routes going all over Europe. Night time sailings can be very effective - accommodation and transport all in one. Our first of three ferries was nicely appointed and our ensuite cabin was comfortable. We awoke to our arrival in Stockholm on a Sunday morning, ready to drive off the ship and begin clocking up road miles across Europe. Whilst I'm no stranger to clocking up road miles all over Europe, Sweden was all new and I'd not previously been as far north in Germany as depicted on the map below either.
Our second ferry was another overnight ship with a cabin. This ship was a little more rough and ready than the first and predominantly carried big trucks and freight. We could have opted to drive across Denmark instead of this second ship, but these overnight ferries really make a lot of sense for us, and this one enabled us to hit the road bright and early at 6am on the Tuesday morning on German soil. The following set of photos depicts our European road trip as far as reaching the UK, including the final 90 minute ferry between Calais (France) and Dover (UK).
We had three objectives in the UK; zip up to Scotland to visit family friends, spend time (re)exploring London and finally deliver a thoroughly cleaned mighty Pajero for loading into a container. I decided we'd begin with the voyage up England to Scotland. It was more difficult to stay on budget for this final leg of the trip, with diesel costing nearly three times as much in the UK & Europe as it had in Russia or Central Asia, plus it was now hotels all the way. Fortunately the UK has some cost effective roadside hotel brands. We stayed nearly exclusively at Travelodges, which are clean and well presented for just £35 to £50 per night, even in London!
A few photos from our visit to Scotland, including being taken by friends Simon, Rhona and family on a walk to the site of a ruined Scottish castle not far from where they live.
We took a different route back down England bound for London, enjoying a couple of nights stop in the Lakes District, this being a very beautiful part of England we used to enjoy visiting. Despite being early February and hence technically still winter, the essence of an early spring was very much in the air.
London at Last
First up on our itinerary of London was a visit to our old neighbourhood in Canada Water, South East London. Kornelia wasn't born in London, though I was curious whether Anastazja would remember anything of our previous life there. She didn't - she was too little at the time to recall it. Marcel though remembers it all very well, including beginning school there. Just to reminisce a bit, here's a 'now vs then comparison', with our old two storey house in the background.
There's plenty of really cool stuff to do when in London. Even as a long term resident and worker in London I always enjoyed strolling through the well touristed hotspots of Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. And so one evening I took the kids for dinner and a wander through these atmospheric parts of London.
On another day we did a bigger walk across Hyde Park and in to South Kensington. Marcel was eager to visit London's Natural History Museum, which he used to love frequenting for the exceptional dinosaur exhibit. Personally, I find the museum building itself quite fascinating.
... we delivered the Pajero to the shippers yard in London, ready to be loaded in a container. Our journey had reached its end and we would soon be flying back home to New Zealand. At this time we were still largely unaware just how very fortunately timed our trip had been... or what a different place the world would be just a few weeks further on.