I decided to ask myself some of the questions people seem to like to ask me about my trip, plus a few random ones of my own. Any you think I missed? Well they might be in Part 2, but ask them in the comments anyway!
What was your favourite country to visit?
This is normally listed as one of the questions travellers hate to get asked, I guess because not only is it very difficult to rank 18 months worth of destinations, but it is also the default question most people go to when they find out you’ve been travelling. I don’t mind being asked though, after all it’s not like the questioner is being deliberately annoying, they are simply looking for a topic they can relate to. The conversation usually goes like this…
“What was your favourite country”
“Oh wow, I’ve been there/would love to visit there”
My answer though does tend to depend on my mood. Generally Burma/Myanmar is the answer I give, but I also have really fond memories of travelling around China and I loved my time in Japan and Seoul in South Korea, a place I always feel a bit guilty about for not getting a blog post of its own.
Importantly though, when asking someone this question I would always be wary of taking any answer as travel advice. This is because after travelling for a while it really is quite difficult to differentiate between countries and places that really stood out on their own terms and places where you had a great time, but that was perhaps more to do with the group of people you were with than the location itself. To this end I will actually wait to give my travel recommendations until Part 2!
Closest you came to dying?
By far and away it was when my crap swimming ability combined with my general incompetence on a Black Sea beach at Batumi in Georgia. Full story here. Whilst I may have been scared stiff on other occasions, like climbing the sea cliffs in Halong Bay in Vietnam, and being pretty terrified I was about to fall overboard whenever I walked to the front of the ship on my ride across the Pacific Ocean, I never again actually felt like death could be imminent. Although there does seem to be a common theme of death by water emerging here…
Lucky for me, my body seemed to cope rather well with the rigours of travelling. 2 minor colds and one very brief bout of food poisoning isn’t really bad going at all for 18 months on the road. Only time I had to visit a hospital was to get a medical certificate in South Korea for my trip across the Pacific stating I wasn’t about to fall over and die in the immediate future.
Weirdest lost in translation moment…
I could have gone for the truly awful Chinese beer I had in Pingyao, which proudly proclaimed to come with the “refreshing taste of Big Mac“, but instead I will go for this shoe shop in Zhangjiajie. Heaven knows what it was meant to say, but given that other signs in the same shop proclaimed it was actually called Bull Titan, I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t this…
Run ins with the law?
Well an army patrol in Aktau in Kazakhstan did take issue with my paperwork and after much discussion (if discussion is the right word for a conversation where neither protagonist speaks the others language) I was marched across town to a police station. It was an interesting journey, with my would be arresting officer having to pull me out of the way of a very large angry dog whilst also taking it upon himself to call out to any and every group of kids we passed on our way to see if any of them could speak English and translate for us…
The whole thing was made even more surreal by the other two soldiers in the patrol, who were walking along behind me speaking to each other in Kazakh in what seemed like a sinister version of the Fast Show’s “Channel 9 News” skit, with intelligible words in Kazakh broken occasionally with recognisable and worrying words in English like “James Bond,” “spy” and perhaps most worryingly “bang! bang!” Luckily when we finally arrived at the police station it only took a matter of seconds before they declared my paperwork to be all in order (I’d only arrived the day before so I was pretty confident it was all fine anyway,) and I was allowed to go on my way with a friendly salute. Albeit I no longer knew how to get to my hotel…
Outside of that my only other run in with the gendarmes was in Osh Market in Bishkek. A place renowned for plain clothes police officers confiscating tourists passports and refusing to return them until “fines” were paid. Given that I was walking around with an oddly shaped backpack (it had a large melon inside) I can see why I was picked on as a dumb tourist, although I’m still bitter about the fact that one of my two companions at the time, Jess, decided to pretend she was nothing to do with me, walking on wishing the policeman a “good-day” in her finest Russian accent. Feeling there was safety in numbers I decided I wouldn’t give my other friend the same chance to escape and quickly grassed him up as being with me. Happily however, whilst they did take us away to their “office” (an empty shipping container) to look at our documents, rather than fines, the conversation instead quickly turned to attempts, in broken English, to give tourist information, pointing out what lakes in the mountains we should ensure we checked visited.
Biggest “were not in Kansas anymore” moment.
By this I guess I mean those slightly surreal moments where I took in my surroundings and thought “wow, I really am a long way from home.” As a general rule I find that a key ingredient for these moments is to be away from fellow tourists. Somehow even when I was in seemingly random places, having some other traveller there with me somehow takes away much of that sense of having gotten away from it all.
There are probably a couple of nominations for this moment. The first time I really felt I was getting away from it all was probably on the train I took from Aktau in Kazakhstan to the Uzbek border after my Caspian Sea ferry ride. The train ride was crowded and stiflingly hot and stuffy, but as the sun set below the horizon and the air began to cool, I found myself stood in the corridor of the train staring out at the desert scenery, lit only by the dying embers of the sun and felt for the first time that I had finally left Europe behind.
The entirety of my cargo ship ride across the Pacific was pretty much filled with a feeling that I needed to pinch myself constantly just to prove that the whole experience wasn’t a dream. Leaving port in Yokohama was just surreal. Not only the idea that I was finally leaving Asia behind, but simply the fact I was doing so on an enormous ship surrounded by containers! I think this sense of wonderment manifested itself the most during this trip though, when I switched on my GPS and Google Maps on my phone to see the little dot representing me placing me where I seemingly had no right to be. Sitting just across the international dateline, 1000’s of miles away from land and waiting for the sun to go down on the 20th March for the second time.
The biggest “not in Kansas anymore” moment though, actually breaks my rule of being away from other travellers as I was with fellow Brit traveller Roger and Theresa, an American author, at the time. I honestly find it hard to describe this place and the feelings of wonder about how I had got there that it provoked. I have blogged on it before, it was at the Tomb of the Imam Asim, on the outskirts of Hotan in China. Whilst I might not have been alone, the site was otherwise deserted and it is very difficult not to feel weird when you know you are in deepest darkest Xinjiang province, in a city with a reputation for violence between the Uighur community and the waves of Han migrants from other parts of China. A place you rather get the impression the Chinese government would rather you wouldn’t visit. Where the foreign press are essentially banned. Where roadblocks, complete with nervous looking teen conscripts looking out at your behind sandbags and wire mesh, are de-rigour. Where you soon fail to bat an eyelid when armoured personal carriers just rock up a few yards in front of your to disgorge another heavily armed patrol. Where the Arabic script used for the local Uighur language is found on almost every shop front and road sign. And yet here we were, alone on the outskirts of this city where the desert dunes seem eager to begin swallowing it up, looking at a tomb that seemed to have more in common with a depiction of a pirate ghost ship than the Islamic architecture we had become used to in Central Asia and beyond which we could take in a vista of 100’s of flags fluttering loudly in the wind as blue skies looked down upon the desert beyond and the mountain ranges of Pakistan on the horizon. It was possibly the most powerful “moment” of the whole trip.
Part 2 to come!