Driving Yourself…Crazy? (Worldwide)

Driving Yourself…Crazy?
(Article originally appeared in ‘Real Travel’ magazine Dec 2009)

“You’re reckless and irresponsible and will put the lives of your travel companions in danger”. So read the response to my question on an internet travel forum. A donkey trek through the Swat valley? A Yachting holiday off the coast of Somalia? No. I was asking for fellow travellers opinions on renting a self drive car in Sri Lanka. I’ve found this to be a typical response when the subject of self driving in a developing country is raised on a western Internet forum, to the point that I no longer ask the question. I can predict the fevered abuse I’ll generate from the ‘You can’t drive yourself’ lobby.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally averse to using public transport when travelling. I’ve had some memorable river trips using passenger ferries in South East Asia, and I love overnight trains. Waking with a jolt as you lurch into the station of some obscure Eastern European town in the early hours, and poking your head out of the window to find yourself transported back to the Cold War era is one of my favourite travel experiences. Watching the dawn break, sat with legs poking from an open train door as you chug through the Indian countryside is a never to be forgotten memory.

Road travel however is a totally different matter. Make that road travel when I’m not driving. I’ve endured a bus cum-mobile sauna between Moldova and Ukraine , feeling I’d lost a stone in weight as I perspired for ten long hours as we bumped and lurched through the night. On another occasion, I crossed the Andes during a transport strike, smuggled onto a school bus full of Chilean teenagers, the only transport allowed over the Los Libertadores border crossing that day. Cunningly disguised in the same red caps as the kids , my partner Kirsty and I endured a nine hour journey on an old US school bus more suited to short hops along the freeways of California. One of the most unpleasant bus journeys I endured was on the winding roads of Northern Thailand. There, a double act of teenage bus drivers indulged in a bizarre challenge to see who could induce travel sickness in the most passengers, throwing their vehicle round the hairpins at breakneck speed­. Very good they were too, achieving a 100% success rate by the time we stumbled off in Chiang Mai.

Discomfort is one thing but outright danger is another, and I’ve experienced my share of white knuckle rides over the years. All too often, bus and taxi drivers in developing countries have a fatalistic attitude towards road safety, placing their trust in a plastic Madonna, Buddah, Ganesh or, that greatest icon of hope of all, a Statue of Liberty, they overtake on the brow of a hill and play chicken with oncoming trucks. Safely protected by a spectacular horn blast and good karma, they ignore the odds that one day, there will actually be an oncoming vehicle as they tear round that blind bend on the wrong side of the road. Maybe the good Karma is what drives the risk taking? Maybe that Laotian bus driver thinks whatever the next life brings, its bound to be better than driving for 18 hours a day on dirt roads with no shock absorbers?.

So after these experiences, I began planning my trip to Sri Lanka. A route using mainly trains and local buses seemed feasible, but weighing up the options to get from Kandy to the Ancient Cities, with limited time available, and having experienced the ‘safe’ option of hiring a driver in India, I kept coming back to the self drive option.”You can’t do it. You need to hire a driver” I was confidentally told by a colleague who had visited the country. Internet forums, were equally dismissive, citing lethal road conditions and a total lack of self drive vehicles. I persevered and eventually located one local ‘fixer’ who would rent me a car. I must admit to being nervous as we approached his somewhat unofficial ‘office’ in an old cargo container, and viewed the battered Toyota we would be renting, but he drew me a map on the back of a cigarette packet, pointed me in the right direction, and off we went. And there began my self drive odyssey which has covered 6 continents to date, with, touch wood, no serious catastrophes. No serious catastrophes apart from Texas…

Texas is in America and as everyone rents a car there I class that as inadmissible evidence in the ‘self drive debate’, It wasn’t actually a catastrophe either. I misjudged the clearance of my car as I approached a small landslide and caused some minor damage. Okay, so I ripped the whole undercarriage out of the car. And it was in the desert. In the desert, 5 hours drive from the nearest town and next to a sign saying ‘Beware of Mountain Lions’. Everything turned out okay in the end though, thanks to a four car hitchhike marathon and a very understanding Rental company!

That incident was the only time I’ve actually managed to seriously damage a car, though I suppose you could say I’ve had a few close shaves, the encounter with the elephant being one. We had opted for a self drive safari in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. Maybe a VW Polo wasn’t the best choice of vehicle, but it was cheap. Cheap and white. Maybe it was the bright colour which attracted the young bull elephant as we watched him drinking at a water hole? Camera in hand, I observed through the viewfinder as he ambled towards us. Its hard to say when the amble turned into a charge but within seconds, I was verifying VW’s claims on the 0-60 capability of the Polo as we screeched away in a cloud of dust, closely followed by a ton of bellowing pachyderm. I couldn’t fault the VW’s performance. We even used it to traverse the eerie sand roads of the skeleton coast, a nervous journey given that I’d earlier blown a tyre on the rough gravel roads, and we had to undertake the drive through some of the worlds most inhospitable and remote terrain with no spare!

An element of planning is essential when considering a road trip in a developing country and an internet search for a good road map before you leave home usually pays dividends. Just don’t assume that the map will be totally correct! Rivers can be seasonal, bridges can collapse and ferries can sink, rendering your well planned schedule irrelevant. I’ve spent hours sat gazing across a wide Uruguyan river, willing a ferry moored on the far bank to sail in our direction. A sleepy eyed boatman eventually stirred from his prolonged afternoon nap as the light was fading and I was beginning to wonder whether our map’s description of ‘Irregular Ferry’ was referring to a period of weeks or months rather than hours.

Rickety ferries, with the rear wheels of your car touching the water, are one test of nerve, driving into a flooded river are quite something else, and a situation I encountered in Costa Rica. Luckily, on this occasion we had the foresight to rent a 4 wheel drive vehicle, but our roadmap seemed strangely light on certain detail. Such as rivers. Wide fast flowing rivers. Local people had developed a novel cottage industry in directing drivers toward the least hazardous crossing points. At first, I nervously insisted on wading across to test out their route. Trusting a wizened, 80 year old lady in a shawl to know the shallowest point of a riverbed seemed like a leap of faith too far, but they never got it wrong. The most hair raising crossing consisted of two ten year old boys trying to explain the complex crossing procedure for a 40 metre wide torrent. Unable to understand their quickfire Spanish instructions,I got them to climb aboard and they guided me across with a combination of shouts, squeals and flailing arms. They looked less than impressed when they realised they had to get back to the other side…

Roadside shake-downs by corrupt African cops, getting lost and rescued by shepherds in the Bosnian mountains, an accidental detour through a Brazilian Favella- I’ve found the opportunities for adventure and incident are endless with a self drive car. For me though, its the freedom which is the real draw of going it alone. Travel agents will upsell the benefits of using a local driver – “He’ll stop anywhere, take you wherever you want to go”, will be the sales pitch. In reality though, by the tenth time you’ve asked him to stop at that great photo opportunity, you’ll notice his eyes rolling in the rear view mirror. To you, a group of kids trying to shift a stubborn mule by the roadside in Mozambique represents a chance of a great shot of local life,to your driver, it’s the motoring equivalent of a pensioner changing a wheel on the hard shoulder of the M40, and he’ll make sure you soon get the message.

Its these roadside interactions which are the real joy of self driving for me. In many countries, particularly in Africa, the pot holed roads between towns and villages are a colourful procession of everyday life. Away from the tourist centres, villagers are only likely to have seen a white face as a fleeting glimpse in a passing vehicle. To stop and speak to people on the road usually elicits a delighted response, particularly from children. Taking a photo of a grinning gaggle of barefoot kids, then showing them the display screen usually results in initial puzzlement, followed by a realisation that they’re looking at themselves, which dissolves into a shrieking melee of excited hands grabbing the camera for a closer look.

Having taken into account the benefits of renting a car to drive yourself, particularly in a developing country, it’s important to ask if it’s right for you. If you’re nervous on the M25 at rush hour, or avoid the one way system in your hometown, it’s unlikely you’d want to negotiate a 5 lane highway in a city centre where all the signs are written in Cyrillic lettering. It’s also best to have at least some experience of driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Have a test run in Mallorca before tackling Mogadishu!

Another key point is to forget all the rules of the road as you know them. In many countries the only rule is … there are no rules. The biggest vehicle has right of way, and you have to accept that. Driving with the mindset that everyone else is a homicidal maniac who will be out to get you is no bad thing. When approaching a blind bend, or brow of a hill, always assume there will be another vehicle speeding towards you on the wrong side of the road. If you see a vehicle approaching on your side of the road, don’t be tempted to play chicken. The best result you can hope for is draw. That means neither of you moved , in which case you both lost! Drive defensively but confidently. Don’t hesitate or change direction at the last minute. If you take a wrong turn it’s not the end of the world, and most accidents are caused by indecision.

Driving yourself is certainly not for everyone, but if you’re a fairly confident driver who’s willing to accept that driving standards and etiquette varies greatly by country, it can open up a whole new world of travel possibilities and experiences.

If, however, you decide to stick with public transport and one day find yourself on a local bus on a potholed road, your driver leaning on his horn, foot down on the wrong side of the road, hurtling towards a battered Toyota , ask him to slow down, that could be me driving!

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Hit The Road (India)

Hit The Road – An amazing Journey by Rickshaw across India

By Ric Gazarian

 Rickshaw Lawnmower

What do these two vehicles have in common?  You might chance to see the lawn mower lazily making figure eights on thick verdant carpets of grass in any cookie cutter housing development nestled in the exurbs of a US city.  The other, the rickshaw, is ubiquitously visible teaming throughout Indian cities and towns like vibrant herds of wildebeast.

Both vehicles share a common engine; for they are both powered by 7 hp engines.  The riding mower ably meets its expectations of pedicuring the lawns of America’s suburbs.  And the rickshaw is the modern day draft horse of moving people in dense urban cities of India.

Another common element they share is neither is designed to traverse 2000 km cross-country. 

While I chose not to drive my lawn mower across the US, I did opt to steer my rickshaw across the sub-continent of India.  My driving partner and I started in the hustling metropolis of Mumbai and two weeks later ended in Chennai.  During this time, we braved monsoons, terrorist attacks, police detentions, food sickness, crashes, and horrendous Indian traffic and roads.  Days consisted of 8-16 hours of driving, absorbing all the glories and horror of India with our five senses. 

The rickshaw has been designed specifically for not driving long distances; hence it is the perfect mode of transportation to challenge your inner rebel.  You can expect periodic breakdowns which allows for ample interactions with the locals, frequent opportunities to run out of gas which allows for hour long visits with the staff at gas stations, and the rickshaw is semi-open also allowing for spontaneous interactions with pedestrians or other motorists. 

As mentioned, the rickshaw has its sides open to the elements.  While this might be nice for the occasional cross breeze, it does a poor job of protecting you from horizontal monsoon rains.  Obviously, the rickshaw does not provide either AC or heat.  The AC would be appreciated for the humid muggy heat that tops 100 F.  The heat is yearned for to contest the chilly mountain air.Rickshaw pic 3The rickshaw comes standard with a sole windshield wiper to battle the monsoons.  The charming windshield wiper is powered manually.  And when I say manually, I mean the driver twists a knob located within the rickshaw at the base of the window while driving.While the rain thunders down, you wish for a third hand.  The rickshaw is directed by a handlebar like steering wheel.  The steering handle bar also contains the accelerator in the right hand grip, and the left hand grip controls the gear.  Hence, your desire for a third hand during rain.

Our top speed on a straight away was 32 mph, making even short distances seems distant.  This speed could easily drop to 10 mph when twisting across the cork screw roads of the mountains we climbed.  Many Indian roads leave much to be desired.  Asphalt covered roads are often asphalt-less.  Deep potholes battle to shear off the front wheel of the rickshaw.  The law of the jungle rules Indian traffic.  The biggest vehicle has the right of way.  Giant lumbering lorries and speeding buses brush smaller vehicles to the side.  The narrow roads serve as a battle royale as pedestrian and animals wrestle with tractors and rickshaws while buses and trucks lord over the scrum.  It is not for the faint of the heart. (See this link from DriverAbroad’s YouTube Channel -Remember , India drives on the left!)

Rickshaw pic 4The route allowed us to see a vast subsection of India.  We started in late July in the Godzilla-sized city of Mumbai.  We pointed south to the beaches of Goa, and eventually headed east to cross the subcontinent to end the rally in Chennai.  It covered 12 cities and we drove over 2000 km.  The rally lasted 12 days, with one day of rest in Goa in the middle.

 

Rickshaw pic 5Early in the trip we stopped in Pune, our second stop after leaving Mumbai.  We strolled through a mall, searching for a sport equipment store.  We were planning on visiting a school the next day and wished to present them with some gifts.  The sparkling mall looked like it had been plucked from any middle-America suburb.  The mall insulated us from the utter chaos in the surrounding city.  The half mile walk from the hotel had taken us over 45 minutes.  It had taken us over 30 minutes to cross one single street, and this was with the assistance of a local.  Rickshaws, motorcycles, car, and trucks hurdled down the street.  The ink-like darkness limited visibility while the monsoon rain pounded down from the heavens.  Multiple times we attempted to dart across the street but were forced back.  It was three lanes in each direction with no median.  Our patience was eventually rewarded with a successful crossing better known as a maniacal sprint for survival. 

While in the mall, I passed a McDonald’s and briefly debated darting in for a quick meal.  I noted the advertisement for the Chicken Maharaja Mac and opted to devour some chicken tikka masala at the hotel.  The next morning we were to learn that the McDonald’s was later bombed by terrorists.  That action resulted in us being detained by the police the following day under the suspicion of being a terrorist ourselves.

To capture all that is magic about India, we filmed a full length documentary of this momentous holiday.  Take a peek at this trailer.  

http://www.hittheroadmovie.com/#!/trailer/

And check us out on www.hittheroadindia.com.

 

Ric Gazarian,Writer and Producer of Hit the road movie enjoys travel and the experiences associated with discovering new people and places. His travels have brought him to over 75 countries and all 7 continents.Ric spent 6 months volunteering at an orphanage and an after-school group in Yerevan.  He also spent 8 months volunteering at an orphanage in Phuket and a homeless shelter for teenagers in Bangkok. 
Ric has published two books: 7000 KM To Go and Hit The Road India.  He also produced the full length documentary, Hit The Road India,
an adventure documentary following two friends, Ric Gazarian and Keith King, participating in Mumbai Xpress – a 12-day-long rickshaw rally across India, from Mumbai to Chennai, recognized by the Lonely Planet as one of the top ten greatest adventures in the world.

“Travel, whether good or bad, contributes to an astounding mosaic of memories. Some of these memories include being shaken down for a bribe by Russian cops on the streets of Moscow, being quarantined by the Chinese government in Tibet for five days, being felled by a case of unbearable food sickness in Yemen, being told by your new friend from Syria that “we hate America” as you drive to Damascus while smuggling cartons of cigarettes, or being advised that the “number one mafia in Taiwan” might want to physically harm you.”

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The Roof Of Africa (Lesotho)

Sani PassSani PassSani Pass

I can still remember the first time I saw Sani Pass. I was watching Charlie Boorman’s Extreme Frontiers South Africa, and the intrepid motorcyclist was attempting to ride, then drive the iconic dirt road which climbs to 3000 metres in Southern Africa’s Drakensberg mountains, before emerging via a helter skelter of upward hairpins into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Boorman attempted the drive in Winter and ice made the already treacherous ascent almost suicidal.I watched open mouthed as his Land Rover, driven by a local guide, slid with wheels locked to the edge of a sheer drop, his producer having already leapt from the vehicle. Charlie survived but had to undertake the final section to the Lesotho border and the ‘Highest Pub in Africa’ on foot. At that point I decided that Sani Pass was a road I had to drive!

A year later and my partner and I are nursing a beer in a local bar in Underberg, KwaZulu Natal, contemplating our journey up the pass the following day. As always is the case in South Africa, the locals are happy to talk and we engage in friendly sport based banter, which occasionally drifts into the ubiquitous SA subjects of crime and politics. As we attempt to leave, citing ourearly start as a good reason for a semi-early night, we’re encouraged to have another Castle lager, or two.

‘Where are you headed tomorrow anyway?’ asks one of our new drinking buddies.

‘Up the Pass to Lesotho’. I respond, trying to sound nonchalant but feeling distinctly apprehensive.

‘Who are you going with?’ (There are a couple of companies in Underberg who specialise in Sani Pass day trips.)

The mood changes noticeably at my response ‘On my own. I’m driving it myself..’

I sense peripheral members of the group start to take an interest and the questions and advice begin, ranging from the type of 4X4 I’m driving, to specific sections of the drive.

I decide to order another beer but the man next to me, a typical brash and confident 30 something has changed his views on my alcohol consumption – ‘No. You need to go home if you’re driving the mountain. Show it some respect’. I smile. He doesn’t and we leave the pub feeling even more nervous than before.

Sani PassSani PassSani Pass

The previous day had seen the Drakensberg shrouded in a pea soup of damp cloud but as we woke in our B+B at 7am, the sun was already finding its way through the gaps in the curtains. I pulled them back to reveal a perfect morning with not a cloud in the sky and the mountains visible in the distance.

With a few final driving tips from the owner of the B+B, we pulled the Nissan Bakkie into the road and set off to Lesotho and Sani Pass.

I’d read a lot about the pass, watched YouTube video’s from previous travellers and posted numerous questions on travel forums to try and get a feel for what I should expect. The Wikipedia entry for Sani Pass provides a good summary-

 Sani Pass is located in the western end of KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa on the road between Underberg and Mokhotlong, Lesotho. It is a notoriously dangerous road, which requires the use of a 4×4 vehicle. This pass lies between the border controls of both countries and is approximately 9 km in length and requires experienced driving skills. It has occasional remains of vehicles that did not succeed in navigating its steep gradients and poor traction surfaces, and has a catalogue of frightening stories of failed attempts at ascending the path over the Northern Lesotho mountains. While South African immigration at the bottom of the pass prohibits vehicles deemed unsuitable for the journey, the Lesotho border agents at the top generally allow vehicles of all types to attempt the descent.

The South African border guard checked our vehicle and waved us off on our adventure. The road was rough gravel initially and we soon passed the sign forbidding further progress by non 4X4 vehicles. There was one other vehicle making the drive and as we rounded the increasingly steep bends I could see the white speck winding along the narrow road a couple of miles behind us, giving me some confidence that if I got stuck, or broke down I would at least have someone to assist me. The sun was shining, the views were amazing and we found ourselves stopping for photos whenever the road levelled off enough to give us confidence that we’d be able to set off again!

We eventually reached the famous section of a succession of hairpin bends with names such as Haemorrhoid Hill (2250m), Suicide Bend (2462m), Ice Corner (2775m), Reverse Corner (2880m) and Big Wind Corner. There was no chance of stopping here. Still in 4H, I engaged second gear and tried to maintain a steady speed as we bumped and bounced our way around the vicious curves. I’d been told that 20 years ago, it was necessary to do a 3 or 5 point turn to execute these corners, but the road has been widened enough to get round with full lock on the steering wheel.

Lesotho Border Sani PassLesotho RoadLesotho Road

The final section actually only takes a few minutes to negotiate, and eventually we lurched onto the plateau of Sani Top with the Sani Lodge hotel perched on the lip of the cliff, enjoying fantastic views over South Africa. We cleared the Lesotho border control and paused for a drink at what’s advertised as ‘the Highest Pub in Africa’ at 2874 metres. (Actually, its not as we later had a drink at Afriski resort at 3200 metres!).

After enjoying a performance by the local band (Kids using oil cans and a bucket for some Lesotho style drum ‘n bass),we got back in the Nissan to continue our journey through Eastern Lesotho, the roof of Africa.

We had no real expectations of the country as its one of the least travelled locations in Africa, but we were soon raving about the scenery. Rough, mountainous dirt roads and a proliferation of colours- tan, burgundy, dun,and a variety of greens. Villages of traditional rondavel huts, populated by smiling Basotho people, clad in blankets and wellington boots. No traffic, save for the occasional pack horse train or flock of sheep being herded by shepherds in balaclava helmets. Local agricultural practices of ox ploughing and hand hoeing, juxtapositioned alongside the occasional Diamond mine or engineering development, Chinese overseers managing local labour. A fascinating country and one which lends itself to independent self drive exploration.

DSC_0142DSC_0122DSC_0138

After 7 hours driving, we encountered a freak hail storm at 3000 metres and arrived at Afriski, where we would spend the night, to find the electric knocked out by the storm. The owners lit candles and served us a welcome Maluti beer, listening as we described our journey, and congratulating us on completing a drive that defeated Mr Boorman!

Some footage from the drive from DriverAbroad’s YouTube page -

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TA3jG-cuE2Y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1YQ81NSZdw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TA3jG-cuE2Y

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A Day Lost in Gang Tuo (China)

A Day Lost in Gang Tuo…

Stranded by a Blocked Road en-route from China to Tibet

By Peter Schindler

“Alright, let’s go and find a place for lunch. But let’s make it a quick one. We don’t wanna end up way behind in the queue,” I conclude after having considered for thirty minutes or more Jo’s suggestion that a meal would be a good thing by now.

We had arrived in Gang Tuo at 9:15 in the morning. Now it is 12:30. And no one has as yet any idea as to when we will be able to get going again. We had set out from Dege in northwest Sichuan. at 7am on our way to Changdu, our first overnight stop in Tibet.. We had reached the border between Sichuan and Tibet at 8:15 after crossing the Yangtze, already wide and deep here in its upper reaches.

Leading to the border, the valley was wide and the road excellently paved. A few hundred meters after crossing into Tibet, the situation changed dramatically, however.

We took a sharp right turn west and entered one of the narrowest gorges I’ve ever driven through. And at the bottom of this gorge the road was being reconstructed with all this entails in China – enormous potholes, slushy mud, rocks strewn about, roadwork implements going, stopping, swerving, making a living, and workers milling about. It took us 30 minutes to drive 7km, including fording a small river.

All in all, it had taken us two hours and fifteen minutes to drive 35km, one 10th of the distance to Changdu. We became just a bit concerned and depressed.After fording the river, the road turned right at the start of a small village called Gangtuo. With that right turn, we left the mud and bumps behind and instead found ourselves on a wide and perfectly even concrete road. All smiles, we accelerated and rushed right by a short line of parked trucks. As we approached the front of the queue of trucks, we saw a police car parked perpendicular to the road, effectively blocking it.

We slowed down, then stopped, opened the window and asked, “Ok to pass?”

“No, the road’s closed,” the officer said with a smile, but without adding even so much as a hint of an explanation.

“For how long?” we asked.

“Don’t know. Just got a call from up ahead to close the road. That’s all I know,” he replied.

“But, but…any idea as to when we can go again?” we tried to pry a bit more information from him.

“No,” was all he said.

We backed our car up to behind the line of trucks and told ourselves that, surely, it wouldn’t be long before we would be on our way again. Besides, it was a glorious day: the sun shone brightly, the sky was deep blue, and splendid mountains surrounded tiny Gang Tuo. “I suppose I don’t mind waiting here in the sunshine for a little while” I said to Jo. She agreed.

We spent the last three hours partly sleeping, partly reading. On occasion one of us trudged up to the head of the queue to see if the police had any news for us. Of the various non-committal replies we received the firmest was “I’m reasonably sure that you should be able to move on today.” Jo, being British, made tea and served up biscuits half-way through the morning. By 12:30 the soothing effect of this snack had began to subside and our stomachs made it clear that more was needed.

We get out of the car and lock it up. “Where do you think we should go for lunch?” I ask.

“I’ve got no ideas,” Jo murmurs. “Let’s just start walking and see what we’ll find.”

I saw no reason to object. Jo starts walking and I follow her along the dusty road, half wondering whether to hurry up in order to get back to our car as soon as possible, lest we miss our slot in the queue, or to forget about the wretched queue and uncertain road ahead altogether and simply to embrace cheerfully what the rest of the day would bring. I want to lean toward the latter, but can’t help but feel a tremendous sense of loss at spending these pointless hours in Gang Tuo.

There seems very little on this side of the road. We cross the forlorn road and keep walking past a few shack-like houses until we see, slightly recessed from the road, a wooden, two-story building with a sign saying “Gang Tuo Inn”.

As we approach and peer from the bright sunshine into the dark interior of the inn that one table is occupied with people playing cards with plates and chop sticks set out before them. They are waiting for lunch to be served.

“Can we have lunch?” I holler through the open, door-less entrance.
“Sure, sure, come right in and sit here by the window,” a young lady offered. Her name is Zhang Xueling as we find out later.

We do as she suggests. As our eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, we slowly make out more details. In the soot-covered kitchen, two elderly people are hard at work making lunch. The man deftly handles the wok with flames licking up to near its rim every time he swoops and swirls it. The woman, with her bent gait, cuts fresh-looking vegetables. Off in one corner, a television plays a British cartoon – Jo tells me that it was one of her favourites when she was young. In front of it sits a young man and two boys, their eyes glued to the moving pictures on the tube as if to extract hidden meanings from British humour.

The young lady takes our lunch order. We chat and wait some more. After the table of card players is served, the old folks in the kitchen begin to work on our order. When our Sichuan cuisine dishes arrive, they prove to be a bit too oily (as they almost always are in Sichuan since in this cuisine a good soaking in oil is used to soften the spices’ intense flavours) but are otherwise excellent. Mild, piping hot Chinese tea is also a nice change from the sugar-less English tea that carried us through the morning.

By the time we finish our lunch, the road is as closed and the police as tight-lipped as they had been all morning. We conclude that we would have to remain in Gang Tuo for a while longer. This, combined with a sense that the Gang Tuo Inn would be an agreeable time to spend the next few hours, makes us decide to drive our car from its slot in the queue over to a space in front of the Gang Tuo Inn.

Once the car is in its new place, Jo reclines in the passenger seat, picks up her book, begins to read, only to fall asleep shortly afterwards. I park myself on a low bench and lean against the inn’s wooden wall right next to its entrance. Then I continue to read my chosen book for this journey, The Ghost by Robert Harris. My heads-down time following the story of Adam Lang is interspersed by other small tasks such as responding to an incoming SMS or to my irrational urge to check email every now and then. (Yes, Gang Tuo, this forsaken place, has a powerful China Mobile signal.) But most of the time away from my book is taken up by observing the town and starting up conversations with people idling about the Gang Tuo Inn’s friendly atmosphere.

Two young girls – are they around 10 years old? I don’t know – amble by along the monotone-beige coloured road hand in hand, on occasion stealing a glance toward me and giggling. When I smile back at them, they turn away and giggle louder.

A Mitsubishi Jeeps trundles through town from the direction where the road’s closed. “Is the road open?” I hear someone ask. “Nah,” another replies, “just the ‘living buddha’ from the monastery over the hills.” “He and his buddies with all their undeserved privileges,” another opines.

On occasion a truck creeps up beside the queue of cars toward the police barrier. The first time I see this I wonder what the truck’s driver knows that we don’t. But it isn’t long until the truck comes down the road again reversing back to the end of the queue. Since the pattern repeats itself a few times, I conclude that despite the annoyance caused by the brazen truck drivers’ impatience – each misadventure kicks up a large cloud of dust – it is in fact of use to us since we learn the latest information about the road without us having to hike up to the front of the queue. The information varies from time to time: we can go by 6pm; we can go by 5pm; we can go by 4pm, is what they tell us. The trend seemed promising, but then comes a distressing outlier: we will be able to go when the road workers clock off. “And when is that?” we ask. “By 7:30pm”. We don’t even want to begin to think about what that would mean for getting to Changdu today or tomorrow or perhaps never ever. What a waste of time!

Giggling girls holding hands. Hopeless truckers reversing back out. One truck feeling even more tired than us.

Uncertain news interrupted by two copulating dogs stuck together – the act completed, one tries to walk off one way, the other in the opposite direction, but to no avail. Gangtuo is not without its charms. I return to reading my book.

When I look up again, the blue sky is now dotted by white, good-weather clouds. Some of them gather around the mountain peaks that ring Gang Tuo. A sizeable eagle circles overhead. The sun is strong. The air is sultry. I take off my fleece. A hitherto never-experienced feeling of timelessness. And I read some more.
While Adam Lang’s story unfolds on the pages of The Ghost, people begin to gather around me. To my right the young man who had previously watched the British cartoon with the two boys is now seated on the same bench. Diagonally across, a few feet away, a skinny, middle-aged man in a dark-brown shirt, grey pants and worn black shoes sits on a similar bench and observes me. Then a big shadow falls over my bench. It’s that of a big Tibetan guy approaching me from the left. He pulls up a stool, sits down, and, while addressing me, “Hey, boss,” bends forward, begins to stroke my forearm and then announces, “You’ve got a lot of hair, boss”.
Since this is not the first time this has happened to me in China, I look up and reply smiling, “I’m a Yak, you know”.

He thinks about this for a while, then begins to shake his head and declares with certainty, “No you’re not.” Somehow, this feels reassuring.

I begin to look the heavy man over. His round face is topped with a gruff bunch of dense hair. This rich growth extends via thick sideburns all the way down to his chin so as to ring his entire face with black-grey, hairy vegetation. In the middle of this ring sit two glowing, wide-open eyes, ruddy, pock-marked cheeks, and bloated swollen lips. From between these peek out strong, large, whitish-yellow teeth.

He leans forward and looks at me intensely. He rests the elbow of one arm on his knee. The monstrously large, muscular hands of the other arm clasp a small bottle of white liquid from which he takes the occasional swig. I look back at him. Both our stares dissolve into friendly smiles. While I am taken in by the man’s appearance, the other people around him, including Zhang Xueling who has meanwhile joined the crowed, seem to take no notice of him.

“Hey, boss, how old are you?” he suddenly asks me.

“I’m 49. How old are you?” I ask him in turn.

“I was born in 1963. I’m fifty,” he confidently replies. Since the year is 2009, something doesn’t seem to add up, but I want to get back to The Ghost, so I don’t pursue the matter. After a while, my Tibetan friend leaves.

“Fvck you” is the next thing I hear. Startled, I look up. The words came from the young man sitting next to me. He’s amused by my reaction. “You too must know a lot of Chinese swear words, right? Isn’t that the first thing you learn? We do,” he grins at me, entirely oblivious to how jarring a loudly pronounced “f’you” sounds to an English-speaking person. But never mind, he rattles off a few more pieces of evidence of his English language skills. When I acknowledge his linguistic talent with “That’s just great” he looks at me quizzically. “Zhen bu cuo” (真不错) I translate for him in Chinese. “Ah, I see” he replies.

I pick up The Ghost again and continue reading. I haven’t turned one page when I’m interrupted once more:
“Hey, boss, where are you from?” my Tibetan friend has returned.

“I’m from Switzerland,” I inform him.

He nods, thinks for a little while, then carries on: “You know, the world has 160 countries,” he declares, then pauses as if to wait for my acknowledgement. When I don’t say much, he continues, “And here in China we’ve got forty more.”

This jolts the crowd that has been half-listening in on our conversation. One man, the skinny, middle-aged man one with the dark-brown shirt, grey pants and worn black shoes, twirls his fingers near his temples and says “We all know he’s crazy.”
Ignoring the crowd’s consternation and references to his insanity, the Tibetan fellow adds, “But in the end, we’re all just people, aren’t we?”
“Hear! Hear!” I respond, thinking that he might not be so crazy after all.

“Do you have children?” my friend now asks.

“No, we don’t and won’t”, I reply.

“Ah, I see, you’re a Lama” he puts me into one of his pigeon holes. By this time he concludes that he’s finished with me and turns to Jo.

“How old are you?” he asks indelicately.

“Well, take a guess,” Jo challenges him.

He looks her up and down and finally announces, “Forty.”

Jo, being more than 10 years younger than that, objects and tells him how old she is.

“Of course, you’re face looks a lot younger, but you’re so enormously tall,” is how he explains his reasoning. Apparently in Tibet people keep growing taller well into adulthood.

Soon after, our friend walks off again without ceremony – no good-bye, no see you later, no waving of the hand. He just disappears.

After finishing washing her own car, Zhang Xueling, starts showering our car with a fat water hose while Jo and I sit in the car reading, the doors of our car wide open to let the stiffening breeze cool us down. As if on cue, our Tibetan friend appears again and closes both our car doors for us with a smile that says: yes, you want your car to be washed, but not its interior. That is pretty much the last we see of him.

Jo, having read enough for the day, then gets out of the car and helps Zhang Xueling wash our car. “I’ve never washed a car in my life, but today and right now, anything that will kill my boredom is worth doing.” I get off the car as well because without the doors open it is far too hot to bear inside. I rejoin the crowd of folks milling around the restaurant entrance.

The fellow who not long ago had made signs indicating that he thought our Tibetan friend is crazy seems eager to talk. “Where are you from?” I ask him. He says he’s from Chongqing. I mention that I’ve been there once before. “Well, I’m not exactly from Chongqing,” he corrects himself, “but from a small town nearby called Fuling.”
“That’s amazing,” I reply excitedly. “My friend here, she’s reading a book called River Town. It’s written by an American who spent two years in Fuling in the mid-nineties teaching English. It’s one of the most insightful books – written empathetically and sensitively – about life in rural China at that time. What a coincidence! ‘Hey, Jo, can you believe it?! Here’s a fellow from Fuling!’

Jo comes over and shoes him the book. He flicks through it, pausing at the chapter headings which refer to place names that come in two parts: an English translation along with the original Chinese. “I know exactly where this is. I’ve been there many times. And here, look” he points to a photo, “just around the corner is where I used to live,” he explains. He clasps the book and even though he doesn’t read a word of English studies it carefully, almost becoming misty-eyed at the few-and-far-between Chinese characters he picks up. He longs for his home. And we learn that he is a civil engineer whose been sent her to introduce better farming techniques to the local community.

“How long have you been here now?” we ask him.

“Several years” he replies curtly as if he doesn’t want to remember.

“And when will you get to go home?” I follow up.

“Next summer, on July 26th” he tells us, looking a lot brighter.

I recall Peter Hessler’s glum assessment of Fuling’s future in River Town. The Fuling that he had come to love during his two year sojourn was soon to be no more: the tide rising behind the newly finished Three Gorges dam would engulf it all. It was some years ago that I read River Town, but I do recall a strong undercurrent of regret in Peter Hessler’s otherwise even-handed writing. All this is coming back to me as I am speaking to the man from Fuling.

“So, how is Fuling now?” I venture to ask him.

“Oh, it’s just fantastic ever since we’ve moved to the new town in the late nineties.” And then he pauses for a while. “It wasn’t easy to move, but our lives in new Fuling are better than ever. The growth has been enormous,” he informs us cheerily and with more than a trace of pride.

Nothing is always quite the way it seems in China.
After a while, Zhang Xueling announces that she had made some vegetable and meat dumplings. Would we want to try some, she asks? It is 4pm already. We feel like eating again and welcome her offer. And what delicious dumplings they are!

Zhang Xueling is from Luding in Sichuan . She teaches young children there privately.

“And what does your husband do?”

“He drives for me,” she replies. By this she means that he shuttles her pupils from their homes to her school and back in the family’s minivan.

Once a year, they – she, her husband and their two sons – come to Gang Tuo to visit his parents who run the Gang Tuo Inn.
Zhang Xueling tries to collect foreign currencies. She has three by now: Hong Kong and Macau Dollars and a few Japanese Yen. She asks me whether I have some Euros or some Swiss Franks on me, but I don’t. Jo happens to have a Canadian Dollar in her wallet and gives it to her. Zhang Xueling beams as she inspects it. Her husband takes it to study it as well. When Zhang Xueling feels he’s fondled it for long enough, she takes it back with the words “She’s given it to me, you know.”

I tell her that next time we come to Luding we’ll bring her some more foreign currencies.

“No need, no need,” Zhang Xueling shakes her head and waves our offer away. A shy smile, however, betrays her excitement at the prospect of expanding her collection.

And then suddenly there is a commotion in the queue of vehicles that have been sleeping since 9:15in the morning. It is now 5:30pm. The word is that the road has re-opened at last. Hurried good-byes follow as we scramble to gather our belongings, rush to board our car, start it up and rejoin the queue. We depart as abruptly as we came to a halt in Gang Tuo eight-and-a-half hours earlier. Our arms stretch out of our car windows to wave good-bye to our good hosts. For a little while we see the man from Fuling and Zhang Xueling and her family waving as well. Then they disappear out of sight in the cloud of dust that is kicked up by all the cars rushing out of poor Gang Tuo. We roll up our windows and drive into the sunset and then the night. At 1am in the morning, we reach Changdu, our first destination in Tibet….

A few days later we arrived in Lhasa. While having dinner, I received an SMS. It was from Zhang Xueling. It simply read: “Hello”.

“Hello, have you arrived in Luding?” I replied.

“We’ve returned home. When you have an opportunity, please come to Luding and visit us,” she offered.

“We certainly will. I’m very happy to have made your acquaintance. We’ve just arrived in Lhasa,” I typed in response.

“You must be tired from all the driving,” Zhang Xueling replied, “I’m very happy to have met you, too. You’re great fun. You’re the first overseas friends I’ve made. I hope our friendship will continue forever.

A day lost in Gang Tuo? Now matter how improbable, each day can have its rewards!

Peter Schindler is the founder of www.ontheroadinchina.com one of the only companies to offer Self drive tours of China and South East Asia.

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Wouldn’t that be Something? (China)

Wouldn’t That be Something?

A Roadtrip through China, Laos and Thailand

By Peter Schindler

In October 2009, my wife Angie and I spent the Chinese National Day holiday travelling from Northern Thailand down the Mekong to Luang Prabang in Laos. At the start of the journey, our guide took us to a small hill from where we enjoyed a good view of the point where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos – the ‘Golden Triangle’ – come together. Near the summit we found a map of the Golden Triangle and its neighbouring regions.

“Look,” I said to Angie, “two months ago I was here,” as I pointed out to her the Xishuangbanna region that is part of southern Yunnan Province.

“So close, eh?” Angie mused.

Our guide explained that ‘Xishuangbanna’ is the sinicised version of the Thai word Sipsongpanna and means ‘twelve thousand rice fields’, while I told Angie how Xishuangbanna is the home of an ethnic minority called the Dai.

Angie ignored our explanations and instead pursued her own thoughts, “Very close… Xishuangbanna really is very close to the Golden Triangle, isn’t it?”

“Yep, I didn’t quite realise it myself,” I acknowledged, before continuing to share my knowledge with her: “The Dai’s spoken language is similar to Thai and their scripts are practically identical…”

Ignoring me, Angie pursued her own train of thoughts, “I wonder what it would take to drive from Xishuangbanna to here. I’ve read they’ve improved the roads recently. We could try it, no? Wouldn’t that be something?!” she suggested.

And with that the idea was born to explore a route from the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau in northern Yunnan down through Laos to Chiang Mai, and to see China merge into South-East Asia, turn by winding turn.

Fast-forward to April 2009, and Angie and I have just arrived in Zhongdian from Hong Kong. Nowadays Zhongdian is called ‘Shangri-La’ because the town’s enterprising mayor decided that the new name would be better for business. While ‘Shangri-La’ undeniably has more cachet as a destination than ‘Zhongdian’, I can’t bring myself to use the new name because this rapidly expanding town seems to fall far short of the promise of James Hilton’s paradise.

Whatever you wish to call it, Zhongdian/Shangri-La lies at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau at an altitude of 3,300 metres, and is the perfect starting point for our journey. On our journey to Chiang Mai, the capital of the old kingdom of Lanna, we will be driving through a wonderfully diverse range of landscapes and climate zones, from high plateau to tropical lowland.

On our first morning the sky is overcast and snowfall has dusted the hilltops. While eating breakfast we meet the hotel manager and tell her about our journey. Her eyes light up, “If you enjoy driving, then you must take the back road to Lijiang – let me show you…” I finish my toast in one bite and drain my coffee cup while Angie knocks back a motion sickness pill. And then we’re on our way.
The main road from Zhongdian to Lijiang is the G214, and is shown on my map as a thick red line. The road that we will take is shown as a single pencil-thin line, snaking between the two towns. The hotel manager was right – the road is incredibly beautiful, winding over high passes before descending to the Yangtze at Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Yangtze roars through a deep gorge under looming two thousand-metre high cliffs.

After arriving in Lijiang that evening, we wander the cobbled streets, bemused at the sheer number of people visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lijiang’s picturesque old town is justifiably famous, but mass tourism in the town has now developed to the point where UNESCO has considered revoking the ‘World Heritage Site’ status. Lijiang is certainly a sharp contrast to the pristine countryside that we had driven through all day, and will continue to drive through for the remainder of our trip.

From Lijiang we drive south along excellent highways to Dali, on the shore of Lake Erhai, and then to Kunming and south to Jinghong, the largest town in Xishuangbanna, along beautiful country roads.
By the time we arrive in sleepy Jinghong, with its palm tree-lined streets and Thai-style temples, it’s clear that we are on the edge of South-East Asia. The region’s main ethnic minority, the Dai, are indeed closely related to the Thais and in the countryside we drive past groups of sarong-clad Dai women with flowers in their hair.

In Jinghong we discover a lovely boutique inn overlooking the Mekong. With traditional wooden villas, amazing flower-filled bathrooms, and hammocks hung on the verandah we can feel ourselves relaxing and easing into the gentle southern pace of life.
From Jinghong we continue our drive on another wonderful road to the China–Laos border at Mohan, where we make a bit of history: we are, according to anyone we ask at the border, the first Westerners to drive a China-registered rental car across this border. What we take for granted elsewhere means making history here…

In Laos, Route 3 connects Bogen on the Laotian side of the border to Huay Sai on the Laos-Thailand border, running south-west across Laos. The 250 kilometre-long Route 3 has been recently rebuilt, and the modern road contrasts starkly with the villages it runs through, where the way of life has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
Later the same day we arrive at Huay Sai and take a rickety looking car ferry to Chiang Khong, the border crossing into Thailand. After a long day – driving in three countries and over 400 kilometres – Angie and I treat ourselves to a stay at the lovely Anantara Resort in the heart of the Golden Triangle.

The next morning, wholly refreshed, we drive back up to the map of the Golden Triangle which gave Angie the inspiration for this journey in the first place. We stand there awhile looking at the battered map in its rusty frame, before turning and gazing out at the lush green country around us, shaking our heads and agreeing “Now, that really was something…”

Peter Schindler is the founder of www.ontheroadinchina.com one of the only companies to offer Self drive tours of China and South East Asia.

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The Garden Route (South Africa)

Driving The Garden Route

By Jude Harley

George to Knysna

Probably the most famous drive in South Africa, and certainly the Cape, the Garden Route offers beautiful stretches of coastline, lakes, mountains and giant trees. The route is sandwiched between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma mountains and the Indian Ocean and although extremely busy in the peak summer season, is a lovely region to visit in the autumn when the weather is still warm enough for outdoors activities, especially hiking.

We joined the route at George (see Route 62 RoadTrip Tale) and made our way through the traffic to connect with the N2 from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. After the tranquility of the Klein Karoo, it was a bit of a shock to hit commuter traffic once again. Driving through the Kaaiman’s River Pass along the N2 to Wilderness and seeing the string of lakes I was already regretting my decision not to stay in this lovely area as it looked fantastic and an obvious spot for bird watching. Anyway, another excuse to return to South Africa. Sedgefield is the next village en route and another lovely place among the lakes and sand dunes. This whole area is quite sensational.

Knysna

We arrived in Knysna at around 5:30 p.m. staying on the Leisure Isle on the edge of the lagoon with views to the Knysna Heads. OK, so maybe this wasn’t a bad decision after all!

If you have read my previous postings about this trip, (A Nostalgic Visit to Cape Town and Route 62), you will have realised that I am no stranger to these parts of South Africa. Though saying that, I have also only ever stopped along the Garden Route once which was in Plettenberg Bay.

I have travelled along the Garden Route many times on account of living in the Cape Peninsula and having in-laws in the Eastern Cape. Except for a coffee and a brief stretch of the legs Knysna has always been a town that I have wanted to see more of, hence the reason to stop here on this visit. A town that has attracted artists and hippies as well as bird watchers (Knysna Loerie, Woodpeckers etc) and always been a popular tourist spot has grown since the 1970s with the addition of the new waterfront. I was determined on this visit to actually have a chance to look around the town, and I wasn’t disappointed.

After settling into our B&B we walked to the centre of the Leisure Isle to a restaurant called “The Tides” which has an extraordinary chef. Dinner was calamari, prawns and our first Dom Pedro! We were hooked. Forget Irish coffees from now on we wanted Dom Pedros (preferably the Amarula variety), which are basically grown-up milk shakes. Seriously you have to try one. Walking back from the restaurant we were struck by the fact that it was the first time on our holiday that we felt safe out walking at night, (this may have had something to do with the security guard at the entrance onto the island) and the fantastically clear sky with millions of stars above us. A perfect end to a fascinating day.

One other thing to add about South Africa is the load shedding, which means that on certain days and at specific times, there is no electricity. I can’t say that it affected us in any major way, but you have to get used to the idea that there may not be electricity when you want a shower, but hey, showering by candlelight is fun! Sometimes you may not get a cooked breakfast, and sometimes you will find traffic cops directing traffic through towns as the robots (traffic lights) aren’t operating, but on the whole it just adds to the fact that you are somewhere different. I am not sure how I’d feel if I was trying to run a business though!

A Lazy Day

After the effort of driving all day yesterday from Cape Town to Knysna, around 500 km, we decided to take it easy today. It started out fairly cloudy with a little bit of blue sky which disappeared over a perfect breakfast. We took a stroll around Leisure Isle to walk off the impressive breakfast and also to see if we could spot any birds. We did manage to snap a couple including a lovely tiny sunbird right in the garden where we were staying, we then drove into the town and to the Waterfront. We first went to the station to see if we could get tickets for the Outeniqua Choo Tjooe, the steam train that runs between George and Knysna, but unfortunately

all we could tell was that it didn’t appear to have been running for a while, as there were no signs of a timetable or any notice saying when the next train would be. We spotted a meter lady (lots of car parks in South Africa employ parking officers who take a fee for parking) and asked her if she knew what was happening with the train and she told us that it had stopped because of the flood. Another reason to come back – I have always wanted to do this train journey as the rails cross over the lagoon, pretty spectacular! We went for a stroll around the Waterfront instead, which has the usual souvenir shops and restaurants (but much, much smaller than CT) and by this time the sun had broken through the cloud and it was pretty hot.

(We found out later on in the trip that it was not running due to heavy flooding which happened seven months ago!)

After taking some photos of the lagoon, a very noisy duck, a heron and the Waterfront, we drove to Brenton-on-Sea, a place I had never heard about, and I’m not sure I want to share it either! To get there you go back along the N2 towards George, but immediately after the White Bridge turn off and go under the N2. Brenton has such a fantastic sandy beach with rock pools and unusual sandstone rock formations (similar to Kenton-on-Sea, which is a lovely resort east of Port Elizabeth and west of East London) at one end. You can walk along this beach to Buffalo Bay – which is a popular spot for surfers; it is around 7km return. As we were tired from yesterday’s driving we decided not to do the walk, but wandered along the beach for an hour or so anyway. Lovely views on the way back to Knysna. [Food note: On the Brenton road look out for Pembrey, a lovely country restaurant]

We returned to the lodge and whilst my husband had a rest, I went wandering in the lagoon which was now a sandy beach as the tide was out. This spot is fantastic for families and young children as it is so safe and the water is shallow and warm. I did get a bit wet when I waded through the shoreline and hit a shelf; the water went from calf deep to thigh deep! Oh, well, it’s only water.

We returned to the Waterfront for dinner at “The Dry Dock”. Food was OK, slightly “nouveau cuisine” so not a lot of it which was OK for us. I had a wanton vegetable melangee to start with followed by linefish, aubergine, avocado and grapefruit, and my husband had mussels and calamari followed by linefish with prawns. OK maybe we should have had oysters, as Knysna is famous for them, but unless they are cooked we actually don’t like them. Finished with Dom Pedro Amarula again – I told you, they can become addictive and I don’t even like ice cream! Oh, and did I mention the incredible sunset? The whole lagoon turned orange – beautiful!

Finished the day sitting outside our room listening to the sound of cicadas and the gentle lapping of the waves in the lagoon – so peaceful, I could get used to this.

For more info on driving the Garden Route see my classic roadtrips page.

And for info on driving and renting a car in South Africa see my page on the country.

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5 Days on California’s PCH (USA)

The California Coast Road from San Francisco to San Diego

(A Roadtrip Tale by Jude Harley)

The PCH (Pacific Highway) is one of those iconic drives that ought to be done in a pink Cadillac convertible with the top down making the most of the azure blue skies and brilliant Californian sunshine with plenty of Beach Boys and Mamas and Papas CDs on board. In reality this was February and an open top car was not an option. We ended up with the Chevrolet version of the Chrysler PT Cruiser with black tinted windows and the skies were gunmetal grey. Not the ideal start, but hey it felt good to be on the road.

Day One – San Francisco to Carmel

We began our journey in San Francisco and immediately headed southwest on to the Cabrillo Highway at Pacifica to follow it south to Monterey and Carmel – our first stop. This is not a long section, but it can take a long time, as there are plenty of scenic viewpoints to stop off at on your way down the coast and in the summer there are several roadside food stalls to entice you.

The section between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County is prone to periodic landslides and road closures and one stretch is known as the Devil’s Slide*. This particular stretch of road is very much like Chapman’s Peak Drive in the Cape Peninsula, South Africa, as it hugs a similar steep promontory with equally stunning vistas. We stopped at Half Moon Bay to admire the surfers and the beautiful beach until the rain sent us scudding back to the car.

*(This stretch of the Cabrillo Highway has since been replaced by a road tunnel).

Don’t forget to stop at the family run Duartes Tavern in Pescadero which is a little further south and only 2 miles off the state road; it is still run by the 4th generation of Duartes and home to the worlds most divine Olallieberry Pie, world famous Cream of Artichoke Soup, and Crab Cioppino. We, on the other hand have had a full breakfast there and no complaints. In this small town you can also find interesting craft shops, artichoke bread and a goat dairy. If you have the time a stroll along the Pescadero State Beach back at the junction with Highway One may bring you into contact with harbour seals among the sand dunes.

Passing through several State Beaches and State Parks the road becomes the Coast Road as you enter into Santa Cruz County. If you want to stretch your legs visit the Natural Bridges State Park or if you’re after more thrills perhaps pop into the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk where you can find the world famous Giant Dipper, the classic wooden roller-coaster which opened in 1942.

At this point the highway swings away from the coast and heads inland for a while before re-joining the coast at Moss Landing State Beach, another popular surf beach which is good for bird-watching too. Turn right at Jetty Rd and follow the road as it curves between the Elkhorn Slough estuary and the sand dunes.

Continuing south you pass between fields of artichokes, a Monterey County favourite and where Marilyn Monroe gained fame as the Artichoke Queen, before they change to mountainous sand dunes and the Monterey State Beach which is apparently the number one spot for kite-flying.

Californians will tell you that you “must” go on the 17 Mile Drive at Monterey, a scenic toll road through the Del Monte Forest that leads to The Lone Cypress, Seal and Bird Rocks, Fanshell Beach, Point Joe and the colliding currents of The Restless Sea. It all sounds very romantic. Along the way you pass through emerald green fairways of famous golf courses such as The Links at Spanish Bay, Spyglass Hill and Pebble Beach. You may see black cormorants, brown pelicans, California sea otters, harbour seals and sea-lions in their natural habitat and colourful native wildflowers among the preserved dunescape, or like us, you may not. I’m still not convinced it was worth the toll to drive around what is essentially a series of golf courses, but the coffee was good at the Pebble Beach resort.

We entered at Highway 68 Gate and exited at Carmel Gate to explore the much photographed fairy-tale cottages, twee teashops and boutique shops of the legendary artists’ colony Carmel-by-the-Sea. We didn’t spot Clint though (the Mayor in 1986-88). I recommend a visit to one of the great old Spanish Missions, San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo, second of the California missions founded by Padre Junípero Serra in 1770. Known as the Carmel Mission a visit to the grounds is like travelling back in time with the gardens equally as beautiful as the 18th century baroque church and three museums. It presents the complete quadrangle courtyard typical of mission architecture which is Moorish in design and the façade holds a star-shaped window directly above the main entrance. The gardens include culinary and medicinal herbs, citrus and olive trees, roses, Mexican sage and bougainvillea. It is an obvious attraction for artists several of which had set up their easels in the yard.

The Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey is iconic and if you get there early in the morning it will be people free. Allow a couple of hours to visit the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium, and apparently there are twenty golf courses in Monterey County so if you like swinging a club this must be paradise to you.

Either Monterey or Carmel is a good spot to stop for the night.

Day Two – The Big Sur

The route from Monterey to Morro Bay with its landmark Morro Rock is designated an All-American Road and is amongst the nation’s most scenic. This twisting coast-hugging 123 miles long road along the central coast takes about five hours to complete passing through the Big Sur and San Luis Obispo. It climbs higher than 1000 feet above the sea and beaches are generally hard to reach. The road is extremely narrow in places with hair-raising drop-offs to the Pacific Ocean so alertness is advised. In the wet and mist even more care should be taken and rock-falls or mudslides are not unknown.

We were heading for San Simeon at the southern end of the Big Sur where we had booked a tour at Hearst Castle, home to William Randolph Hearst the man immortalized by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, and an overnight stop at the Best Western Plus Cavalier Oceanfront Resort.  Three miles south of Carmel is Point Lobos State park with trails through Monterey cypresses that grow naturally both here and in Pebble beach. Continuing through the Carmel Highlands you reach the start of Big Sur which extends 90 miles to San Simeon. Having been told that whales* pass by along this coastline we peered optimistically through the windscreen in hope of seeing something in the mist and gloom, but not a hope in hell of seeing a whale, though possibly a cypress or two.

En route to Bixby Bridge, a much-photographed single-span arch more than 260 feet high and 700 feet long is the 11 miles unpaved Old Coast Road that ends in Andrew Molera State Park offering the most dramatic view of the bridge from behind. This road is impassable when it is raining, so we had to give it a miss. Bixby Bridge is important historically as it introduced automobile travel to the Big Sur. Just before Bixby is the Rocky Creek Bridge, another stunning bridge.

Crossing Bixby Creek the highway then climbs to Hurricane Point which is a place of high winds and big views before descending to the mouth of the Little Sur River. We can only guess at the ‘big views’ as visibility was becoming increasingly worse and unless you count viewing the road in front of us we could hardly see a thing. Sand dunes soon appeared out of the mist rolling towards Point Sur Light Station. At 19 miles south of Carmel it sits 361 feet above the surf on a large block of volcanic rock that was the site of several disastrous shipwrecks before the lighthouse was built in 1887-1889. It is the only intact light station along the Californian coast open to the public every Saturday. Each tour takes 2-3 hours and involves a steep 1½ hour hike each way with a 300 feet climb in elevation. Thankfully this wasn’t a Saturday so we didn’t feel obliged to stop.

Between Nepenthe – an indoor-outdoor restaurant perched 800 feet above the sea and famous for its views, though not today – and Deetjens you will find the Henry Miller Memorial Library – a place out of time like much of Big Sur – where you can relax among the redwoods and get a free coffee. Unfortunately it is not open in February so we continued to Deetjens, The Big Sur Inn, where we planned on having a late breakfast of Eggs Benedict with loads of fresh coffee. Deetjens is about 28 miles south of Carmel and a charming, offbeat place offering lodging in unique cottages strewn among the redwoods and oaks that clothe the land-side of the road. If you have the time I recommend staying in this area. There are more conventional places to stay plus several campgrounds and cabins and several State Parks with trails, fishing, waterfalls and even hot springs to explore. Having taken our fill of fresh golden eggs, spinach and ham, freshly squeezed orange juice and several free refills of good black coffee we headed off into the storms once again. Eight miles on is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with a short trail along the seaside bluff to see McWay Falls pour 100 feet into a picturesque cove. Ahead lay the southern stretch of the Big Sur. Here the road clings to the precipitous coastline and there are few settlements along the next 40 miles. If you have better weather than we had then stop off at Sand Dollar Beach or Jade Beach (south of Lucia and north of Gorda) then just past Ragged Point you come to hills and pastureland and in the distance you can see the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse on a point supposedly named in 1542 by the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo for its white rocks (stained with bird droppings).

We stopped at the Elephant Seal rookery before reaching San Simeon and saw several large bulls with their proboscises with hundreds of cows and calves. The males are very large and noisy and the way they charge around looking for a fight it is a wonder that any of the calves survive being squashed. Not far from here is the parking area for the five miles bus ride up to the very unique Hearst Castle begun in 1919 by newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. The hilltop castle set on 250, 000 acres is one of the most extravagant houses in the world. Guests included Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant and Charles Lindbergh. This outrageous home is known locally as ‘Enchanted Hill’

That evening we stayed close by in San Simeon which only appears to have hotels and little else, but the Best Western was fine, A pity it was still raining though as they have fire pits on the beach (the beauty of this hotel/motel is that is right on the beach). Still we had a wood-burner in the large room with patio doors out to a pool and hot-tubs and they also thoughtfully provide binoculars in the room and huge telescopes on the beach to view passing whales etc.

*California Grey Whales can be seen along the Big Sur coastline between December and April. December to early February they are migrating south; beginning February you can see them migrating back to Alaska with new-born babies by their sides and this is the best time to see them as they are moving slowly, because of the babies, and nearer to the shore to prevent attacks from Great White Sharks.

We were there at the right time of year for this spectacle, but visibility was against us.

Day Three – The American Riviera

A new day dawned with no rain, the sun was shining and there was a soft wind and all was good. We almost felt like abandoning our drive south and turn around to do the Big Sur again! But we had to be in San Diego in two days time so south it was. We went without breakfast as we planned on stopping in Cambria a small town further south to try and find these Olallieberry* pies we keep hearing about. We stopped off briefly at Moonstone Beach (in San Simeon State Beach Park) to watch what looked like Californian Condors swirling high above us before slipping off the Cabrillo Highway into Main Street Cambria where we found a small bakery and had our olallieberry* pies and coffees sitting on an outside terrace in the sunshine people watching. What could be better?

*(Olallieberries are a cross between a loganberry and a youngberry, which themselves are hybrids of raspberry, blackberry and dewberry).

Continuing south in the sunshine our spirits lifted. The coastal route was lovely and the views great, though the landscape is not as impressive as the Big Sur. A large rock loomed in the ocean to our right which turned out to be Morro Rock. The rock was named “El Morro” (Spanish for crown-shaped hill) by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and is the last of a line of long-extinct volcanoes from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay, known as the nine sisters. Whilst there it began to rain again so our walk around the base of this huge rock was cut short. Not many miles further on lies San Luis Obispo, the end of the scenic central coast road. I had aimed to stop off at the mission there, but missed any sign to it and ended up in the middle of a rather lovely looking, if somewhat damp, town. The rain was now falling heavily again, so much so that on reaching the three lane freeway 101 the wipers couldn’t keep up with the torrential rain and I was concerned that we’d rear end someone! The road here skirts past Shell beach and is virtually in the ocean, which is where I thought we might end up. Miraculously as we parted from the 101 back onto PCH at Pismo Beach, the deluge stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The road wanders through Guadalupe and Lompoc before joining the 101 again into Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara is known as the ‘American Riviera’. Lush, sun drenched and nestled in the gently rolling hills above the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is known for its Moorish architecture, colourful history and beauty. In one direction lie the Santa Ynez Mountains and in the other the Pacific Ocean, barely five minutes from downtown. It is a very popular place with holidaying Americans with its permanent summer and consequently is not a cheap place to stay. We stayed at the Inn by the Harbor, a motel about three blocks from the palm-lined beach. The motel was clean and basic, but not very attractive and being on the ground floor it didn’t feel very secure either, though far enough away from the notorious train station area to walk safely to the marina.

First we visited the Santa Barbara Mission, which is the 10th mission and founded in 1786 although the current building was rebuilt in 1925 after an earthquake destroyed the church. The mission with its twin bell towers and Doric façade is located on a hilltop overlooking the city and providing a spectacular view of the ocean. Unfortunately the missionaries who brought religion and trousers to the local Chumash Indians also brought influenza and smallpox that killed the 4,000 Indians who are buried in the mission cemetery

Later after a stroll along the Shoreline Park and Ledbetter Beach accompanied by a pretty sunset we headed for Chuck’s Waterfront Grill on the marina where we had the best steak we have ever had in California, with a couple of decent Mai Tai cocktails.


Day Four – The Road to Hell and beyond

Next day we set off for our final stop in Long Beach about 100 miles south. I was not looking forward to the final stretch of the journey – the free for all freeways of Los Angeles are notorious and to say I was nervous of driving there is no exaggeration. PCH merges with US Route 101 at this point for the next 54 miles and the traffic was intense.

Driving along the ‘Screaming Eagles Highway’ and then ‘Ventura Freeway’ we hugged the coast with great views of the ocean to the right and the Ventura Hills to the left with the lyrics of America’s “Ventura Highway” buzzing around our brains. Just after Ventura is Oxnard where the 101 and PCH part company again and passing a huge naval base we were back on the coast. Seeing islands close to the mainland, we subsequently found out about the Channel Islands Park that lies in the Santa Barbara Channel and Santa Monica Basin – the park encompasses five of the eight California Channel Islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara). You can get there by boat from Oxnard harbour and spend time hiking, kayaking, camping, photography, painting, bird-watching and snorkelling as well as looking for wildlife. I had never heard of these islands before this trip, but they look more than worthy of a visit if you are in the area.

Two sunny hours later and we reached Santa Monica on the outskirts of Los Angeles where the traffic was heavy on a late Sunday morning and somehow we missed the turnoff for the PCH which would have taken us through Santa Monica to Venice Beach, Malibu and Redondo Beach (and also under the runways at LA International Airport), but instead we found ourselves on the Santa Monica Freeway and the stuff of nightmares – 12 lane freeways with cars overtaking from the left and the right. Fortunately we managed to weave our way through the spaghetti onto Interstate 405 (the San Diego freeway) and then Interstate 710 (Long Beach freeway) to our destination in Long Beach harbour where the Queen Mary is berthed. This lovely grand ocean liner with its memories of old Atlantic crossings is a timeless art-deco masterpiece and a wonderful place for an overnight stay in staterooms with original wood panelling and artwork (and plumbing) and half the price of the grotty motel in Santa Barbara!

Unfortunately we were too late for the champagne Sunday brunch hosted in the first-class dining room (it finishes at 2 p.m.) So we spent the afternoon discovering the history of the ship on a very interesting self-guided shipwalk tour followed by a cocktail in the beautiful Art Deco Observation Bar listening to live music. Dinner was in the Promenade Café with views over Long Beach, watching brown pelicans swoop over the harbour and the lights come on along the shore. Later in our cosy stateroom you could almost believe you were sailing the ocean deep.

Day Five

Reluctantly we said goodbye to the Queen Mary thinking we really must try a cruise sometime and carried on our journey southwards. Locating PCH we skirted across the north of Long Beach before plunging south to the coast again. I heaved a sigh of relief. Much as I love driving I no longer enjoy big towns and cities and LA is one huge mother of a city!

We abandoned the car at Huntington Beach, a pretty surfer town just south of LA to meet up with a friend for breakfast. I had a half stack of pancakes with maple syrup – the first time I had tried the pancake option and I can only say how glad I was not to have ordered a full stack! Coffee was plentiful and the aroma of crisp bacon filled the air. Sugar Shack on Main Street has been owned by the same family since the 1967 and a place where you can dine with surfers coming back from “catching the waves”. Go there if you can for mammoth portions of the best breakfasts in California along with interesting surfing posters and surf boards in 1960s splendour and old family memorabilia.

After a brief walk around the pier and promenade in the much warmer SoCal climate to try and burn off some of those calories and appreciate the skills of more surfers, we continued along the coast to Capistrano beach near Dana Point in Orange County where the PCH ends becoming Interstate 5, the San Diego freeway. Shortly after lunchtime we drifted into the car rental place in downtown San Diego with only fumes left in the tank. Our journey ended with a sigh, ‘Surfin’ USA’ rattling around our heads and a reluctance to return to normality.

This journey can be done in a couple of days, but if you aren’t in a rush I recommend taking your time; the Pacific Coast Highway is an excuse for a long, lazy trip in the sunshine and if you drive from South to North as we did, you are all but in the ocean for most of the time – though choosing a less inclement time would be an improvement.

For more info on Driving the Pacific Coast Highway see my Classic Road Trip Page covering the same drive.

For more info on Driving and renting cars in California and USA check out my USA Page.

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The World’s Wildest Drive? (Botswana)

Driving in Chobe National Park, Botswana

“I think you are either very brave, or very crazy…maybe a bit of both?” The Frenchman looks me up and down, a puzzled half smile playing on his lips. I nod. A bead of sweat trickles down to the end of my nose. My trousers are coated in dust and my shirt sticks to my back, even though the early morning Botswana Sun has barely nudged the thermometer above 20 degrees.

I’ve been digging. Digging in deep, fine sand. Vainly trying to dislodge my 4 wheel drive vehicle from the deep sandy furrows in which it has come to rest, a large concealed rock having brought my slow progress to a grinding halt as my front axle came to rest upon it.

We had expected tough driving conditions when we planned the trip. We had rented a 4 Wheel drive Ford Ranger with rooftent in Livingstone, Zambia and crossed the border into Botswana to camp in Chobe National Park, a 50,000 square kilometre expanse of sandy flatlands populated by few humans and many wild animals. The 200 Kilometre drive from our first camp at Ihaha to Savuti had taken nearly 6 hours. 6 Hours of bone jarring driving on some of the most challenging tracks I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. For the most part I was trying to follow other vehicle’s faint tyre grooves in the sand but occasionally, these had been obscured by the harsh desert wind which called for a slow-down to snail’s pace as we tried to pick out the best route, avoiding deep sand which could strand us.

We saw few other vehicles, and on the couple of occasions we picked the wrong route and became temporarily stuck, it was hard to stop our minds straying to thoughts of the unfortunate Bullens. In September 2011, Mr and Mrs Bullen, a South African couple were travelling in the same area and became stranded in deep sand. After two days, and no sign of help, Mr Bullen set off walking to find help. His wife was found safe in the vehicle 3 days later. Mr Bullen has never been found. The risk of attack from animals always has to be considered. Therefore leaving the vehicle even for a few moments to remove stones or branches from the track requires vigilance and a rooftop lookout by your travelling companion.

So our journey became quite an adventure. But once we arrived at the camp sites and pitched our roof top tent, gathered wood and lit the vital night time fire, got the Brai fired up and a couple of steaks sizzling, we knew it was worth it. Sitting by the fire, with no one else around, a couple of cold Castle Beers in hand, gazing at the amazing celestial canopy spread above us was an unforgettable feeling. And the difficulty of reaching such an isolated and wild place made that feeling even better.

Lying in our tent at night, we listened to the sounds of the bush. Hippos snorting in the river a couple of hundred yards away, the hoot-hoot of a hyena, and the distant bronchial cough-growl-cough-growl of a lion meant that a sound night’s sleep was unlikely. I felt that I hadn’t even nodded off when I was awoken by the sound of thunder. A deep rumbling which seemed to increase, until realisation dawned that it was, in fact, getting nearer. I sat up and peeled back the fly screen. Peering into the milky moonlit night, I was shocked to see an approaching blur of flashing black and white. A herd of zebra, spooked and running for their life, dashed in panic around our vehicle. The lions were hunting.

In the morning, we set off to drive to our next camp and were forced to change route and back track. A family group of 10 elephants striding down the narrow sand road towards us. Two big adults, flapping their ears to show us that they had the right of way.

So we were now a couple of days into our adventure and were becoming more familiar with the terrain, though a deep, deep river crossing had dented my confidence, and my front bumper, as I panicked with the bonnet submerged and a bow-wave crashing on my windscreen, accelerating too fast to the far bank, which I hit with an unnerving thump.

We were up before 6, rooftent packed and ready to go. We wanted to see lions hunting and dawn is the best time to catch these daytime snoozers in a more lively frame of mind. There’s really no such thing as a main road in Chobe, but the track which leads from Savuti camp to the airstrip is probably the closest you get, in that its deep sand but usually with two or three sets of tyre tracks to follow. We’d bounced along this route a few times, and seen plenty of elephants (elephants are the Chobe equivalent of pigeons in the UK!), a good count of giraffes, and untold members of the antelope family (Kudu is my favourite –delicious with fries and barbecue sauce), but we hadn’t seen any big cats.

I therefore decided that our best bet was a detour on a minor track, which we thought was marked on our map, though with hindsight, we’d already discovered that the map seemed to bear little resemblance to real life.It helpfully had GPS coordinates for various points, though that was little use to us as we had no GPS tracker. The car rental company had never mentioned needing one, and I’d assumed that Chobe would be similar to Etosha NP in Namibia or Hwange NP in Zimbabwe –Well signposted tracks, difficult to get lost as all routes lead back to a well trodden route. Unfortunately that was absolutely not the case. Chobe is rough, wild and isolated. We saw very few other vehicles there, and it was easy to envisage how the Bullen’s unfortunate circumstance arose.

I reassured my partner that it was actually very difficult to get properly stuck. I demonstrated this on the occasions we ground to a standstill by patiently manouvering clear in 4L and a combination of 1st gear and reverse. The theory seemed to be holding true, until we encountered the concealed rock, came to a standstill, and I compounded the problem by spinning the wheels in the soft, deep sand, thus burying us even deeper.

And so after 20 minutes with me under the vehicle , trying to dig us out, my partner on the roof scanning the scrubby brush for the lions we now hoped not to find, it began to dawn on me that there was no easy way out of this. We’d bitten off more than we could chew and were stuck. The sun was rising, we were on an isolated track, well away from any camp or lodge, and we could be looking at a long stay. We had enough food and water to last around a week, but 7 days stuck here wasn’t a prospect I was relishing. There were bushes with green leaves not too far away so I was already formulating a plan to get a fire going to generate some smoke signals , when we both stopped and looked at each other. A distant sound breaking the silence. Animal or human? Definitely an engine. Car or plane? I stood dripping in sweat, willing it to be another vehicle.

My prayers couldn’t have been fulfilled in a better fashion- not one vehicle but 3. A convoy of Swiss/French travellers who had roared into our camp after dark and against the rules, the previous night. Our relief must have been evident, and we struggled to maintain our reserve- English people don’t do hugs and back slaps after all!

They were experienced 4 wheel drivers and regular visitors to Botswana. After hearing we had no GPS, Sat Phone or distress beacon, Jean-Claude gave me his ‘brave or crazy’ judgement, but later admitted that on his first visit to the country they had experienced a similar fate to us. They had been trapped in deep mud for 4 hours until someone rescued them, and they vowed at that point never to visit again without a back-up vehicle. They duly towed us out and invited us to join their convoy- replete with tow ropes , a GPS and wine and cheese for a wild picnic lunch, which was disturbed by an invading elephant!

Chobe is an amazing place, and a DIY safari, apart from being a fraction of the huge cost of an organised version, is a real test of your resources and sense of adventure. I have some amazing memories and a host of tales from the trip. However, with hindsight, I would agree with my French rescuer –If you drive in Chobe as a single vehicle, you have to accept the very real risk of being stranded. Therefore , my advice would be to factor into your trip the cost of a GPS and some sort of distress beacon or tracker. We were lucky and got away with it, as Mr and Mrs Bullen showed, not everyone does.

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At Your Service!(Worldwide)

At Your Service-(Unusual roadside services around the world)

When driving in much of Europe, USA, Australia, South Africa…in fact most parts of the world with a well developed transport infrastructure, a stop at a motorway service station is usually a tedious experience. Bathroom facilities of varying degrees of cleanliness, overpriced pre-packed or stagnating food and indifferent levels of service mean rest stops are usually a necessity rather than something to look forward to.

However, they serve a purpose – to provide food, gas, washing and often lodging facilities to travellers. We may complain, but after travelling by car in the developing world, it can be a relief to step into that air conditioned environment with piped music and semi- civilised staff on the way home from the airport.Roadside services in many countries of the world stretch the word ‘service’ to its limits, though a visit to one of these outlets can be one of the most interesting elements of driving abroad.

Topping up your tank is obviously a necessity, but buying fuel away from main urban areas can be a major challenge.I’ve driven in countries where the ‘chain’ petrol companies are none existent. Gas comes from an ancient, creaking pump at best, and a watering can at worst.There are few more terrifying experiences than watching your rental car get topped up with a bucket of evil looking liquid by a grinning local who obviously hasn’t got a clue what ‘unleaded’ is. In Eastern Europe in particular, pumps are seldom marked in a way which allows you to see what fuel they dispense.

If you also have a car which doesn’t even give an octane rating on the petrol cap, as I did in Armenia, you really are in trouble. I resorted to writing ‘94’ in the dust on the rear window and pointing manically at it when trying to explain what gas I needed. The variety of home made petrol dispensing devices on offer across the world is mind boggling.

From pop bottles in Asia to more sophisticated and lethal looking mechanised devices in North Africa, there’s no end to the ways in which vendors fill up your car and ,hopefully, send you on your way.

One of the most obvious sources of commerce by the roadside is the selling of food.Drivers on long journeys will get hungry and often won’t have time to stop at a restaurant for a full sit-down meal. (a Goat and chicken banquet ain’t quick…)

Therefore roadside stalls spring up offering all manner of local delicacies. If fresh meat is what you fancy, look no further than this roadside barbeque in Ghana. The stall holder and his friends were roasting a variety of bush meat. The rifles propped up nearby told verified how fresh the snacks on offer were.

Sometimes its probably best not to look too closely at whats being sold as with this lady in Madagascar, who was trying to tempt passing drivers with a couple of nice, plump rats!


Fresh crabs are popular around the world too, often sold alive and wrapped up in string as demonstrated by this young entrepreneur in Brazil.

An array of local fruits and vegetables lines the main routes of most countries and even if you’re not peckish provides a colourful backdrop to your journey. The ladies manning the stalls are usually up for a chat and joke with a passing stranger too.

This peanut seller in Madagascar used nature to display his wares and attract drivers with multiple bags of  produce swaying in the breeze on well placed tree branches.

Mushrooms were the food on offer from these shifty looking characters in the old Russian Republic of Georgia, though their demeanour suggested they were actually selling something more sinister…I was tempted to look a bit closer to what was hidden in those buckets!

In Africa, the merchants take proactivity to the extreme. They work on the basis that drivers may not stop to buy from them on main roads. They therefore congregate anywhere traffic is slowed down to offer a startling selection of wares. I’ve seen everything from towels to board games, dog leads to ironing boards, hats to shoes. Impulse buying must be a trait of African shoppers as they crawl along in traffic before suddenly deciding ‘What luck! I’ve been meaning to buy a Colonel Ghaddafi commemorative calendar all week, and heres a chap offering to sell me one!’

The vast range of services on offer may baffle many travellers in Africa and Asia– looking for a hair cut and a video rental? Look no further! …but also a drive in Pawn and ammo shop in the USA perhaps seems strange to Europeans.


Toilet facilities aren’t readily available in many parts of the world, so hats off to whoever decided to site this public convenience in the middle of the desert in Tunisia.


Of all the pictures I’ve taken of shops, stalls, vendors and produce on the road, this is always the most poignant for me. These little boys were selling wooden ornaments in Mozambique. We stopped for a chat and a picture, and those few moments pause, caused us to miss a bad accident just further up the road (read more on Chance Encounters Roadtrip Tale).

That was just one case that re-enforced my view that  its well worth taking the time to stop and take advantage of the many roadside services on offer when driving abroad.  Its a great opportunity to meet local people , have a chat, take some photos and maybe even buy something from them…though maybe give the rat kebab a miss!

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An Englishman Abroad (Moldova)

Driving in Moldova

An Ex-Pat Drivers Tale, by Ian Tyrrell

Moldova, an interesting if small country set between Romania and Ukraine. Small but perfectly formed. I have been living here for 10 months now and will most likely stay for another couple of years at least.

A bit of background, I first came to Moldova in March 2011. I looked at hiring a car as I was going to stay for a few months while I got things sorted out with a job I had been offered. But on arrival I thought that this would not be the best option, I was told that public transport here was quite good, if a bit crowded. The ‘good and a bit crowded’ turned out to be some false statements. The transport is regular, but not always in the best condition, and a bit crowded was a major understatement. However this is not about the public transport here, it is about driving.

After completing my two months of negotiations I returned to the UK, planning to come back in late August. After much thought I decided to return by car, I will write about that journey in another piece. So to cut a long journey short I arrived at the border of Moldova on the 27th August 2011. This was the start of an interesting 10 month driving experience.

The border guards were quite pleasant; they searched the car, not so easy when you have most of your life packed in there. All the bags had to be taken out and checked, manually – no scanners here, which took about an hour. Not a major problem, I was in no great rush. However, they then checked my insurance and it seemed I did not have the correct type for Moldova. This meant I had to park the car and go and sort out local insurance, they sell it at the main border posts, although it is more expensive than buying it in a major city (15 days cost about 8 pounds) and I was told if I wanted to stay longer I would have to get new insurance. With this completed I was free to go, as I had crossed the border at Sculeni, I had some 128 Km or 2 Hours driving to go.

The main road was not too bad, the weather was good and I could see the holes in the road, there are a lot of them. So began my driving experience. Driving to Chisnau I kept to the main roads, I had no GPS and so was using the road sign for guidance. This is not so easy as they are few and far between, even major junctions may be unsigned, so you have to take pot luck. But it is a fairly straight route and so I had no problems there. The road surface however was another issue, at best it was uneven and worst there were the holes. Beware of the level crossings, they are like giant speed bumps and the rails stick out about 3 – 5 inches above the road surface. The first one caught me unawares, I was doing about 60 km/h when I almost took off, thankfully no damage was done, but I did stop to check.

My next stop was Chisnau, here the roads in the city got worse. I had on my first visit seen a sign at the entrance to the City, it read “Welcome to Chisinau, the home of broken roads”. This statement is so very true.

The roads here are in a very bad state of repair, although something is now been done about this, there are large holes, even on the main roads and the side roads are no more than tracks. The roads have bumps and dips in them, even the bridges and this makes driving here interesting. My first days here were spent learning to watch how the other drivers drove, so I could avoid the worst of these. A tip, follow the car ahead, if the swerve, then do so. However the main roads are wide enough, for this not to be a problem.

More experiences of driving in Moldova to follow….

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Chance Encounters (Worldwide)

One of the great pleasures of driving yourself abroad is the ability to get off the well trodden tourist trail. I like nothing better than arriving in a small village in the middle of nowhere which doesn’t appear on the map. Approaching a group of elderly locals sat in the village square, map in hand, uttering unintelligible words in a strange language, the lost driver abroad is usually regarded like a visitor from another planet! These encounters usually end in confusion, but with smiles,handshakes, embraces and an occasional toast of the local firewater. If the locals are willing, I usually try to snap a photographic momento of our chance encounter.

In years to come, I meet those locals all over again as their faces grin back from my PC screen , and I’m left wondering whether they ever remember the day that a strange foreigner in a small rental car happened to land in their tiny village.I’ve enjoyed roadside encounters across the world, and as I sit looking at my computer screen in England, I’m instantly transported back to the time, place and circumstances when my life, and that of a random person in a distant land, collided for a few brief moments. I look at those faces and wonder what that person is doing at this moment? Whats happened in their life since our paths crossed and how different is their life to mine?

Sometimes, the photo records a brief roadside direction-seeking exchange. (Though these are rarely actually brief, as documented in ‘The Art of Being Lost’ Road Trip tale) Sometimes however, the photo conjures up a more poignant memory. These two little boys remind me of a close call on a road in Mozambique. In fact, these boys may have saved my life. We were travelling on a dusty road near Inhambane and our attention was attracted to something bright, blowing in the breeze in the red scrubland to our right. We slowed down and saw a wood hut selling ornamental wooden mobiles. Miles from nowhere, and being sold from a tumbledown wooden shack, the bright objects presented an incongruous sight. We stopped the car and the two shop assistants appeared, in the form of the two young brothers pictured. They seemed a little apprehensive but we admired their wares and they posed for a picture. As I clicked the shutter, a pick up truck sped past with two teenage boys in the flatbed, clinging to the roof. We showed the little boys their image in the viewfinder to the usual delight of children the world over, and got back on our way. After driving for a couple of minutes, we saw locals running up the road ahead and spreading tree branches in the road- a sure sign of an accident in Africa. We rounded a bend to see a head-on collision between the pick up truck and a saloon car, which seemed to have approached the summit of the hill in the centre of the road. The two teenagers had been thrown from the flatbed of the truck, and though conscious, both were badly injured. We stopped to help and I couldn’t help cringing as I imagined the impact on our small hatchback, had we arrived at the hilltop a couple of minutes earlier…

Also in Mozambique, we came across these kids playing in a muddy pool by the roadside. Encouraged by their older playmates and by the presence of our camera, these two boys rolled and wallowed in the mud like a couple of baby hippos before emerging for their photo opportunity!

Local hospitality is often offered to the visiting stranger and these two old chaps were already well into their bottle of vodka when I stopped to ask directions in Ukraine. Their fire engine red eyes and florid noses ,slurred speech and potent breath told me they wouldn’t be much use at direction finding, though they were keen for me to join them in a toast…or two, or three. Not wishing to appear stand-offish I downed a small glug of the firewater, but had to decline a second. After all I had to drive…and it was only 9 o’clock in the morning!

I encountered this old couple in the countryside of Moldova as they tended their cattle by the side of one of the countries main roads. We had no shared language but I was able to make them aware of where I was from , and the old man nodded approvingly (I generally run through the full range of translations – Inglaterra, Angleterre, Engleska, Anglia…until someone shouts Ah! David Beckham!). We admired their cattle, pointed out our destination on the map, and asked if we could take a photo. The husband was keen but his wife less so, obviously telling him that her cattle herding clothes weren’t her best outfit, but he persisted and pulled her towards him. Even though we couldn’t understand a word of what they said, his message was clear as he put his arm round her – “You’re beautiful to me, whatever you wear”. She blushed and he beamed with pride and we were left marvelling at how love can survive around 50 years of a hard life in Eastern Europe.

Another old couple we encountered had no such reluctance for a photo. We encountered them in the countryside near Aleppo in Syria and stopped to ask directions. The old man pointed out the best route on our map with its helpful dual Arabic/Roman Alphabet lettering, and I could see him eyeing my digital SLR camera. I let him examine it- clearly he was an enthusiast, and it was only natural I ask if he wanted a photo. He smiled and carefully arranged the Kufiya on his head. Following suit, his wife also arranged her headware for the photo, only in her case it was a bag of groceries rather than a traditional Arab head dress!

Another example of living a hard life in a harsh environment was demonstrated by this extended family in Namibia. We’d been driving for hours on empty, dusty roads when we saw a dust cloud in the distance. We caught up the cloud after about 20 minutes and saw a Grandma and Grandpa with their grandchild and all their possessions on a cart pulled by a team of mules. They told us they were moving house – a distance of 40 miles, and having no access to a vehicle, were making the journey on their old cart. They were happy to stop for a rest and a chat before we both set off on our respective journeys again. We sped away in our VW Polo but they soon caught us up as we blew a tyre a couple of miles down the road!

This photo is guaranteed to elicit a chorus of ‘Aaaah’ from anyone I show it to. We were sat in a queue of traffic waiting for a landslide to be cleared in Guatemala and the enterprising locals in a nearby village saw the opportunity to sell some of the fruit from the orchards. Children were despatched with baskets to the line of waiting vehicles. Most approached their task with enthusiasm, but either this little chap was too shy to engage the passing strangers or he had something better to do that morning. His sad little face at the window, woollen hat covering his ears against a chill misty morning, takes me back immediately to that traffic jam in the Central American Highlands.

One of the problems with getting lost while driving abroad is that you never want to admit to yourself that you’re going the wrong way. Therefore you continue to forge ahead, on a rapidly deteriorating road, trying to convince yourself that you’re going the right way. This can go on for miles, until you finally come across the incontrovertible truth in the form of a dead end, a cliff edge or some other insurmountable blockage. On the day we became lost in the mountains of Bosnia, the truth finally dawned at the end of a long, bumpy, muddy track which ended in the front yard of a farm house, high in the hills, miles from anywhere. Not surprisingly, the family appeared, open mouthed and confused as to why two foreigners had just driven into their garden. We spread out our map, and they laughed, shook their heads and pointed back the way we’d just travelled and over the next mountain. They then invited us into their house where they fed and watered us before sending us on our way. I’d love to visit them again but has their house was on an unmapped road, I know I would never trace them again and they are destined to join the multiple strangers in my photo albums, who I met for only a fleeting moment.

It’s the random nature of these encounters when driving abroad that I enjoy. The circumstances which led these strangers and me to the same place in the world at the same time. Though our lives are very different, and our thoughts, opinions and concerns will never coincide, we shared a brief moment on a dusty road and recorded that with a photo. I have no way of knowing whether any of these people remember me, but I’d love to think that someone, somewhere will one day will have cause to Google ‘DriverAbroad.com’, and find a roadside picture of themself smiling back from the screen!

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The Art of Being Lost (Worldwide)

Mazeophobia. Whilst not quoted in medical dictionaries, an internet search tells us that the word denotes a fear of getting lost. Safe to assume then, that no Mazeophobics will be users of DriverAbroad.com, as getting lost is one of the only certainties facing drivers abroad. No matter how skilled your navigator’s map reading skills, or how sophisticated your sat-nav is, there will come a point on your travels when you realise you haven’t got a clue where you are. To some, this is a mild irritation, an inconvenience which slows down your progress and eats into valuable sight- seeing time. To others, getting lost is one of the great joys of independent travel in a strange country – a chance to challenge your powers of recovery, meet the locals and maybe demonstrate your skills in the art of mime.

I fall firmly into the latter category. Getting lost whilst driving abroad, to me, is as much a part of the journey as dodging donkey carts and having dubious fuel poured into your tank from a bucket at an ‘unoffical’ gas station. Getting lost pushes you firmly out of your comfort zone and into the unknown, forcing you to rely on the kindness, and navigational skills of the locals.

Kindness is never a problem in my opinion, and whenever I’ve found myself hopelessly lost, wherever in the world I am, I’ve always found that local people are more than willing to stop what they’re doing and point me in the right direction. What’s often more of a challenge is their navigational skills. Often, it seems that the map I’m waving in front of their confused face is the first they’ve ever seen. On more than one occasion, I’ve watched as a passerby knowledgably traces a route with their finger whilst silently mouthing local place names…whilst holding the map upside down!

The most common cause of confusion is maps with place names written in different alphabets, particularly in Eastern Europe. I always attempt to buy a map with place names in both Roman alphabet letters and the local version of squiggles and shapes. If you only have a map with Roman lettering you may as well leave it in the glovebox it in most of Eastern Europe! Ukraine is one of the most confusing countries in terms of place names on maps and signs. Take the City of Chernivtsi – depending on where you bought your map it could be described as – Чернівці,(Ukrainian) , Czernowitz (German), Cernăuți (Romanian), Черновцы́ (Russian) or even טשערנאוויץ (Yiddish). The fortunate coincidence of a map written in lettering your passerby recognises and that person being able to read a map is very rare in my experience!

Street signs are also a major challenge when written in an alphabet you don’t recognise- Even if you can’t pronounce place names correctly, you can have a good attempt if they’re written in your own alphabet. However, written in a different alphabet and you’ll struggle. Would you guess that a sign saying 東京 is directing you to Tokyo? What about a Sri Lankan road sign in Sinhalese? Would cඔලොම්බො be directing you towards the Capital or to the beach? That’s another good reason to have a dual alphabet map, though even with one, you’ll still need to slow down at a junction to decipher the symbols!

Aside from language difficulties, I’ve found that people’s urge to help can often be a major hindrance. In many countries, saying that you can’t help would be an unthinkable insult to the traveller. The local you’ve consulted will therefore confidently point you in the right direction, whilst repeating the name of the place you’re aiming for. This could mean they understood perfectly what you asked them and correctly pointed you on your way. Unfortunately, it may also mean that you mis-pronounced the name of the town completely, that they failed to understand a word you said and pointed randomly anyway. I once made a circuit of Lake Sevan in Armenia after checking my location with a local on the outskirts of town. “Sevan, Sevan” he repeated, nodding his head and pointing back down in the direction from which we’d just arrived. Against my better judgement we turned round and headed in the wrong direction round the lake, into a run down post-industrial shanty town. Feeling gloomier with every advancing mile of abandoned factories and the shells of never completed hotels, we suddenly spotted the famous church on a hill overlooking the glimmering waters of the lake…unfortunately the town in our sights was at the other side of the lake, around 20 miles back in the direction we’d just come from! If making a major directional decision, my advice is to ask two separate locals, If they confidently give the same answer you should be Okay to proceed. If they don’t, further investigations are needed. If multiple passers-by give different answers, you may need to go with the majority ..or the ones who sounded most certain, and least lost!

The art of mime is an invaluable asset to a lost self driver abroad. Left turns, right turns, hills, tunnels, cross roads – all are easy to mime for travellers experienced in the art of getting lost. Airports, beaches, lakes, castles and markets are somewhat more of a challenge. Probably my best mime was to demonstrate a railway level crossing to a Romanian policeman near Bucharest. He fixed me with a steely glare and never gave a hint of a smile as I ‘choo-choo’d’ my way past him in the style of a steam train under the watchful gaze of a group of hideous truck- stop hookers. He pointed back down the road and a sharp right after the level crossing and we were on our way….

Perhaps it’s the prospect of an impromptu mime act or just the unusual sight of a stranger in town, but stopping to ask directions tends to draw a crowd in a small town. Many is the time I’ve stopped to ask a solitary passer by directions. We go through the usual sequence of mis-pronounced names, puzzled looks, maps upside down, scratched heads and furrowed brows. By now, other locals have noticed that something unusual is occurring and they begin to wander over. They exchange opinions with the first passer-by, furrow brows, have a turn at holding the map upside down, and summon a friend. And so it goes on. Until a great crowd of puzzled, chattering locals surrounds the lost driver, all trying to be helpful and all pointing in different directions!

The key to handling being lost is not to panic. Most accidents are caused by a last minute change of direction. A shouted “left, right…no left, straight on..no right!” from your navigator as you approach a junction sends you swerving in multiple directions. A recipe for a collision. Pick a road as you approach and stick to it. You can always turn round and retrace your steps if needed.

Also, a bit of pre-planning goes a long way. If you know you will have to negotiate a City Centre, with one way systems, dead end streets and mysterious signs, it’s a pretty sure bet it will end up with you being lost. And being lost in a City is not the same as being lost in the countryside or a small town. It will invariably end with you and your navigator almost coming to blows as the normal stress caused by City driving is multiplied tenfold.

If you pick up a rental car in the City Centre, ask the rental company if they’ll drive you to the outskirts or to the major road you intend to take out of town. Most will oblige for nothing or may just charge you the bus fare back to the office for their employee (small locals firms are more likely to do this than the big multinationals.) If you’re heading into a City Centre, ask for some expert assistance. Flag down a taxi and explain where you want to go, then point at your car, and mime to the driver that you’ll follow him. (I told you the art of mime is important!). What’s also important is that you convey that you want him to drive slowly (the standard mime for ‘slowly’ is a slow downward swipe of the hand with fingers outstretched). I’ve had some hair raising, car chase style encounters while following taxis. In Buenos Aires once I became convinced that the driver had forgotten our arrangement and thought I was an assassin tailing him. Faster and faster, he accelerated and swerved across 6 lanes of traffic with me frantically trying to keep up with him. He seemed genuinely disappointed when we arrived at our destination and I was still close behind, sweating, shaking and cursing my luck at picking a frustrated formula 1 driver to follow.

So, you see, any Mazeophobics amongst you have nothing to fear when driving abroad. Look upon being lost as a unique opportunity to challenge your linguistic and navigational skills, see places other travellers never see. And potentially do a mime act for a whole group of mesmerised villagers!

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Driven Round the Big Bend (USA)

Our car shuddered to a standstill beside a wooden sign on a deserted West Texas road. “This is Bear and Mountain Lion Country”, I read as I stepped from the car into the shimmering mid day heat. We’d been heading through Big Bend National Park towards the Texas/Mexico border, to a town called Lajitas which boasted a beer swilling goat called Clay Henry as its mayor. Unfortunately as we rounded a bend I was faced with a rock slide in progress and totally misjudged the clearance of my rental car, opting to try and drive over the bouncing debris. There were a series of sickening thuds and bangs which caused my partner and I to cringe, and the car to grind to a standstill after around a hundred yards, with an alarming flow of unidentified liquid pouring onto the road surface.

We both looked under the car at the damage, then at the Bear and Mountain Lion sign, then down the long straight road ahead of us. On average we’d been passing another vehicle about every half an hour and we were around an hour’s drive from our isolated hotel. Around ten miles back down the road, we’d passed a small garage at a cross roads, with a sign which read ‘This shop protected by a sawed off shot gun 3 days per week. You guess which days’. We’d also seen a handpainted sign pointing to the hills reading ‘Ghost Town Road’. That was the only sign of life and it looked like we could be waiting for some time to be rescued.

After about 20 minutes,with my partner berating me for my lack of driving judgement as we sat in the now roasting car, the air con having failed with the engine, I notice a speck on the horizon, tailed by a large dust cloud.”Told you we wouldn’t wait long”, I said, trying to sound optimistic. It took around 10 minutes for the speck to grow into a battered white pick up truck, driven by a Grizzly Adams lookalike with a long grey beard. “I’m the mailman” He announced and opened the cab door for my partner to get in. I jumped in the back and we set off back towards the crossroads.

While I clung on for dear life as we bumped along the road, the mailman informed my partner that he was completing his deliveries on a round which stretched over 80 miles, yet comprised of only a few isolated dwellings. He dropped us at the garage and a bespectacled middle aged mechanic emerged wearing a baseball cap but thankfully not carrying his ‘sawed off shotgun’. We explained our plight and asked if he could recover our stranded car. With a flourish he hauled open the double doors of his garage to reveal his tow truck, on blocks, without any wheels. Clearly the answer was no!

Archie the mechanic suggested we call the rental company and we were eventually put through to the nearest outlet, In Midland, which was about 250 miles away. It took us some time to convince the rental company clerk that there was no Chevrolet dealership nearby who could recover the vehicle, and that in fact there was very little at all between our location and where he was, around 5 hours drive away. He agreed to send a vehicle transporter which would recover our car and deliver a new one, though providing an address was something of a challenge – ‘From the crossroads, over a hill, round a bend, through a rockslide, along the road a few miles, by a sign. Yes the sign says something like ‘Beware of Mountain Lions…’

‘Mount-ain Li-ons…’ spelled the clerk. ‘Perfect! He’ll be there in about 5 hours. Hopefully before it gets dark… But probably not.’. Which left us about 40 miles from the hotel with no way of getting back there. ‘Try the Ghost Town’ suggested Archie, pointing us into the distant hills. ‘A Few of the people who live up there have no water so they go to the hotel to fill up. You might get lucky.’ And so we set off into the hills under a blazing sun, remembering the Mountain Lion sign and jumping at every snapping twig.

Eventually we arrived at Terlingua , a 1930’s mining town which was abandoned to the desert only to be reclaimed by a hardy bunch of artists, musicians ,loners and eccentrics. Today, Terlingua boasts a couple of eating options, some shops and lodgings and a world famous Chilli cook-off, but this was over 20 years ago , and as we trudged, sweating into town we were greeted by the site of a graveyard with tumbledown tombstones, a few scattered dwellings in various states of disrepair…and the Starlight Theatre. An incongruous sight in this far flung corner of Texas, the Starlight had once provided entertainment for the miners and their families. Now it had been converted into the Ghost town’s only bar, and its appearance was so unexpected I almost expected it to fade, mirage like, from view as we approached.

There are some meals that stick in your memory. Sometimes because of their quality, but often because you were so hungry that whatever you ate would seem like a sumptuous banquet. Similarly with drinks. On an occasion where your mouth is parched and dry and you feel that you’ve perspired every last bead of sweat from your body, an ice cold beer can live as long in the memory as a bottle of the finest champage. And so it was with the icy bottle of Shiner Bock which I threw down in one gulp in that strange little bar.

The room was populated by a number of bewhiskered characters who all looked strangely similar to the mailman… in fact one of them was the mailman! He raised an arm in greeting, while some of his drinking buddies glanced in our direction but barely raised a bushy eyebrow. It seemed that two sweaty, red faced, stranded travellers stumbling into their local bar was a regular occurrence. We sank a couple more cold beers and began to consider how we’d get back to the hotel to await delivery of the replacement car. It seemed that no one was making a water run that day so we headed back to the Main Road.

After around 20 minutes, a VW Beetle of late 60’s vintage, rounded a bend and chugged towards us. It was driven by a middle aged woman with matted hair, accompanied by a scowling teenage girl in the front seat and a snot nosed toddler and two exuberant dogs in the rear. As is the custom in the middle of nowhere, the car lurched to a halt, and the woman leaned out to ask where we were heading. She shook her head at being told our destination, telling us she was heading to ‘a rock’ around half way along the road. “I can take you there if you like” she drawled “you could even walk from there it’s only about 15 miles”. Intrigued by the prospect of visiting a rock in the middle of nowhere we climbed aboard and she introduced herself as Jessie. Noticing us scratching after a couple of miles, she looked in the rear view mirror and shouted ‘The dogs have got fleas and they sleep back there’. The toddler beside us, Marvin, grinned a toothless smile and scratched away beside us.

After around 20 minutes we rounded a bend surrounded by low cliffs and Jessie stopped the car. The family disembarked and we followed. Jessie opened the boot and produced three bouquets of flowers which she thrust into the arms of the still scowling, nameless teenage girl. We all headed towards a large rock which threatened to encroach onto the carriageway. It was decorated with paint from a number of vehicles and at its base were a scattering of long dead blooms which Jessie brushed aside with a once white training shoe. “My man wrecked his truck here last year”, she explained. “We’ve just popped by to say hello”. The teenage girl held her younger brother and squatted by the kerbside as her mother placed the flowers whilst singing an unidentifiable Country and Western tune. Feeling uncomfortable at being present at such a private moment, we thanked Jessie, bid the family farewell and set off walking along the road in the direction of our hotel which, as had been pointed out, was only about 15 miles away.

We’d been walking about 20 minutes when a distant rumble heralded the arrival of our final lift of the day- a battered blue pick- up truck with a white haired, mid 60’s woman at the wheel. The flatbed of the truck was full of water canisters so we squeezed in the cab alongside her. Her name was Margaret, and we were in luck, she was going to the hotel to top up her water supplies. She was wearing two odd boots, a pair of dungarees that had obviously belonged to a giant, and a pair of John Lennon style spectacles. She was also drinking from a can of beer and had a carrier bag of ‘refreshments’ in the footwell of the cab. She handed us a beer each and we set off, with Margaret entertaining us with tales of her freewheeling life. A true Hobo, she’d lived all over the world and now lived in a shack in the hills with a large hole in the roof which she told us “Don’t matter anyway, ‘cuz I sleep out on the porch all year round”.

Margaret approached driving as she approached life- with a ‘devil may care’ attitude, and we flew round corners on the wrong side of the road, with Margaret struggling to turn the wheel as she hung onto her tin of beer. She’d swig off the last remnants of the can with a slurp, hurl the can from the window and retrieve a replacement from the bag at her feet. Bumps in the road didn’t seem to register with this aged rally driver and we regularly seemed to take off, car chase style, and land with a bang as beer sloshed onto the wind shield from our 3 cans. It was a relief as we finally screeched round a bend and onto the hotel’s gravel car park in a cloud of dust.

We helped Margaret fill her water cans and limped to our room to await the delivery of our new car. We were hot, hungry and dusty and ached all over. We’d trashed a car in the middle of nowhere , drunk in a ghost town bar, been bitten by fleas and driven home by a drunken pensioner. But we’d had a classic road trip day – meeting interesting characters who helped us out of a tricky situation. The only disappointment was that we never did get to see that beer drinking goat!

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Beware of Bandits in Uniform! (Worldwide)

Beware of Bandits in Uniform!

An occupational hazard when driving in any country is the potential for brushes with the law. Driving in one’s own country leads to many people’s only experience of being caught breaking the law, when their speed creeps a little above the limit and they’re nabbed by a concealed cop, a roadside camera or radar device. Driving in a foreign country on strange roads, where you’re not 100% certain of the local rules, means the potential to break those rules increases greatly. And in some countries, the sight of an obvious foreigner driving a rental car is a tempting proposition for a poorly paid traffic cop, looking at ways to supplement his income.

I’ve driven in every part of the world, and have had my fair share of run-ins with the boys in blue/green/khaki , and in some cases, no uniforms at all (indeed I’m not even sure they were really police!). I’m often asked which are the worst countries to drive in from the point of view of being hauled up by the cops, either on a valid charge or as a money making exercise.

In terms of being pulled up for a legitimate charge such as speeding, I’d have to say the more developed the country, the greater the technology available to the police, and the higher the likelihood of being stopped (or receiving a fine in the post via the rental company when you’ve returned home). I actually find it quite stressful to drive in rural areas of the USA, with long, straight roads, few other cars…and 55MPH speed limits and local cops with sophisticated radar tracking devices. The only way to avoid your speed creeping up is to switch on the cruise control set at the correct speed limit, sit back and try not to fall asleep! And just about every European country seems to have an addiction to speed cameras, whether blatant deterrents or concealed fine generating machines.

Avoiding a less legitimate ‘fine’ is more difficult, and in my experience, the two areas of the world where you’re most likely to be seen as a mobile cash dispenser by the local law enforcement officials are Eastern Europe, and the undisputed Daddy of traffic cop corruption- West Africa.

Eastern Europe seems to have a general surfeit of traffic law enforcement officers. In some countries they seem to be everywhere. In rural Lithuania, there were so many police cars hidden amongst the trees I became paranoid and , not knowing the speed limit, crawled along at a ridiculously slow rate, my eyes scanning the foliage like a hunter tracking prey. In Armenia, I was stopped twice, by two different patrol cars within 10 minutes for different ‘offences’. In Russia, I heard stories of bogus cops stopping and fining motorists. The rumour was that many were off duty officers using their spare time to top up their salaries. I found a more likely answer in a small shop in a Moscow back street, which sold full police uniforms, identity cards, replica weapons and everything one would need to masquerade as a traffic cop!

You really only have one card to play if stopped by the police in Eastern Europe. That’s the fact that it’s unlikely they’ll speak any English. And even if you have a smattering of the local language, you’d be a fool to reveal that. Playing the part of the super dumb tourist is by far your best chance of avoiding a fine/bribe. Smile and shrug a lot. Waving a map and pointing at the spot you’re heading to helps. Try waving it upside down to really emphasise your stupidity. The officer will resort to miming the offence you’ve committed. But however, clear his actions are, you’ll fail to grasp what he’s saying. I’ve wriggled out of fines for the most obvious infractions in this way. Not having my lights on during the day in Montenegro – I bent down and examined the headlamps as the officer pointed at them. I tapped them and rubbed them with my sleeve while shrugging and grinning like a fool. In the end he gave up. As did the traffic cop in Tbilisi, Georgia who pulled me for not wearing a seat belt. I somehow even managed to avoid understanding that obvious offence, and left him to stomp away, shaking his head and muttering , obviously wondering how foreigners manage to pass a driving test at all.

The real home of traffic cop corruption though is Africa, particularly West Africa where paying bribes/‘dash’ /Cadeaux/gifts is a way of life. Roadside road blocks are common and local drivers expect to be stopped and to pay a small bribe to avoid a lengthy vehicle search and question and answer session. The problem as a foreign driver is that the acceptable bribe for a local will be deemed far too small for a seemingly wealthy tourist. The officers will therefore invest the maximum time in searching your car and bags, while shaking their heads,scowling and pulling out suspicious items such as pen knives, camera chargers and sachets of Rehydration salts.

The key to success in these situations is to identify the man in charge and be friendly, but deferential to him. I was once stopped on a quiet road in Senegal by a rag-tag band led by the archetypal African bad cop- scruffy fatigues, beret, gold teeth and shades. He instructed his men to search our bags as I vainly tried to pay them off with cigarettes and whiskey. All having been refused I played my final card “Chocolate biscuit?” I asked, as my partner winced. “No!” hissed the squinting conscript rummaging in our rucksacks. Suddenly a booming baritone spoke up “I will take a biscuit!”. It was the main man.

We all stopped and watched as he took a surprisingly delicate bite, and chewed vigorously. Suddenly, the gold teeth were on display and a huge smile spread across his grizzled face. “Mmmm. This biscuit is delicious!” He beamed.

“Take one!” He barked at his men, and so we all stood on the dusty roadside, posing for photos and chatting with our new choc biscuit munching friends.

I always try to establish some personal rapport in these situations. I extend my hand, smile and ask the officer’s name. Often taken aback, they rarely react angrily, and in most cases will end up laughing and joking with you, swapping addresses and souvenirs. One exception was Frankie, a young soldier in Madagascar, in the edgy days following a coup attempt. I thought we were getting along just fine, having exchanged names and elaborate hand shakes on a pitch black, power cut hit road in Antananarivo. The obvious next step was an exchange of addresses so we could keep in touch and arrange when Frankie would come and visit me in the UK (yeah, right!) but as he raised his rusty rifle and stuck it in my chest , and his grin changed from friendly to menacing, I realised I wasn’t going to be the winner on this occasion and began frantically scrabbling in my pocket for Frankie’s gift.

Once you’ve made it clear that you aren’t planning to hand over any cash, you need to be thinking about an exit strategy. That’s an exit strategy for the cop/soldier, not you. More often than not, his subordinates or friends will be watching the action unfold, and going back to them empty handed is a serious loss of face. You need to provide him with a crumb of comfort which can be twisted into a victory on his part. One useful tactic is to carry some coins from your own country – the shinier and heavier the better. Even if you both know that the coin you’ve given him isn’t going to stretch to a can of coke, it at least gives him the chance to slip it into his pocket and return to his mates with a wink and a spring in his step, patting his pocketed prize and mysteriously refusing to disclose its true value.

Another way of saving face for the officer is to let him solve a problem for you. You can kill two birds with one stone by linking your imaginary issue to a lack of cash to give him. For instance, perhaps you’ve been ripped off by a hotel or restaurant. Maybe you were held up by bandits further down the road… perhaps those bandits were officers from the neighbouring town’s police department. You need to be suitably vague in case you’ve located that rare officer who actually intends to investigate the ‘crime’. Most will have no intention of taking the matter further. However you give them an opportunity to take out their notebook and make copious notes on the incident, and promise you they’ll be investigating further. They can then return to their friends and explain that some devious miscreant got their before them and robbed you before they had chance!

I’ve met self drive travellers who adopt a different approach and inform the officer that they’re putting a call into their brother, the ambassador, to check whether a dirty vehicle really is a traffic offence worth of a fine (it actually is in Russia!). Others dig their heels in and adopt a ‘How dare you, I’m from America/ England/ Australia/Germany etc etc’. In my opinion this just ups the stakes, and becomes a battle of wits which you’re unlikely to win. Even if you escape without paying, you’ll waste valuable hours of your trip on a tedious roadside inquisition and examination of your car. Don’t forget, the police are being paid to stand on that roadside – you’re not!

Renting a car abroad can be expensive enough without lining the pockets of the local police. If you’re unsure of the rules and speed limits, a good general rule is to do what everyone else is doing. If you’re the fastest car on the road, you’re asking for a fine.

In countries with a less than trustworthy police force, remember to be friendly and polite, smile a lot, try to avoid understanding what you’ve done wrong and the golden rule…always carry some chocolate biscuits!

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A Question of Honour (Albania)

A Question of Honour – An Albanian Blood Feud

Albania is a fascinating land, governed by a complex series of ancient laws known as the Kanun. Its also governed by Car Rental company rules which generally prevent cars from any other country being driven there. Many top of the range cars stolen in Western Europe find their way to Albania and the rental companies fear your visit could become an involuntary one way rental!

The Kanun cover all aspects of life and are largely based around a code of honour . The most infamous Kanun sanctions the avengance of murder , which often leads to generation spanning blood feuds and sometimes the annihilation of whole clans. The Kanun which covers injury to ones personal honour states: “Whom you want, forgive him; or if you like, wash the clouded forehead”. Washing the clouded forehead being an obvious reference to exacting terrible revenge, this was at the forefront of my mind as I approached the Montenegran border to visit the Albanian city of Schkodra. I was determined to keep my nose clean and my forehead unclouded.

It had already been made clear that the car I’d rented in Croatia was under no account to be taken across the border into Albania. Bosnia and Montenegro were Ok though,which was ironic as I returned to the car in Sarajevo to find a broken window and a missing stereo! However when I’d mentioned Albania, the car rental clerk shook her head, grimaced and spat the word –“Bandits!”

I therefore decided to park my car right by the Montenegran border post, walk across into Albania and pick up a taxi there.The border was a low key affair in scrubby countryside. A disinterested customs official waved us through and a small group of taxi drivers dozed in the sun. None seemed particularly eager to transport us the 10 miles into town in their rusting ladas.

One vehicle stood out amongst the rest. A gleaming red Toyota, with leopardskin seat covers and sporting an array of Bayern Munich merchandise. Its driver snored in the front seat, his head resting on a luxurious mullet hair-do, his walrus moustache twitching in time with each exhalation.

I tapped on the window, and he lazily opened one eye, before leaping to attention as he registered the fact that a westerner was seeking a ride. In a flash he was on his feet, grinning and ushering us into the backseat whilst, I was sure, calling out to his fellow drivers ‘Ho Ho, a week’s wages in one day for me from these suckers!’
His name was Ervin and his eagerness to become our driver, fixer, tour guide and general Albanian tourism one-stop shop was only mildly tempered by the fact that he spoke not a word of English. This was only viewed as a slight impediment by Ervin however, and he happily jabbered away in a strange mix of Albanian, German footballing terms and hand signals. The latter were particularly unnerving as we tore along the country lanes at break neck speed. Ervin seemed to know the road so well that he generally found it unnecessary to look through the windscreen meaning he was able to keep his eyes fixed on me in the rear view mirror as he attempted to negotiate a price for his services for the day.

If any slow moving peasants or live stock happened to stray into our path, Ervin flicked a switch beside the steering wheel which employed a state of the art horn system that blasted out a sudden and terrifying, ear splitting burst of March of the Valkyries. We cringed as we looked back at elderly men on cycles sent spinning into hedges, dogs narrowly avoiding being deprived of tails and toddlers bursting into tears as a favourite toy disappeared beneath Ervin’s wheels.

Eventually we arrived in Schkodra and hand signal negotiations to become our guide reached a blurred fever pitch. Anticipating an awkward day being shown the limited sights of the city by a non English speaking Bill Werbeniuk-alike, I attempted to call a halt to the proceedings by paying. Seeing his ‘weeks wage in a day’ opportunity vanishing, Ervin reluctantly accepted my payment, but thrust his business card into my hand. The message was clear-I may not be your guide, but I alone am your driver. You WILL use me to return to the border. I nodded and put the card in my breast pocket, patting it and nodding solemnly to reassure Ervin, who looked close to tears.
I remember little of what we saw in Schkodra. There was a litter strewn castle and long hot dusty roads. My abiding memory is of a spectacularly tattooed child of around 9 years old, smoking a cigar. I also remember it was very hot, and by late afternoon we decided to make our way back to the border. We plodded along a dusty main road, sweating, thirsty and lost. A car horn sounded behind me and I turned to see a taxi slowing down behind us. Not Ervin’s gleaming Munchen-wagen , but a taxi nonetheless. I guiltily touched the business card in my pocket as we climbed into the back seat. “We’d never be able to explain where to pick us up anyway”, I reassured my partner, and myself, as we pulled away from the kerb.

We soon left the City Centre and headed out into the open country leading to the Montenegran border. I began to relax as the soviet style apartment blocks retreated in the rear view mirror. We crossed a rickety wooden bridge over a river and turned left at a cafe on the far bank. As we passed I glanced to my right and made fleeting eye contact with a customer sat at a pavement table. I tried to convince myself that mullets were very much de-rigeur in Albania that summer, and the walrus moustache was far more common than it had been in England since the early 70’s. However,I couldn’t help turning and scanning the road behind me. Empty. I breathed again and stared ahead.
It was the reaction of our driver which told me something was wrong. A furrowed brow and a muttered curse as he glanced at the rear view mirror. I sunk in my seat, fearing the worst, but hoping I was wrong. That vain hope disappeared altogether with the first blast of March of the Valkyries. We turned in our seats to see the red bonnet of Ervin’s Toyota around 3 inches from the rear of our vehicle. Ervin was snarling, his face contorted with rage and he was drawing a finger across his throat in a slicing motion. I felt the cloud settle on my forehead and knew that the be-mulleted madman would definitely want to wash it clean. I was the reluctant owner of my very own blood feud, having offended the honour of an Albanian. I had invoked the rule of the Kanun and was destined to be horribly slain out here in the Albanian countryside by a taxi driving reject from the Goombay Dance Band.
Ervin blasted his horn and pulled alongside us on the single track road. He was spitting threats as he raced along beside us. We all react in strange ways to fear and for some reason my own defence mechanism was to smile and wave to my pursuer. Not surprisingly, this enraged him further and he swerved in front of us causing our bemused driver to come to an abrupt halt.

Ervin’s car was parked across the road and he sprang from the driver’s seat and strode towards us. My partner sank in her seat and our driver turned to me and uttered the reassuring words ‘He a very bad man’. After quickly taking in my surroundings and deciding there was no escape route, I decided that if I was to meet my end, cowering in the backseat of a taxi would be a less than honourable exit. I got out of the car and faced my tormentor.

I’d love to tell you that Ervin told me that I’d insulted his honour and that he must slay me to regain it. Or that I must give him my girlfriend as a booty of war. Even that I must pay him the return fare to the border. Unfortunately I have no idea what he said to me. He unleashed a frightening tirade of Albanian abuse whilst thumping his heart with his fist and spitting theatrically at my feet. That was the extent of the violence and he soon retreated, leaving me shaking as I stumbled back to the taxi. Our driver looked like he was weighing up the benefits of extricating himself from the feud by fleeing, versus the potential of an inflated fare to the border. As usual, the lure of greenbacks overcame his fear and we set off to drive the remaining five miles or so through the scrubby countryside.

Ervin’s tactic was now to drive at around 5 miles an hour in front of us, swerving occasionally to prevent our car overtaking him. He seemed to be weighing up his options. Our driver shook his head and muttered a curse in Albanian before meeting my eyes in the mirror. “Very bad man” he confirmed.
We eventually arrived at the border and Ervin pulled up in front of us. We paid our driver and exited our vehicle at pace, trying to appear nonchalant as we strode towards the Montenegran border , and safety. Unfortunately I couldn’t resist the urge to look back and saw Ervin scrabbling in the footwell of his car, with our driver seemingly remonstrating with him.

Suddenly, all became clear, as every psychothriller stalker movie and cold war spy flick morphed into a nightmare vision in my brain. Ervin would exact his revenge by shooting me at the exact point I crossed the border. The murder would therefore take place in a different country and he would scoff at the law, safe in his Albanian bandit’s lair.

I’ve left countries in a number of unusual ways, but none so strange as that day. I can still picture the bemused border guard as my partner and I sprinted for the border, lurching from side to side as I yelled ‘zig zag!!’ and employed my best bullet evasion technique.

Our passports stamped, I felt it safe to look back at Albania. Ervin had retrieved the ‘weapon’ from his car…it looked like a large kebab. As I looked on, he took a messy bite and slowly raised his right hand, the middle finger extended in my direction, and a drool of chilli sauce edged down his chin. His honour regained, Ervin jumped back in his car and swerved away with a spectacular screech of tyres, a blast of March of the Valkyries and a kebab which bounced off our taxi’s roof. I breathed a sigh of relief and it was clammy sweat, not clouds, which I wiped from my forehead as I gratefully crossed the border into Montenegro, one of that rare breed, a survivor of an Albanian blood feud.

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The Good Shepherds (Armenia)

The Good Shepherds- Armenia

The plan was simple enough. Approaching the Armenian capital of Yerevan from the South, we would skirt the City Centre and head towards Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery to the East. Unfortunately, as often happens, the obvious road which edged around the City on our map had disappeared and we found ourselves on the outskirts of the Centre and heading towards a potential nightmare of one way systems and signs written in the swirls and squiggles of the Armenian alphabet.

The main road towards town passed a succession of scruffy shop fronts and wasteland before emerging in an area of butcher’s shops selling fresh meat. The freshness was demonstrated by flocks of long eared sheep loafing incongruously by the busy road. Gangs of youths, a trade mix of butchers and shepherds, loafed on benches overlooking their unsuspecting beasts.

It was obvious that, not for the first time on this trip, we were lost and couldn’t even tell if we were heading in the right direction. I therefore decided, again not for the first time on the trip, that stopping and asking for directions was the most sensible option. I selected a butchers shop where a group of 6 young men were helping their friend select a ‘victim’ from the flock at their feet.

I shouted a cheery ‘Hello!’ as the butcher dragged a young ram from the group and began to tie its rear legs together. I generally find that speaking in English and brandishing a map immediately indicate my problem – Lost tourist, doesn’t speak Armenian.

The young men gathered around as I opened up the map on the bonnet of a parked car. The butcher was hoisting the sheep into a tree by a rope attached to its back legs. There then followed 5 minutes of the often repeated ritual of trying to obtain directions in a country where you don’t speak the language and they use a different alphabet to your own. i.e me trying to pronounce my target location and the shepherds/butchers repeating it in puzzled tones; the shepherds arguing about where I want to go and repeatedly snatching the map from each other; the shepherds holding the map upside down and all pointing the way…in different directions; The shepherds drawing the most complicated map in the world on a paper bag; me giving up, smiling, shaking everyone’s hand and waving goodbye as I walk back to my hired Lada.

They may not have been great at directions but their butchery skills weren’t lacking. By the time I left, the ram had been hung from a tree, eviscerated and skinned, cut down and was well on its way to become a kebab!
We set off driving again, arguing about which direction to take, trying to translate the road signs and dreading hitting the City Centre’s one way system. The butcher’s shops gave way to a kind of post-apocalyptic, soviet wasteland of decaying factories and rusty, rubbish strewn railway sidings. “Great location for a Russian gangster movie” I declared then wished I hadn’t. My white 4WD Lada Riva stood out amongst the rattling local wrecks, smoke belching buses and dilapidated 1970’s trucks which were weaving in and out of the pot holes.
I first noticed the car in my rear view mirror when it was about 50 metres behind me. Black lada, tinted windows. Headlights flashing. In a part of town where crazy driving was the norm, this guy was chasing the title of craziest. Overtaking on the wrong side of the road in the face of oncoming traffic, I could hear him sounding his horn when he was still around 10 cars behind me. I found myself looking in the mirror more than through the windscreen, as I watched him leapfrog his way towards me until eventually he was right behind me. I couldn’t see the driver through the tinted glass but an arm extended from the passenger window and gesticulated at me. Defensive driving is always my watchword abroad, and I had no intention of entering into a duel with this maniac so slowed right down and pulled towards the kerb. Instead of passing, the Lada pulled alongside me, horn blaring. The passenger side window was jerkily lowered as my mind raced – Car jacking? Kidnapping? Drive by shooting? I was almost ducking in my seat when a grinning face appeared with a cheery wave- it was two of the shepherds I’d asked for directions! They beckoned me to follow them and we set off on a terrifying car chase through the traffic, as I tried to keep them in sight as they weaved through the traffic.

After 20 minutes of high speed driving down a labrynth of back street rat-runs, we came to a cross roads. The black lada pulled over and the shepherds got out. The driver took my paper bag map, pointed towards the cross he’d drawn for Geghard and with a theatrical flourish indicated that the road straight ahead would deliver me there.
We shook hands, they smiled, got back in the Lada, spun the wheels and headed back the way they’d come, leaving me to marvel at the generosity that ordinary people show to lost travellers the world over. Good Shepherds indeed…

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The Road to Hell (Moldova)

The Road to Hell- Why I hate Buses!

Its worth stating from the word go, that bus travel isn’t my preferred mode of public transport. I always try to rent a car and drive myself. If that’s not possible, I’m much more of a train man, particularly when travelling overnight, in a country where the roads comprise at best, of gravel filled holes, and at worst of small crevasses.

I find it hard to sleep upright in a non reclining seat at the best of times. On a 1970’s vintage coach with no suspension, it’s going to be impossible. Therefore, finding that one way car rental between Moldova and Ukraine isn’t possible, and that the train from Chisinau to Lviv, takes at least 20 hours to travel 300kms, and is likely to involve a midnight tour of my rucksack conducted by a Transdniestran border guard, wasn’t an ideal start to my trip planning.

In these situations, sitting in a comfy room in England, the solution always seems easy as you pluck the answer from a myriad of travel websites and forums. Forget the train. Overnight bus from Chisinau to Chernivtsi in Ukraine (which confusingly is also called Cernauti), rent a car there and drive to Lviv with a quick detour to Kamyanets Podilsky. Simple .The optimist in me conjures up images of reclining seats, curtains, a toilet and air conditioning to convince me that this is the age of the Moldovan bus.I just hope the driver doesn’t play that annoying, tinny Euro pop all night…

Fast forward a month. You’re trying to remain calm in the way a claustrophobic does as the lift grinds to a halt between floors. Deep Breaths. Ignore the smell. Ignore the rivulet of sweat which is inching its way slowly through your hair, before picking up speed as it travels down your forehead and collides with your left eyebrow. There’s so much perspiration coursing down your back, you imagine you’ve been stabbed and are, in fact, bleeding to death. Deep breath, calm down. Only Eight and a half hours to go.

Eight and a half hours. Eight and a half hours sat on a bus, lurching along the pitch black, rubble strewn roads of Northern Moldova. A bus with no reclining seats, no curtains, no toilet and worst of all no bloody air conditioning! And no windows that open despite it being a 90 degree day, that’s turned into an 80 degree night. Our fellow travellers, all Moldovans, deal with the wilting heat stoically. They fan themselves with books and magazines. They occasionally let out a deep sigh, but mostly they sit, eyes closed as we rumble on, sweat pouring down their red faces.

The lights don’t work so I can’t read. The bus rolls and tips as if riding a rough sea so I can’t sleep. The seat pitch is about that of a Fiat 126, so I can’t move my legs or feet. The Moldovans have obviously been stuffing themselves with sleeping pills as they’re now all snoring. Loudly. My partner joins them in a bitter act of betrayal. (Though she later claims not to have slept a wink). I even begin to crave some tinny Eurotrash. I-Pod time. Chillout Playlist, Deep breaths. I think I’ve nodded off, but when I check my watch my eyes have only been closed for 4 minutes. Only 8 hours 25 minutes to go.

With only 7 hours to go, the bus stops, and the Moldovans begin to file off slowly. Not me. Elbows to the fore, I fight my way to the front of the queue and bound out into the wonderful, cool, diesel fume filled night air of a smalltown Moldovan bus station. A bench beckons and I crash out, to the bemusement of the Moldovans. I snooze, stuck to the bench via my shirt which drips gently onto the stained tiles.
After half an hour’s restless sleep where I dream I’m melting, the driver decides he wants to resume the journey and nudges me awake with his knee. Consoling myself that there are only 7 hours to go, I re-enter the oven.
The Moldovans wave their magazine fans until we swing out of the bus station, then carry on where they left off. Snoring, sweating and smelling. My Partner joins them.

And so it goes on. The longest night of my life as I sit, perspiring, exhausted but stricken with insomnia, cursing my snoring, sweating, smelling neighbours and longing for the next driver’s break when I can lay in a puddle of my own sweat in an obscure Moldovan bus station.

I’ve never been so happy to see a sunrise. That means only about 2 hours left. My eyes feel like they’ve sunk deep into my head and I can’t smell my fellow passengers anymore. That’s a bad sign as it means I stink just like them. I also feel like I’ve lost about a stone in weight.

Chernvitsi is a nondescript Ukrainian town about 15 miles from the Moldovan border, but that morning it was my favourite place in the world. Never have I been so glad to exit a mode of transport. The Moldovans looked bemused again as I kissed the floor of the coach station.

I promise myself that in future, overnight bus transport will come somewhere behind a yacht trip past Somalia and a cycle holiday in the Swat valley.

Two weeks later, I’m looking at the Burma Lonely Planet ,planning my next trip. No self drive in Burma. Rangoon to Mandalay. Overnight bus ,15 hours. Can’t be that bad can it? I just hope the driver doesn’t play of that annoying, tinny Asia-pop all night…

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