It’s been over two months since we were forced to give up our wonderful 1998 VW Golf and continue our journey into Asia via public transport. Jagger was an amazing vehicle that carried us 18,000 kilometres through 20 countries, and we have to say that travelling without him just isn’t the same.
But we didn’t just have an amazing time with our little car travelling across Eurasia; we also learned a lot of things. Here is our list of 10 things we were surprised (and maybe not so surprised) to discover on our four-month journey from Germany to Kazakhstan.
1. Drivers get worse the further east you go… to a point
Every country had its own driving style and unwritten rules of the road to learn. It started in the Balkans, with random U-turns, aggressive passing on two-lane roads, and “horn communication”. From there, every jump we made eastward threw us head-on into a country that had more extreme ways of disregarding traffic laws. By the time we left Iran, Mook was weaving through traffic, sometimes on the wrong side of the road, honking and flashing other drivers like he was born in the Middle East. But then Central Asia surprised us. Suddenly people were staying in their own lane. They were using their turn signals. They were stopping when the light turned yellow. They were giving other people the right of way. We could hardly believe it.
2. Istanbul is the worst city for driving
I thought Tehran, infamous for its high road fatalities and bumper-car style of driving, was going to be a nightmare to pass through. And it was stressful… but not as bad as Istanbul. Istanbul is the absolute worst city to drive in because of the sheer volume of cars, the ridiculously aggressive (read: Turkish) drivers, the hills, and the endless labyrinths of narrow, one-way streets. The city is spread across three peninsulas, and depending upon the time of day it may actually be faster to just load your car on a ferry and sail it across the bay rather than drive through the city. Absolutely nuts.
The runner up for worst city to drive in would be Ankara, which is flat and isn’t quite as crowded as Istanbul, but has terrible signage that makes it incredibly easy to get lost.
3. No one is as friendly (to foreigners) as the Iranians
They might not treat each other as nicely, but in Iran foreigners are ranked somewhere between “guest” and “minor celebrity”. Everyone wanted to shake Mook’s hand and wanted to know where we were from, how we liked their country, what our favourite food was, and if we needed help. The customs guy who imported our car gave us a huge bag of pomegranates. A soldier on a bus walked us home to make sure we didn’t get lost. People honked and waved at us while we were driving. A taxi driver lead us about eight kilometres to meet a Couchsurfer and then refused payment for the journey. A complete stranger argued with the police for us when we had trouble. Some dude even invited us to his house to smoke opium (!!).
The genuine, sometimes almost passionate kindness we received from complete strangers was really amazing, and it outshines our experiences with locals in other countries. (Someone on Reddit complained that we didn’t list “Georgian hospitality” as one of the reasons we liked Georgia. Visit Iran, buddy! Serbia still comes in a close second.)
4. The Soviet legacy is one of poverty, stilettos and vodka
The Soviet Union was a mind-boggling 22.4 million square kilometres, encompassing 15 different republics and with a population of 293 million people. From Estonians in the northwest to the nomadic Tajiks in the southeast, that’s a lot of diversity. When the union dissolved in 1991 each government stumbled into independence in their own way, and while all the former Soviet countries have distinct languages and cultures, on our journey we saw some patterns emerge. Namely, poverty, women in stilettos, and vodka.
The collapse of the USSR robbed people of their industries, jobs and livelihoods. But across the land, from small and ramshackle towns to the glittery capitals, women strut around in high heels and short skirts in what we guess is an exercise in conspicuous consumption. As for vodka, while a lot of the former Soviet countries had a long tradition of booze making already, most citizens of the Central Asian states were Muslim. While Soviet rule didn’t manage to turn them into atheists, it did instil in them a love of the hard stuff that remains to this day. Vodka is everywhere, and it’s cheap.
5. ACAB is a universal principle
No one likes the police. We saw it written on the walls and heard it mumbled behind closed doors. There were countries with okay cops, who were trying to cut down on drunk driving or just trying to enforce some basic laws. No one liked them. There were countries with super shit cops, who took pleasure in harassing the local people, and lined their pockets with cash in what we called “money harvests” (when the police set up shop on the side of the road and collect bribes from minor infractions). No one liked them either.
The upside of this is that hatred of police is something that builds up rapport with the locals in every country, even if you don’t speak the language—kind of like football. The highlight of this was when we got approached by a construction worker in the middle of nowhere Iran who mimed to us that he’d once been arrested at the airport trying to leave the country. It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language. We could all laugh in agreement: “Fucking cops, eh!”
6. If you want to smuggle something through a border in your car, hide it in your food or the ashtray
After so many customs inspections, we noticed a pattern: Hood gets popped and engine gets checked. Everything comes out of the trunk. Luggage gets patted down. Glovebox gets opened. Unusual objects like notebooks, glitter pens, and Kinder Surprise capsules get examined. Most customs officers would even reluctantly rifle through our messy back seat with a grimace. But the two places not one person bothered to check was our box of cooking supplies and the ashtray. You couldn’t exactly fit an AK-47 in there, and sniffer dogs might still find your stash, but those two places are pretty safe from the prying eyes of officials. Kinder Egg capsules are officially the worst places to hide anything.
7. With Russian and Turkish, the Silk Road is your oyster
One other thing the Soviet Union left behind was the Russian language. From Georgia to Kyrgyzstan, almost everyone speaks Russian as a second language. If you can speak chut chut po-russki, you can get around, make friends, have a good laugh, and be offered copious amounts of vodka.
But if you really want to impress people, you should learn some Turkish. Not only is Turkish useful in Turkey, it’s spoken or understood by a significant number of people in Azerbaijan and Iran. And while the people of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan do speak Russian, their native languages are part of the Turkic language family, and they share a lot of the same or similar vocabulary. Even stretching as far as western China, the Uygher language too is Turkic. Speaking to the locals in their indigenous language is the best way to put smiles on their faces.
8. Germans travel the farthest of all Europeans
In the Balkans we’d see license plates from all over Europe, but especially from Germany. Mook bragged, “It’s because we Germans travel more than anyone.” As we headed east other European foreigners became increasingly rare, but no matter where we were, we seemed to always hear someone speaking German. In Turkey, there were loads of Turkish-Germans. In Georgia, we partied with two German hikers. At the Armenia-Iran border, we met a German cyclist who not only came from the same area as Mook, he knew Mook’s sister-in-law. At a rest stop near Esfahan, a German guy rocked up and asked how we got our car into the country. We met a few Germans at a hostel in Uzbekistan… who told us they had seen us driving through Turkmenistan. While we’ve occasionally met people of other nationalities, Germans are the big constant in our travels so far.
9. You can drive all the way from Germany to Kazakhstan without a driver’s license
Before heading on this trip, Mook jumped through all the official hoops, including getting his international driver’s license. We left Stuttgart, Germany and drove 18,000 kilometres across the Eurasian content. We went through dozens of border crossings and got stopped by quite a few cops. We got some parking tickets, and even one speeding ticket. But until we got stopped near Taraz, Kazakhstan, for not having our lights on (during the day) by a money-harvesting cop, not once did anyone ever ask to see Mook’s driver’s license. And even then, it wasn’t until we got stopped by another money harvester in Bishkek a week later that anyone wanted to see his international driving permit. Don’t let bureaucracy stand in the way of your dreams!!
10. Flying is for pussies
If you really like to travel, then screw those budget airlines, the airport security, the baggage allowances, the shitty in-flight food, and the obnoxious rugby teams chanting next to crying babies and classes of school kids. Hit the road! Travelling overland throws you head-on into all the beautiful scenery, local colour, and middle-of-nowhere unexpected adventures that all those poor sods who fly miss out on. To stand at your goal, 10, 15, or even 20,000 kilometres from where you started and think that you saw every metre of that with your own eyes is one of the most unbeatable feelings in the world.