The origins of the Odyssey lie in an overland trip made from İstanbul to Beijing (using public transport) in 2003, which to me set Asia apart in terms of cultural diversity, physical beauty and historical richness from any other part of the world. Despite this, the initial focus of a long overland trip by car was actually Africa. However, as dreams gave rise to ideas, and these ideas gave rise to firm plans, the hooks which had been planted in my mind in 2003 steered me back toward Asia.
When, on the 6th May 2007 I left the UK on the first part of this Odyssey, I envisaged being away for between twelve and eighteen months. I had no idea that I would be on the road for four-and-a-half years. As the months racked up, the journey stopped feeling like previous trips I had made, with defined end-points and a fixed duration; rather the journey became my life, a marvellous expression of freedom of movement forever enlivened by encountering new situations, meeting new people, and seeing more of the world. As the years passed, I never felt any compulsion to return to the UK, a place I frankly disliked living in. After four years however, I began to run out of new places to see and an element of stagnation took hold. Faced with another long northern winter, I decided to finish the trip, returning to the UK on the 1st December 2011.
Following my return I had remarkable success in attaining a master’s degree and a job which offered both generous holidays and remuneration. I was even able to take off thirteen months before starting, which gave me time to finish the restoration of the truck and set off again in June 2014, returning in November of the same year.
In May 2015 I used my entire annual holiday on another continuation of the Odyssey, something I hope to repeat in coming years.
What follows is a summary of the trip to date, a very brief overview of the Stages which are described in the text.
The Odyssey starts when I leave the UK in May 2007 and spend a month in ‘Eastern’ Europe, culminating in my being robbed in Romania. These weeks are more of a lead-in, something of a false start and not particularly interesting. Thus the accounts of the Odyssey begin upon crossing into the Former USSR in June 2007.
I quickly drive across Ukraine, then across Russia via Moscow, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk to the mountains and ethnic republics of southern Siberia, before crossing into Kazakhstan, notionally entering Central Asia. I spend some time in the Kazakhstan’s Altai Mountains, then drive south to the former capital Almaty, then south-east into Uzbekistan, straight to Samarkand. I spend around three weeks in the beautiful cities of Uzbekistan, then cross into Kyrgyzstan in the Fergana Valley. Kyrgyzstan offers both beautiful scenery and in the capital, Bishkek, something of a regional traveller’s hub, making it a good place to relax for a few weeks. In late September I drive south onto the beautiful Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, spending two weeks driving to the capital, Dushanbe. Crossing back into Uzbekistan in October, I spend time in both Samarkand and Tashkent before entering Turkmenistan, transiting the Kara Kum Desert from the north to the Iranian border in the south.
In November 2007 I enter Iran, marking a major cultural and physical transition, from the Former USSR into an altogether more conservative region. Iran’s incredible depth of history and culture, kind and hospitable people, fantastic roads and absurdly cheap fuel mean I spend more than two months in the country, arcing from the north-east through the capital, Tehran, through the ancient cities of central Iran, then west and south close to the Iraqi border and along the Persian Gulf coast towards Pakistan. In January I enter Pakistan which has been my favourite country since my first visit in 2003. First crossing Baluchistan to Quetta, I deviate from the traditional overland route and drive south to Karachi, then up to the Indus River in Hyderabad where a planned stay of one night turns into one month as I fall in love with and explore the wonderful interior of Sindh. Leaving Hyderabad I drive north along the Indus into Punjab and the city of Lahore, from where I cross into India in March. India is a country I have very mixed feelings about, though there are plenty of positive experiences as I thread my way east through Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, joining the Ganges in Varanasi, through Bodh Gaya in Bihar and along the Grand Trunk Road to Kolkata in West Bengal. In April I enter Bangladesh and after spending time in the hectic capital, move south to St Martin’s Island and then east to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a fascinating area on the Burmese border. Crossing back into India in May, I turn west once again, stopping in Sikkim and Nepal for some trekking in the Himalaya, then driving up in August to the stunningly beautiful landscapes of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, descending through Kashmir and crossing back into Pakistan in September.
In late September 2008 I turn north to the magnificent Karakoram and Hindukush mountains of northern Pakistan; the places I had most enjoyed on my initial 2003 trip. Following the Karakoram Highway all the way to the Chinese border, I must turn back, for China is a dead-end for independent vehicle-based travel. Instead, I cross the Shandur Pass west, into Pakistan’s legendary North-West Frontier Province, passing through Chitral and then over the difficult Lowari Pass, back down to Islamabad, then further south back to Hyderabad. After some relaxing days in Hyderabad I drive west towards Iran, along the remote Makran coast, but finding no way into Iran must back-track through Quetta and along the traditional route through northern Baluchistan. I spend three months in Iran, this time taking in the more remote desert and border areas, including the dry plains of the north-east and the welcoming valleys of Kurdistan. It is during this time that I decide to return to Pakistan, slowly making my way there through Iran’s great deserts and stopping in Yazd, my favourite Iranian city. In March I make a third crossing of Baluchistan, this time dropping down to the Indus at Jacobabad, and driving straight down to Hyderabad where I stay for much of the next five months, volunteering in a school, doing some mechanical work on the truck, and generally enjoying living in a vibrant and exciting place.
In September 2009 I leave Hyderabad, driving north to Islamabad and Peshawar, then making the long dreamt-of crossing of the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan where I visit Jalalabad, Kabul and Bamiyan, before crossing north over the Salang Pass to Mazar-e Sharif. I make a side trip into Uzbekistan, then return and head west once again through the old caravan cities of the north; Balkh, Shebergan and Andkhoy, making a detour through Turkmenistan to safely reach Herat, probably the finest city in Afghanistan. After a week in Herat, I enter Iran and spend three months with new-found friends, exploring the Caspian coast and getting to know Tehran.
In late March 2010 I leave Iran, re-entering the Former USSR in Azerbaijan and moving west along the Cacuasus as winter turns to spring, crossing into Georgia and visiting the charming capital, Tbilisi, and the mountainous region of Svaneti, before entering the beautiful breakaway republic of Abkhazia and continuing into Russia in April. Once in Russia I turn east again, passing through all the republics of the North Caucasus, including a trip into the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia, then north via the republic of Kalmykia to Astrakhan, up the Volga through Volgograd and Saratov and east into Kazakhstan. After crossing the seemingly endless, flat expanses of northern Kazakhstan I re-enter Russia briefly in July, driving up through the Altai Republic to the Mongolian border.
In July 2010 I enter Mongolia for the first time, travelling on endless dirt tracks down the ethnically Kazakh western edge of the country to the far south west, then turning north towards the centre and east to the capital, Ulaanbaatar for some relaxation. Continuing, I drive south west again into the Gobi Desert, then to the extreme south-east of the country, before heading north-west and entering Russia once again in September. I spend a few weeks exploring eastern Siberia, visiting Lake Baikal and the Barguzin Valley from Ulan Ude, then heading east and re-entering the far-east of Mongolia in October. I drive across the north of the country as winter sets in, then drive back into Russia in November and ever west through the Russian winter, stopping in Omsk, Samara, Vladimir, Veliky Novgorod and Saint Petersburg before crossing into Estonia and briefly stopping in Latvia and Lithuania. I spend the worst of the winter in Poland and then enter Russia’s Kaliningrad Region in February, before returning to Estonia.
In February 2011 I drive briefly through Russia and into Belarus, looping around the country and taking in the subtly beautiful scenery and charming people. Re-entering Russia in March I drive east once more via Smolensk and Ulyanovsk, then explore the South Urals in Bashkortostan before crossing into Kazakhstan via Orenburg in April. I spend two month exploring the south and central regions of Kazakhstan, making my way into Kyrgyzstan in June and heading south to the Fergana Valley, where I cross through Tajikistan via the city of Khujand, on to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, then south through the mountains of western Tajikistan and back again into Uzbekistan. I spend some days relaxing from the fierce summer heat in Samarkand, then head west via the desert cities of Zerafshan and Uchquduq and on through Karakalpakstan into Kazakhstan, driving up the Ural River and into Russia once more in August.
I drive quickly south through Russia via Tol’yatti, Yelets and Rostov-on-Don, entering Ukraine in September and driving around the east, passing Donetsk and Kharkiv before returning to the beautiful capital, Kyiv. Then south, via Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia to Crimea, and west to Odesa. I enter Moldova in late October, drive through the Gagauz Republic to the capital, Chișinău and east to the breakaway republic of Transnistria, returning to Moldova proper in the north and crossing to western Ukraine in November. This final leg of the initial journey takes me through the beautiful Carpathian Mountains and the charming city of Lviv, one of the nicest in the Former USSR, before crossing into Poland in mid November, reaching the UK in December.
This initial part of the Odyssey lasted 1,671 days, and covered 155,681 kilometres.
Returning to the UK, I slowly start to dismantle the truck in preparation for a full restoration, which is completed on the 2nd June 2014, the day on which I head east once more to resume the Odyssey.
I quickly cross Europe, entering Ukraine at the very same point from which I had left two-and-a-half years earlier, drive quickly across Ukraine, southern Russia and into Kazakhstan where I stop first in Atyrau. I then head south through the fascinating region of Mangystau, peppered with beautiful landscapes and pilgrimage sites. Continuing south I make a crossing of the deserts of western Turkmenistan, then continue into Iran where I spend time in both the Alborz and Zagros Mountains. In late July I enter the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, driving on into Turkey where I explore the rugged east which had been my first glimpse of Asia eleven years earlier.
In August I return to Georgia and drive around much of the country, including the mountainous regions of Tusheti and Khevsureti, then enter Armenia for the first time in September. I slowly make my way south in Armenia, pausing in the pleasant capital, Yerevan and spending several days looping around the war-ravaged breakaway republic of Nagorno Karabakh, before returning to Armenia proper and crossing into Iran in October. Here I make my way west and enter Iraq for the first time, visiting Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk and Erbil and the beautiful mountains of the north, before turning south west into Mosul Governorate to visit the region’s Yezidi and Assyrian communities. I then head north into Turkey, making a crossing of the country and visiting the magnificent historical sites of Anatolia via Mardin, Diyarbakır, Şanlıurfa, Sivas, Ankara and Bursa, crossing into Europe in İstanbul, one of the world’s greatest cities. From here it is just a short drive via Edirne to the Bulgarian border, where I re-enter the EU and return to the UK on the 23rd November 2014.
On my return to the UK in November 2014, the Odyssey had elapsed 1846 days and 189,052 kilometres.
In May 2015 (now based in the Netherlands), I set off back to Istanbul, then crossed northern Turkey via Sinop, Amasya, Trabzon and Erzurum, then entered Georgia, crossing from Batumi to Mtshketa and the Azerbaijani border. I crossed Azerbaijan via Ganja and Barda to the Absheron Peninsula, made a quick trip to Xinaliq in the Caucasus, then crossed into Russia in late May. I drove north through Russia to the ‘Golden Ring’ region, then further north via Vologda and Kirov to the North Urals where I made a trip to the incredible rock formations of Manpupunyor. Then up to Arkhangelsk on the White Sea and further north to Murmansk, the Kola Peninsula and Tersky Coast, before heading back south to Petrozavodsk, and exiting Russia near Pskov.
On my return to the Netherlands in July 2015, the Odyssey had elapsed 1907 days and 208,817 kilometres.