Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year to whoever reads this..…if you read it leave a comment below to let us know! I’ll warn you this is going to be a VERY long post, as it’s a brief update, and a summary of our year and trip so far – so grab some xmas cheer, kick back, and start reading. There’s a load of pictures from each country linked to at the end of the post as well.
This is our first Xmas overseas without any family or friends around so to all of you, we’ll raise a wee toast, hopefully in the sun, and hopefully with a BBQ on (I’m writing this a few days beforehand). Even for those we used to live very close by but for whatever reason we never saw each other much, and for all our friends around the world…a big xmas-y toast to you all!
We are based in Golden Bay in the North of the South Island in NZ for Xmas in a wee camp site. It’s not quite the busy Xmas we had hoped for but many places appeared to be booked out, but we have a great view of the sea from the beach 2 metres behind the van. Unfortunately it not really one to swim in as the tide goes out so far and it’s so shallow you’d have to walk 3km to get out of your depth.
For the last few days we’ve be in Kaiteriteri just before Abel Tasman National Park getting a slow intro to the Kiwi holidays as each spot around us got more arrivals of families carrying half their homes with them for the three week break… 4x4s with families, boats and BBQs pull in and set up camp. Just as you think they have a lot of gear, the boat cover comes off, and the rest of the kit comes out. Fridge Freezers are linked up the power outlets around the campsite, and BBQs are set up.
We are starting to feel like the poor camping cousins….as we don’t have any canopies to share, or bottles of Bacardi to sit around. Our neighbours have been more than welcoming, offering their BBQ to us for a shot if we want, and keeping us in touch with the campsite going ons. The arrivals of their three week long neighbours are talked about, and greetings made as they return to the same annual spot, despite all seeming to come from different areas of Christchurch, this is the only time they see each other. Unfortunately le left that camp to head further north.
So it’s been a big year for us! This time last year we were still contemplating our travels and handing in our notice, unless some magical idea came about that we could move up to the West Coast of Scotland and make some money. Now we’re sitting on the other side of the world with a residency application in for the 2nd stage fo the process!
Last year we drove up to take in New Year in Gairloch, stopping on route to flash out headlights at our friend’s cottage across Loch Maree as they set off a Chinese Lantern to say hi to us from the distant shore in their lovely pad. The next few months flew by with some winter activity and me spending the coldest minus 20c weekend winter climbing with my mate, and staying in the van, with the gas and all water bottles freezing solid.
By last New Year we had made up our mind to hit the road and use the NZ working visa’s that had been burning our passports for the previous 6 months (applied for at the last minute ‘just in case”), and spent many hours trying to decide a route to get there, and work out what was feasible.
A route across Central Asia was worked out as it suited a visit to my sister’s in Oman to start out, then over to the ‘Stans (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan), Mongolia, China and Hong Kong before heading to NZ for a year. Just as we thought we had worked out the timing of the railways from Uzbekistan round the long way to Mongolia, we stumbled across a weekly flight from Kazakhstan to Western Mongolia which was our savour and saved us buying Russian visas and ‘wasting’ a week just to transit to where we wanted to go….
Before we knew it, the stress levels were raising along with the excitement as we realised how much stuff we (or more likely I !?!) had, where we were going to stash it at my mums (thanks mum!). A succession of visa applications had been made, and our Uzbekistan one arrived just in the nick of time, after hounding the useless bastards in the London Embassy for weeks (sorry, but it’s more than justified! Jeez you’d think they’d want visitors, not make it a nightmare for them).
The trip was on, we landed in Oman fully exhausted and did very little for a week in the searing heat apart from re-acquaint with my niece. Confident of the price of the taxi between Dubai terminals en-route to Uzbekistan, we still got ripped off by a cocky taxi driver within minutes of being left on our own. We landed in Uzbekistan and was met by my sister’s friend (who had been my Estonian tour guide many years ago) who quickly showed us how to get a lift off a local rather then taxis. There was always a car appeared next to you whenever you the thought of heading home entered your mind – far more efficient than any UK cabbie.
Ciara said “How do you stop for long enough to realise where you are?”.
We had been in our first country for 10 minutes, with 6 more to go. It was just the start!
Uzbekistan whizzed by with our first realisation we were away wen sitting in the heat, surrounded by market sellers in Bukhara. Our next stop in a very troubled Kyrgyzstan was all up in the air even when we left Oman due to recent border closures and violence against the government. We had heard the border was opened so we headed for it in a 2 day trip in a hired taxi to save catching a succession of local buses. This was to be the start of almost 6 weeks in lands of difficult communication!
The Kyrgyzstan border crossing went smoothly and we had to call the guard over and interrupt his chess game due to the crossing only being open to foreigners. The next few weeks were spent with highs and lows experiencing Kyrgyzstan, knowing all too well that we’d probably look back on the experience as one of the most interesting in our trip, and it was. We asked 5 different locals about a route and got 3 different answers, we got dropped off in villages which left us very little bargaining power to get to the next village 30km off the main road. We paid tens of times more than the locals price on the way to places, and got locals prices on the way back. We ended up in villages with taxi drivers (that should be car owners) that spoke little English, and ended up in houses where we weren’t sure if we were getting dinner or not, with no shops in sight. We finally got to main touritst attractions, then couldn’t work out what to do there as there were no signs, and no people. Then we tried again, and again, to explain that there couldn’t be any wheat in one of our meals, despite every Kyryz family cooking up the finest bread and practically living off the stuff.
This story was to be repeated several times over the next few weeks.
Despite this, In every place we were met with amazing hospitality and interest…including from my dad’s friend in the capital Bishkek who showed us some places to get a decent fill of food and beer for a couple of days.
From here we headed up to Khazakstan for a couple of days to get our tiny plane to the far west of Mongolia – we landed in a true hick town with a dirt air strip called Olgii….to start what was probably the height of our trip…..a week hiking with a cook, guide, horseman, 2 horses and a big stinking camel close to the Chinese Border. We never got confirmation of our ticket until the day before the flight despite trying to book it for weeks….but luckily we managed to avoid last minute visas and train journeys. Until that point, it was a slight worry that it wouldn’t all come together in the few days we needed it to, and we tried to avoid the thought of paying top dollar to try and get rapid Russian visas and train tickets.
The week was definitely one of our favourite parts – trekking every day, pitching up in tents with world class mountain views, washing in icy cold streams, and ending up trying to haul a camel through a snow drift over the last pass – stories that will live on forever. The horseman never spoke any English but by the time we left him he had given me one of his traditional hats.
Once again, the hospitality of the few Mongolian families we stayed with was amazing, and yet again it proves that the people with the least are usually the most generous. We grew to miss the milk and yoghurt we got accustomed to, even the fizzy putrid mares milk that would explode if you shook it – a bit like a milky Coke! (in terms of fizz). Despite planning on braving the 3-5 day bus journey across the explanse of Mongolia, we discovered there was no definite day of departure (‘when the minibus fills up’), and 2 seats were left on the 3-4hr flight, but at crazily inflated foreigner prices – plus the crazy excess baggage. After our week’s tour in the Altai mountains we landed in a totally chilled state to have a frantic hour of changing money, going to the ticket office, going back to the bank, back to the ticket office, arranging accommodation in Ulanbataar, and instantly the peace of the mountains had vanished!…even though it was good to shower out the smell of camel dung fires from our senses.
When we landed in Ulanbataar, we were overwhelmed by all the travellers and conversations in English around us – it was the first hostel we stayed in, and we had been on the road for 7 weeks. It was surreal. After a 3am yelling match between residents during a football world cup game, we decided that backpackers were a bunch of fekin’ idiots and we were sick of them already.
From here we booked a 10 day trip that came highlighy recommended from a freak of a Manhattan brain surgeon (apparently!) who said “sitting on a bus for that long, it’s shit, f*(Cking sh!t, if you want to learn how to want to commit suicide you should go but be warned – its f&(*&ckin shit”. When we met her she emptied her sack of collected animal bones onto the hostel floor and told us she planned to make a dress from to fly back home to the States with. We decided our personalities were suitably far removed from hers, so we booked the trip.
Luckily we got in with a great crowd of 3 others that were chilled….just as well as we did spend bloody hours and hours in a hot russian van for hours criss crossing the bumpy desert of Mongolia!
From here we had booked our train to Beijing. Crossing the border was like crossing into the 21st century after being stuck away from it for 7 weeks. There was music playing in the station, there were neon lights flashing in casinos (well it was a Chinese border town!), a very well stocked shop and it took longer for us to adjust than it took for them to adjust the width of the train wheels as we were raised on a platform to watch the spectacle.
China was great – a country that intrigues me and one that I had wanted to visit for many years. This time there was just long enough to scratch the surface – Beijing to Xi’an, to Yanghsou, then Hong Kong and into Macau. It was great, it was SUPER easy to travel through and a piece of piss to organise our travel. Maybe it was just that we were used to the opposite but this felt like a holiday from our holiday. The hostels were superb, the backstreets were fascinating, the people amazed me, and the shopping was superb. We stayed a week in Yanghsou doing climbing, cycling, walking, river rafting (or more like a luge!), and relaxing. Some of you may remember we considered trying to get some work here through my friend from Borneo around 6 months earlier, however she had left around 6 weeks before we got there… but in true Darren style we met one of her friends there.
From there it was a sleeper bus to Hong Kong which we LOVED! Again its a place I’ve wanted to go to for years. We both enjoyed it – we had a day on the beach, saw the light show, did some shopping, and could have done WAY more shopping. Unfortunately here we also missed someone I used to work with but hey there was plenty to keep us busy. We couldn’t get over the commercialism but we loved it all the same.
Our last stop was a treat in a hotel in Macau for two nights. We had planned to hit the casinos and enjoy the luxury, but having seen the minimal gambling stakes, and being right at the end of our hard travels, and before the start of a bit more of reality in NZ, we totally chilled out here catching up on sleep and swimming in the pool, enjoying the luxury.
At the end of July we arrived in New Zealand just before being able to spend my birthday weekend skiing with a good friend I met in Canada over 10 years ago. I had only met him since on my last trip to NZ. We hit this country with a big bad thud and a bit of a downer as we realised we had to get back to a bit of normality, and had to deal with the relative monotony of living in a westernised country : no haggling, not great markets, no language barriers, no dodgy buses, trains or flights.
We were to get over this downer within a few weeks, and you can read recent blog posts about our time in NZ. I’ll try to post up something over the next week or so about why we like it here and what made us want to stay.
Although our visas tell us we should leave here in July, in our hearts that would be way too soon for us. We seem to have this sense of ‘purpose’ here (although god knows what it is!? ;-> ) and there are lots of things to explore, and it’s just a bit different. Sure there are many downsides, with distances and costs being the main and the biggest ones.
Our second and hopefully final stages of our residency application went in just before Xmas, with realms of paperwork, certificates and references, and a big cheque (but not that big considering). It’s now up to the Immigration department how long we’ll be able to stay. We are hoping it should be relatively easy, we’ll get a ‘returning residents’ visa, and we’ll have a couple of years to live through spending at least 6 months a year in NZ (but likely most of that time) before we get our full residents permit, assuming it goes that far.
It’s been a blast of a year, and we’re starting off 2011 on the road. We’ve got our 4×4 Hitop Toyota Hiace campervan, boogie boards, mountain bikes, BBQ, climbing gear, road atlas and it feels like it’s right where we want to be.
If only the lot of you could get over here easily to catch up regularly, life would be near perfect!* Roll on travel at the speed of light.
(* – although it’s all too easy for me to write that – I’ve not worked since May!)
Merry Xmas everyone, and have a bloody great New Year!!
Photos – click on the country to launch the slideshow :
PS : If you read this far, leave a comment below!