Today marks the end of our first year on the road. In 365 days we’ve visited seventeen countries and two sort-of-countries (Hong Kong and Macau), sort-of-visited another country (North Korea), crossed over two more (France and Belgium), and sailed in sight of another three (The Phillipines, Palau and Papua New Guinea). We’ve crossed borders 31 times (33 if you count the Korean MDL), once every 11 or 12 days on average. Gosh.
Seven of these crossings we made by boat, one by air, and the rest overland (or bridge).
We’ve been on three continents, and ventured across both tropics and the equator. We’ve travelled thousands and thousands of kilometres — 4000 of them on the world’s longest passenger railway, 3000 by bicycle, and 8000 on board a cargo ship.
We’ve seen the great wall of China alone at sunrise, climbed sacred mountains, had a Russian sauna next to the biggest lake in the world (then jumped in), hiked ancient pilgrimages, floated in hot springs, sipped cocktails on top of skyscrapers, abseiled down a 60 metre waterfall, motorbiked down dirt roads to deserted beaches, learned how to rock climb by ourselves, roamed the temples of Angkor, snorkeled with sharks (plus a sea turtle, a ray, and a conger eel), and been surprised to find scores of whales breaching and splashing their tales, metres away from our boat.
In a sense these moments are what travel is all about, the peak experiences that make you feel truly fortunate to be alive, and to have the opportunity to travel. But they’re not what travel is made up of. They’re one day in 10, sometimes much less. Day to day, travel for us is about soaking up a place, trying the food, drinking the coffee, hanging out in the beer gardens, sitting in a temple watching the world go by.
This is what our trip has really been made of — a thousand small experiences that add up to a rich impression of the world. The details that show you what a place is, something of what living there means, a glimpse of how the world looks from each viewpoint.
We’ve been invited into people’s homes, festivals, feasts, and cars (not in a creepy way), been lavished with tea, food and smiles, and been astounded by the kindness of strangers, over and over again. We’ve slept in hostels, from beachside palm huts to skyline view apartments, and hotels, from grotty guesthouses to traditional inns (plus a couple of nights of full on luxury). We’ve stayed in all manner of homes, from earth floored ones in the mountains, to flats in Soviet city blocks, and slept in bunks and berths in trains, buses, boats and a campervan. We’ve spent a night in a hammock in the jungle, several nights in our trusty tent, a night under the stars on a beach, and slept in a train station, a bus station, a jungle hide, and a hill top monastery.
We’ve had butter-roasted coffee in Malay Chinese coffee shops that feel frozen in time, sat for the meditative 20 minute drip of Vietnamese coffee into a little cup of condensed milk, had filter with cinnamon buns in Estonia, copious Mister Donut refills in Japan, nothing but three-in-one instant in Myanmar (great tea though), and some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, on the Bolaven plateau in Laos. We’ve breakfasted on blini and jam, rice and pickles, steamed buns, rice porridge, noodle soup, naan and dahl, dim sum, and yes, banana pancakes. Also tiramisu.
It hasn’t all been rainbows and unicorns of course. We’ve battled bureaucracy and lost, got stranded in the middle of the night, thought we were going to be eaten by a bear, actually been eaten by bedbugs, been (halfheartedly) attacked by a civet cat, had more mosquito bites than I thought possible, sustained heat exhaustion, an ear infection, horrible food poisoning, a nasty head wound, and too many mysterious rashes to mention, fallen off a bicycle, fallen off a motorbike (slowly), been hit (gently) by a motorbike, had (small) bribes extorted from us, accidentally left behind moderately expensive belongings, and had our peanuts, beer, milk and yoghurt stolen.
But so far, touch wood, we haven’t had any really nightmarish experiences (obviously the yoghurt incident was close), or faced any serious hassle. And this isn’t all down to street smarts (if it was we’d be screwed). On the whole, the people we’ve met have been nothing but welcoming and kind hearted.
Above all, while we’ve experienced a spectacular variety of cultures, climates, foods and landscapes, we’ve found people everywhere are remarkably similar. I mean, we’re all utterly different people, but we want the same things, and we hold the same things dear. Everybody has complaints about their government, everybody wants more time to spend as they choose and with the people they love, everybody worries for the future, and mourns some part of the past, and everybody has hope that things will get better.
I’ve learnt a lot about travel itself as well. And not just the banal stuff (bring more than six pairs of pants, you will steadily lose them, you will only be able to find child sized ones, and then you will have no pants).
For me, it turns out, a year is a long time to be on the go constantly. About nine months in I began to dread packing my bag a little, even though it only takes five minutes. Journeys began to lose their excitement. Small irritations became big ones. I’m still enjoying myself, how could I not, there are so many wonderful things to see. But I’m TIRED.
This is not the best way to see the world, my appreciation for new things is getting blunted, and my need for down time is expanding. So I know for the future that smaller chunks of continuous travel, perhaps six months or so, work better for me.
That’s not to say I want this trip to be over, I absolutely don’t. But we need to start purposefully building longer stops into our travels. We’ve generally spent somewhere between a few hours and a few days in each place. The longest we stayed anywhere was two and a half weeks in Bangkok, at the end of our cycling adventure. (We were a bit exhausted, and also trying to sell our bicycles.)
When we set out we expected that we’d do some volunteering or wwoofing along the way, and perhaps stay for a month or two somewhere in Asia, or even a couple of places. For reasons we can’t quite work out, this never happened. In short, we didn’t make it a priority, so we didn’t get round to it. There was always something we wanted to see or do, and somehow time got away from us.
In fact, we expected the section of our trip up to New Zealand to only take around nine months, but we found so much to do that it’s going take more like fourteen.
Just when we began to slow down a bit and were thinking of stopping for a month or so in Malaysia, we decided to book ourselves onto a cargo ship voyage, and suddenly we only had a month left in Asia, and a long way to travel to get on the boat. So here we are, a year on the road, and ready to stay still for a while.
Which, in New Zealand, is just what we plan to do. We’re hoping to get some work there, and find ourselves a base, though we’ll do plenty of roaming too I’m sure.
But not just yet! First we’ve got a few weeks in Australia to look forward to, and I’m itching to see more of a country that I barely scratched the surface of when I visited a few years back. And as well as all of this massive country’s beauty and bounty, in Australia we have loved ones to visit. So here, on the other side of the Earth from where we started a year ago, we’ll be coming home.
(We expect cake.)
UPDATE: Photos now seamlessly spliced in.
You may be wondering why there are hardly any photos in this post of all these wonderful things we claim to have done. We’re in the Australian outback right now and the internet is not cooperative (I’m amazed there is any actually — the drinking water here is piped from 450 kilometres away). We’ll stick some pictures in as soon as we get a better connection!