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Overland to Australia

In July 1998 two Aussies, a baby and VW left London to return to Australia. Our journey home took just over seven months, and took us overland through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Kirghistan, China, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. It was the journey of a lifetime and a wonderful way to return to Australia after being away for seven years. (Why fly when you can drive!) After two years of planning and working our way through the intricacies of all of the paperwork that was required for the trip, we set off from London. We had an extra little passenger on board, our son Samuel who was born in London in February 1998. He was a good traveller, a happy and sociable little boy who adapted well to all the changes of being on the road and revelling in the crowds and attention that he drew along the way. on the road Leaving London we spent three weeks in Europe, easing in gradually to life on the road and visiting some of our favourite spots in Europe en route – a little finale to our time in the UK. We travelled via France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, enjoying the beautiful scenery of Europe along the way and the wonderful variety of good food.


We arrived in Turkey during a heat wave with temperatures up to 44° C in the shade! As we neared Istanbul we had our first taste of congested and crazy traffic, white lines and traffic lights ignored! It was good to visit Istanbul again, having been here around ten years ago on our first trip out from Australia. The bazaars, covered markets, mosques and people, the smells and the noises were all great to be back in again. The Turkish people loved Samuel and would cart him off at any chance. He found the women in chadors most amusing and would squeal with delight and try to grab their face veils when they held him. From the Gallipoli Peninsula we followed the coast around our favourite spots of Fethiye, Oludeniz and Kas along the Mediteranean, before heading inland to Goreme and Cappadocia. As we crossed into Eastern Turkey, the military presence was noticeably higher, more checkpoints, soldiers, tanks and heavy artillery around. The area to Lake Van and around the lake itself was very attractive, mountains and little villages, homes of mud bricks and children out tending the sheep and goats. Dogubayazit was our last stop before Iran, a dusty frontier town in PKK territory, with the snow peaked Mt Ararat looming up in the distance. It was here that Trevor disappeared for a few hours – when he returned he said that he had been a guest of honour at a Bar-B-Q with a group of local men – they had insisted that he join them, a group of men who talked with pride of being Kurds.


Once in past the border chaos of Iran, we found the people very friendly and welcoming, although their driving made the Turks look like Sunday drivers! Covered from head to toe (or neck to toe in Trevor’s case), we made our way around Iran via Tabriz, Hamadan, Esfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis, Kerman, Bam, Yatz, Tabas and Mashhad. The colourful bazaars, mosaic covered mosques and shrines, carpet shops and tea houses were an experience and always there were helpful, friendly people who were very hospitable and loved Samuel. Even the USA dropping a few missiles on bordering Afghanistan didn’t create too much of a stir. Bam was a favourite spot – an oasis town of hundreds of date palms with a very impressive mud brick old city with intact mud city walls that were spectacular to walk around at sunset.

The “Stans”

We exited Iran into Turkmenistan, one of those places that was hard to get information on beforehand. We gave two guys a ride across “no-mans land”, something we don’t normally do, but a worthwhile exercise as they turned out to be officials we then had to deal with at the border and we crossed hassle free. Ashghabat, the capital, was not too bad – less traffic than Iran, you could even cross the road in relative safety – a fairly relaxed city. We found a nice central hotel – in Russian style having a floor lady who would whisk Samuel away whenever she could. The Combi We then struck out across the desert north east to Konye-Urgench, the maps of Turkmenistan were vague and inaccurate – a bit of old Russia’s ‘disinformation’. Couldn’t find out information about the route and at times even wondered if we were on the right track! There was very little traffic, just a few local trucks plodding along, occasionally a small settlement or a group of camels. We camped in the van outside a café at Konye-Urgench at the end of a long day’s drive and were kept up most of the night by the comings and goings of vodka swilling locals until the early hours. Then into Uzbekistan, a country of officials, checkpoints and fines (getting stopped up to 5 – 12 times a day) and it took a day or so to get the gist of shaking them off! We enjoyed Uzbekistan, visiting Khiva and its old walled, paved, city, Bukhara with its mud buildings in the old centre and its markets and fortress, Samarkand with its central square and three huge medressas, ornate in blue mosaics and Tashkent the capital. Samuel Chinese visa ‘red tape’ kept us in Tashkent for a long seven days and it was good to finally leave and head to Kirghistan, transiting through Kazakstan. From Bishkek, the capital, we drove to Lake Issy-Kul, previously a Russian resort area with old crumbling sanitoriums. With its backrop of mountains tipped with snow, roads lined with huge, white poplars, small quiet villages, horses, carts and always buckets of apples for sale along the roadsides, it was a restful spot. We visited the market day at Karakol, a dusty affair with fruit and vegies for sale, chooks, rabbits, fresh meat etc, colourful with the traditional dress of the local people there. With a deadline to cross into China we made our way across to Balchky where we were joined by a local guide to esxort us to China via the Torougart Pass. The route was very scenic, although quite desolate at times, following a wide plain, surrounded by snow capped peaks. Herds of horses roamed the area, as well as yaks and goats. We camped at Tash Rabat, an old caravanesi on the Sild Route before crossing the Torougart Pass at 3574 metres – one of the world’s highest and loneliest crossings, the next day. Oxana, our escort, soon paid her way, helping us escape the customs ‘fees’ at the border and guiding us through the numerous checkpoints in a few hours.


It was great to arrive in China – our biggest challenge of the journey, entering with our own vehicle (a bureaucratic feat on its own) and getting all of the necessary documention. We had to have a guide with us whenever we drove, so Jack became our companion. Chinese number plates were fitted and we got our Chinese Drivers Licenses! Our first stop from the border was Kashgar, a busy place to us but quiet and small by Chinese standards. We visited the Sunday Market, a colourful event with people coming in from surrounding districts to trade – there were donkey carts, horses, wagons laden with people and goods – old men with long beards and women in colourful dress. Our route then took us across the vast Gobi Desert through Aksu, Urumqi, Turpan and Hami to Dunhuan. We attracted a lot of attention wherever we went, Samuel came to expect faces pushed up agains the windows when we stopped and loved waving and laughing at everyone. There were great little villages and towns along the way with markets that spilled out onto the roadways, good little eating places and always heaps of bicycles, people, carts, trucks etc. The roads through China were, for the most part, indescribably awful – heaps of roadworks through the country – being done by hand. Lots of accidents occurred, the result of the roads, the appalling drivers, overloaded buses and old trucks. Great Wall A few of the highlights through this area were the Heavenly Lake, a beatuiful natural setting with rugged mountains, near Urumqi, Turpan with the old mud city ruins and the 1000 Buddha Caves, its good night market and dumpling soup and the Buddhist Cave art at Mogao near Dunhuang. Samuel’s highlight was a camel ride through the ‘Singing Sand Mountains’ here, he hung on to the front hump of our camel and squealed with delight most of the way. In Jiayuguan we walked along the end of the Great Wall, a steep section with turrets and watch towers and further along our route, took a boat along the Yellow River to more Buddhist Grottos, through an area of red rock formations like the Bungle Bungles in Australia. The desert behind us, the rest of our route in China was mountainous. We travelled some amazing routes with roads hugging the moutain sides through terraced and cultivated areas, small villages where time seemed to have stopped still and the lifestyle was simple and basic. We climbed 9000 feet to Xiahe, a Tibetan community with its large monastery, monks in fuscia pink, rows of prayer wheels and Tibetan pilgrims in their colourful dress, before making our way to Xian. The old city wall of Xian was still there but little else ‘old’ remained. The Terracotta Warriors were worth the visit though, quite an amazing sight. We moved on south to Chendu, a long and arduous drive on narrow mountin roads with the inevitabe ‘road works’. Late afternoon seemed to be prime time to blast away a mountainside and them to leave miles of trucks and other traffic ‘stranded’ either side, competing for a small path through. A stray detonator exploded as we passed one such section giving us quite a scare and showering us with mud and rocks from the mountain side. Samuel saw his first pandas near Chengdu (a city so polluted that you couldn’t see the sky scrapers from a block away!) At Leshan we visited the largest Buddha in the world at 71 metres and Samuel kept film sales going as he had his photo taken numerous times by the milling local tourists. We were now in the more tropical area of southern China, with its water buffalo, rice paddies and waterways and visited the more relaxed towns of Lijang and Dali, home to Naxi and Bai minority groups, good apple pie and pancakes! Our six weeks in China went past quickly and we were soon in Kunming, Jinghong and Mengla ready to exit, having travelled 11,000 kms through China from the Torougart Pass.


Laos was so quiet in comparison, a beautiful tropical country with small, simple villages and very little traffic, reminding us in many ways of Africa. We had a guide, driver and three armed escorts meet us at the border for our journey down to Vientiane the capital. This road is known for the occasional holdup and banditry but our journey down was without any trouble. Our companions had a great time – a holiday on our tab- taking photos, stopping in villages, buying fresh game meat etc and it was a wonderful start to our time in Laos. Melodie & Samuel Luang Prabang was an attractive town along the way, situated on the Mekong River. We visited the nearby Kuang Si falls and got a close look at some Asian elephants and visited some of the monastries and temples in town. Samuel came down with the measles on entering Vientiane – so it was a good spot for a weeks R & R in a simple, pleasant guesthouse near the Mekong, with some good food available and easy lazy days. We were greeted on arrival in Vientiane by the Director of Laos Tourism. He and his colleagues had arranged a Lao banquet for us. Trevor went along as guest and enjoyed a feast of ducks blood and other wonderful fare! Then, the next day we were formally greeted in their main office with photos taken and flowers presented! It seems that we were the first foreign vehicle to have entered Laos at this crossing from China and they were rolling out the red carpet!

Thailand and Malaysia (& Vietnam)

We left Laos reluctantly and headed into Thailand, feeling rested after our stay there. Having visited Thailand a couple of times before, we headed to Bangkok from where we took a couple of weeks break to Vietnam, without the VW. It was quite a change to use local transport again after having the luxury of our own car for so long. Vietnam was a great country to visit though and we enjoyed winding our way up from Saigon to Hanoi, through some severely flooded areas but still an amazing country to see. Back in Bangkok we celebrated Samuel’s first Christmas before heading south through some of Thailands national park areas to Malaysia. Malaysia was also experiencing some flooding on its east coast and we headed down to Singapore before travelling up to Penang along Malaysia’s west coast. It was good to visit Malaysia again, our last visit being just over seven years prior.

Back to Australia

It was hard to accept that we had reached the end of our overland route! We had covered 33,000 kms in just over seven months and the VW had become our home. It was therefore with some sadness that we arranged for the VW to be shipped to Sydney although we were looking forward to catching up with family and friends that we had not seen for seven years, and to introducing Samuel! Our first impressions of Australia were of the space and openess, the trees, wide roads and lack of traffic! From Sydney we have driven to South Australia, our home state, to catch up with our families before returning to our home in Perth. Remaining with us of our trip are many memories, many stories and photos and experiences and of course the VW which served us well. It was the trip of a lifetime and one that will remain with us always!! Copywrite [1]Melodie Simons 1999 – All rights reserved

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