Our story is a little different from most you find on your average travel blog. For starters, we are much older than your usual backpacker (born in 1965 not after 1985). We have each lived so-called ordinary lives, but as we hurtle towards the end of our days (let’s face it, we are closer to that end of your average life cycle than the other) we yearn to spend more time doing what makes us happy. Travelling, exploring, experiencing and, of course, diving.
In August 2012 we embarked on a journey from the comfort and familiarity of London and the UK. We travelled east through Europe, then Russia on the Trans Siberian Railway, dipped south through Mongolia, before heading even further south into China, where we spent three months. We then followed the well-trodden south east Asian path through Vietnam, Cambodia and (briefly) Bangkok. Finally, we had a short 7 weeks island hopping trip in Indonesia before flying to Australia from Bali.
Once settled into our new life on the other side of the planet from where we started, we had time to reflect on our huge trip and our experiences along the way.
There were many different aspects to the whole experience, some were a constant thread throughout the journey, others specific to a particular circumstance.
The first six weeks were planned for reasons of convenience, cost, visas, and efficiency. During those 6 weeks it was reassuring to know that everything was booked in advance, and this made the initial leg less daunting knowing that someone else would make sure that we turned up in time to catch the right train, and that our train tickets were in fact already booked rather than having to make those arrangements ourselves.
These first weeks gave us time to settle into what would be 9 months continually travelling from one place to the next. We would have months of having to fend for ourselves. Being virtually babysat in the first few weeks while we continually pinched each other to convince ourselves we were finally on our way wasn’t a bad way to start.
However, by the time we arrived at the last place in Russia we were craving the freedom to shake off an itinerary and lose the guides; we were actively relishing the challenge of winging it ourselves, feeling by that time that we were losing out on part of the whole experience being shackled to a timetable.
It is ironic therefore that, when we arrived in Beijing, overcome with disbelief and wonder that we were actually in China without setting foot on a plane, it was the first time (and one of the few overall) that we were ripped off on our journey in one of the best known and well-publicised scams, by a taxi driver. Looking back we might have linked our bad luck to the fact that we no longer had the support of a third party but we didn’t. It just made us very cross.
It is worth mentioning that it was no small miracle that throughout our whole journey, the only time we bought the wrong ticket was when I didn’t know what day it was (which wouldn’t have mattered anyway because Paul didn’t know the Chinese word for “Sunday” but that’s another story). Otherwise, we always ended up where we wanted to be (always a gamble and not insignificant victory considering the language barrier in China).
Constantly travelling and making plans to head off to the next destination can drain you mentally, physically and emotionally. That is not to say that we did not love (almost) every minute of it. When we reached some places we were ready to move on after our five day minimum rule; other places we wanted to stay longer to see more, or to rest more, so once we had the freedom to so this, we generally went with how we felt. We found our travel rhythm: we found what worked for us.
We missed certain predictable home comforts; bacon, cheese, bread, potatoes, and identifiable meat were all foodstuffs that we craved. It will come as no surprise to anyone that toilet facilities became an ongoing game of Russian roulette, and later in our trip, after we had spent time on remote islands in Cambodia and Indonesia, the promise of constant running water became an absolute luxury.
Preferred mode of transport in descending order is now set in stone as: rickshaw, train, boat, taxi, motorbike taxi, camel, aeroplane, cable car, bus (particularly the Cambodian variety) and finally, and most definitely, elephant (which is also the least socially acceptable and so I say, fair play to the elephant, and apologise).
Driving through the almost deserted streets of Siem Reap at dawn in a rickshaw towards sunrise and the temples at Angkor Wat with the cool breeze in your face was simple luxury. You knew that by 9 o’clock the sun would be beating down fiercely forcing you to seek shade anywhere from the burning heat. By midday you would be exhausted and gratefully climbing back in your rickshaw for the surprisingly cool journey back through the forest to the city and to your air conditioned hotel room for a cold beer and an afternoon nap.
There were some places that simply took our breath away. Travelling by train through Russia from iconic Moscow, crossing from one continent into another, instilled in us a sense of the absolute vastness of this massive country. But Lake Baikal in Siberia was the first place that really took our breath away with its simple, unspoilt and stunning beauty. We were mesmerised by the place.
Mongolia’s vast plains and deserts, its extreme weather, and the harsh living conditions still endured and enjoyed by the nomadic people who make up the majority of the population was in stark contrast to the capital, Ulaanbaataar’s, recent rapid economic growth. Mongolia is another enormous country but with a tiny population which combination lends itself to an eerie atmospheric wilderness where, during the day you can make out the individual tail feathers of eagles circling overhead in afternoon sunshine as they swoop close to the ground looking for dinner, and at night you hear wolves howling at the moon.
Three months in China meant we only glimpsed its cultural diversity, and stunning and varied landscapes, and we longed to explore more of this mysterious and ancient land. China’s spoken and written language might be main reason this country feels so alien but, as we discovered, a little effort to learn the language of your hosts will reap untold rewards and help you get under the skin of the country. China’s communism is such a small part of its ancient and fascinating history, and its future is even more exciting.
Vietnam and Cambodia’s recent tragic history touched us both; for me in particular, to actually see and hear personally what these people went through made it so real and stirred an interest that I simply didn’t have from my home in the UK where these places were another world that existed on the TV. We were educated from the a Vietnamese perspective about the American War which continues to maim and scar the people and countryside today, but found attitudes to be largely forgiving and forwarding thinking despite the atrocities forced upon the, and the legacy that remains today.
Pol Pot’s barbaric killing fields in Cambodia affected me deeply and the stories I heard and the books I read made me wonder how I could have been so ignorant of this horrific human tragedy even though I was only child when the slaughter began. Cambodia remains stunned by the events and stunted to a great extent, both politically and emotionally. I wonder whether it will ever recover but we loved the country, and our memories of our time there have grown fonder since we left.
Angkor Wat lived up to our own hype. It had been one place Paul had always wanted to visit since he was a child and one particular stunning sunrise over Angkor Wat on our second day saw him moved to tears that he had reached this one goal.
The pristine Cambodian beaches and islands were where Paul learned to dive and I began to conquer my fear of the water. We went on two liveaboard trips and our time in this part of the country left us with an enduring love for the wonderfully weird and colourful world under the waves.
Borneo’s jungles and wildlife were an adventure on the river under the sun, the warm rain and the stars where we met orangutans, gibbons, and wild boar, and slept to the sound of monkeys chattering in the trees.
Other Indonesian islands we visited off the beaten track (Pulau Derawan off the west coast of Borneo and the Togeans in stunning Sulawesi) rewarded us with more beautiful beaches and underwater worlds.
Donggala, our last stop in Sulawesi on the central west coast near Palu has turned into one of our happy places and we hope to return for the third time soon to Prince John Dive Resort.
Bali was a means to an end to get to Australia cheaply and quickly, and our decision to stay in the north east was a sensible one. We spent the last week of our 9 month journey in Tulamben quietly reflecting, snorkelling, diving (Paul), reading (me), and contemplating our return to the rat race.
But our trip didn’t end there. After a week or so in Adelaide doing the family thing and meeting the in-laws at last, we set off along the spectacular Great Ocean Road towards Melbourne where we would make our home for the foreseeable future.
Having planned the trip for so long, the future was now quite uncertain in so many ways, and we were both a year older, with a yearning to return to some places we had been, and an appetite to discover other places we had not.
Almost two years later, we have found it impossible to settle in Australia. We have finally admitted to ourselves and each other that we simply want to get back on the road, and until firm plans are made, and a light at the end of the tunnel signifying a way out of the rat race is seen, we will not be happy.
Watch this space.