Central Asia is a destination ranking high on the road trip wish list, a tempting and exotic location just within reach through driving. When we saw Karen and Rudy’s photos of their trip there, we knew that this was a story our fellow travel enthusiasts needed to hear. They’ve been together for an impressive 36 years and have made a grand number of journeys in their time together. But they waited until the kids were all grown up to make their next exciting journey… travelling through Central Asia with a Volkswagen bus!
How it all began
How did the idea for this trip come about?
"We’ve always travelled a lot and now the urge was slowly returning. It was also the perfect moment to take a longer trip. A part of the silk road had already been on our wishlist because we were curious how it would be there and what we would experience there. It truly is unexplored territory for us, as these are countries that we have never visited and that haven’t even been accessible to travellers for that long. When we chose the destination, we decided that we wanted to take this journey with our own form of transport and preferably with a campervan. As this ensures that you’re completely self-sufficient. You can stop where you want, go wherever you want and you also take in a lot more of the nature. If you travel with public transport or with a normal car, then you’re much more dependent on hotels. You have less freedom.”
"Because we had predicted that the roads would be quite bad (and that was correct!), we needed a campervan that would be easy to repair and doesn’t have too much electronics. We started searching and then our gaze was pulled right to this T3 campervan. We bought it especially for the trip. It is so great to go on the road with this kind of bus, as you just have this enormous feeling of freedom.”
Did you prepare much for your journey?
"We bought a number of Lonely Planet’s, searched for a lot of information online and prepped the campervan. We replaced the sun panels on the van. We also thought about which materials and spare parts we should bring with us. Next to that, we checked visa information and arranged the ones we still needed. We basically chose a route already as we knew how long we had and wanted to know how many kilometers per week we could do, without being in the van the entire time. That’s it really. A good website that can help you prepare for a trip through these countries is www.caravanistan.com. It also has up to date information regarding border crossings. Oh yeah, we also installed navigation apps on our phones to work as GPS when offline. Maps.me is an example of a really good one.”
The trip itself
What are all the places you visited on this trip?
"We departed from Vilvoorde, near to Brussels. After that we drove to the north of Germany, to Travemunde, where we took the ferry to Helsinki in Finland and headed to Russia from there. That is only four hours away, but you’ve got to add four hours due to the border.”
"In Russia we began in St Petersburg. From there we drove to the north of Russia until Petrozavodsk, and then directly through Russia to Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan we were in Astana, the capital city, and then directly down to Kyrgyzstan. From Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, where we took the Pamir Highway. That is truly a challenge, if you’re up for an adventure. You drive on a super tall road, in the middle of the Pamir Mountains, that was built by Russians to reach Afghanistan quicker. From Tajikistan we drove to Uzbekistan. Back in Kazakhstan we took the boat from Aqtau to Baku in Azerbaijan, where we didn’t stay very long. To finish, we stayed for three weeks in Georgia, which was really great. Finally we took a boat from Batumi to Bulgaria and then drove home from there. It was an amazing trip, we were gone for 101 days, drove 18,000 km, of which 6,000 were offroad. We slept 44 times in our campervan, 7 times in people’s homes and the rest in an Airbnb or hostel. In cities we generally didn’t sleep in the campervan. We didn’t have a toilet with us and so that can be quite tricky in a city.”
What was so special about your trip?
"Two things that really stuck out are the unbelievably hospitable people and the landscapes. The people are really curious. They want to know who you are, where you come from. We went to places where no tourists ever go and I think that our campervan is on countless selfies. Everyone wanted to take a photo with us and with the van in it too. We were invited to come for picnics and even to eat at peoples homes. We were invited to a wedding and to a student party. It is honestly heartwarming to experience. That was one of the things I really found magnificent. And the landscapes! The Caucasus in Georgia is very rough and wild, in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan there are high mountains with snowy tops. It is phenomenal! And also the vastness. There is no one there, or at least you think there there is no one there. You see so few people, you see so little traffic. We really like that.”
Was this hospitality present in all of the countries?
"Yes, it really was in all of the countries. It’s really embedded in the culture that what you have you share. Also, we were always taught that they are ex-communist countries and that it doesn’t work. That we are the ‘good’ ones and they’re the ‘bad’ ones. But when you’re there, you can see that it really isn’t like this at all. It’s true that these countries are a bit poorer. A monthly salary falls between €200 and €250. That really isn’t a lot. Everything is cheap there, but that still doesn’t account for much. You start thinking to yourself, ‘we just have far too much’. It is a beautiful realisation. Also because you’re also just driving a little campervan. We were away for 3.5 months and we missed almost nothing. We had everything with us that we needed. All the comfort, all the luxury. It was just a completely different way.”
At what sort of places did you overnight? And how did you find these?
"Finding places is pretty easy nowadays, we bought a local sim card with internet on it, which helped. We looked for camping spots through the app ioverlander. We also looked up places ourselves. We almost always wild camped. Only in Petrozavodsk in Russia did we pitch at a small campsite and we also stayed at a picnic site once where you had to pay. For the other nights we used booking.com and maps.me, the app that you can use offline on your phone. Aside from that, they’ve got things like Airbnb and homestays, where you stay with someone in their home. Also the Lonely Planet is full of places where you can overnight. So there is always a place for you to stay and sleep.”
Did it go well, all that time together in such a small campervan?
"Yes, that went very well hahaha. If you look at our photos, you’ll see that we’re always laughing. Always with a happy expression. We agreed before the trip already, that if something happens with the campervan, then that’s just how it is. You’re going to countries that you know nothing about, where roads are really bad, something can always happen. That is a shame and at those moments we just let it come to us. If you already depart with such an attitude then the stress levels are far lower, especially if something then happens.”
Did you guys have a lot of bad luck?
"In the end we suffered a breakdown two times. One time it was the left spring that was broken, and Rudy was able to temporarily recover it until we could reach the closest city. That was about 3 or 4 hours driving, but there we found a garage who repaired it for us. It made a huge difference that the garage that sold us the campervan gave us some spare parts to take with, among other things those springs as those can break quickly. So that was ideal.”
"The second time we were 3200m high, and that was a bit less fortunate. We had a crack in the oil pan and couldn’t get the van in the right gear. In the end we were able to fix it with glueing a-component glue, then refilling the oil and driving down in the second gear. So we still ended up at a garage. There they fixed it. That is actually also a big cultural difference. Here we have a replacement culture, that there needs to be a new part put in. They have more of a reparation culture.”
Tips, tricks and other little goodies
What tips would you you give to people wanting to make this journey?
"One tip for this trip is to learn a little bit of Russian. It isn’t absolutely necessary, but certainly useful. That actually is another thing to include in preparation. I did a class of evening school each week and Rudy did it with the Duolingo app. It was just very useful because then you can speak to people a bit, you have something in common. And after a while you know what you should say. It is often the same phrases that you learned. ‘Where do you come from, where are you going, how is your family structured, where do you work, what do you earn?’, those are the kinds of things they want to know. So after a while we could speak a good bit of Russian.”
"Moreover, I’ve had a lot of questions about safety, but it really is super safe there and I actually think it is safer than by us. Those regimes are often more or less dictatorial and that actually ensures it is safe as everyone walks within the lines. There is almost no crime and that is definitely a comforting feeling if you’re wild camping.”
"it is also quite useful to know a bit of the technical side. It is also not absolutely necessary, but it is easy. And what I would definitely recommend, is that you have a reserve key hidden in a place that only you know and where you can get it if the van is locked and you lose your other key. And the most important tip: just go do it! It is insanely beautiful and you’ll experience so much. Just don’t wait too long as right now there is minimal tourism, but there is a bit of infrastructure. In 10 years it could be too late, then there will be far more tourism and the charm will be gone.”
Which things can you not forget to bring on such a trip?
"A good humour and patience, lots of patience. Sometimes you need to wait for quite a while. And bringing several credit cards is useful. I would bring two credit cards per person, so that if one gets blocked, you have a reserve. We really appreciated our duvet, particularly at such heights as it can be quite cold. And we definitely used a lot of duct tape. We brought 3 rolls with us and they’re almost finished.”
"It is also important to have spare parts for the van. We were in Astana and our exhaust pipe vibrated loose from the suspension bracket. This piece is really unique to the T3, and it was broken. We were by a small garage and I think they called for an hour or two three. Suddenly they said they had found one. Then someone went to get it and voila, it was mounted and we were ready once more. By taking a part with you that truly only fits on your campervan you can avoid this, even if a lot of things can just be repaired.”
"We also had a pisspot that could be used as a bucket. We used this if the engine overheated. It’s a trick that we learned from the locals. We stop by a river or stream to get water and then while the motor is running we would pour the water on the ventilator, on the grid in front. Then the motor cools off easily and we’re able to drive further. But you can also do this with a pan or a washing bucket. Everything else you can buy, so if you’re missing or need something, just buy it. Maybe you won’t find it at the exact moment that you really wanted it, but in the end it’s possible to get everything.”
Have you guys planned your next trip?
"We’ve thought about heading to Africa, and travelling through South-Africa, Nambia, Victoria Falls. That will be the next one haha. Then in a few years at my work I can say, do you know what I once did, I’d quite like to do that again ;).”
Head to Goboony to find a motorhome to hire, and embark on your journey of a lifetime!