Three years. Yes, we are aware that this is an insanely long time to be on the road and living out of backpacks. So before we attempt to enlighten you with our travel secrets, we reflect.
When we hopped on a train from Prague, Czech Republic to Dresden, Germany to begin our round-the-world journey on December 5, 2006, we expected “to see the world” in 12-18 months. But something happened on the way to the finish line: more than 30,000,000 footsteps and a story whose end has not yet been written.
So what are we still doing on the road after all this time? In recursive fashion, thoughtful exploration has taught us that thoughtful exploration takes time.
“And what have you learned?” we are often asked. If forced to sum in one sentence (we often are), it would be this: The world is a conflicted place, one whose beauty can only be outdone by its atrocities — and vice versa.
But you didn't click on this for philosophy and navel-gazing, did you? So before we get further ahead of ourselves, let's return to the task at hand.
We should mention that last year we shared our top ten lessons learned on the road to mark the second anniversary of our journey. If you missed those, we recommend you read them now.
This year, as our three-year anniversary approached, we were coincidentally tagged in a meme asking bloggers to share three travel secrets.
So here we go with ours.
Three Travel Secrets
Traveling in the Caucasus and Central Asia is safe.
This first secret is a bonus and it sets the groundwork for the three other “official” secrets. When we mention that we traveled extensively throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia, eyebrows are often raised and the question “But is it safe there?” almost always follows.
Perhaps we had a guardian angel unknowingly in tow for the five months we spent in this region. We never had anything stolen and there was never a cloud of security concerns surrounding our plans and movement, as has often been the case in more familiar Latin America.
Tourism is still in its infancy in the Caucasus and Central Asia, particularly compared to well-traveled regions like Europe and Southeast Asia. Perhaps that's why we were often treated as honored guests by complete strangers there.
Having said that, visas to countries in this region are still a bureaucratic pain in the arse. But never was personal safety a serious concern for us, or for any of the handful of other travelers we happened to meet along our way.
1) Best Undiscovered Cuisine: Georgian
When we find ourselves in regions whose food pyramids seem to consist of bread, fried bread, meat and fried potatoes, we long for the subtle and fascinating combination of ingredients found in Georgian cuisine: a creamy walnut-garlic sauce over grilled eggplant, herbed ground meat dumplings, and sour plum sauce.
The food of the Republic of Georgia remains surprisingly unknown outside of the former Soviet Union, but it's definitely worth a side trip.
Even better than Georgian cuisine? Georgian people. They and their overwhelming hospitality provide reason enough to visit this oft-conquered little country tucked between the folds of Europe and Asia.
To learn more about Georgian cuisine, read Georgian Food…such as nice…very tasty.
2) Best Road Trip: Pamir Highway, Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan
Remote, desolate, dramatic, and thought-provoking, travel through the Pamirs feels like a real adventure. There are few restaurants and even fewer hotels; leave the agenda behind. Thankfully, the hospitality in this region is such that you may not really need any infrastructure aside from transport. Locals will invite you into their homes for tea. They'll take you in at night for a token amount and give you a tour of their symbolism-rich Pamiri homes.
The setting is otherworldly and if you choose the right time of year (autumn), it can be wildly colorful. Horses graze in the shadow of 22,000 ft (7,000 meter) Peak Lenin, and donkey caravans make their way in the shadow of the Hindu Kush.
Go soon, for if this is any secret, it may not be so for long. Earlier this year, we helped another travel writer plan his trip to the region for a New York Times travel article.
To learn more about travel along the Pamir Highway read Peak Experiences in the Pamir Mountains
Photo Essays from the Pamir Highway
- Peak Experiences: Osh to the Pamirs
- High Desert Desolation: Tajik Border to Murghab
- Skirting Afghanistan in Wakhan Valley
- Last Days in Pamirs: Ishkashim to Khorog
3) Best Camping: Darvaza Gas Crater, Turkmenistan
Set in the middle of the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan, the Darvaza gas crater is just cool. Well, hot actually – as hot as Hell you might say.
In 1971, a Soviet engineer decided to set fire to a collapsed natural gas pit aflame in order to exhaust the remaining fumes. Though he only expected it to burn a short while, more than 35 years later Darvaza's flames still flicker.
As you approach the 60 meter-wide crater at night (usually, in some romantic fashion, like in an old Soviet van), you'll notice that its active flicker is visible for up to an hour. The closer you get, the more its surreal immensity becomes apparent.
Watching the flames from the cool comfort of the surrounding dunes is beautifully tranquil. The mind-clearing desert solitude is so calming that many visitors stay up all night. It's that captivating.
The journey to the crater from Ashgabat is an adventure itself. Nomadic desert village stops feature scruffy children, even scruffier camels and aging yurts. The entire scene — including the old metal gas cans, motorcycles and derelict Soviet vehicles — makes for an ideal Turkmen still life.
To learn more about the Darvaza Gas Crater, read Kicking Up 4,000 Years of History in Turkmenistan
Questions for us: If you have questions for us – about this journey, what's in our packs, us, life, whatever – ask away in the comments section here, on Twitter, Facebook, or by sending us an email. We'll answer them later in a follow-up post in the new year.