Three Years on the Road; Three Travel Secrets

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.

Shadows at Dusk - Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan
Dan and Audrey in the Turkmen desert.

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.

Yes.

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.

Kyrgyz Man and Dog - Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan
A friendly shepherd and his dog in Kyrgyzstan.

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.

Khinkali - Tbilisi, Georgia
Georgian feast of khinkali (Georgian dumplings).

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.

Photo Essay: Georgian Cuisine

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.

Pamiri Women with Buckets of Water - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Water run in the Wakhan Valley of the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan.

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

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.

Looking into Darvaza Gas Crater - Darvaza, Turkmenistan
Darvaza Gas Crater: Like staring into hell.

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

Photo Essay: Turkmen Desertscapes

——-
This post is part of the Tripbase Three Travel Secrets meme making its way around the blogosphere.

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.

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Comments

  1. says

    Must…go…..to that gas….crater..soon. It looks surreal. Thanks for the tag, publishing my 3 tips today! Safe travels through Paraguay. If you have not yet read a great book called “At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig” about Paraguay’s tumultuous, fascinating history, try and pick it up – it was great.

    -Jodi

  2. says

    Wow! Three years is a long time! Congrats to you guys for living in the moment. I was shocked to see that in all of your refelction, Central Asia and Caucasus made such an impression on you! I’m just about to read your other articles. Perhaps I’ll soon find myself in the region…

    :)

    Lindsey

  3. says

    You make me want to pull up roots again and head to Georgia and Turkmenistan.

    Thanks for tagging us in this post. Now thinking of secrets of my own.

  4. says

    Hi!
    Every since you went to Georgia and we read your initial articles, Steven has been begging me to visit…if not move. Now seeing that it has made the top three…I don’t know how I can say no. Guess I should start saving for a trip…
    -diane

  5. says

    Bajillion years ago, when I was in Moscow, our travel group hurled ourselves on the mercy of a cab driver to get something more than that awful gray meat and watery soup we’d been eating. The driver took us to what remains in my mind as one of the best meals I’ve had while traveling — it was a Georgian restaurant. We just let the staff feed us, there was no communicating in anything but the universal sign for “We’re FAMISHED.” And feed us they did.

    It probably cost us nothing, too. I don’t remember that part.

  6. says

    Wow! You two have had an amazing 3 years and what an inspiration you are! I have got to get to the Darvaza Gas Crater…Well, truthfully, I have got to get everywhere listed above! Congrats and so glad that you are still going so that we can keep reading about your journeys!

  7. says

    @David: Thanks. If you would like any advice about the Caucasus and Central Asia beyond what’s on our site, just give us a shout.
    @Jodi: Thanks for “…inflatable pig” recommendation. It’s been recommended repeatedly to us, so a must-read it is.
    @Lindsey: Perhaps the Caucasus and Central Asia made such an impression because we felt like we traveled it rather deeply (we had quite a few contacts throughout the region) and – relatively speaking – we had the place to ourselves. If you go, let us know.
    @Frank: The dumplings – the Georgians call them khinkali – are tasty and surprisingly artistic.
    @Diane: Georgia was quite a place. We loved Tbilisi; we even harbored dreams of buying an apartment there. And the people throughout the country just kept surprising us in pleasant ways.
    @pam: Yep, that’s Georgian food and Georgian hospitality. It’s just about impossible to come away hungry and very possible to come away drunk.
    @Dave and Deb: Thank you!
    @Pete: Love your comments. Clever as always.
    @Matt: Although the clock started ticking on this non-stop journey in 2006, we were actually just talking about how our travels really began in 1998, after Audrey joined the Peace Corps. And to think, we haven’t lived in the U.S. since 2001. Time flies.
    @Agne: Thanks!

  8. says

    Great tips! A great read and a momentous anniversary — thanks for sharing you journey.
    The Georgian dumplings made our tummies grumble, but the pear drink was a nice memory — we spent half an hour trying to figure out what the tarragon one was without reading the label — I wish these sodas were exported!

  9. says

    wow! what an interesting place to go… i’ve been dreaming of doing an overland trip to those landlocked countries… one day, i’ll go there… i hope

    happy new year!!!

    wishing you more travels to come this 2010!

  10. says

    @Eva and Jeremy: I had occasion to come back to this post and realized that I never responded to your comment. You know, those Georgian dumplings (khinkali) are a dream, particularly when they are made well. My tummy is rumbling as I write this.
    @flip: I highly recommend it. The Caucasus and Central Asia get little attention, which makes them all the more fascinating than they already are (which is to say a lot).
    @Bill: The Pamirs are said to be just behind the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, not only in geography, but also in scale.

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