Random Traveller #56 with Old World Wandering

by Poi on August 27, 2011

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Welcome to round 56 of ‘Meet a Random Traveller’. The series dedicated to bring attention to fantastic people all around the world doing their thing.

Random Traveller 56

Old World Wandering

Songkran in Bangkok

Who are you?
Iain is a tall, gangly South African who might occasionally wear tweed, if he didn’t live out of a backpack. He is also the author of Tales of Old Singapore, a dedicated China watcher and a Pastafarian. Claire, who is South African too, is a well spoken lager lout with an appetite for beer that is matched only by her passionate disapproval of precious travellers. Her book about Chinese contemporary art, Sold Out, will be published early next year. It is a survey of the Middle Kingdom’s bravest and strangest that has kept her busy for close on two years.

What’s the deal?
Iain – Old World Wandering is an overland travelogue. It is a collection of travel stories from two journeys through the Old World – the first journey was from London to Shanghai and took us eighteen months; the second is from Shanghai to Cape Town. Claire and I have hauled our backpacks across roughly thirty borders so far. We like to think overland travel is the best way to make connections within regions and across cultures, but it’s also the cheapest way to travel long-term, and Cape Town is still far far away.

Shanghai China

The Shantang Canal in Suzhou, near Shanghai

Tell us about your big trip from London to Shanghai
Claire – One day, while living as paupers in London, forever fantasising about travelling – and escaping our shoebox of an apartment – Iain traced a vague line across Eurasia on the world map that had been hanging, hopefully, on our bedroom wall. “We could get all the way there by land,” he said, out of nowhere, and pointed to Shanghai, all the way in the far east of China. Shanghai was basically the furthest you could go before you were in the sea. It sounded crazy to me at the time, but exhilarating too. Soon after that, we began planning and saving for the long journey to China.

Our route took us north from London, through England and Scotland, then west by ferry to Ireland. A ferry to France linked us up with Europe’s railways, which we rode for three months around western Europe. After a train from northern Greece to Turkey, we spent three months drinking tea in the Middle East, before arriving in India. We imagined we’d spend about three months travelling around the Indian subcontinent before being ready to move on to China, via Nepal and Tibet. We also expected that our money would soon run out. But India surprised us in several ways. Nine months later, we’d spent less money than we did during three months in Europe, and had soaked up about as much as we could – for the time being, that is.

We travelled north to the Himalayan Plateau, took a jeep from Kathmandu through Tibet to Lhasa, and connected with the world’s highest railway line. A two day train later and we were in Chengdu, in China proper. We took our second-last train to Xi’an, then our last to Shanghai. Three years later, we stopped calling Shanghai home, and left China.

How much did you plan in advance and did you stick to those plans once on the move?
Claire – An intended six months of journeying (which would have felt like a race, I think) turned into eighteen months. So no, we didn’t stick to all of our plans. Our route did stay more or less the same though, except that we decided to go south into Egypt from Jordan, which was a bit of a detour. Oh, and we zigzagged through India for nine months, going nowhere in particular before leaving via Nepal and then going back in on a new visa. Despite that, I don’t think we really appreciated just how free we were because we had a final destination in mind and that kept us moving.

Pongala Festival in Trivandrum, India

A girl dressed to receive a blessing from Attukal Devi at the Pongala Festival in Trivandrum, India

What was your highlight of living in Shanghai?
Iain – My first reaction is that learning to speak Chinese was, above everything else, the best thing we did with our time in Shanghai – but learning Chinese was just one part of a slow, multifaceted process. We built a life in Shanghai and as we did, we both felt as if the city and country were opening up to us, and that new, unexpected possibilities were constantly unfolding. We both got book deals in Shanghai, for example, and I don’t think that would have happened in many other places.

What are you currently up to?
We’re seven months into our next big trip – from Shanghai to Cape Town, where we’re both originally from. The thing is, India didn’t really fit into our route, and we’ve been dying to go back, so we decided to fly there as a separate trip in January this year, and fly from there to Thailand in April. Since then, we’ve been travelling by bus, train and boat through mainland Southeast Asia for the past four months. We’ve in Vietnam at the moment, and will be entering China any day – to start the official ‘Shanghai to Cape Town overland’ part of our journey. We should arrive in Shanghai by late October. (Yes, we know we’re going backwards…) From Shanghai, we’ll finally start heading west, homeward bound. From China, it’s through the ‘Stans, Iran, back to our favourite parts of the Middle East, and down the east coast of Africa until we reach Cape Town, right at the continent’s southern tip.

A big thanks to Iain and Claire for taking part, great to have you.

Be sure to check them out:
Blog: Old World Wandering: An Overland Travelogue
Twitter: @clairevdh & @iainmanley
Facebook: /oldworldwandering

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Audrey August 29, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Sounds like a great overland adventure! I’ll be sure to check this duo out 😀

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