UK to Nepal: Travels With Our Sherpa - Part 1
by Cindy Thompson
Sick of the rat race in England, my husband and I decided to sell up and buy a camper van, and drive to Kathmandu, Nepal! We bought a 10 year old ex-British Rail ‘Sherpa’ canteen van, which cost £850 and with a few minor adjustments made it into a basic but comfortable camper. Some friends envied us, wanting to do the same but were too afraid. Others laughed at us. ‘You’re both mad. You’ll never make it to Dover in that!’ I seem to recall one of them saying smugly. But we did make it to Dover and Kathmandu, in fact 22,366 miles, 18 countries and 12 months later we arrived back on Dover docks all in one piece. Our route; England, France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, returning via Greece, Italy, Austria and Holland.
But were we really mad? Had we bitten off more than we could chew? The thought did cross our minds as we left the dismal August weather of England behind, along with the familiarity of our homeland and boarded the ferry to France. We were doing the whole trip on a wing and a prayer. We only had a handful of spare parts and a few good maps of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. We had no satellite navigation, no RAC breakdown recovery, no mobile cell phones, no medical insurance, no life insurance, no jobs, no home to return to, no back-up plans, and not much money. And unlike Michael Palin, we had no BBC backing for when things went wrong. On the face of it, things didn’t look good. But we had faith in ourselves and our abilities, despite all the advice from well-meaning friends and family to the contrary. Our fears soon evaporated, as we watched the White Cliffs of Dover disappear behinds us, and faced up to the arduous journey ahead. I religiously kept a diary every day of our travels, which documented the hilarious, dangerous and sometimes sad occasions with the intention of writing a book about our epic journey. My personal quest was to find the meaning of life and to find out if there really was more to life than a seemingly never ending cycle of work, eat, sleep, a mortgage, and a pension. I found far more than I bargained for.
Our route through Eastern Europe was to put it mildly, rather rapid. It took us both about a month to relax and enjoy the journey, instead of rushing around with the idea that we had to be there yesterday. The pressures of modern living, were initially proving a little hard to shake off. Although we speeded through most of Eastern Europe, we were far more interested in the journey from Turkey onwards, feeling that we would always be able to easily re-visit Europe at a later date. Buy the time we had settled into a relaxed travelling mode, we found ourselves at the Bulgarian, Turkish border. It was our first real border crossing and one which we will never forget.
After the grumpy Eastern Europeans, Turkey was a breath of fresh air. As our little Sherpa chugged up the leafy hills into no-man’s-land, it felt as though a huge depression had been lifted from our midst. At the large immigration/customs building, we had to go and obtain an impressive array of stamps, stickers, signatures, and pieces of paper, from an equally impressive array of helpfully unlabeled doors, windows and apertures, which even the Indians were unable to match. It was by far the longest border crossing of our trip, taking almost two hours to complete. I am sure one of the stamps was to welcome us to the Turkish Trillionaires Club, as we had changed £20 to 9,700,000 Turkish Lira.
Our first stop in Turkey was at a campsite on the Silivri Coast just before Istanbul, which resembled a refugee camp. Large canvas tents pitched closely together, covered with extra sheets of tarpaulin to protect the canvas from the effects of the sun. The men sat around talking to each other, and the children played around the camp and on the beach, whilst women sat outside their voluminous tents, preparing the evening meals. We were welcomed by Pedro, who found us a place to park behind all the tents. No sooner than we had parked, than women and children came with offerings of food, drink and friendship. Although no one could speak any English, we were made very welcome by everyone, and no one would accept any payment for our stay. We later realized that it was a Turkish campsite, where Turkish families from Istanbul would come every year for a week for two, bringing most of their household furniture with them on trailers towed by tractors, to put in the tents. They literally did bring everything but the kitchen sink.
Istanbul was a huge sprawling city, in which we had to obtain our Iranian visas. We camped at Atakoy Campsite on the coast and rode our cycles into Istanbul. This was a tad risky with the melee of traffic jostling for position, but it seemed the Turkish motorists were used to cyclists and gave us a wide berth. We obtained our Iranian visas each costing $50 each in just a matter of days, with minimum fuss. In fact we wondered why everyone warned us it would be difficult. It couldn’t have been easier.
Back at the campsite, a worrying situation was apparent. A young blonde German cyclist was pitching his bivouac just feet from our camper, his frame lean to the extreme, that his trousers were prevented from falling down by a piece of string. Being a very inquisitive person, I went and introduced myself, only to find to my horror that this young man had cycled from Germany and was on his way to INDIA!
‘I must be moving early tomorrow. I have to get through Turkey before it gets too cold and into Iran before it gets too hot.’
‘Why don’t you catch a bus?’ I asked. He wasn’t impressed with my idea, and rushed off to the toilet block for a well earned shower. We woke the following morning to find only a patch of flattened grass, where his bivouac had been. I worried about him and hoped that we would pass him somewhere on the road. Another strange character on the campsite, was Mad Max, a German who wasted little time informing us why our Sherpa wouldn’t make it to India.
‘You have no bumper, only a plastic one.’ He said kicking our standard Sherpa bumper with his big German feet. ‘There are so many cows in India, that you must have a strong bumper.’ He told us waiving his arms about for effect. ‘Pah! You only have single leaf suspension springs. They won’t last a day. Of course you must understand that the roads in India are very rough and springs break easily.’ He then stood back with arms folded and laughed. Mad Max, and his wife it seemed, had driven to India in their 30 year old Mercedes camper van 12 times. Their first drive was back in 1976, but this year they had only been as far as Iran. Mad Max didn’t like the Iranian’s restrictive rules and regulations, and warned us that we would be in for a tough time.
‘Of course, when we started driving to India, there were no tourists, just travellers, who blended in and didn’t demand changes. Now the route is full of tourists, who have spoilted everything. Tourists are not travellers.’ Mad Max then gave us some maps and pointed to some good stopovers and which were the good roads in Pakistan and India. I took this as a compliment that we were indeed fellow travellers following the old hippie trail.
We visited all the major sights in Turkey, spending a full 6 weeks working our way around the stunning coast. One of our favourite sites was Ephesus, of which only a very small part has been excavated. Ephesus was an old Roman port city which was once Asia’s capital, and boasts an impressive library, theatre, market place, houses, fountains to name but a few. Walking through its cobbled streets, fires your imagination to times past.
It was in Turkey that I decided to write the names of the countries we had driven through on the side of the van. On seeing this list, the doorman at the gates of The Virgin Mary’s House, (said to be the final home of The Virgin Mary during her later years) asked of he could write on the side of our van.
‘I write “Viggin Mary House” he told us. I handed him a marker and watched him carefully write “Viggin Mary House.”
As he stood back and admired his work, he said ‘Ah, entrance now for you free.’ and waived us in.
I was beginning to understand that travelling was not about sight seeing, but meeting and learning from others, sharing their company and accepting their differences.