A Long and Winding Road Trip
In April 2008, Kamil and Izabela Gamański set out on a journey from Singapore to Poland – on the back of a motorbike.
It’s turned out to be a true odyssey, one that’s spanned 17 months, 82,000 kilometres and 51 countries in Asia and Africa, mainly via “off-the-beaten” tracks.
After roaming vast, open Mongolian grasslands, meandering along coastal routes in Japan and embarking on hunting escapades in the Central African Republic, they expected to be home by now. That was before their compulsive wanderlust inspired the decision to extend the trip to South America.
The Krakow Post caught up with these globetrotters and got a unique insight into the art of around-the-world travel.
Krakow Post: First of all, tell us a bit about yourselves and why you’re doing this trip.
Kamil Gamański: We were both born in Poland. It was half a world away, in Australia, that we first met. I had lived in Melbourne since I was seven, while Izabela was backpacking her way around the country. We decided that our future lay in Poland and planned to return together. Before going back, we wanted to see some more of Southeast Asia and stopped over in Singapore. We liked it, so we stayed for 2.5 years. Izabela was employed in logistics while I worked in banking.
KP: Why Singapore to Poland on the back of a motorcycle?
KG: Well, on the one hand we love to travel. The allure of a new border crossing and the adventures that lay beyond it is just too good to pass up. On the other hand is the fact that our main form of transport in Singapore was the motorcycle.
The sense of freedom that the bike affords is unparalleled in our opinion. It’s versatile, relatively easy to transport, goes practically anywhere and gives you an unrestricted 360 degree view of the world. You smell, feel and hear every kilometre travelled. We can’t imagine having to travel any other way.
KP: What does a typical day look like in the day of Kamil and Izabela Gamański? Is there such a thing as a “typical” day in your lives right now?
KG: Although we are constantly on the move and in a new country every week or so, it is impossible for our lives not to follow some kind of routine. Our typical day consists of planning the route, riding, stopping at places of interest, finding something to eat and then a place to sleep. As one motorcycle traveller put it, you “Ride, Eat, Sleep, Repeat”.
It can wear you down and ironically, it’s the routine of a “normal” daily life that we sometimes miss – the comfort of your own bed, a visit to your favourite restaurant or a meeting with old friends. Having said that, we wouldn’t change our current life for anything. It’s a simple and often Spartan existence, but new places, languages, food and people, make every day an adventure!
KP: From an organisational perspective, what was, or continues to be, the biggest headache?
Izabela Gamańska: The visas, without a doubt! They’re usually expensive and can take a few days to process. Visas require quite a bit of forward planning and research, as it can be a lot easier to get some visas in particular countries and not others. Two nightmarish examples come to mind.
The first one was for the Chinese visa at the embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Once in the embassy, the application process was straightforward enough, but actually getting into the embassy bordered on ridiculous! Only about 20 people were allowed access every day. To have a chance of getting in you first had to register with the guard and be assigned a number. You increased your chances of entry by going to the guardhouse about 1 am and bribing him to “bump” your name up the list. We managed to get in on the second day, but were shocked to find out that the process had to be repeated upon pick-up of visas as well! Luckily we had another traveller pick our visas up for us. It was ludicrous. There was no logic behind this whole charade and we almost witnessed a revolt at the gates, by the people that kept failing to get in. Some had been there for two weeks!
The worst experience to date was for the Angolan visa. It’s notoriously difficult to obtain, but particularly at the consulate just over the border in Namibia. It’s run by a mafia that seems intent on undermining all efforts to get into the country. They also set their own prices and we almost fell over when they said we had to pay US$350 per visa. Negotiations began and they finally agreed to a reasonable fee. In the end it took a full three weeks to obtain the visa. Luckily Namibia has plenty to offer those with time on their hands.
KP: When and where did you decide, or were forced to, get off the bike and have it transported to another city or country? What were the factors that led to this?
KG: We have had to transport the bike on three occasions for very different reasons – political, geographical and security.
Political – We flew the bike from Bangkok in Thailand to Japan’s southern island of Kyushu because the route north of Thailand is inaccessible to independent travellers on a motorcycle: Vietnam does not admit motorcycles that have a capacity greater than 175cc, China requires special permits and guides hence is expensive, while Myanmar is totally off-limits under the current regime.
Security – The original plan was to ride from Pakistan into Iran and then catch a ferry to Dubai. Unfortunately we were forced to change our plans because of the threat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the border area between Pakistan and Iran called Balochistan. Instead we had the bike shipped from Karachi, while we caught a plane.
Geographical – The Red Sea separates Yemen and the African continent. In order to embark on our African odyssey, we had to find a cargo boat that would take us and the bike from Yemen to Djibouti. It took us five days but we finally managed to board a vessel – not to Djibouti but to Somalia. We were up for the challenge of this rarely visited country, but could not get visas upon arrival. Luckily the boat we were on was continuing onto to Djibouti – with us and 14,000 goats!
KP: What have been some of the highlights of the trip so far?
KG: Wow, there have been so many, but some that stand out would be:
The Japanese culture. The cities might resemble any other metropolis around the world, but the people are from a different planet! Their traditions, eating habits and honesty unmatched by any other nation.
The freedom of Mongolia’s “nothingness”. The land and the lives of the people haven’t changed since Genghis Khan roamed and conquered. And, although they’re some of the poorest people we’ve met, the Mongolian nomads’ hospitality is boundless.
The Karakorum Highway from China to Pakistan. The most dramatic scenery we’ve seen so far. The “highway”, is a gravel road etched into the vertical faces of the 7,000m and 8,000m mountains that loom over it.
Yemen and its capital Sana’a, the most incredible “old city” we’ve ever seen. Life within the ancient “skyscrapers” and in the small alleys that wind their way between them, goes on as it did 500 years ago. In underground cellars, Camels walk around ancient mills used to grind sesame seeds into oil. Young and old males alike parade in traditional robes with daggers tucked into their belts. The morning markets are a hype of activity, before everyone settles into their afternoon chat chewing session – a mild stimulant permitted in the Muslim religion.
Ethiopia’s Omo Valley and the crossing into Kenya via Lake Turkana. After being dumbstruck by a Hamer coming of age ceremony known as “bull jumping”, we continued south along Lake Turkana and crossed into Kenya via an unofficial border crossing, which hardly anyone uses. The route – long, tough, very remote – rewarded us with unique encounters at Turkana villages.
Hunting with Pygmies in the Central African Republic. These pint-sized forest dwellers allowed us to join them for a traditional hunting expedition in the jungles of the C.A.R. After a successful outing they ate, sang, and danced by the fire. And we were invited for the party.
Desert crossing around Lake Chad. Some of the toughest riding and harshest conditions we’ve experienced thus far. Battling through deep soft sand and temperatures of over +40C, our perseverance was rewarded with incredible desert scenery and a unique insight into the lives of Chad’s Saharan inhabitants.
KP: A thing which stands out about your trip is just how raw an experience this is. You’re infatuated with off-road riding, preoccupied with avoiding touristy areas and big cities, dependent on maps, a compass and the locals, as opposed to GPS. How much has this enhanced your trip?
KG: We definitely cannot imagine travelling any other way. Once in a while we meet overlanders over-dependent on technology and preoccupied with finding the best and quickest route to their destination. We can’t help but feel that they are missing out on the best bit about overland travel – to meet the real locals, unaffected by tourism and unbiased in their views. To push yourself and discover your mental as well as physical limits and to see the countryside at 30km/h and not whizzing by at 100km/h.
People these days have become so preoccupied with perfection and the need to do things quickly, that they don’t notice the world passing by under their noses.
As for GPS, we believe the best GPS is the local guy standing on the street corner or riding in the donkey cart through the desert.
KP: You don’t hesitate to veer off-road and embark on challenging routes and stunning side trips. Have your most colourful adventures and misadventures come by accident?
IG: Almost all of them! Unless recommended an interesting route by a fellow overlander, most other “side trips” are spontaneous and more often than not end up being memorable adventures. One memorable episode occurred in Kyrgyzstan when we decided to leave the tarmac south of Lake Issyk Kul and take a “short-cut” over a mountain pass and across a high plateau. There were a number of river crossings and we got stuck in one of them. It was deeper than we anticipated and the strong current prevented us from pushing the bike out ourselves. Luckily there were some local herders on hand to help winch the bike out using their horses.
KP: Which countries have provided the best terrain and scenery for off-road riding?
KG: The top three would have to be:
Namibia – far and away the ultimate off-road biker’s heaven. The Atlantic coast, sand dunes, mountains and endless stretches of open savannah make Namibia the best off-road destination we have visited to date. The extensive “all weather” road network means there is always more than way to get to any one place
Mongolia – the open grassy plains and the sandy pistes of the Gobi desert can’t be beat. There is virtually no road network outside the capital. You simply choose a destination, point your bike in that direction and go! The Mongol nomads living on these lands only add to the uniqueness of the experience.
Kyrgyzstan – For dramatic mountain scenery and high-altitude mountain passes with spectacular views, not many countries can rival Kyrgyzstan – well, maybe Tajikistan. There are only a handful of tarred roads, so getting anywhere “off the beaten track” in Kyrgyzstan means an off-road adventure is in store.
KP: Flirting with danger must be part-and-parcel of travelling across the world on the back of a motorbike. Travelling through Pakistan, although breathtaking, seemed a particularly eerie experience. Where else have you encountered some nerve-racking moments?
IG: The other country that comes to mind is Yemen. Although we had an amazing time there and it ranks highly on our list of favourite countries so far, we couldn’t help but feel the need to remain alert and vigilant at all times. Perhaps the tension on the streets is not as noticeable as in Pakistan, but the fact remains that Al Qaeda has a big presence in Yemen and is very active. About 10 months before we entered Yemen there was a fatal attack on some Belgian tourists driving in a convoy. Also, as recently as one month ago, nine foreign workers were abducted and killed just north of the capital, Sana’a.
In general we travelled freely and without incident, the locals making us feel welcome anywhere we went. However, on one occasion we were stopped at a police road block and told that we must continue with an escort for the next 400km. It was late in the day and by the time we had covered 200km it was getting dark. We try not to travel after dark and asked the police officers escorting us whether we can camp behind the police compound at the next check post. In reply one officer shook his head gravely, pointed at us and then made a sign as if he was slitting his throat! We got the message and spent the remaining 200km looking into the darkness on both sides of the road for any sign of an ambush. To say we were a little freaked out would be an understatement.
KP: It seems like you’ve travelled through thousands of kilometres of barren terrain, spending consecutive days on the bike without seeing other people or vehicles. What is it about the emptiness and “nothingness” of places like Mongolia and Africa that is so alluring? Does this kind of isolation have its downsides?
KG: Before starting this trip, I’d read books about people travelling through the desert or barren lands such as Mongolia, far east Russia and Alaska. Their stories and descriptions of these far off lands always fascinated me, but it wasn’t until we actually experienced it that we fully appreciated the beauty and uniqueness of these destinations.
I’ll never forget our first night camping in Mongolia. We pitched our tent and all we could see for miles in every direction was – nothing. It was beautiful. It’s hard to explain how that can be when there is nothing specific to look at, but that’s how it seemed. The silence was mesmerizing and it just seemed right. Right to be self sufficient and right to be “one with nature” – as the cliché goes.
There is of course the downside of not having help on hand when things go wrong, but in general I think people worry too much about what could happen and miss out on the experience of a lifetime. Sure things go wrong sometimes, but surviving and managing your way out of these situations only enhances the experience and teaches you things about yourself you would never have imagined.
KP: You’ve had some very colourful experiences at border crossings and customs clearances. What have been some of the highlights? Are you forced to give bribes often?
KG: Border crossings are always a lottery. You just don’t know what to expect. Some have been almost too easy, completed within 15 minutes, while others can take several hours and be frustratingly bureaucratic. Some memorable ones include:
Oman to Yemen: we practically bargained with the immigration officials (who were high as a kite on chat) for the visa fee.
Cameroon to C.A.R: we ran the gauntlet of four officials on the C.A.R side, all demanding “administration fees”, which quickly turned into pleads for “coffee money”. We held firm and didn’t pay a cent.
U.A.E to Oman: Izabela had overstayed her visa by two days and the officials would not overlook the transgression. We pleaded ignorance and an empty wallet. It was a stalemate until one of the senior officers actually paid the fine out of his own pocket!
KP: You’ve been received by some amazingly hospitable hosts throughout the trip. Where has warm hospitality stood out the most?
IG: It’s interesting that the countries that are considered the poorest or most dangerous to visit have the most hospitable people. Places like Chad, the Central African Republic, Angola, Yemen, Pakistan and Tajikistan automatically come to mind. In fact, the border area between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, known as the Wakhan Valley, where the majority of Afghanistan’s drugs are smuggled out to China (and the West), stands out as the most hospitable to date. The Tajiks are the poorest of the Central Asian countries and have suffered the most during their recent civil war, but are the first to offer free accommodation, food or just a cup of tea. Their spontaneous acts of generosity continually amazed us.
KP: Have the locals given you a hostile reception anywhere? How did you deal with this?
KG: The only places that come to mind were in northern Pakistan and Ethiopia. Although the people in Pakistan (especially in the north) bent over backwards to make us feel welcome, there is a particular region known as Indus Kohistan, in which people are notorious for being hostile to foreigners. This is largely due to the fact that until the Karakorum Highway cut its way into and through their valley they were completely isolated from the outside world. Our impression was that the towns seemed very sombre. The people didn’t smile or wave and children regularly threw rocks at us. We consider ourselves lucky because we were on the motorbike and able to quickly pass through the area. Cyclists have a much a harder time with some opting to fly over the region.
In Ethiopia we felt hostility but for different reasons. Since the 80s, Europe and the West have poured aid money into the country. Various NGOs, the UN and countless humanitarian aid organisations are spread across the country. This has made the people dependent on outside assistance and literally demand money from you. It is also a densely populated country so anywhere you stop you are instantly surrounded by children and adults alike thrusting their open palms in your direction. If you don’t give anything you’re more than likely to be verbally abused with the occasional stone thrown your way.
KP: You’ve met some incredible travellers on your trip, who have experienced some awe-inspiring adventures on their own – from a Japanese man who’s travelled the globe for over 10 years on a bicycle, to those embarking on consecutive solo rides around the world. Do you feel like you have a long list of new and amazing friends? Have these people helped guide you through the art of long-term world travel?
KG: Definitely. It’s these people that make what you’re doing seem “normal”. They’re a reference point when evaluating your sanity and seeking sense in what you’re doing. When travelling for a long period of time it’s easy to forget why you started the trip in the first place. On-the-road difficulties can cloud your sense of adventure and you sometimes crave the simple things you had back home. The fellow travellers we’ve met so far have inspired and challenged us to look even further beyond the horizon. They have taught us that you live once and if you have an opportunity to do something you’ve always wanted, to do it NOW!
These people have been very influential in our decision to extend the trip. If all goes to plan, we’ll be on the road for almost three years. It would have seemed ridiculous when we left Singapore, but now we know it’s the minimum you have to spend to circumnavigate the globe and get a decent feel for each country you visit.
The list of friends we’ve made is growing by the day. We definitely have more options when looking for a place to crash in a foreign city. The best bit about the friends we make, is that each varies in their background, beliefs and opinions. It helps you to put things into perspective and step outside the confines of your own conditioning.
KP: The trip was recently extended to South America. How did this decision come to be?
IG: The decision to extend our trip to South America was made one morning in Mongolia. We were on the bike riding towards the border with Russia and talking about our route through Africa and beyond. We were enjoying ourselves so much that the thought of crossing into Europe and returning to a “normal” life really terrified us. Then one of us said “Why don’t we just keep going then?” and that was it. The idea of including South America (a place Kamil has always been fascinated with) in this trip was too good to resist. We were on the road already, had all the equipment we needed, our budgeting was looking good and best of all we have no time restraints. So, why not?
For the trip across the Atlantic from Africa to South America, we’d like to try something different. The bike will go across on a cargo boat, while we try and hitch a ride as crew on a sailing boat out of the Canary Islands. If we pull it off, it should be one hell of an adventure!
As for what happens after South America? We have a rough idea of what we’d like to do, but will only confirm it once we’re on the Latin continent. There’s a surprise around every corner and plans change, so we don’t like to get ahead of ourselves.
KP: Are you afraid of having to – one day – adjust to the “real” world? How will you tame your compulsive wanderlust when the trip comes to an end?
KG: To be honest, the thought of returning to the “real world” terrifies us! We often talk about whether we’ll be able to adjust and console ourselves with the fact that it all depends on us. One thing the trip has re-enforced is that “you make the bed you sleep in”. So, we don’t plan to tame our love of travel, but use it to our advantage and build our lives around it.
The trip will surely have to come to an end one day, but it doesn’t mean the adventure has to. We both quit office jobs back in Singapore and don’t plan to return to a desk job. I plan to pursue my aviation career while Izabela is looking at travel photography and tourism. I don’t think our travelling days are numbered just yet.
To follow the adventure, check out Singapore2poland.com.