Travel plans are like children, conceive them when you’re tipsy then leave the details until later. Dutch courage is necessary to hit the points on the map boldly, with enough conviction that the ink stains the paper and there’s no turning back.
So it was with my mate Marten and I (the travel plans, not the children). I can’t remember the inner-west Sydney pub but I can remember things really began when the conversation turned towards the breakaway state of Transnistria. I had researched it years before and tried ever since to find someone to accompany me there. Problem was it’s a pretty tough destination to sell.
“The last autonomous Soviet state. It has its own currency, stamps and passports, it runs along the Eastern border of Moldova but is independent.”
These words came easily, the spiel well rehearsed even though no one had signed up. “Transnistria acts as a corridor for illegal traffic to flow from Eastern Europe to the West and back … Another round?”
Luckily, Marten was right there with me. We had a mutual curiosity in the legacy of international communism — this political and historical juggernaut that had collapsed in a cloud of radioactive dust before we were old enough to understand it. Still, the ruins were there to inspect, their edges hopefully not too rounded by time to be beyond reassembly into a coherent picture of day-to-day life.
“Also, have you heard of a place called Baku?”
We shifted our attention east, to the largest city in Azerbaijan, Baku. It had been the focal point of the early oil industry. Transformed almost overnight from ancient fortress to cosmopolitan metropolis, it had attracted rich investors and criminals looking to exploit rich investors. The Soviets had built the first oil rig 100 kilometres out to sea from Baku, a vast wooden city built on silt and garbage, accessible by a system of long wooden platforms. It was now disused and, section by section, slowly falling back into the oily water.
Then, Chernobyl. The site of the largest nuclear disaster that the world has ever seen. Only officially opened to tours in 2008, it is now possible to see Soviet life frozen in time at the moment the town was evacuated.
“Your round, mate.”
Finally, rural China. Such a nebulous destination — a result of both Marten’s and my ignorance on the subject and the amount of alcohol we had consumed.
“Oh, and we should do it all on motorbikes.”
In the coming weeks, on a map smuggled to my desk in between sheets of work, a trip took shape. Destinations and transport were researched and information flowed in like breaking news updates. “It’s not possible to hire or buy motorbikes in China without a guide. $100 / day” Marten wrote in a chat window. “Ok, maybe China on rail, Trans-Siberian to Moscow and we buy our bikes there … Actually bikes in Berlin would make more sense – everyone speaks English” and so on. Routes flexed and warped, snared on new locations while modes of transport evolved or devolved to match constraints.
Eventually as regions became definite and modes of transport solidified, it became clear a panoply of skills had to be attained. We had to buy motorbikes, learn to ride and fix them and learn emergency first aid. Most of all we had to learn some semblance of Russian to have any hope of interacting with locals on a level deeper than between a man and his goldfish. Individually these skills could take years to master but, all superimposed over one another, they formed a constant background noise in my mind.
Courses were attended and weekends were sacrificed; first aid course, motorcycle maintenance course, provisional license test, Russian language course. Money was stored like nuts for winter under a brutal saving regime — no more lunches out instead a 1kg block of cheese, aging in the work fridge, lost a few slices every day.
The research still hasn’t stopped. In fact it grows at an exponential rate as every question is answered with more questions. For example “How do we get around a limit of 72 hours (to the minute) for foreign vehicles in Azerbaijan?” becomes — “Where do we go to after Azerbaijan?”. The country is hemmed in by the Caspian Sea, Georgia, Iran, Armenia and Russia. So the next question is “Which borders can we go through?” The answer is: all these borders are closed to us except Georgia and Iran.
Next, “Can we cross the Caspian?” No, travel across the Caspian to Turkmenistan is not an option because Turkmenistan requires you to always have a guide and seems to close its borders on a whim. “Can we cross Azerbaijan and back in 72 hours?” Kinda, this would mean crossing the entire width of it and back (more than 1000km) in 72 hours — a recipe for a sore arse. So now, this means seeing Azerbaijan in any capacity requires entry into Iran. “What are the visa requirements for Iran?” etc.
This means that even now, with under a week before I leave I can’t be sure exactly where I’m going. It’s a situation that sits you down, slaps you in the face and tells you to relax. What I am certain of is that the stones of fear, guilt, anxiety and excitement that are in my gut will get hotter and heavier till the moment I lift off from the runway and up into the blue.
K Johnson will be blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run, and read all his writings for Crikey here.