People who have been doing a lot of travelling almost invariably end up at the conclusion that travelling overland easily beats flying from one place to the next. There are several reasons for this. For starters, by travelling overland, you get to see more of the country, or countries, that you are travelling in. You will also meet local people who, like you, are going from one place to the next, rather than the tourists and business people that are found in airports. And finally, a big bonus for backpackers, is that overland travel is cheaper. Why pay $125 for a flight from, say, Detroit to Cleveland, when you can take the bus for $25? That’s a hundred Dollars in beer money right there.
People often ask me why I put myself through this every time. Why sit on a sweaty bus for 10 hours when you can cover that distance in a nice airconditioned plane in an hour and change? Why do you put yourself through the negotiations with bus drivers or station attendants whose language you might not speak when you can just take to the skies?
It is hard to explain this to people who do not have the travel bug, but somehow.. I just have to. I feel a great sense of achievement when I travel overland. It is a feeling of getting to know a place better by interacting with the people, the transport system and the local customs. On my most recent trip to North America, I changed cities 9 times in 17 days and went from Ireland to Canada to the USA and then walked back in to Canada (the 3rd time I crossed an international border on foot) and then, ultimately, back to Ireland. Yes, it was gruelling at times, and I was exhausted when I got back home, but it felt so good. I had seen 6 new cities, visited a new country and 3 US states (2 of them new) and had seen one of the world’s natural wonders at Niagara falls. It was amazing. It was worth it. (Though I must admit that, when I got back, I had no desire to see the inside of a Greyhound bus for the forseeable future)
So to give you some insight in the machinations of The Overland Travel Experience, I thought I’d show you some of the overland trips I have done over the years and give you some ideas on how to get from A to B to C to D without getting on a plane. There are many ways to do the overland travel thing. I personally mostly use buses because they are cheap, but I love trains and ferries and will always jump at the chance to get on one. Others use specialised touring companies that offer overland trips, from bussing around Europe to specially designed trucks that drive across Africa. There are even tour companies that offer overland trips from London to Sydney in Australia, taking in 20+ countries in 7 or 8 months. Be prepared to break the bank for trips like that, because they can cost up to 5000 Euros for transport and accomodation alone. Ofcourse, there are people who use their own transport to enhance the overland experience. Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the founders of the Lonely Planet guidebook company, started out by going overland from England to Australia in an old car. Plenty of people travel the Pan-American highway from Alaska all the way down to Patagonia in Southern Argentina.
My friend Richard is currently in his fifth year of cycling around the world and has racked up some 100.000 kilometers by now. He cycled from Holland to Indonesia, then around Australia, then from Holland to Japan, and he is currently on his second lap of South America. You can follow his progress on his blog, which you can find HERE (It’s in Dutch, but even if you don’t understand the language, the pictures are worth checking out)
If you enjoy reading about trips like this, I can recommend the books of Peter Moore, an Australian travel writer who made his name with a book called The Wrong Way Home, in which he describes his epic trek from London, where he lived for a while, back home to Sydney in Australia. He wrote 5 other books, which all deal with overland travel, but The Wrong Way Home is his classic. Should you have any questions on how to go about overland travel, or how to organise seemingly complicated trips, get in touch with me and I can help you with that.
Let’s get started.
The Balkans, Summer 2011.
Overland kilometres: 1274
Yugoslavia imploded in the early 1990s, resulting in a series of very ugly wars, causing the deaths of far too many people. The newly established countries, when the dust eventually settled, needed to re-purpose themselves and start their existence as independent nations, rather than as part of Yugoslavia. As luck would have it, the Balkans are one of the most beautiful parts of Europe, so tourism was an obvious angle. Croatia ran away with it at first, but the other parts of the former Yugoslavia are getting in on it as well. I was intrigued by the history of the area, and encouraged by a friend who served in the UN army in Bosnia. Despite the fact that he was there at a time of war, he kept regaling me with tales of amazing food, beautiful women and dirt cheap beer. I had to see it for myself. (This friend, accidentally, is the brother of my cycling friend Richard, whom I mentioned above)
I studied maps intently and eventually settled on the route Dubrovnik-Mostar-Sarajevo-Zagreb-Ljubljana-Budapest. This route would take in 4 countries: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Hungary.
I flew to Dubrovnik from Dublin on a sunny summer day, and found myself in the heat of the Mediterranean summer. It was 28 degrees in Dubrovnik. I stayed in Dubrovnik for 3 days and loved the place. Yes, it was touristy, but it was also beautiful. And fun. When I presented myself at the hostel check in desk, I was offered a free shot of Palinka, the local moonshine. I took in the historic town and took a long walk around the city walls. It was a beautiful and confusing medieval maze where every corner looked like the previous and where all the streets seemed to go upwards. One afternoon, when I was hopelessly lost again, I walked through a gate in one of the city walls and suddenly found myself in a bar on a rocky ledge looking out over the Adriatic sea. It was stunningly beautiful. I sat down with a cold beer and stared out over the sea. It is at times like this that you remember why you travel. To have experiences like this.
When I informed about the travel options to Mostar at the hostel, the girl at reception told me that I could take the local bus to the main bus station and get a ticket there. Buses to Mostar were frequent but rarely full. When after some 10 minutes on the local bus I asked the driver when we would get to the busstation, he told me in broken English that we had passed the bus station some time before. I asked him to stop and got off the bus with 2 English girls who were also heading for the bus station. As luck would have it, a bus in the opposite direction was just approaching and after explaining our predicament to the driver, he took us back to the bus station for free.
One of the interesting things about the former Yugoslavia is that while the countries are now all on their own, most of the infrastructure dates back to the time when there were no borders between them. If you have a close look at the map of the balkans above (or on Google maps if you want to zoom in closer) you will notice that Dubrovnik is an exclave of Croatia, surrounded by Bosnian territory. This was never a problem in the days of Yugoslavia, but now it looks odd. On top of that, the main roads in the area are all from back when, so when you drive from Dubrovnik, in Croatia, to Mostar, in Bosnia, you cross the border 3 or 4 times. We first arrived at a checkpoint, and Bosnian soldiers entered the bus to do a passport check. 10 minutes later, the bus pulled into a service station and the driver announced a 20 minute break. I walked into the bar, only to find a huge Hajduk Split flag behind the bar and when I ordered a beer, I was given a receipt in Kuna. Apparently, we were back in Croatia again. Another 20 minutes or so later, we were again halted and checked by Bosnian soldiers. By then I had given up trying to determine in which country we were exactly, but after that, we continued uninterrupted to Mostar.
There is not enough space here (there is not enough space on the internet) to explain the exact issues that led to the ugly break up of Yugoslavia but Bosnia, due to its ethnically diverse population, was hit the hardest in the conflict. The Croatians in Bosnia wanted to join Croatia, the Serbs wanted to be part of Serbia and the Bosniaks just wanted to be left alone. None of this happened and even today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a patchwork of ethnic clusters that looks like a Paint-by-the-Numbers image.
One of the lasting images of the Yugoslav wars is the destruction of the beautiful Stari Most bridge in Mostar, which was blown up by the Croatian army in 1993. It was rebuilt in 2004 with help from the UN and NATO and nowadays you wouldn’t really know the difference from the original bridge, apart from the fact that that one stood for 427 years and this one has only been around for a decade.
As I only had one day in Mostar, the first thing I wanted to see was the bridge. When I got off the bus at Mostar station, I was approached by half a dozen locals who all wanted me to rent a room. I informed them that I had already booked accomodation with a lady called Mira, and that name seemed to have some resonance as one of the peddlers instructed me on how to get there and the others went off in search of more interesting customers.
As I walked to my accommodation, I noticed that Mostar still had not entirely rebounded from the war. It was a nice enough town, and had some really nice Balkan style Islamic architecture, but there were still a lot of buildings with bullet holes in them, collapsed structures and empty lots where houses had once stood. Mostar is set to a backdrop of rugged mountains and it was strange to see such a beautiful place, in such beautiful weather (it was 30 degrees here) still scarred from an ugly war that had ended 15 years earlier.
I was welcomed by a cheerful and friendly lady of late middle years, who showed me to the apartments at the back of her house. I was given a private room for what turned out to be something like 12 Euros and after having a chat with her and her daughter, I set out for the centre of town. I found it after a lovely 10 minute walk and took some time to take in the view of the bridge. It really is a beautiful piece of architecture. I had someone take a photo of me with the bridge in the background, and that it still one of my favorite photos, not just from that trip, but from all my trips. The bridge is also the location of the famous bridge jumping kids. At its apex, it must be a 60 foot straight drop into the shallow river below. Local boys ask tourists and other grown ups for a small donation (I gave one boy 4 Bosnian Marks, or about 2 Euros, a small fortune for a 6 year old in a country like Bosnia) and when they have a satisfactory amount of money, they walk up to the highest point of the bridge and jump in. I wouldn’t take that jump for 40.000 Bosnian Marks, never mind 4, but these kids do it all day long. I crossed the bridge to the other side of the water, had a look around the shops and market stalls, and then crossed back to where I had come from.
I sat down at a table outside a restaurant, where several older men were drinking a clear liquid from small glasses. I was still reeling a bit from the night before when, in Dubrovnik, I had consumed a serious amount of beer and an equally serious number of shots of palinka, so I was taking it easy today. Tomorrow would be another day of traveling and the only train to Sarajevo was at 9.30 in the morning, so I could not afford to miss it. I had a few beers and a plate of sausages and other assorted meats, walked across the bridge again, had another drink and then decided to call it a night. I had my own room for the night, a rare luxury on a trip like this, so I wanted to make the most of it and get a good night sleep. And so I did.
The next morning I woke up early, took a shower in my private bathroom and presented myself downstairs to check out. The lady in charge of the establishment led me in to her own kitchen and offered me breakfast. After some 20 minutes or so, I thanked her for her hospitality and said I had to leave for the train station. She told me that she would drive me to the train station, a service included in the room rate. She did literally drive me into the trainstation, as she drove her car through the back entrance and up to the stairs to the platform. How’s that for service?
I got a ticket with the minimum of hassle and still had 15 minutes to spare. I was on my way to Sarajevo, the city I had been looking forward to the most at the start of the trip.
And now, 27 years later, I was on my way there.
Most trains in Western Europe these days have an open plan set up: there are sets of 4 seats, facing each other 2 by 2, and the left over spaces near doors and stairs (most trains in Holland for example are double deckers) are filled with single and double seats. In Central Europe, most trains still have the more old fashioned cabin style trains, where you have, typically, 6 seats in a closed off partition and a narrow corridor going past the cabins.
This train was like that. I selected a cabin near the exit, where I found an English couple and 2 silent local individuals. I spent the first half hour of the train trip having the standard conversation with the English couple (where are you from, where have you been, where are you going) but for the rest of the 2 ½ hour trip mostly stuck to my book and taking in the sights outside.
They were pretty amazing. While Croatia gets most of the spotlight when it comes to tourism in the Balkans, Bosnia is right up there when it comes to natural beauty, picturesque towns and interesting people. The only difference from a tourism point of view is that Bosnia does not have a coastline to speak of. Apart from a 20 kilometer stretch around the town of Neum, Bosnia is landlocked and as there are no sizeable lakes in the country either, it pretty much escapes the attention of 80% of the holiday crowd. This is perhaps a bad thing from an economic point of view, but for intrepid travellers like me it is a godsend. Dubrovnik is a beautiful place and I would recommend anyone to pay it a visit, which everyone does. Locals in Dubrovnik appreciate the extra income that tourism brings but are less enamoured about being overrun in their own town by hordes of tourists. Like in Venice and Las Vegas, the locals are squeezed out to the suburbs to make way for hotels and other tourist amenities in the city centre. In the high season, the whole of Dubrovnik’s old town is one huge throng of tourists who want to have a picture taken at the ancient city walls, have an ice cream on the main square, and then go back to their rental car or cruise ship where Dubrovnik is reduced to a 2 piece part of the holiday slideshow they show their friends and neighbours when they get home. Look, I don’t plan on settling in Dubrovnik myself, but most tourists show little or no interest in the local people or history of places like that, and I can imagine that the population of Dubrovnik and Venice are sick of it.
To get back to my main storyline here- you won’t see any of that in Bosnia and I think that this is because of the lack of beaches.
When we reached the outskirts of Sarajevo, I put away my book and stared out the window.
There it was, the city that I had looked at with awe as a 9 year old boy, with a can of coke and a pack of crisps in my hand. I was finally there.
I recognized the minarets of the grand mosque, the mountains in the background towards where the Olympic Stadium should be. I got off the train and walked into the main arrivals hall of the station. It was amazing. I decided to take a picture of it and got in trouble within 2 minutes of getting off the train. The problem is that in the Yugoslav wars, or any war for that matter, most key moments were related to the destruction or control of important pieces of infrastructure. Holding the main highway, a port or the capital’s main railway station are important strategic victories in warfare and the defending army wants to keep any details about these locations under high scrutiny. So when an annoying long-haired backpacker starts taking pictures of one of your vital pieces of infrastructure, this results in swift action. Before I could take a second picture of the main concourse, 2 uniformed men came running towards me, shouting in a language I did not understand (I’m guessing Bosnian), and, when they realised I did not understand them, explained in rudimentary English that it was not allowed under any circumstances to take photos of the station. I apologised profusely and played the “I’m a dumb tourist” card, which seemed to satisfy them. I walked outside in search of a tram.