Backpacking the world

Posted on 1 February 2012

South African couple (and Getaway bloggers) Iain Manley and Claire van den Heever are travelling overland from Shanghai to Cape Town through India, Southeast Asia, China, Central Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. They’ve been on the road for over a year.

I’m always inspired by people doing Epic Trips, especially Epic Backpacking Trips Around the World, so I interviewed Iain and Claire about their journey (secretly getting tips for my own Epic Trip, planned for sometime in the future!).

What’s been your favourite place on the trip so far?

Varanasi, which by some counts is the oldest city in the world. We went there for the third time at the start of the trip, but found the riverside rituals beside the Ganges as enchanting and the crumbling alleyways even more evocative. We hope to return in the not-too-distant future, to study Hindi.

And worst?

Allahabad in northern India and Hanoi in northern Vietnam immediately come to mind, because we received such a hostile reception from the people in both. Finding an honest auto-rickshaw driver in Allahabad and avoiding rigged taxi meters in Hanoi was more difficult than anywhere else we’ve been. In both cities, and with only a few exceptions, people who we bought goods or services from were aggressive. We were almost run over by a rickshaw driver in Allahabad for refusing to pay more than we’d agreed, and shooed out of shops in Hanoi just for being foreign.


Favourite journey on the trip?

We travelled among Tibet’s Kham people, on a journey along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway from Shangri-La to Chengdu. Highway is a euphemism, I think, because the road was a dirt track cut precariously into the mountainside for most of the weeklong journey. We ate lunch with Tibetan nomads on an old logging track outside Shangri-La, witnessed a strike – and the government crackdown – in Xiangcheng, coped with altitude sickness in Litang, and beat a trail through the grasslands outside Tagong, to a monastery set beside a snowcapped peak, with pet deer and white rabbits flopping amongst the monks.


Best dish you’ve eaten?

Homemade goats cheese, lightly fried and sprinkled with crushed huajiao – a Chinese pepper with a slightly medicinal flavor that numbs the mouth – served with a spicy banana flower salad. They’re both typical in Yunnan province, in Southwestern China, where the cuisine borrows elements from its neighbours: Tibet, Sichuan, Laos and Thailand.  The worst thing we’ve eaten was a bowl of beef pho in a Vietnamese village, which we were served in view of a just-slaughtered dog.


Favourite airport/train station/bus station?

Gorakhpur Junction is one of the busiest train stations in India. It’s dirty and disorganised, with people waiting idly for trains in its parking lot, cooking on chula stoves and all but setting up camp. We’ve been stuck in Gorakphur twice, on our way to and from Nepal. On our way out, we got ourselves into a pointless altercation at the ticket window, because we refused to pay a bribe; on our way in, the tickets to our next stop were sold out, but perhaps we were just being hit up for another bribe. We found a labyrinthine hotel with a restaurant that stank of ghee overlooking the station and from there, with people coming and going in the floodlit night, it was almost possible to conceive of India’s 1.2 billion people, and to smile ruefully at how we both loved India, and hated it.


What have you learned on the trip?

When you travel overland, connecting cultures as you cross borders, learning is a constant process. We set off on this trip over a year ago and have learnt a great deal. Apart from acquiring knowledge about the places and their people, we’ve learnt how easy it is to adapt to new surroundings when you’re in the habit – and by adapting, you learn what you do and don’t need.


What’s your advice to people who would like to do an overland journey across the world?

Buy a world map and hang it where you can see it easily. Being able to trace out your route makes a large trip seem manageable. Overland travel is unpredictable, and it’s a good idea to have alternative routes in mind. When you’re covering a lot ground political instability, bad weather or changing regulations make detours almost inevitable.


What’s at the top of your bucket list?

Bucket lists turn travel into a tick list. The withered man you meet in a Pingyao alleyway can’t be put on a bucket list. He’ll tell you about surviving the Cultural Revolution and following the Dao, but if you’re chasing sites, you’ll walk straight past him.


Read Claire and Iain’s blogs from their trip on and on the Getaway blog.


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