In life, sometimes the best decisions are the ones we make impulsively.
That’s how I found myself in Bishkek, Krygyzstan, about to embark on an overlanding trip for which I was blissfully unprepared and stupidly excited.
To be honest, I had not put a ton of time or energy into researching the trip before booking it. I had been longing to take a trip for a while; I knew I wanted to go somewhere obscure and preferably in Central Asia that would allow me to hike and sleep in a yurt. If there was a campfire and a brilliant sky full of stars to see, well, I would be beyond satisfied.
When my creative director announced she was heading to another agency in Seattle, I knew the time was perfect to request nearly three weeks off, an almost unheard-of sum of time by U.S. standards (yes, rest of the world, we know you are superior). I floated the idea by my dad who jumped online and read more of the details of the trip that I’d found on Intrepid Travel.
“Ah, it’s an overland trip,” he noted. “We saw people do that in India. It’s like a bus but people can ride on the top.”
This vague comment passed as fatherly approval (and sounded appealing), so I booked the trip.
It wasn’t until a week before leaving that my mom, having trekked to the base camp of Mt Everest with my dad in the '70s, started asking me questions about the kind of equipment and clothes I was going to need to bring. I hopped online and discovered the trip was actually run by a separate overlanding company, Dragoman. As I watched a video of a ginormous orange truck swerve down a road in South America, followed by a bunch of flannel-clad bearded types making stew in the great outdoors, I let out a whooooooaaaaaaaat… cook groups, no Internet, beards, sleeping in the middle of nowhere – what was this, Burning Man?!
If anything, a trip like this is probably better than Burning Man. You won't wear fairy wings or glitter or use up all of your serotonin. You’ll probably shower just as often and have massive withdrawal when you get home and feel a bit like you’ve seen a tear in the matrix that will likely cause you to draw your whole life into question and start making a brand new plan for your unwritten future. But, you’ll also venture to some lesser-known places, do some unexpected things, meet some very cool new people, and, yes, see some truly spectacular stars.
Here’s my list of do’s and don’ts for your next overlanding adventure. Because if this dummy can do it (and love it), so can you.
Don’t pack a lot of expectations
One of the best things about being pretty unprepared for the experience was going in with virtually no expectations. Sure, I expected to have somewhere to sleep, food to eat, and a general sense of security and safety, but beyond that, I really had no comprehension of what the journey would even be like. I know a lot of people are much bigger planners than I am, so I can definitely assure you’ll be just fine, but part of what made the trip fun was not knowing what the day was going to bring. Having travelled independently before, I tend to view the unexpected moments as the real reason to travel – sure, it’s great to admire Topkapi Palace in person but a lot more fun to encounter some old Turkish guys picnicking by the banks of the Bosphorus and join them for a glass of rake, you know?
Surveying the crowd on the first day, I was surprised to be one of the youngest people on the trip (I was 35) and the youngest female by at least 10 years. There were plenty of older men and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, even some older women in their early 70s, and a few guys close to my age. I don’t know what I expected – younger people? But, I decided to roll with it and focus on just having as good a time as possible; I figured, these are the people who are in your life at this moment, see what they have to offer.
With no idea about where we were going, where would we sleep or stay, or what kinds of activities we’d be doing along the way, it became easy to just adapt a mindset of letting all the good stuff flow towards me. It meant the amazing moments were mind-blowing and what could have been perceived as setbacks or even letdowns seemed like just part of the adventure.
Do Bring a Good Sleeping Bag
Duh. Why do you think I titled titled “overlanding for dummies?” Don’t bring your old sleeping bag you hope is warm enough when the last time you camped with it was in the middle of the summer in Sonoma and it was 85 degrees outside. Make sure yours is really suitable for the climate. Don’t be a dummy. Don’t be like me.
Do Be Young
OK, so not everyone can turn back time and do this trip when their knees are packed with ample cartilage; probably one reason the trip attracts so many older people is they’re the ones who can afford the trip in terms of both time and money. The point here is, if you can’t be physically young, you’re going to have access your young person side. This kind of travel is not easy. I loved the physical aspect of the trip and enjoyed feeling that things were demanding not just in terms of stepping out of my comfort zone culturally but also seeing that I can be tougher than I normally have to be.
Besides, remember how when you were 18 any party held the promise that it was going to be the most amazing party in the world? Or how when you were even younger, Christmas morning was literally the most amazing day in your entire existence because you had no idea what presents were waiting for you? Somewhere along the way we lose that sense of unbridled optimism, that ability to get excited about what life decides to throw in our direction. While it’s not always easy to adopt this kind of mentality, I think entering an experience like this with a bit of wide-eyed wonder is going to serve anyone well. There was one lovely older Australian couple on the trip who saw every single moment as something incredible. We could be taking a bathroom break on the side of the road and they’d be going “This is awesome! This is great!” And they were right. It is. When else can you pee in someone’s field in Kyrgyzstan? When half our group had to haul our luggage up a field for our rooms at our guesthouse, I was grumbling to myself about the discomfort, only to hear them marveling about what an amazing place we were in. Every where we went, they appreciated the good: the beautiful view, the unique experiences. I silenced my inner grumbler and followed their lead.
I used my two-week trip as an opportunity to disconnect entirely from the Internet. I let my phone die. I even let my camera battery die (that was more of an accident). While a few of the guesthouses we stopped at offered WiFi, once we got on the road, I realized the last thing I wanted to be was immersed in my friend’s lives back home (sorry, friends!). And with several days spent on the edges of civilization with almost no electricity to be found, I hardly thought about my lack of connection. Instead I felt something much better: free.
When’s the last time you took a real fast from all the junk on the Internet? A trip like this is your chance. Stupid Buzzfeed articles will be there when you get back.
Sidenote: some people go on these trips for a lot longer than I did, and I get it – you want to let people know you’re safe and what you’ve been up to. But if you’re looking for a good way to get off the grid and detox from the Internet, this is it.
Don’t Be a Dick
Look, you’re in travelling with a pretty small group of people in tight quarters to some pretty remote, isolated corners of the world. Maybe the trip isn’t living up to your expectations (which, btw, you should leave behind), but a little kindness goes a long way. Sure, we had a few personalities that were more difficult than others to deal with (and no one can be upbeat and positive and radiate rainbows every day), but we also had one bonafide jerk who made it clear he was here to enjoy the trip for himself, everyone else’s experiences be damned. Whether this meant trying to mooch money off people, get to breakfast first, or angle to get the best seat on the truck, you can rest assured our trip’s Jerk made his jerky presence felt by all. It didn’t ruin my trip, but it did make for some uncomfortable, unpleasant moments.
So. Don’t be that guy. Don’t be the dick. Unless you’re from Canada. Everyone loves Canadians, you’ll get away with it.