Article AkzoNobel News & Views

 

Intrepid traveler André Koster reflects on his six months on the road driving along the old Silk Road route from the Netherlands to China.  When you plan to travel 25,000 kilometers, visiting 13 countries in six months, you’d be forgiven for anticipating one or two difficulties along the way.  But for Dutch Car Refinishes employee André Koster and girlfriend Minke, the worst it got during their recent adventure driving along the famous Silk Road route to China was a broken starter motor in Italy – which was fixed the next day. No wonder André says he’ll worry less beforehand if they ever do it again. He also admits that luck probably had a lot to do with their largely problem-free journey, something which deserted many of the fellow travelers they encountered along the way.  “We met a French girl who lost her passport in Kazakhstan and had to go home,” he explains. “We also met two French guys on motorbikes. One of them broke his foot during a fall in Tadjikstan, so he had to go back home as well.” Then there was the other Dutch couple who were doing a similar trip to André and Minke. Well, I say couple. “They broke up not long after they started out,” he says, “so I suppose when you think about it maybe we were a bit lucky.”  Ambition Based at Sassenheim in the Netherlands, André set out with Minke in March. Traveling in a Toyota Landcruiser – which they bought especially for the trip – they were fulfilling a long-held ambition to experience for themselves the ancient interconnected network of trade routes which linked Asia with North Africa and Europe. This involved driving from their home in Leiden in the Netherlands to China, an epic trek which André admits proved to be much easier than expected.      ”We always saw some mix of European cultures wherever we went, even Iran was quite western, but China is a different world.”    “We thought that it would be quite challenging, but it didn’t prove to be too tricky at all. It was more like a long vacation rather than a difficult adventure. Plus we never really felt in danger, which made it easier.” Traveling through the likes of France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China, one familiar hurdle they faced was the dreaded bureaucracy of the unavoidable border crossings. “It usually took a long time, but mainly because in a lot of countries their processes aren’t automated,” notes André. “They often didn’t have a photocopier, for example. So if they needed three versions of a form, we had to fill it in three times. They weren’t deliberately trying to make life hard for us. So we found that crossing into another country could take up to anything from 30 minutes to three hours.” They also had something of a surprise in store when they entered Turkmenistan. “You have to stick to the rules when you go in and agree on a certain route, which you can’t change at all,” continues André. “We also had to have a guide in the back of our car with us at all times. That was mandatory and we had to pay for the service. We were there for ten days and our guide went everywhere with us. I thought it would be an official from the government, but it turned out to be someone from a private tour company who was a professional tour guide. It wasn’t so bad in the end, better than we expected to be honest, but we were relieved to be on our own again once we left the country.”   Highlights They felt much more at home in Iran, which André describes as being one of the many highlights. “Iran certainly made the biggest impression,” he says. “Everyone was very friendly and we met some really interesting people. It’s a very hospitable country. They were very outgoing, not afraid to talk to foreigners, and it was the same in all the countries we visited in central Asia. China also stood out because it’s so culturally different to what we’re used to. It’s somewhere I’d definitely like to see more of. We always saw some mix of European and Asian cultures wherever we went, even Iran was quite western, but China is a different world.”  Although they were forced to travel relatively light, they did pick up some souvenirs along the way, notably a Persian rug, which they bought in Iran and shipped over to their home in the Netherlands. They also came back with around 2,000 photographs, many of which were uploaded to their online blog, which they maintained religiously. This was made possible by the generally excellent internet access, with the only real problems being faced in Turkmenistan, where the internet is censored and controlled by the state. Although they’ve been together for a number of years now, you’d think that spending every minute of every day with each other for six months might have sparked more than the odd disagreement en route, but not so claims André. “We argued, but no more than we normally do! I think we realized that we needed each other, we did everything together, so we were depending on each other.” When they finally did reach China, they had to change their original plans. Word had reached them via their travel agency that the entry rules had changed due to the Olympic Games, so they wouldn’t be able to drive in themselves. This meant leaving their car behind in Kyrgystan and booking a three-week round-trip of the extreme north-west of the country.    Disaster Once back in Kazakhstan it was time to meet up with the Dutch friends who had agreed to buy the Landcruiser off them. They were planning to drive it to Turkey and then back to the Netherlands, while André and Minke spent two weeks in Kazakhstan before flying home themselves. But disaster struck. “They had an accident after a few days,” reveals André. “Luckily they weren’t hurt, but the Landcruiser was written off. I felt really sorry for them.” Already back at work for a few weeks now, he’s had time to contemplate his adventures, but says the experience hasn’t really changed him. “We mainly did this because we wanted to learn about the cultures in Western Europe and how they gradually change the closer you get to China. From that perspective it was extremely rewarding. I suppose on a trip like this you also start thinking about your life more and your job, because you’ve got the time to do that. To be honest, I’d already been doing some thinking before we left, and although I’m still working in communications at the moment, longer term I may move into something else.” As for advice for people thinking of doing something similar, he has no doubts: “Don’t overcomplicate things and take plenty of time. See it as a vacation, not as a major project. If we ever do it again, I’ll certainly worry less about everything in advance.”

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