Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”

– Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca

The dingy, overcrowded and dark hotel bar at the Havana Hotel in Cairo is probably not the first choice of bar to meet up with a friend. Long and rectangular with just enough room between the lounges and seats to squeeze past, during a week in October 2009 it became my regular haunt.

The not so glamourous entrance to the Hotel Havana

The not so glamourous entrance to the Hotel Havana

With time off between the summer and winter seasons in Europe, but not enough to do things independently I decided to jump on board an overland truck from Cairo to Nairobi. First things first however, visas and welcome letters had to be arranged. It was at the Australian Embassy waiting to get a letter confirming my Australian passport was real for Sudan that I met Chris. After reading an inch thick travel advice, and followed by the question, “So you still want to go to Sudan?” we had our government stamped confirmation letters and we were on our way.

Over the next few days Chris and I spent the days rummaging through Cairo’s souks, hopping between the Ethiopian Embassy and generally exploring Cairo. Throughout we met several other travellers who would be accompanying us on our adventure south. Every night we would return to the Hotel Havana, where most people were staying before the trip, to have a few beers, catch up and get to know each other.

Chris had spent some time in Dahab before arriving in Cairo to sort visas. During his time there he had met a British girl who would be joining our trip. As Chris put it, “Natalie is a really cool chick”. As the week progressed the odd assortment of intrepid adventures travelling with us filtered into the hotel, but no Natalie.

Natalie relaxing in Dahab before we met

Natalie relaxing in Dahab before we met

One evening, several days before the trip, the band of merry adventurers had assembled in the bar. A thick smoke wafted up towards the ceiling from the various shisha pipes scattered throughout the bar and the heavy scent of apple tea hung in the air. In the background Arabic dance music rang out from an old CD player behind the counter and the low drum of hushed conversation would be broken by raucous laughter from one group to the next.

The rusty old metal detector at the front door would occasionally beep as a new guest entered but the fully armed security guard would only ever give a disinterested glance. I think the security was more there to make us feel safer but I had a feeling if something did happen they would be the first ones out the door!

It was at that point my life changed forever.

Against this backdrop of curling shisha smoke and apple tea the door from the hotel opened. A stream of bright iridescent light streamed into the bar followed by a ghostly silhouette. As the door creaked closed the beaming smiled Natalie replaced the silhouette. “That’s Natalie, the chick I met in Dahab”, Chris exclaimed. I don’t know how and I don’t know why but the moment I saw Natalie I knew I was going to marry her! Little did we both know, it was on that summery night in the smoke hazed hotel bar in Cairo The Smart Way Round was born.

It must have been love...

It must have been love…

That was five years ago. Our adventures have taken us all across the world, five continents and numerous countries. November sees the one-year anniversary of The Smart Way Round but the adventure started years ago. That’s the thing about travel, you never know who you are going to meet. I am always reminded of a comment a guest made on one of my first ever trips around Europe, “You make friends for a reason, a season or a lifetime”. Well in Cairo in 2009 it was definitely the latter….

– Dean

The Smart Way Round was born!

The Smart Way Round was born!

 

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A good run for our money – bye bye overland travel HELLO plane!

So we have reached the end of the line – train line that is and it’s time to board our first commercial flight.

When we left London on the Eurostar back on the 18th November this day seemed a lifetime away…. Or rather at that point our flight wasn’t even booked so we didn’t know when the day was coming.

Back at the beginning leaving home!

Back at the beginning leaving home!

Our aim was to travel overland, without flying, as far as possible, travelling on the Trans Mongolian train and beyond. We hoped to get as far as India and we managed it. Alright we did take one joy-flight over Everest but it wasn’t a scheduled flight and we ended where we begun so it didn’t really count!

We have travelled through 12 countries and at times it has felt both impossible and unbelievable to be where we are. How could we be seeing the Great Wall or Taj Mahal without getting on a plane? Were we really there? On many occasions we have had to pinch ourselves and there is still part of me that can’t believe we are really here and what we’ve done!

Most of our journeys have been via train. We have racked up just under 20,000 KM (or almost 12,500 miles) on the railways through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China and India and spent many (sometimes uncomfortable!) hours travelling over 3000 KM (or 1865 miles) on buses in Lithuania and Nepal. In amongst this we’ve had a couple of car journeys (notably Tibet) totalling almost 1400km (or 865 miles) and we’ve loved every minute. I have never spent so much time on trains as I have over these last few months, although from my early days visiting Grandparents in Yorkshire, I always loved them. It is an amazing way to travel and one I’d do again in a heartbeat (with slightly less luggage!).

Great trains... too much luggage!

Great trains… too much luggage!

Each and every journey has had its highs and lows. Comparisons are all too easy to make and it’s hard as all the journeys were so different, but here are my highs (and lows!):

* Cleanest train: Russian Trans Siberian
* Best restaurant car: joint winner – Trans Siberian – it was older than me and kitsch car on train from Ulan Batar
* Most scenic train: high altitude ride from Cheng Du to Lhasa
* Most forgiving train: Russian train from Frankfurt as they waited for us when our connection was late!
* Grumpiest : Russian ladies – but they maintained their carriages so well!
* Worst door security: India trains as they don’t lock them (fun fun fun!)
* Dirtiest toilets: China trains – hands down winner yuk yuk yuk (they were that bad its what prompted this list!)
* Most old fashioned / trains with most character: India trains
* Most consistently delayed trains: Indian!
* Train with best Champagne – Eurostar!!!

Along the way we have met some lovely people, both locals and foreigners not to mention our film crew friends on that initial Trans Siberian journey. Thank you to everyone who has followed the journey so far, and to those in Canada who saw us on the CBC broadcast and have taken the time to track our blog down!

With Jean-Francois from CBC and his cameraman Alexi

With Jean-Francois from CBC and his cameraman Alexi

We have scheduled this blog to send as we take off from Delhi airport. We have such mixed views about flying out as we’d love to continue overland but the borders just aren’t open and so we have no choice. This flight is the end of the first phase and larger part of our trip, but we still have loads to look forward to! We fly around the houses and then eventually land in Myanmar where Dean has a special treat lined up for Valentines Day (stated tuned!). After two weeks exploring we then head down to Australia which we are both very excited about. We’ll spend time with Deans family, then my parents arrive (very exciting!) before our second wedding party – hurray! Finally it will be time for a second honeymoon in the Philippines.

So as we say goodbye to overland travel we are excited about the next steps of our adventure. Above all we are very proud of what we have achieved on this trip. We set out to travel by train and thats exactly what we’ve done. It has been, and continues to be just an amazing experience. I just need to find the brake pedal as time is going too fast!

– Natalie