This is the second article in a series by the Silk Road Project Team. To read more, check out their first article, Retracing Marco Polo's Footsteps.
Preparing for an expedition like the Silk Road Project takes motivation and persistence. Getting into a car and driving east might seem romantic, but there are many questions to answer before leaving. What paperwork is required for crossing borders? What gear should take up valuable storage space? Perhaps most importantly, how does one pay for the trip? We shall attempt to answer these questions here.
The most complicated and time-consuming aspect of preparing for this expedition by far was obtaining the relevant visas. Crossing 16 countries on our British, French and Italian passports meant that we each need 6 visas. As certain foreign ministries require that visas can only be applied for 3 months before arrival, managing the timing of the visa applications was integral. Other countries, such as Turkey and Azerbaijan, have e-visa processes in place. This means that you do not have to send your passport off to the embassy. The website caravanistan.com provides a great step-by-step guide to the visa processes and travel in general in Central Asia.
The most thrilling aspect related to the pre-expedition phase is identifying and collecting the right gear. On our expedition, we knew we would be challenged by the wide range of climates along the Silk Road. The wintery Europe we will encounter in the Balkans will contrast starkly with the extreme heat of the Taklamakan desert in China. This accentuated the renowned tension between packing light and packing appropriately.
In addition to a thorough mechanical check-up of our Land Rover Defender 110 in the week prior to departure, we also invested in spare parts for the vehicle and a range of accessories. These included a tent, ladders (front and back), a new battery and inverter to charge laptops and cameras, a safety deposit box, and oil.
Another challenging issue was preparing to stay connected along our journey - we came across many contradictory views on internet access in some of the more remote areas we will be visiting along the Silk Road. As network providers offer a range of international sim cards, we opted for data only options which will provide us with ongoing access to social media services, as well as connectivity with family, friends, and sponsors. We also purchased a satellite phone for emergency situations and a device that provides our location to selected phone numbers.
The cost of a major expedition varies widely according to one’s comfort priorities, the countries one intends to travel through, and the sites one aims to visit within those same countries. During our four months of travel, we will be mixing backpacking with overland travel by car. An initial estimate of the expedition’s cost left us with a ballpark figure of £15,000. We approached financing for the journey through a combination of self-funding and sponsorships.
Access to tradable currency is a challenge. A brief review of travel blogs might leave one lost in the mysteries of transaction fees, commissions, and exchange rates. Even as economists, the swamp we encountered in this realm of travel expenditure was unnerving. In the Central Asian countries, for instance, the collapse of commodity prices has led to the devaluation of local currencies, leading to tighter capital controls and limits on currency convertibility. Sanctions against Iran will make it close to impossible to withdraw money while in the country. All of this underscores the necessity of planning ahead.
Our expedition has just begun. In the coming weeks, we look forward to describing our journey along the Silk Road, while also maintaining an awareness of the limits of broad generalizations in the realm of travel. Expeditions such as our own do not typically go hand in hand with straightforwardness. Preparing for our trip has been about adapting – to different regulations, technological barriers, and financial challenges. Surely that’s only begun.
Written by The Silk Road Project Team