To go or not to go?

Our itinerary from France to Australia included some hotspots – some we knew of, some we suspected, some quite unbeknownst to us. Updates and research along the way have made us reassess our plans, sometimes in small way, sometimes in more drastic ways, as we reflected on safety, the risks to take or not, and our responsibility towards our children as we embark on this adventure.

IMG_1579Montenegro and Albania provided the most direct route between Croatia and Greece, where we were meeting first my family then friends. An alarm bell rang when we were told in the early stages of organising our car lease that the insurance covered the whole of Europe, except for Albania. I didn’t research the reason but I assumed that it must be the hotspot for stolen cars in the region. We brushed this concern aside with a casual “we’ll drive quickly through it, or we’ll just go around it”.

Also in the first draft of our itinerary, Nepal came up high on our priority list. It is a country dear to our hearts, where Alan and I first crossed paths some 15 years ago. We were discussing with friends who work on the ground how we could take part in a voluntary project for three weeks. Even after the devastating earthquake in April 2015, we were hoping that the situation would improve in the 6 months before we were scheduled to arrive there. In any case, we agreed that we would reassess the situation closer to the time.

While we were pondering the itinerary between Iran and Nepal, an inspiring discussion with a friend of Alan’s in May completely sold us on making our way through the countries of Central Asia (“the Stans”), a region where he had a fantastic experience a couple of years ago. True to the backpacking days of my twenties, I invested in a good old printed version of the Lonely Planet of Central Asia and my initial reading was promising. The mosques, bazaars and ancient towns along the old Silk Road were breathtaking, and the prospect of yurts stays and community-based-tourism in Kyrgyzstan were exciting and intriguing.

The only security concern raised in the Lonely Planet accounts was corrupt police officers in Uzbekistan, so we decided to take a guide to help minimising the risks and dealing with the situation if it arose.

One thing led to another and by mid-August, we had designed an exciting itinerary with our guide: an overland 25-day journey from Shiraz in Iran to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.

  • Iran – Shiraz to Tehran through Yazd, Isfahan and Kashan, then 12-hour overnight train to Mashhad, before crossing the border into Turkmenistan.
  • Turkmenistan – on to the city of Mary and then the Uzbek border by car.
  • Uzbekistan – through the magnificent cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, to the capital Tashkent, then driving through the Fergana valley and to the Kyrgyzstan border.
  • Kyrgyzstan – Osh, yurt stays in the plains of Kyrgyzstan, the Issy-Kul lake, and finally Bishkek the capital.

Reading the Lonely Planet and looking at photos of the highlights made us dream about this amazing region and the romance of this classical journey along the Silk Road.

Our stay in Dubrovnik, Croatia, for a couple of days in mid-August was the right time and a convenient set-up for us to do more research before committing to our itinerary.

First on our agenda: how to reach Greece from Montenegro, avoiding Albania? Not only we were not insured but also we learnt that road quality is really poor through much of the country (however, we did meet some travellers who mentioned it was a brilliant country for off-road vehicles).

Image courtesy of ViaMichelin

Image courtesy of ViaMichelin

Driving through Kosovo and Macedonia would be a 14-hour endeavour. We were warned by the French consular website that “car theft is a real issue in Serbia, in particular for new and valuable cars”. More worrying and sadder, at the border between Macedonia and Greece a humanitarian tragedy was unfolding, with the massive influx of refugees from Syria creating tensions in the area.

Just imagining the challenge of keeping the girls entertained for that time, finding decent accommodation along the way with secure car parking, crossing four borders (including a short stint in Serbia before getting into Kosovo) with Alan driving the whole distance on mostly mountain roads was just plain unappealing.

After a little investigation, we found an alternative: an overnight car ferry from Bar (Montenegro) to Bari (Italy), a couple of days in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, then a second car ferry from Brindisi to Igoumenitsa (Greece). Another mode of transport and a far more relaxing schedule seemed a pretty compelling idea.

While Alan took care of all the bookings for this new route, I started to delve into Central Asia. We needed to look more into the local security in order to finalise our plans.

The official Australian government travel advisory service so conservative that it was hardly credible. The basic advice was don’t set foot in Turkey, Iran, or any of Central Asia! I got onto the French government site and it was much more detailed and a balanced account of the risks by country, with precise analysis, anecdotes and practical recommendations by areas. It will turn out to be a decisive resource for the rest of our trip.

For each country, they provide a heatmap of the risks:

  • Green: normal level of caution required in this area
  • Yellow: increased level of caution required
  • Orange: travel only if strictly necessary
  • Red: avoid at all costs (“formellement déconseillé”)

MAE Iran mapAll of the sudden, the appeal of an adventurous, off-the-beaten track, “it-will-make-lifelong-memories” overland journey from Shiraz to Bishkek via legendary Silk Road cities took a serious dent as I saw Red and Orange zones along many parts of our intended route.

Holding on to hope that maybe the French Foreign Office was still being too conservative, we turned to corporate internal security reports previously sent to us by a friend who is ex-military and a corporate security professional. Assuming that internal = unfiltered and business = pragmatic, we hoped these reports would allay our initial concerns.

My hope (or denial) was crushed rather quickly. The report on Kyrgyzstan was particularly damning. I stood there in disbelief. How could the Lonely Planet write that the security concerns are overstated when most official sources and some private security firms warn of serious risks? Uzbekistan was OK, apart from the usual travel risks and annoyances, and reports of police corruption.

MAE Ouzbekistan mapOverland border crossings are problematic in most countries. And unfortunately, all of our intended border crossings were Red or Orange on the French advice website and in the private security report.  Looking further into the details, in some cases we had to cross a no-man’s-land by foot. What was described as a 20-minute walk – for adults obviously – would be an ordeal for us, with Louisa most likely requiring to be carried along with our 5 large bags plus hand luggage. Travel in other areas along our itinerary, like the Fergana Valley, was strongly discouraged.

We looked at flight connections but they are inconvenient in the region (often only once per week) and we didn’t want to take domestic flights, again for safety reasons. Most Central Asian regional airlines aren’t approved to fly over E.U. airspace as European inspections deem the aircraft not fit for flying – a 30-year old Tupelov flight anyone?

As we pondered the appeal of an amazing adventure and the promise of an unforgettable experience, we began to wonder if it was going to be unforgettable for all the wrong reasons…

For the first time, we felt very clearly the weight of responsibility for our children. Of course, as parents, we make decisions everyday about our children and we are responsible for their safety from the minute they come to this world. But this time, it felt different.

Frankly, sans enfants, I am pretty sure that Alan and I wouldn’t have hesitated and would have gone ahead with the trip.

But now, both of us had to make a decision that involved Angélie, Améline and Louisa, who are not in a position to have an informed opinion about it. While Alan and I still love a bit of adventure, things do look very differently seen through the eyes of a 3, 5 or 9-year old. And what, for us, is about managing risks and dealing with problems that could arise, for them could be quite traumatising experiences – not what we seek.

I remember vividly compliance training I had had many times at work. In the context of the firm’s reputation, we were told repeatedly “before you hit the send button, think how this email, or any part of it, would look on the front page of a newspaper”. What I took from this line is a habit of trying to look at a future situation in retrospect. One often says “with the benefit of hindsight, I would have done this or that differently”. This is what the training was about: try to develop the hindsight beforehand – however contradictory that might sound!

The reports we read from the French Foreign Office, the reports that our friend kindly provided us – these were the hindsight.   How would we feel about our decision if we imagined a news report that a family of five, including three young children, got into trouble in some off-the-beaten track location despite all the warning signs?

So, against our natural inclinations, we decided to not risk becoming that family. We scaled back our plans to visit Iran only and agreed to save our Silk Road journey through Central Asia for another time.

Finally we returned to the question of Nepal. Again, the French website had the whole country in Orange: travel only if strictly necessary. The updated situation analysis was depressing. The country was still barely recovering from the devastating earthquake when the monsoon season hit really hard. There are countless power cuts, reportedly for up to 12 hours a day, landslides and fear of further ones continue to displace people, and tremors are still being felt regularly.

We were torn. Reports and communications with people on the ground suggested that on one hand tourists are welcomed to help bring back an important revenue source for the country, but on the other hand with much of the country still in a state of emergency, infrastructure and aid still desperately required, our presence as a family of five could be more of a hindrance than a help. Again, we began to feel that this was turning into a decision of managing our children under difficult circumstances rather than an enriching experience for us or our Nepali hosts.

Image courtesy of Google Maps

Image courtesy of Google Maps

So Nepal was off the table as well.

But as one door closes, another one opens. The decisions to eliminate Central Asia and Nepal from our itinerary opened a 5-week window between Iran and China. It was a very simple choice for us: we decided to explore India instead.

We had contemplated India earlier on in our trip planning, and Alan has previously done quite a lot of research in his work with Wheel2Wheel. It will be pretty exciting to discover this immense, diverse and colourful country. Just a small question of getting visa permissions organised on short notice and doing some hasty research on our new route! India will present its own challenges for travelling as a family, but at a level of risk that we are prepared to undertake.

We plan to stop for a week in Dubai on the way, visiting our close friends Morgan and Levina who relocated there recently. It will be a nice pause, resting in the comfort of a home, catching up with dear friends, getting up to date on administrative matters that have accumulated for the past months, and preparing for the next chapter in our journey.

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2 Comments:

  1. Greg Chapman September 21, 2015 Reply

    A tough call to make indeed – travelling the same route, we are faced with the same decisions (but only for ourselves). Even contemplating doing this route with three small kids is amazing- yet to see any tourists with kids of any age yet. So, don’t feel too unadventurous.
    One learning is that it is always different on the ground. Our most recent border crossing from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan was supposed to have a long walk. When we asked the border guard about how far the walk was, his response: “Sure, go ahead. If you want to get shot by the border guards, that is. Or, you could wait for the $1 taxi I just called”. We waited.

    • Cecile Crochu September 21, 2015 Reply

      Hi Greg – Great to hear from you. It was awesome to see you in Iran and we have been thinking of you often since we parted ways. We are glad to know that all is well. Can’t wait to see all the amazing shots and read your thoughts on Central Asia. All the best!

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