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Germany to Vietnam by road

Two people, one Volkswagen, two continents, 15 months. Sebastian Linder describes his journey.

india Updated: Feb 24, 2007 21:21 IST

If you want to travel from Germany toVietnam, the most logical way is to get a plane ticket and spend about 16 hours flying there. But have you never asked yourself while sitting in a plane — what is happening down there? What kind of people live there? What do I really know about the world between the airports?

I think it was in a quest for answers to these questions that the idea of doing the journey by road emerged.

The plan was to do this journey together with a close friend in a car. It was an old Volkswagen Polo — made in the early nineties—which we plumped up to a real camp mobile. We created sleeping space from wood both inside and on the roof of the car. On board the car we had filming equipment to capture our journey for posterity.

It took us about half a year of hardwork to put the idea inmotion. Both of us had to create the one year of time needed for the journey, apart from arranging resources, visas and permissions.

It was the end of June in Bavaria when we finally said goodbye to our friends and families and got into the car. Our destination was Vietnam.<b1>

Our first night halt was just about half an hour’s drive from home. We did not cover much distance in the following days also. Home was not so easy to let go of. We eventually continued further south—through Austria—passing the snow-coveredAlps and arriving
in the north of Italy.

Most of our time was spent soaking in nature, capturing images on our cameras and getting to know the local people. In the evenings we had bonfires close to a river, cooking our meals and finally going to sleep in or on top of the car.

We spent almost six weeks driving through Italy. Starting in the Dolomites range, in the north of the country, with its green mountain scenery and grapes and apples growing all around, we made our way south.Along the way we experienced the big social differences between the rich north,with cities like Bolzano, Milan or Turin, and the regions in South Italy.

At this time the Catholic Church had just elected a new Pope.The new Pope was from Germany. He had been born in a village close to our hometown.We thought these similarities would be enough to get a small interview with him. But in Vatican City, the capital of the Catholic Church, we were told to wait for six months for the newPope Benedict XVI to grant us an audience.

This was definitely too long a wait and we continued on our way, hopping over to Greece by ferry.

It was nice to get in touch with a new country and culture, although it was still quite similar to what we had seen before. The people in Greece are very relaxed and take life easy and calm, especially in the countryside. We did it their way and spent our days sitting in little restaurants, drinking coffee and playing backgammon, a favourite with the Greeks.

We then proceeded slowly in the direction of Turkey. Three months after the start of our journey,we arrived in Istanbul.

It was the first time I had travelled out of Europe. I could feel the touch of a new culture and religion.

Instead of the churches that dot almost every European village we could now see mosques. We travelled further east closer to one of the milestones of our journey—Iran.

The politics of the atomic bomb and the aggressive posturing of the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, towards the West made it interesting for us to go deeper into the Iranian society and the way of living of its people. The picture painted by the Western media, especially the European media, is that of an undeveloped country populated by Islamic fundamentalists who pose a threat to the Western world. The journey was also at a time when the United States was clamouring for a military attack on Iran if political pressure did not stop its nuclear programme.<b2>

Our interactions with the people in Iran, coming against this backdrop, surprised us. I did not feel any aggression against foreigners or experience the clash of religions and culture. It made me realise again that people living in a country are mostly not responsible for its political actions even if those actions lead to war. We stayed in Iran for almost five months. With Tehran as the base we explored the country in several car trips.

We travelled to the romantic green forests to the north of Iran, close to the Caspian Sea and the skiing resorts in the mountain ranges above Tehran. This is where Iran’s highest peak, Mount Damavand, with a towering height of 5600 meters above sea level, is located. But when you are in Iran a trip to one of the famous deserts should not be missed.

We crossed the Kavir desert to reach Yazd, a historical city in the East,where you can really enjoy the calming spirit of a desert city.

My companion really fell in love with Iran, and so decided to stay back there. But I felt the push to continue my journey. So I left my friend and the car back in Iran and continued further with my backpack and still camera. The direction was still clear—eastwards — and so I decided to enter Pakistan.<b3>

I reached Zahedan, the border between Iran and Pakistan. Here I faced some problems with my visa; I was entering Pakistan by land through Baluchistan, a tribal area in the country’s south west where the struggle for self determination has led to violence in the past.

To me, Iran and Pakistan felt like two different worlds. On the Iranian side there was a well paved road going to the border, and on the Pakistan side there was just a dirt road bringing me to the next little village, where people were busy playing cricket.

My first destination in Pakistan was the World Social Forum that was held in Karachi inMarch 2006. I volunteered in the preparation of
the forum. It was an amazing experience. It was exciting to work in a team and interact with the local volunteers and organisers. I watched what it took to make the forum happen and saw delegates from Pakistan and India sit together and discuss contentious issues including Kashmir.

After a month in Karachi, I continued north to Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar. I had heard about a tribal festival happening in northern Pakistan, close to the border with Afghanistan and I decided to make the arduous journey there.<b4>

The images along the way were breathtaking. I hitch-hiked most of theway on the back of pickups, just to have a better view of the mountains and the landscape that changed after every curve. My journey started from a completely green jungle, passed through a 3,500 metre pass that had just opened after the hard winter,and finally ended in the Kalash Valleys close to Chitral.

The Kalash people are a non-Muslim community who worship their gods by having four festivals a year, where they dance and sing for
two days.They see it as a cleaning ritual and sacrifice cheese and bread to propitiate their gods for the following season.

I was hosted by local families that invited me to share their meals and home. As often in my journeys, I had the experience once again of
people being more open and friendly, uninfluenced by consumerism or money.

With this great experience I continued my way further into China. I was quite lucky to have the warm feelings from Pakistan. The other
side of the border was different. I was astonished by how cold and impersonal a place can be when I entered Kashgar, the first big city
in West China. The whole city was planned, and most of its residents were people who had been forced to come there, in the 1960s, when Mao came along with a program to resettle the people from China’s overcrowded east to its lonely west.

But my main goal in China was to go to Tibet, to see if there is still a Tibetan culture left since the occupation by the Chinese government, and to learn more about the Buddhist way of living. I was very lucky to meet a Tibetan boy,Tenzin, in the streets of Lhasa on my second day after arrival. He offered to put me up at his family’s home during my stay.<b5>

Tenzin’s mother was a very religious person, and she went out for Cora—a Tibetan praying walk around Lhasa—everymorning and only left her praying wheel for sleeping. On the other hand Tenzin was more interested in playing computer games than praying and learning more about Buddhism.

It will be interesting to see if the Tibetan people can defend their religion and spirit from the strong influence of the Chinese government that controls education and the media. One of the possibilities is a kind of resistance in the mind. A lot of Tibetans are going this way by getting into one of the monasteries and learning about Buddhism.

Staying at a home with a family again, I felt homesick with the desire to be near my family and friends in Germany. I also realised that the end of my journey was near. I was only oneweek away frommy final destination—Vietnam.

So I travelled further south east and reached the coast of Vietnam. Here I could really feel the passing of a complete continent, from one ocean to another. I spent my time relaxing on the beach,watching the waves breaking and pondered over my entire journey.

Starting from the first vision of going to Vietnam over land, starting with the car, going through all the different countries, and finally ending up in Vietnam—one sentence sums it all: The journey is the reward.

Sebastian Linder is a photographer from Germany who is currently in India.

First Published: Feb 24, 2007 20:26 IST