Iain Manley and Claire van den Heever, a couple who arrived in Shanghai two years ago at the end of an 18 month overland journey from London, are planning to do it all again. This time, they’re embarking on an epic trip from Shanghai to their homes in Cape Town, again by land. They have just redesigned their website, Old World Wandering, where you’ll find more on their past and future adventures.
You were originally living in London, what made you decide Shanghai as your destination and why did you decide to travel London-Shanghai by land only?
Iain: Shanghai was not really important in itself – it was just far away. I left home, for London, full of unrealistic expectations. I thought I’d be able to travel a lot, but in reality I couldn’t afford to. Shanghai stood out: it was at just about the farthest end of Eurasia and we also wanted to live somewhere completely different. We decided the place would be Shanghai, and that the best way to see something of the world was to get there by land. A few months later we left London and went to work and live in a country pub, where we could save almost everything we earned. A year later we were on the road.
What were the best and worst bits about traveling by land?
Claire: Overland travel is the only way to experience a slow transition between places. When you go by bus or train from one country into another, or even between provinces, you notice the differences, as well as the similarities between cultures, between the landscape, between the people, the language and the food. I don’t think the thrill of new and exciting things is lost when you travel overland, but that you gain a better understanding of the whole, and you feel less like a tourist.
Are you not ‘done’ with the whole traveling by land thing? What has made you both want to embark on another similar over land trip back to your home in Cape Town?
Iain: I’d like traveling to be a part of my life rather than a distraction from it, so I hope I’m never done, but this journey, the journey home to Cape Town, is partly about filling in gaps. We flew once on our way to Shanghai, from Amman in Jordan to Mumbai. We were inexperienced travelers and people we respected said it wasn’t safe to go from Turkey to India overland. But when we got to Syria, we met people who told us that Pakistan was safe – this was 2006 – and Iran was a wonderful place, with incredibly hospitable people. So we want to go to Iran. We spent almost a year in India on our way to Shanghai and we’ve been here for two years now. The places between these two monumental cultures have all been influenced by them in different ways and to different extents, and this fascinates me.
What was the highlight for you during your journey from London – Shanghai and how long did it take you?
Claire: We were on the road for eighteen months, so it’s difficult to pinpoint highlights, but I’d say that the places we fell in love with came as a surprise – like Syria. We spent a week there walking around, drinking endless cups of tea with endlessly friendly people – people who were more hospitable than anywhere I’ve been. They were so pleased to be hosts and so pleased that we’d come to appreciate their history, their architecture and their culture. By the time we got down to Egypt, every cup of tea had become a way of pushing you into buying something. In Syria, hospitality was genuine.
Both you and Claire are writers, what are you working on at the moment and what do you feel the advantages and obstacles are of being a writer in China?
Iain: I’m working through the final draft of a book about the history of Singapore and Claire is writing a book about contemporary Chinese art. It sounds a little incredible when we say, “We’re writing books”, but the pool of talent in China is small and interest in everything Chinese keeps growing so there are opportunities here that you wouldn’t dream of at home. Because neither of us are specialists, the tricky thing is often balancing the needs of people who are experts.
When do you plan to leave Shanghai, what route will you be taking home and how long is it expected to take?
Claire: We’re planning to leave by the end of the year and spend close to a year getting home. Things change, so it’s too early to map out our exact route but we want to spend a few months travelling through Southeast Asia and then China, before making our way through Central Asia to Iran, and then probably back through the Middle East to Africa. We’ll then make our way down the east coast of Africa until we’re home, in Cape Town, right at the southern tip.
What about Shanghai will you miss and what things will you definitely not miss?
Iain: I think the modern definition of being Shanghaied is coming here for a year and staying much longer. People stay because they’re not satisfied with the amount they’ve learnt about China. Also, living in a city that is opening up, where there are new possibilities every day, can be very addictive. I’ll miss that. But one of the major reasons we’re making this trip is to discover more of China. Because Shanghai is so materialistic and so urban, it often feels soulless. I’m hoping that somewhere along the road we’ll discover something of China’s soul.
You are both currently writing books, are you tempted to write a book about your travel experiences?
Claire: Very tempted indeed!
What advice would you give to someone planning to do a similar journey by land only, what can they expect/be prepared for?
Claire: Sometimes we didn’t appreciate just how free we were because our hopes of going places and seeing things kept us moving. Try to find a balance between doing everything you want to and not planning at all. It’s really a great feeling to be able to say yes to anything, make unexpected detours and just explore for days. There will always be another train to that next place.
Iain: Buy a map! Even if the journey is just an idea, something you’re not sure you’ll ever do, start charting it on a map and you’re halfway there.