We last heard from Jon as he was starting his overland trip from London to South East Asia and back in Boris, his somewhat-trusty 20-year-old LandCruiser. Four months later he’s made it to the half way mark, and kindly agreed to turn in a trip report on just how everything has gone technology-wise so far. If you’re even vaguely considering an expedition like this yourself, we’d suggest reading this detailed post closely!
Almost 2 years to the day, after I got up at an ‘Escape the City’ meet-up in London, and asked if ‘anybody fancied going for a drive?’, I find myself in Kuala Lumpur at the end of Leg 3. After 126 days on the road, 19 countries, 14,000 miles, Legs 1, 2 & 3, 10 Boris (my truck) services, 3 borders crossed without the right paperwork, 2 x-rays, and one dodgy wrist, I’ve reached the halfway mark and the end of my journey east.
I’ve battled storms, floods, rivers, breaking cars, ‘bike wankers’, delayed ferries, hospitals and ladyboys. I’ve seen deserts, caves, mountains, snow, seas, lakes and Great Walls. I’ve drunk vodka with mechanics, farmers, government lawyers, business men, sales men, taxi drivers, hostel owners, students and fellow travellers. I’ve bribed cops, charmed cops, cheered up cops, run away from cops, and nearly run over cops.
I’ve slept in guesthouses, hostels, hotels, roof tents, on couches, on carpets under the stars, and even on the Great Wall. I’ve met local Ukrainians, Russians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Tajiks, Persians, Afghans, Wakhi, Chinese Han, Chinese Uyghur, Laotians, Thais, and Malaysians. I’ve laughed, screamed, yelled, stewed, cursed, fumed, whispered, joked, smiled and nearly cried. I’ve made many new friends, met some old ones, and lost a few along the way. It’s been quite an adventure so far.
From here I face my toughest challenges yet. In attempting to return home overland to London, I must cross India, Pakistan, Iran (and potentially northern Iraq) to reach Turkey, and the end of Leg 4. All these countries will prove enormously challenging, India due to its size, Pakistan due to its troubles, and Iran with its new government (not to mention the fact, I do not have a visa yet). There may even in the opportunity to pass through the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq. This will be my longest leg yet, somewhere in excess of 100 days. From Turkey it’s just a short jaunt back to London. Easy!!
And finally I have a treat for you all. With great pleasure I’d like to show you the first trailer for The Great Game Expedition film.
This short film was produced by Joby Newson, my expedition film editor (@Jnewson). I think you’ll agree he has done a fantastic effort to turn my ramblings into something looking almost semi-professional. Great work Joby!!
The Technology Update
As predicted my laptop and iPhone have been the key devices. With these two I’ve been able to do pretty much everything that I needed to do on the journey (except repair my truck). Boris, my truck has provided a ready power source for all my gadgets and film equipment. This allowed me to camp and be away from power sources for long periods, which would be a bigger challenge for a backpacker.
My universal power adapter has worked everywhere and my main set of cables have worked a treat. I recommend you carry an Ethernet cable as wifi hasn’t made it everywhere yet (I’m thinking of places in China in particular) but even that won’t be far away. I’ve not had any use for my spare cables, and I haven’t need to use my spare Galaxy Ace phone or AAA/AA battery recharger.
Finding a connection hasn’t been too difficult either. As long as you have a passport I’m pretty sure you can get a local SIM card in every country. I didn’t need one in most countries so I can’t confirm for sure, but there were places to buy SIM cards everywhere. I will summarise by country below.
My old Garmin GPS ceased to be much use after I left Europe. This wasn’t a big problem as Google Maps and Citymaps2go have been all that I’ve needed to navigate with. As long as you have regular wifi you can save your destinations in advance on Google Maps and that will cache sufficient information to navigate with. In combination with Citymaps2go (as long as I had downloaded the correct areas) I was able to navigate to most locations.
Triposo has been useful on occasion when acting the tourist in town. The massive benefit is that you don’t need internet connection to use these apps. They work via GPS so you don’t even need a mobile signal. Beware though, it’s not foolproof. Sometimes Google Maps struggled, especially in the Xinjiang province of China – it wouldn’t work properly at all, making me wonder about government interference.
The Delorme satellite tracker was another option but required too much time to download maps so I didn’t bother. I had paper maps but mostly used my laptop or iPhone for maps along with my Lonely Planet. I haven’t needed my compass yet.
Communications and Security
My iPhone has done pretty much everything for communications. On the odd occasion it hasn’t, my Delorme satellite tracker has been brilliant for staying in touch when I’m away from an internet connection and has probably the reason why I haven’t brought a SIM card in many places. I could email, send tweets and update Facebook from anywhere. The Delorme has also created my live route map around the world and recorded my route in extreme detail. Every 10 minutes it can send my location (provided I have a clear view to a satellite).
Fortunately I haven’t had to use the emergency SOS button yet, and my Iridium satellite phone hasn’t been required either. It will probably only be needed in an emergency, which makes it an expensive accessory for the trip but provides piece of mind. If I wasn’t going to a number of the world’s current hotspots, I probably wouldn’t have brought it along.
The Witopia VPN has been a great asset. In a number of places in Central Asia I’ve been able to get around the country restrictions. China was the most restricted country but I had no problems once the VPN was activated. YouTube was blocked in Tajikistan (because the president didn’t like a video of his family being posted). WordPress was blocked in Uzbekistan. The VPN solved these access restrictions.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to test it in Turkmenistan because the internet could only be found in special cafes, and wifi in expensive hotels. I wasn’t there for long so I didn’t try. You don’t have to use Witopia as others will work, but it worked well for me. I’d recommend it.
Social Media Channels
All my social media channels have worked as planned. The Witopia VPN has allowed continued access via my laptop, but in the majority of places the iPhone has been all you would need. You could do most of your communication on a smartphone, except where there are country restrictions in place. I did find that the Instagram and Buffer apps on my iPhone allowed me to get around the Chinese restrictions on posting to Twitter and Facebook. I guess the authorities haven’t caught onto these yet, which means that other small apps might just work as well.
Social Media Tools (apps)
Travel Apps (for iPhone)
Of all the apps, Google Maps, Citymaps2go and XE Currency have been brilliant. Triposo, Google Translate, Hostelworld, Hostelbookers, and Couchsurfing have been more than useful. I’ve even used the Direct U Russia and Asia maps and compass occasionally.
Through a combination of couch surfing hosts, hostels, hotels, cafe wifi and my Delorme satellite tracker I didn’t buy a SIM card until I got to Kyrgyzstan, and even that was only when I brought a cheap card and modem from another traveller. It was useful but I could have survived without it.
I just wasn’t in places long enough to warrant buying one, when I could access the internet from the places I stayed or ate. That said, it was pretty cheap to buy a SIM card in most countries as long as you had a passport.
My maps have been useful for discussing plans with others – mostly I used them in conjunction with my dodgy language and charade skills to show the locals where I’d come from and where I was going. The Lonely Planet guidebooks were very helpful as was the Russian language guidebook. I kept forgetting about my point-it picture book so I didn’t get the best use from that.
France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany
Cheap access to internet with roaming was used. Many places had free wifi. Access to power for charging gadgets was easy to find.
I used my UK sim card for calls, texts and internet when I needed it. Two pounds ($3) per day for 25MB of internet data was more than I required, and I used this rarely.
Cheap access to internet with roaming was used. Many places had free wifi. Access to power for charging gadgets was easy to find. Hostels and local hosts had wifi (of differing quality) to use.
I used my mobile phone for calls, texts and use with offline maps. I needed to use the mobile for calls or texts when meeting local hosts. Often Google Maps lead me to the wrong place with the location instructions I was given, for example in Kiev.
My advice would be to get your host to provide detailed instructions, and you should try to arrange an easily found monument or location in a city as a back up. Do check you know where it is beforehand because it’s not always obvious to foreigners.
I couldn’t find the meeting point in Vladikavkaz so I had to wait for them to find me. Texting through my UK number saved the day.
Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan
Many places had free wifi (banks in Tbilisi, cafes in Azerbaijan). Access to power for charging gadgets was easy to find. Hostels, hotels and local hosts had free wifi (of differing quality) to use.
I lost mobile coverage once I reached Turkmenistan waters. I could use manual network selection to find a number of carriers but I couldn’t join them.
I had to borrow a phone from a local to call my Turkmenistan guide when I was delayed on the boat for several days off the Turkmenbashi coast. While my guide said I could get a local SIM card I didn’t try as I wasn’t there long enough.
Turkmenistan was the one big black spot for me on the trip to date, but only being in the country briefly along with a bout of severe food poisoning meant I didn’t miss the internet – although my support team did get worried when I hadn’t checked in for a few days when I got stuck on the Caspian Sea waiting 2.5 days to dock.
My Delorme satellite tracker would have sorted the problem if it hadn’t been stored off-limits in the bows of the boat.
I found wifi available at all the places I stayed in Uzbekistan. I could have purchased a SIM card easily through Ucell or Beeline. My biggest problem was that WordPress was blocked in Uzbekistan, but the Witopia VPN solved these access restrictions.
Finding internet access was trickier in Tajikistan. Dushanbe was ok but it often stopped working at my hostel. When I couldn’t find it I went to an internet cafe, but again I could have brought a SIM card easily enough through Tcell or Beeline.
The internet was slow though even with a local SIM card, as I was able to test another travellers phone. The VPN enabled me to access YouTube when it was blocked.
I didn’t even try to find a SIM card here, but the locals all had mobile phones so it must be possible.
I brought a cheap SIM card and modem from another traveller. It was useful but I could have survived without it. I paid $10 for the modem (it cost $20 new), and topped up the SIM card with $20.
Buying a SIM card was straightforward with a passport. Because I was in China for 35 days this was definitely a good move as I was part of a group. The Witopia VPN solved any restricted access issues. I lost mobile coverage with my UK number as Vodafone didn’t have a relationship with any of the local telecom providers.
Though Instagram and Buffer apps worked to allow posting to Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, Google Maps struggled in Xinjiang province. Wifi was not prevalent except in the high cost hotels. Ethernet cable connections exist in most hotels. I recommend you take an Ethernet cable with you as some in the rooms weren’t in very good condition.
Using your cable-connected laptop to create wifi for your iPhone is a way to update from your phone, and if you update your website via email then you should also be fine.
There were no restrictions on email as long as you had a connection, so in principle you should be able to escape without the VPN. However for the price of $60 per year having the VPN has proved to be good value for me. The ability to access everything from a laptop has been invaluable when trying to share my story.
The SIM card cost 100 yuan (50 yuan for 50 minutes, text and 100MB) plus more phone credit for 50 yuan.
I found wifi available at all the places I stayed in Laos. It’s easily found in most cafes and bars. I could have purchased a SIM card but didn’t bother. There was no coverage with my UK SIM.
Like Laos, I found wifi available at all the places I stayed in Thailand and again it’s easily found in cafes and bars. I could have purchased a SIM card but didn’t bother. My UK SIM card worked in Thailand.
I found wifi available at all the places I stayed in Malaysia, as well as most cafes and bars. I purchased a SIM card as I need to speak with local shipping agents when arranging shipping for my truck to India.
SIM card and credit – 46 Malaysian Ringgit (15 MR to buy sim with 6 MR credit. Added 30 MR to pay the 3 RM/150MB daily usage fee. 35 cents per min calls and 10c per text).
As I was staying with friends I had access to wifi and I got a SIM card easily with a passport. Everywhere has wifi access though.
SIM card – $15 SGD ($15 gets $18 dollars credit, calls 8-8pm 16c per minute, outside peak time calls 8c per min, Data $7 – 1GB over 7 days, Text 8c each).
UK SIM card
I put 50 GBP on my UK SIM card before I left London, and topped up another 50 GBP in Uzbekistan. This has just run out in Singapore after just over four months on the road.
As I had hoped, Central Asia is pretty well connected for the traveller. However it’s far from perfect and the connection speeds are often slow. Wifi is available in most places especially where travellers are common. Purchasing SIM cards only requires a passport and typically takes ten minutes to set up. The stores are filled with young people who quite often speak English and can help you work out what the best deal is for you. If that fails, you can get by with sign language.
The availability of Internet connections along with the tech tools I have taken have been of immense help to me as a solo traveller. It has allowed me to deal with problems immediately and make changes to plans on the spot. For a traveller that likes to keep his options open, with as much flexibility as possible, it has been a godsend.
Here’s to technology continuing to play a successful role in my expedition on the return leg to London!!