Driving through Central Asia: The Technology Challenge

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This is a guest post from Jon Beardmore, an adventurous sort of chap who is currently attempting to drive solo from London to South East Asia and back in a 20-year-old LandCruiser. He has more than a few challenges to overcome if he’s going to make it the whole way, and technology is definitely one of them…

The tech challenge for my Central Asia expedition has been fascinating. I’m a bit of a tech geek but there is a method to my madness. Travellers throughout history have used the tools of the day to try to make the experience a little easier, and I’m no exception.

I’m setting out to see how these modern day tools can help me communicate, navigate, deal with security and social media, and provide local information for research and tourism purposes, These tools are designed to help me plan and execute my journey, both before I depart and while I’m on the road. Due to the nature of the journey, there’ll be no shortage of planning on the go…

Jon Beardmore - equipment

The Challenge

Finding local internet access along the way will be part of the challenge, and I’m interested to see how difficult it will be. I expect there will be places where it will prove too challenging due to local beauracracy, and there will be times where it will take too long. In those cases, I’ll just have to leave it until the next city or country.

Hopefully I will receive good advice and assistance along the way from locals, and other travellers. Feel free to get in touch with your suggestions.

My tools

  • iPhone 4S (32GB)
  • Google Drive to store files that I can access on the road. I have a Yahoo email account as another storage option.
  • My vehicle (Boris) has a range of 12v and 240v charging points which will all be used to keep things charged whenever I’m away from a local power source.
  • A wide range of cables, adapters and recharging devices. All items can be charged directly from a power socket, but many also charge through the laptop.
  • Maplins AAA/AA battery recharger and rechargeable batteries, and a USB multi-port adapter for the cigarette lighter in the vehicle

Navigation

Jon Beardmore - guidebook and mapThere are many ways for me to (attempt to) navigate on a long overland journey like this. I have old-fashioned paper, books and compass solutions, as well as a variety of technological aids.

I have an old Garmin sat-nav that came with the vehicle. It is useful for tracking mileage, travel time and compass directions, but once I leave Europe the navigation will only be at a high level and not really suitable for specific location tracking. I did consider buying another sat- nav and using software called Basecamp or OpenStreetMap to plot my journey, but I decided against it in the end.

The DeLorme satellite tracker has downloadable maps for the world that I can use with my iPhone. Google maps on the iPhone allows you to save locations in your favourites, which then caches the area information on your phone. Along with a couple of other apps called Citymaps2go (1.49p, offline maps), Direct U Russia & Asia (free, offline maps), and Triposo (free, offline maps) I can access the location maps I need. When attached to a mobile network, the built-in GPS allows you to track your position in real time. It’s a very cheap and effective mapping tool.

 

My Tools

 

Communications and Security

Jon Beardmore - DelormeI considered a range of options for dealing with personal security on the road. Given that I am travelling close to several potential hotspots I took this decision very seriously. Eventually I settled on a combination of a mobile phone, a DeLorme 2-way GPS satellite tracker and an Iridium 9500 satellite phone.

The mobile phone will work in most places. When considering the satellite tracker I wanted something that could be used in an emergency, was capable of two way communication and also produced a tracking map available on a website. I considered the Spot device, Yellowbrick but ultimately settled on the DeLorme.

It pairs with my iPhone and allows me to track my own progress, send and receive messages and, most importantly, has an SOS button that notifies a worldwide search and rescue organisation of my location. I have repatriation insurance to cover the use of this service should it be required. The DeLorme also has downloadable maps to the iPhone so I can use it as a navigational device. It cost 180 GBP for the device, and 50 GBP for a car charger (plus 20% VAT).

The Iridium satellite phone came with my truck from the previous owner. It is old and doesn’t have data capabilities (ie, text or internet) so it is there for emergency calls only. I have rented a SIM for six months (with the ability to extend monthly) and bought 200 minutes of air time. The only issue I need to resolve is getting permission from the Indian government to use the phone in India – after the 2008 Mumbai bombings satellite phones have become a highly monitored device. Thuraya phones are actually banned, as these were used by the terrorists.

 

My Tools

  • DeLorme satellite tracker
  • Iridium 9500 satellite phone
  • iPhone 4S
  • Samsung Galaxy Ace

 

Software Security

Software and internet protection is also a consideration. Using wifi connections along the road is insecure ,and possibly puts my computer, files and access passwords at risk, plus places like China severely restrict internet access. Using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) allows me to access a secure webportal around the world (I use England) to surf the net.

I looked at a number of options such as Hidemyass.com, ExpatShield, and HotspotShield, but actually chose Witopia because it was recommended here on this site. It seems to be working fine with one exception – Google Mail recognises the VPN access and thinks I’m being hacked. I’ve told them it’s me but it has happened a couple of times. It’s not a major problem but something to be aware of.

 

My Tools

  • Witopia VPN

 

Social Media Channels

In attempting to share the story of my journey from the road I have selected a range of social media channels. My WordPress blog/website (using the Adventure Journal template) is the central point for sharing my story. This was free to set up, with the only cost coming from the registration of my website address (www.bigoadventures.com) at $20 per year. I’m using Twitter and Facebook to spread the story, Instagram and Flickr to share pictures along the way and YouTube to publish videos. Instagram is particularly useful, as I can send pictures to Twitter, Facebook and Flickr at the same time.

 

My Tools

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Flickr
  • YouTube

 

Social Media Tools (apps)

I’m using a combination of apps to assist with managing my social media channels.

Hootsuite allows me to send a message and/or picture to my Twitter and Facebook accounts simultaneously (it’s free if you have 5 or less accounts).

Buffer allows me to schedule some of my messages to be sent at a time of my choosing, while IFTTT (If This Then That) is an app that allows you to create ‘recipes’ to assist you online. I am using it to help with sending Instagram pictures to Twitter and Facebook though the buffer app which then schedules the posts. This  is all done once so reduces time and internet access / data needs.

 

My Tools

  • Hootsuite
  • Buffer
  • IFTTT
Jon Beardmore - virtual office

Travel Apps (for iPhone)

I found a range of apps for my iPhone that I plan to use along the journey. Most are free, but a couple I paid a small fee for.

Citymaps2go is an offline map that also has useful location information such as food, accommodation, fuel, shopping and medical information. A definite bonus on the maps are the street directions, aiding navigation when driving in a new city.

Direct U Russia and Asia map allows me to look at the whole region down to a street level in many places. The file size was 700mb but it’s definitely worth it. Both Citymaps2go, and Direct U are offline maps that work with mobile coverage to provide location mapping.

Triposo is a great free app that allows you to download region and city information across the world. It contains loads of useful tourist data on sightseeing, eating out, hotels, transport and offline maps.

XE Currency is a free currency calculator. You can download 10 currencies and then use offline to get the latest exchange rates.

Wi-fi Finder will hopefully show me where I can find free (and paid for) wifi access.

Onavo Extend is an app that compresses the data you use on your phone and hence saves you money.

British Red Cross First Aid in case of any medical emergencies.

Hostelworld, Hostelbookers and Couchsurfing apps for helping with accommodation needs.

Google Translate will be useful when I have an internet connection.

Language Guides – I also have a range of simple language apps for Russian and Chinese that were downloadable for free. Jibbigo is a paid app that allows you to download languages, but they don’t have a Russian guide yet.

A compass comes with the iPhone

 

Internet Connectivity

A combination of local internet, wifi (paid and free, hopefully), and local SIM cards are options in each country. I have a Vodafone pay-as-you-go sim card from the UK (for my iPhone) that can access Internet in Europe (25mb / £2 per day) and the rest of the world (25mb / £5 per day).

I also have a back-up phone in the form of a Samsung Galaxay Ace with a PAYG SIM. The iPhone has a mini SIM and the Galaxy Ace a standard-sized SIM to provide flexibility. I can also send emails, texts, tweets and Facebook messages from the DeLorme device.

 

My Tools

  • DeLorme Satellite tracker
  • Macboo Pro (with wifi or local USB dongle)
  • iPhone 4s (wifi or local sim)
  • Samsung Galaxy Ace (wifi or local sim)

 

Non-Technical Aids

Because it would be foolish to rely totally on technical aids I also have a range of maps, books and a compass to navigate my way. I love looking and planning with paper maps so I couldn’t leave home without these.

 

My Tools

  • Several maps for Caucasus and Asia
  • Lonely Planet Central Asia and India
  • Russian language guide

 

I hope you find this useful. Wish me luck – it’s going to be one hell of a journey!!

 

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About the author

Jon Beardmore

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I'm an adventurous chap who loves travelling, exploring and meeting new people. I'm on a mission to see the world with my own eyes and in my own indomitable way. I like to say yes to adventure. In 2013 I am attempting a solo overland vehicle journey throughout Central Asia. Beginning and ending in London. I am planning to drive east to China and South East Asia before turning around and coming back. It'll be an investigation into the people, the cultures, the geography, the history, and the recent events that make Central Asia such a fascinating place. I'll have a 20 year old Toyota Landcruiser called 'Boris' and teddy bear called 'Kiwi Ted' for company on the road, and a great support team back in the UK. You can follow my adventure here.

8 Responses

  1. Katie Aune

    Very cool! I spent 3 months traveling around Central Asia last year and it was amazing. And surprisingly, wifi is easier to come by than you’d think. Only country where I had any issues was Turkmenistan. Almost any place you stay in the other Stans will have wifi, usually free. If you’d like any recommendations in where to stay, things to check out, etc, let me know!

    Reply
  2. William Thomas

    Great article, really useful advice for the modern explorer. Good luck Jon.

    Reply
  3. Brent Griffith

    Great info Jon, thanks for walking us through your tech spread. I’m planning a trip myself and it’s cool to see what other people are finding useful as they travel.

    Reply
  4. segacs

    Good article! I visited China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan along the Silk Road in the summer of 2015 and found the following info — perhaps useful for any casual readers looking for info:

    CHINA: I bought a SIM card ahead of time from a company called 3G Solutions, which was a really smart idea since they took care of all the bureaucracy and the card was waiting for me at my hotel when I arrived, with English setup instructions. I recommend this since buying a sim card is a really cumbersome experience for foreigners and can take a long time. A really good VPN is a must, since nearly *everything* is blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall. This included Google when I was there, so Gmail, Google Now, Google Maps, and half the features on my Android phone simply didn’t work without VPN. On the other hand, fast internet speeds are available in most major and secondary cities and even in remote areas — I was surprised at how good the data speeds were when passing through populated areas on overnight trains in remote regions of Xinjiang Province, for example. Chinese electrical outlets also accept US/Canadian two-pronged (non-grounded) plugs without adapters. WiFi was easy to find, but a lot of the public and hotel WiFi would block the ports required to access VPN, so you may find yourself counting on mobile data more often than you’d think — buy a good package.

    KYRGYZSTAN: I was only in the country for a week and didn’t bother buying a sim card. I found free WiFi surprisingly easy to find, not only in Bishkek but in smaller villages and towns. There was only one day when I couldn’t connect, and that was because I was in a yurt camp near Tash Rabat, which is really the middle of nowhere. Other than that, even community homestays in small villages had free WiFi. There are no restrictions on internet in Kyrgyzstan and I could access everything freely and easily.

    UZBEKISTAN: I bought a sim card here, but it was tricky. I needed the help of my friendly local guide, since foreigners can only buy sim cards at official stores and the process is lengthy and cumbersome. Uzbek nationals can buy sim cards from any street stand, but without a national ID, foreigners can forget about it. Once you get your sim card you have to activate it from a different location, and this can take a couple of hours, and it helps if you can read cyrillic since the activation text messages all tend to be in Uzbek or Russian. Once it was activated, my phone had trouble automatically picking up the mobile data settings, and I had to manually copy them from my guide. Connection speeds were pretty good in Tashkent and Samarkand but slow elsewhere. Also, all tech in Uzbekistan — laptops, cameras, phones — is subject to search and seizure by the police at any time, and they WILL stop and search you if they see you taking a photo in vaguely the wrong direction (which could be anywhere) or if they’re simply having a slow day. Make sure your tech is squeaky clean before crossing borders, don’t take photos of any government buildings, subway stations, anything vaguely military, anywhere within viewing distance of a border, etc. Also this should go without saying, but make sure you have nothing on your phone or computer that could be considered religious materials, pornography, illegal activity, etc. They may never check, but then again, they might. WiFi is widely available too, but I found VPN was useful as some social media sites were blocked — not nearly as bad as China, but I did encounter some issues with things like Foursquare and Twitter.

    Reply

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