London to Shanghai: Europe to Asia overland

In June 2006, Iain and I left England for China, armed with all the money we’d saved running a pub in the English countryside. Eighteen months and eighteen countries later, we arrived in Shanghai, where we started another overland journey, to Cape Town, in January 2011.

Our journey to Shanghai began in London. From there we travelled north through England and Scotland, then west by ferry to Ireland. After a few weeks, we took another ferry to France. Western Europe’s railways helped us to wind our way through the continent, and a train that departed from Thessaloniki carried us into Istanbul, where we first saw Asia across the Bosphorus.

In Turkey we rode buses, and buses eventually carried us south through Syria into Jordan. We chugged into Egypt on another ferry, and left on a bus to Israel. Then, after hurrying back to Amman, with plane tickets to Mumbai tucked away in my money belt, we flew – over Iran and Pakistan, slicing 4000 kilometres off an otherwise uninterrupted 39,000 travelled by land and sea.

After arriving in Mumbai, we imagined we’d spend about three months travelling around the subcontinent before being ready to move on to China, via Nepal and Tibet. We also expected that our money would soon run out. India surprised us: nine months later we’d spent less money than we did during three months in Europe, and we’d soaked up about as much as we could – in one visit – of a fascinating but exhausting country. We headed north to the Himalayan Plateau, took a jeep from Kathmandu through Tibet to Lhasa, where we connected with the world’s highest railway line and set off for Chengdu, in China proper. We took our second-last train to Xi’an then our last to Shanghai, where we stopped, in December 2007, and began our lives in China.

Our Route

British Isles1 Month

England
London
Farnham
York

Scotland
Glasgow
Aberdeen
Ballater
Isle of Skye

Northern Ireland
Belfast

Republic of Ireland
Dublin (Photos)
Doolin (Photos)
Kenmare

The Continent3 Months

France
Bayeux (Photos)
St Malo (Photos)
Paris (Photos)
Provence (Photos)

Spain
Barcelona (Photos)
Madrid (Photos)
Pontevedra (Photos)
Santiago de Compostela (Photos)

Portugal
Lisbon (Photos)
Lagos (Photos)

Spain
Sevilla
Granada

Switzerland
Geneva (Photos)

The Netherlands
Amsterdam (Photos)

Germany
Berlin (Photos)
Black Forest
Munich (Photos)

Austria
Vienna (Photos)
Innsbruck

Italy
Venice
Bologna
Cinque Terre
Florence
Rome (Photos)
Naples

Greece
Athens (Photos)
Andros

Near and Middle East3 months

Turkey
Istanbul (Photos)
Ankara (Photos)
Canakkale (Photos)
Behramkale (Photos)
Selcuk (Photos)
Afyon (Photos)
Capadoccia (Photos)

Syria
Aleppo (Photos)
Hama (Crac de Chevaliers)
Palmyra
Damascus (Photos)

Jordan
Amman (Photos)
Dead Sea (Photos)
Petra (Photos)

Egypt
Cairo (Photos)
Aswan (Photos)
Luxor (Photos)

Israel
Jerusalem (Photos)

Indian Subcontinent9 months

India
Mumbai (Photos)
Matheran (Photos)
Goa (Photos)
Madikeri
Galibeedu (Photos)
Mysore (Photos)
Wyanad
Cochin (Photos)
Alleppi
Sivananda Ashram, Neyyar Dam
Trivandrum
Chennai
Mamallapuram
Bangalore
Hampi
Hyderabad (Photos)
Junagadh
Jamnagar
Dwarka
Udaipur
Jaisalmer
Delhi

Nepal
Lumbini
Kathmandu
Pokhara
Trek (An Improvised Ghorepani to Ghandruk Loop)

India
Darjeeling
Sikkim
Calcutta
Bodghaya
Varanasi
Delhi
Sivananda Ashram, Netala
Rishikesh
McLeod Ganj
Delhi

Nepal
Lumbini (Vipassana Silent Meditation)
Kathmandu

Far East2 months

Tibet
Zhangmu
Shigatse
Gyantse
Lhasa

China
Chengdu
Xi’an
Shanghai

whole-story

London to Shanghai: The Whole Story

Claire and I are in a small seaside town in South India. It’s called Gokarna, which means Cow’s Ear in Sanskrit. Shiva, the Hindu god [...]

Travel and Nostaligia

Travel and Nostalgia

“What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.”

Hyderabad / Cyberabad

Hyderabad / Cyberabad

I awoke to the muffled beeping of my mobile phone’s alarm, heard through airline issue earplugs and the metal of the train clattering on its [...]

Cochin's backwaters

Backwaters and Beer Teapots in Cochin

The train rattled along, inducing in me the sluggish fatigue of rock-rocking train travel and blanketing heat. I sat atop a wooden luggage rack in [...]

Maharaja's palace in Mysore, it up at night

Mysore: The Demon, the Goddess and the Indian Prince

Mysore, which was one of India’s most important princely states, traces its history back to a Hindu goddess and a demon doing battle on Chamundi Hill.

Rice paddies during the harvest

A Homestay in a South Indian Village

Rural India is changing: electrifying, learning English and accepting tourists into its homes.

Cows on Vagator's Little Beach

Goa’s Haughty Hippies

Vagator in Goa has a reputation for trance parties. It didn’t live up to it when we visited, but its hippies were there, most of them drug-addled and obnoxious.

Monkeys in Matheran

Matheran: A Hill Station Petting Zoo

Matheran is hill station outside Mumbai. It where the city comes to breathe: all mechanised vehicles are banned – even bicycles – and monkeys, ponies, cows, goats and dogs roam its streets.

Mumbai's Victoria Terminus

The Mumbai Revelation

Arriving in Mumbai was a revelation. Bollywood, Indian newspapers, cows on Khar Road and crowded trains: all of them began our love affair with India.

A Mumbai slum

A Passage to India (with apologies to E.M. Forster)

“The brown skins, the bare feet, the nose-rings, the humped bullocks – all these things were foreseeable, seemed obvious and familiar from the moment of [...]

The Dome of the Rock

Jerusalem

A predawn haze lit the kilometre of road before us. We trudged along it, still groggy from the half hearted slumber of our bus ride [...]

Tout Like an Egyptian

Tout Like an Egyptian

A train deposited Iain and I in Aswan four hours behind schedule. A crowd of soldiers in combat uniforms guarded the platform, torso sized shields [...]

A man in a galabiyya selling cucumbers

Cairo’s Small Courtesies

It is in small courtesies that cultures first come together or clash, whether at the pyramids or in chance-meetings on medieval streets, aboard ferries or a badly driven minibus.

Petra

Petra

Deep in the desert of Jordan we roamed, In a rose tinted city named Petra, borne from stone. Three hundred years before Christ it was [...]

Floating on the Dead Sea

Amman and the Dead Sea

Heavy water rolled gently towards my toes, over thick layers of caked salt, like rock candy, which had sunk to the seafloor. I stepped gingerly [...]

Damascus

Damascus

Sharia ath-Thawra was a jumble of shining yellow taxis, fearlessly zipping between moving metal. Their drivers rested weary elbows on horns, hooting, blind to all [...]

Aleppo's Citadel

Mistaking Aleppo

I woke as we neared the Syrian border, my left cheek clammy and wrinkled. Saliva had collected on the headrest of my reclined bus seat [...]

Cappadocia

Cappadocia

The bedroom was icy. Fresh breaths of arctic air sifted through unseen cracks, under the door, through the glass. My foot lay exposed. I snuck [...]

Gosh, Prayers and Broken Windows

Gosh, Prayers and Broken Windows

My mother and William Turnbull, the author of this article, joined me for a week in Turkey while Claire was away, attending her mother’s wedding. [...]

Ankara

Ankara

A man pressed my thumb down onto the greasy black ink pad, and into the space labelled ‘thumb’ on the page beside it. Forefinger, middle [...]

Suleymaniye Mosque Interior

Ramazan in Istanbul

“Allaaahuu Akbaarr.” The muezzin paused, drew breath. I held out a public phone’s plastic receiver, stretching the wire, and hoped my father on the other [...]

athens

Athens

Monastiraki square bubbled with the bustle of Athenians and tourists alike. Fruit sellers, bananas hanging from the awnings of their wooden stands, bellowed the price [...]

rome

Misadventures in Rome

A single coin thrown into the Trevi Fountain, with your right hand, over your left shoulder, is said to ensure a return to Rome. The [...]

Old World Wandering

Florence

An earthy rainbow of suede belts hung from rows of open air market stalls, iron railings groaned under the weight of plush leather jackets. Wallets [...]

Old World Wandering

Venice

I sat in Hotel Caneva’s small reception area, chatting to Stephano, the night time receptionist. Water, displaced by passing boats, lapped up against a rudimentary [...]

buddy-bears

Among the Buddy Bears in Vienna

We had ninety short days in Continental Europe. The period was dictated by my Schengen visa (which all South Africans require, unless, like Claire, they [...]

munich

Munich

Munich is the heart of golden Bavaria, where the beer flows in litre sized steins, Sunday lunch is sausage and sauerkraut, and men really do [...]

berlin

A Berlin Walking Tour

Rain crashed on the tin roof of a small caravan dispensing draught beer. Claire and I huddled beneath it, sipping Becks from refundable plastic cups. [...]

amsterdam

I Amsterdam

It was approaching 11pm. I walked down Warmoesstraat, the main street through the red light district, assaulted by lights, logos and liberalism. This was my [...]

geneva

Geneva

Deliciously ice cold tap water, gleaming white supermarkets, perfectly packaged cheeses, watches weighted with glittery bits, and the magnificence of the lake, a glistening great [...]

Andalusia

A Bullfight in Andalusia

The banderillero swaggered across the dry yellow sand, knelt in front of the bullgate, crossed himself – slowly, carefully – and spread out his pink [...]

portugal

Portugal

Claire and I stopped, panting, at the metal rods that closed a narrow road to traffic. We had been given detailed directions and followed them [...]

galicia

Fiesta Galicia

It was just before midnight and darkness masked the contours of the city. Street lights were sparsely spread and provided no more than a dim [...]

madrid

Madrid

Claire and I arrived in Madrid late at night. We waited for a train to our hostel, watched by police with sniffer dogs, listening to [...]

barcelona

Barcelona

Claire and I left France from Avignon in the early morning, when the city’s streets were for a moment quiet after another long festival night. [...]

provence

Provence

I sat in a poolside chair on terracotta tiles, the silver handles of the pool’s steps glinting into the pale blue water. Beyond the roof [...]

Montmartre-de-Paris

Montmartre de Paris

Paris is the world’s most photographed, most written about, most visited city. More than 30 million people arrive on the banks of the Seine each [...]

st-malo

St Malo

Our bags dampening our backs, still close to St Malo’s station, Iain and I spotted three bright awnings, a red, a green and a blue, [...]

bayeux

Crossing the Channel

Our last night in Ireland was spent in Cork, drinking Murphy’s, the local stout, while drifting between the pubs near our hostel. We caught a [...]

Doolin

Doolin

Doolin, population 200, is a village on Ireland’s West Coast. It is renowned for its traditional music, hence the busloads of tourists trafficked through its [...]

dublin

Down to Dublin

Heads aching, eyes burning and skin clammy, Iain and I took a bus from Belfast to Dundalk, far too early in the morning. It was [...]

Old World Wandering

Belfast

Claire and I walked off the ferry from Stranraer to Belfast, through the strange contrivance that takes you from land to sea without seeing either, [...]

Old World Wandering

Highlands and Islands

I’m writing while on a train through the Scottish Highlands, from Mallaig to Stranraer, along a track cut close into jagged cliffs, skirting the ocean. [...]

Old World Wandering

Glasgow’s Glorious Grime

Iain and I left York late afternoon, for Glasgow, with ample time to catch our train, which arrived already heaving with passengers, all eager to [...]

Old World Wandering

York

Dodging traffic in London, chests heaving, burdened by still unfamiliar and uncomfortable backpacks, Claire and I started our ambitious trip, on a tight budget, through [...]

Old World Wandering

Victoria Falls: Smoke and Thunder

Soon after I arrived in Cape Town, my mother announced that she had been remiss. I’d arrived on a short visit home, before the extended [...]

Snow at the Spotted Cow, blue and white

The Spotted Cow

On the day we arrived at The Spotted Cow, the air was filled with dainty tufts of white fluff. Flying around the garden, floating into [...]

Old World Wandering

Beginnings: Oxford

An almost missed bus drew the two of us into Oxford, bleary eyed and recovering from my birthday, celebrated over the previous two days. I’d [...]

Old World Wandering

Early Writing: Oxford

I found myself sitting in ‘Oxford’s Oldest Coffee Shop’ clasping a mug of strong coffee closely. The rather nasal voice of a flustered young student, [...]

Top