In 2013 I drove an almost-dead Volkswagen van from Amsterdam to China and back again. Here's some stories and an abundance of photos. But there's too much to tell. We've crossed borders wearing only a t-shirt, teeth broke off, we've sneaked into the holiest of holy places in Iran, witnessed young hair dressers acting out an abortion in a puddle of tomato juice in the centre of Moscow while two girls passed on a horse. I've seen a man hitchhiking together with a dead sheep in Kazakhstan. We've woken up in a marihuana field in Kyrgyzstan, befriended truck drivers from Turkey and Siberia, ended up in children's opera, fed the monkeys of Chengdu, had a tarantula for a pet in Jalalabad, drank too much fucking vodka with the police and became car mechanics. Anyway, here's a few snippets. Enjoy them and then, please, set out on your own journeys through the world because I have found, that there's nothing more satisfying to do.
(Pictures are at the bottom. Our route was roughly amsterdam-berlin-kiev-chernobyl-moscow-st.petersburg-moscow-siberia-kazakhstan-chengdu-beijing-urumqi-kazakhstan-kyrgyzstan-uzbekistan-turkmenistan-tehran-esfahan-turkey-greece-andbackagain. Will post more stories and pictures on request.)
Charlotte still thinks that she's about to enter a beer drinking competition on this unexplicable festival – nobody can tell us what's going on or what they're celebrating. We're drunk, again. She shouts: 'Yo, i can easily outdrink these Chinese bitches. Look at them! Bunch of twigs they are.' Fortunately I know better. The man sitting next to us, the man that just helped her enlist for the competition, is whispering into my ear that it's not gonna be a beer drinking competition, but an arm wrestling game. I look at Charlotte, who's still screaming that she can yo outdrink these Chinese bitches and I cannot hold back the laughter anymore. When it's almost time - the guys' wrestling competition is coming to an end – i push through the crowd to get as close to the stage as possible. A cross-eyed Chinese guy on the stage is waving at me and asks me to get on the stage as well. Immediately i'm pushed to the front. There's a table with one empty chair. The other one's taken, by the biggest man in all of China. Perfect. The crowd goes nuts, thousands are cheering. I sit down, take his hand, there's a countdown and after a second i've lost. Backstage i get two free beers to cheer me up. When i get back to our table people are applauding and patting me on the back. Someone gives me a rattle, and more beers go round. We say cheers, China-style. GANBEI!
'I feel like Kevin Spacey in American Dream you know, I am free. Do you want to smoke with me and take a picture? My wife just divorced me because I smoke too much.' The beer in this bar is too expensive but the crowd is legendary. Our new friend is about 40 years old, has long black hair, glasses, and he's wearing a long black coat to his knees: he reminds me of Herman Brusselmans, a famous Belgian writer who can't shut up about eating pussy. After accepting his offer he walks out of the bar, we order three beers and five minutes later he's back. He throws a wrinkled napkin on the table but says he does not want to disturb us, and leaves for good. In the napkin there's a lump of weed. The waitress pretends not to have seen anything. What have we gotten ourselves into now? After wrestling through Russian bureaucracy in our search for a laptop repair company, past angry secretarys, non-existing adresses and metal doors with access codes our morning ended with breaking into our own car and fishing for the keys we left inside with a stick. And now Herman Brusselmans is giving us weed – is it our nationality that this happens time and time again? Quickly we hide the napkin in the couch and try to finish our beers as casually as possible. It's time to leave, we put the weed in a shoe and stroll past the Moskva river, back to the van. Our friend also left another present on our table: a pipe to smoke it all. Russians are a bunch of sweethearts but they do not try to avoid any unusual or unconvential situation, they seem to act on instinct and just go with it. On our next day in Moscow we saw a car that had a aggregate and a set of huge speakers tied to its roof – just blasting the loudest electro i'd heard in a long time. Russians just don't seem to censor their good ideas, convention and restraint have not set foot here yet.
Back in the van we crave some rest and quiet, but that also doesn't seem possible in this insane city: two guys knock on the window. When we open up the door they just say: 'Vodka?'. We say: 'Da!'. In this country it is necessary to always say yes to any random stranger. We talk for hours but without words, English is useless, we draw and gesture and smoke and drink and the van has become a world on it's own. Their names are Maks (about 35, almost bald but out of his own choice, architect) and Sasha (looks about 55, grey hair, says they're gonna chop off my foreskin in Iran). Sasha and Maks decide that, on our trip, we'll need a lot of cigarettes, vodka and cookies, so they're off to buy it all. In exchange we offer them small masks from Morocco and Kenya that we tie around their necks with pieces of string. Sasha, the most Russian man in all of Russia, looks at them and makes monkeysounds and then switches back to the topic of cutting off foreskins. Then Charlotte goes to bed and we keep on drinking until the police breaks up this smallest of parties. In the middle of the night i am woken up. The van is covered in empty bottles of vodka, half-finished cigarettes and empty packs and cans of beer. The sink is full of sick and closed off with garbagebags and ducttape, because of the smell. Charlotte's almost crying: 'EVERYTHING'S GONE! ASSHOLE, WAKE UP! IT'S OVER... GONE! WE HAVE TO GO HOME!' She bursts out in tears, and yells, and hits me in the arm. The vodka replies: 'lemmme sleepff bvfffr.' Charlotte says: 'ASSHOLE! DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? MY CREDITCARD IS GONE! EVERYTHING'S GONE! IT'S OVERRRR......' She cries some more and the vodka in my head hasn't changed it's mind yet: i turn around and sleep instantly. Then suddenly it's too quiet. Charlotte ran into some hostel, apparently to block the creditcard and all the other missing cards and finally, i beat the booze and get up. Panic takes over and i start a random, hasty, silly search for everything that's missing.
Without any real reason i pull the garbage bags off the sink. In the middle of the light orange sick there's a shiny, silver letter sticking out. I grab and pull. It's the creditcard. Endlessly relieved i stumble into the same hostel and scream: 'Honeybunns... everytpffings awright. Bvvv... the crebitcarb is... HERE!' I wave it around a bit. There's flakes of puke flying around and drops fall on the floor and Charlotte cries tears of joy and falls into my arms. That's where my memory ends. The next morning we're woken up by Maks, who's looking through our window and smiling the freshest of smiles. He's off to work. A couple of hours later we get out of bed: the guard of the parking lot is not happy with us and wants us gone. With a terrible hangover we start cleaning up the van and only then we notice the outside: the roof, the doors, literally the entire van, everything is covered by thousands of small, green caterpillars.
The car is losing speed and the temperature's rising. Fast. Upon inspection we find a hole in a tube. Diesel vapour is coming out. Another small cable is loose. With some glue, bicycle tyre and hose clamps we repair the tube so we can just make it to the garage – a trick we learned from Iranian truckers. When we're almost done our long expected guests finally arrive: the Iranian police is nosy and hungry for control of everything. Even before the last screw is tied they're yelling at Charlotte that she has to start the car and they try to strike up converstation with me in the meanwhile. We ignore them as much as we can while diesel is still coming out of the tube. A towing company is called. Our guests point at themselves and say: 'Police!'. When we ask how much this service is gonna cost us they reply: 'No money.' In the garage i point out the problem to the mechanic and say that tomorrow, a new tube will have to be made. The mechanics take out the tube, look at it and say that tomorrow, a new tube will have to be made.
The police insists that we sleep at the station, it's not safe outside, refusing is impossible. The car is towed onto the compound. At the entrance there's a short teenager with a Kalasjnikov and an mp3-player in the pocket of his coat. Inside we get a tour past the toilets and the pingpong-table. A cop wearing flip-flops walks past us. He's holding a can of soup and smiles. On the wall there's a poster of an angry man with enormous ears, his face has turned red, next to him there's someone holding a hand in front of his mouth. Then it turns out that we have to pay (too much) for the towing after all. Iranians believe it's bad habit to ask money for anything, they offer everything for free, it's also bad habit to take that offer, and a few use this habit to shake down foreigners afterwards. It's a routine thing for us, after a month and we hid almost all of our money. I empty my pockets and give the man the few dollars there are left, and go back to the car. On the compound there's nothing but boredom and control. Suddenly we have a moment of clarity, a saviour in need is on the horizon, a beaming light, a few buttons away from us, and seconds later Dr. Dre is blasting out of the speakers. We fry some chicken nuggets and play with the dog. A cop asks if we need any water. Dr. Dre answers: 'WHO'S THE MAN WITH THE MASTERPLAN? NIGGA WITH A MOTHERFUCKING GUN!' and the short teenager with the Kalasjnikov slowly starts his new round.
The cabbie is driving his car up the mountain like a madman. The road also serves as a small river. Next to the road a sign says: 'This section of the wall is closed for preservation.' We smile at each other and at the surprised looking farmers on the side of the road. A dog barks. At the end of the road we climb up a small path. In the distance a police siren can be heard. The Chinese Wall has a misleading name. A better name would be: the Chinese stairs. Besides it's also nonsense that the Wall can be seen from space, an average highway is more broad and more straight.
The Chinese have a different approach to 'tourist attractions'. For a European something's almost not worth visting anymore when there's too many people to see something anyway. A Chinaman thinks: if there's that many people going there, it HAS to be worth it. Fortunately, on this section there's nobody and we don't have to chase away the hords of people that are secretly photographing us and pointing fingers, there's no salesmen who won't let go of our arms, no children pooping everywhere. Just an enormous wall leading across misty mountains. Trees and plants are growing on top of every stone. Everything's electric, a popsinger would say. An hour later we meet our first people, a French kid with his Vietnamese girlfriend. They collected some wood but don't know how to make a fire, we forgot our small stove and they've got too many sausages to eat. We grill them together in the dark, in a watchtower, on the Chinese wall, with a cleaned beercan, a found tripod, some electricity wire to hang everything and freshly harvested sticks to eat everything.
The next day we find out how lucky we've been. Five kilometers down everything's different. A woman starts shouting at us from 50 meters and runs at us when we don't reply instantly. She's waving a Chinese flag. 'HEWWO! COWD-U BEEWR?' Fat Americans hired some local women to carry their bags and push their big thighs over the edge of a ladder to get on top of a tower. At the bus station drivers grab our arms and try to push us towards their cabs. We march through. From the corner of my eye I see someone running towards me and moments later I feel two hands around my neck. Instinctively I push the man away, he trips and I push his face into a yellow puddle on the road. What the hell is this? I offended someone? Can't push the assholes away? Just a drunken guy? A bad attempt at a robbery? I throw off my backpack and let the man go. The other drivers are watching. When the man attacks again Charlotte's had enough. While still holding all the money for the bus in her hands, she takes the man into a headlock – it looks great. The other drivers pull her away from him and the guy attacks me again. After some sort of warning punch on his head things change suddenly. Everybody's angry at us. How dare we!? With our.... violence! Western barbarians. Other tourists are shaking their heads. What just happened?
'In the Netherlands you have transvestites, no? You want to see ours?' Katia and Oxana are looking at us expectantly. 'We can go tonight! They're there tonight! Then you can just leave tomorrow!' It is impossible to leave Almaty, every day this city comes up with something new. And obviously we're not gonna turn this down, going to a gaybar, in a muslim country, but it's our third time here and we also want to see the rest of the country. If only to discover that there is nothing more in Kazakhstan, that this is it, all the nice people from one country put into one place. We really tried: a couple of hours earlier we had called Katia to say goodbye – Katia is the uncrownd queen of the karaoke scene in Almaty and everybody knows her and fortunately, so do we. She had said that saying goodbye is fine and all, but that friends had invited us to their homes and that's also important. Their friends only speak Russian but we tell our stories about smoking weed with the Spetznaz in Russia anyway. They thinks we're hinting at something and start building a huge bong and now we're here, drinking beer and dancing (in style) to all of Frank Sinatra's hit songs in a small appartment on the fifth floor, in a suburb of Almaty. With these people I feel at ease right away: after taking a shower I walk back into the living room wearing only a tower, just to dance a little bit more before the cab arrives.
Shortly after leaving we stop somewhere in a park, our host has to pick up some stuff at another appartment. Out of boredom (or drunkenness, who knows) i sing the first tunes of The Final Countdown. Kate and Oxana immediately join me and because there's music, we also dance some more. The cab drivers is standing in the dark, looking at us go, smiling. In the gayclub there's no transvestites, apparently they have a day off, but there is a dancing competition. A small kid wearing even smaller underwear makes some fucking moves in the air fast as lightning and easily defeats all the other contestants. Most of the rest of the visitors are happy it's over and get on with real dancing, but we cannot do anything but some sort of swimming in the air – too stoned to do anything else. We're drinking rum. The next morning a hangover greets us. An optimistic looking Kazakh guy brings us freshly picked apples. Tomórrow we'll leave, we say, but then really, and we smile gently.
Halfway between Almaty and the border of Kyrgyzstan we need to get some fuel. Around the gas station there's some shabby bushes and there's dogs everywhere. The hose is leaking. People in these areas do not like dogs, they're what pigeons are to the cityfolks, but they can also bite. The most striking difference between dogs in Europe and Kazakhstan is their reaction when you pick up a stick: in Europe most dogs get hyped up and start jumping around, in Kazakhstan they run. No dog wants to be beaten, every friendly gesture is met with suspicion. The biggest dog in the gas station is surprised Charlotte pets it. The attendant is just as surprised, but also sees an opportunity to get rid of it. He drags the dog to the van and tries to push her in – a few bruises are worth it when you can get rid of a dog. We thank him for the effort, the dog runs away relieved and we move on. On the road the dog won't get out of our minds, images are flashes through our heads, about lives that could be lived together and running on the beach through the surf of a sea (Oh! And all those cliches, i confess, i confess everything) and silently we dream away a bit. In all the movies there's at least one of these disgusting scenes, exactly like this: pretty landscapes go by, a ballad is playing in the background, a man walks through a city, a woman is at home staring out of the window drinking a cup of tea – always tea – both are daydreaming an say nothing. This is it, but it doesn't feel that way. We stop to make some soup and shamefully confess, to each other, that the both of us can not get this dog out of our heads. The decision is made.
First, of course, we still fall for the backwards reflex of intelligent people and make a list of all pros and cons. 'But can we?' This sort of thing is basically lying to yourself – who in his right mind let's himself be stopped by 'cons', or let's himself get seduced by a silly and abstract thing like 'pros'? We break up the theater, put big red crosses through all other questions and ask: what is it that we WANT? Don't think, shoot from the hip, say 'the first thing you're thinking about'. The result is probably the same, but without the lying, without patting yourself on the shoulder, more honest. 'At least you've thought about it well, congratulations, responsible citizen!' At the end of the soup the decision is really made: we'll turn around, the dog's going with us. We have two days to get it a passport and vaccinations before our visa expires. That's not enough but we'll worry about that later.
The Kazakhs live with the seasons much more. In autumn everybody outside the cities is mostly occupied with straw. On the land farmers are mowing, straw bales are being made, every highway is clotted by the gigantic machines that slowly chug along and run-down trucks almost collapse under the weight of the straw that's stacked on just a little too high. In backyards the piles of straw are growing by the day. People don't wait for winter, but prepare, prepare the land and we slowly move along through this mountainous landscape. One truckdriver is not pleased by the speed of it all: when we stay behind a tractor and don't overtake it (another truck is approaching us at full speed on this small road) he's furious and cannot contain himself anymore behind the wheel. A lot happens. He's smashing his horn, flashing his lights - a truck has a lot of lights - almost crashes into the truck that's coming our way and forces us off the road. Everything has stopped moving for a second and then everything starts moving again real fast: the angry truckdriver comes running at our car, yells at Charlotte and throws a bottle containing yellow liquid at my head when I warm him to start acting cool real fucking quick. When we start driving again I lean out of the window and blow him some kisses and I really shouldn't have. A minute later we're behind the same tractor again and in the distance the angry trucker is approaching fast flashing all of his lights and smashing his horn again – he's not even driving straight anymore out of pure anger. Together with another truck he forces us off the road again, but this time, we don't wait to see what happens. We back up, turn around and stop the car on the first parking spot we see. Hoodies over our heads, baseball bat on the front seat. Nothing happens.
The attendant at the gas station immediately knows why we've come back. He runs to his office and gets a chunk of bread – thank god he doesn't scare the shit out of the dog this time. A minute later the dog's in our van and another minute later a couple of Kazakh guys are staring through our front window, as if they will only believe someone put a stray dog in his car after they've seen it with their own eyes. We make a leash out of some rope, a towel serves as her collar. Further down the road we park the car, next to a hill. On top is an islamic graveyard, covering the top of the hill in halve moons. We call the dog Sasha after all the nice people we've met in Russia, they're all called Sasha for some reason and dogs are only people too. The fish and bread we give her seem to be the first food she had in a long time. We try not to think about the fleas when we hug her. The next morning we find out our Kazakh desert dog only poops outside. I don't know if this Buddhist theory of karma is true, but if it is, i have, apparently, behaved pretty fucking good in my previous lives.
The veterinarians in Kazakhstan are willing to help us. They make us a passport for the dog, fill it with stamps and signatures and put different dates under different injections. We agree that a month from today, we'll come back for the last few necessary tests and the dog can stay with us in the meanwhile. Filling in the forms is not as easy as it sounds – they're all in Russian. The 'nickname' of the dog is now Sasha, it's full name 'van den Heuvel', my last name. To be able to take 'Sasha' van den Heuvel with us during the first month we only need a certificate from city council, says our doctor. Just a certificate, that's alright, I think. For a second nothing is able to put us in a bad mood and we drive to the centre of the town. The guard at the entrance tells me there's no foreigners allowed in the city council and then the bad mood is there after all. Never underestimate Kazakh bureaucracy. In the end it all works out because most are not only obedient to their own bureaucracy, but also helpful and hospitable out of habit, it just takes some hours and it's not very good for the heart. A day later, at the border, nobody asks for any document. No animal passports or stupid certificates and I sigh and smile once more. We drive to lake Ysyk-Kol, the biggest lake of Kyrgyzstan, with our old van, new stray dog, broken water tap, three leakages, shaky mind and dirty socks: we're a dysfunctional flock alright, but also a smiling flock.
Ysyk-Kol is an immense lake, surrounded by mountains up to 7 kilometers high. Most mountains are too far away to see, they're as blue as the sky, but the snow on the mountain tops is visible, it's reflecting the sun, and it makes it seem like there's a crown of snow floating above the lake. We arrive at dawn, the air is pink and red, the snow crown above the lake is still glowing and the water has a deep blue color. In the distance there's horses. And in the middle of this world there's Sasha, quiet and intimidated, meters away from the surf, looking at the lake. She cannot take her eyes off of it. Our poor Kazakh desert dog has never seen so much water. It's a serene scene, even though there's the inevitable Russian house music in the background. I lift the dog and we walk into the water and I can only think: this, this is how I want to live. From now on, the only question will be: what do i want. Only then: how? Pros and cons are baloney from the past and the possibility of everything, is always, a given.
Khomeini Street is full of army surplus stores, and banks, and there's a enormous black flag waving in the distance. Fashionable Iranian men (epilated eye brows, neatly ironed shirts and brand sunglasses) navigate their way through the traffic on small motorcycles or simply drive on the sidewalks. All women are wearing long black robes – chadors – that cover everything except their faces, some are holding those together with the teeth. Chador means 'tent' in Farsi, who says the Iranians don't have a sense of humour? Mashhad, the holiest city in Iran, is a serious city, but it's an cheerful seriousness. Many Iranians greet us as a friend, make jokes and yell that it's really no problem at all if half of Charlotte's haircut comes out from under her headscarf. Some kiss us on the cheeks as a greeting. There are curtains in front of the shop for ladies' underwear. The tiny streetshops that sell candy and dates smell sweet and spicy and there's men walking around in long robes and turbans on their heads, with intimidating and sincere looks in their eyes. Iran is one big stream that you can only go along with and look at with awe. In the Netherlands we are all still children, an undertaking this serious we have never dared think about, we are all the prime minister that's still taking his bike to work. This is different. The centre of the city is a huge mausoleum, a burial complex, for one man: Imam Reza, one of the successors of Mohammed. Iranians don't conserve their history, but keep on building it, living it. Poets from times long gone, dead a thousand years already, are national heroes and the complex around the grave of Imam Reza is still expanded each year, for a thousand years already as well.
In front of the gate Charlotte has to put on her own chador, a woman passing by helps her immediately, but everything's in vain. As if a nice body could be hidden by a tent? Inside it's almost prayer time, on a religious holiday and the gigantic square, which is covered in carpets, is completely filled. Quran-verses blare out of the speakers. A woman is jokingly trying to shut up her child but besides her, all men and women are praying in silent concentration. Around the square there's porticoes with mosaics, minarets and scaffolding stick out above the wall and there's a golden dome with golden towers. Men and women are sitting apart, there are also separate entrances. A man says: 'You are our guests, if you need anything, just ask. Even if it's money, i will just give it to you. I have been in Europe, as airforce officer in the times of the Shah, I know what it's like to travel.' We drink some water. Then we meet Ibrahim, a handsome, soft-spoken man with a big nose. He insists he'll take us to the grave of the Imam, even though non-muslims are not allowed, we're also not allowed in the squares directly next to the grave, but he'll take responsibility he says and walks ahead of us. Men with uniforms and caps are directing the traffic of people with bright green feathers in their hands, but they send us back. Ibrahim takes us to a second entrance and there, we just walk in. The square behind the entrance is full of people praying, on the ground. In front of every man there's a stone they took from big barrels. All women are crying over the Imams death and hide under their chadors. I really don't know how to take all this or where to put my hands but anyone with the slightest bit of empathic capabilities will be silenced instantly. The prayers are read by crying clergymen and for some reason, i also fight the tears. Then we go into the hallway. There's people everywhere, pushing, like sardines in a crushed tin can. The walls are azure and gold and the enormous, vaulted ceiling is made entirely out of pieces of mirrors and crystal and chandeliers in the middle are being reflected a thousand times and give of a thousand times a thousand lights and everything is dazzling. Grown men cry heartbreakingly. An ancient man protects an even older man in the scramble. Somebody kisses a wooden door post. Groups of people suddenly chant prayers with one voice. Ibrahim grabs my arm tightly and pulls me halfway around the tomb. Nobody notices my presence, there's more important things to do here. In a corner a man with a rutted face mumbles his prayers and on a carpet a group of businessmen with hairgel in their hair are deeply involved in discussion with a mullah, in the middle of the group is a Quran.
Outside Ibrahim gives me three kisses on the cheeks, as a way of saying goodbye and a random stranger also gives Charlotte three kisses. I used to pity the people that need a god to have their religious experiences, but now all obvious answers to old questions slip my mind. What is, in fact, won with atheism? And what is lost? Now that I'm writing this, thinking about the grave of Imam Reza and the people we've met, I am fighting tears again, for some reason. These are serious people, but it's a cheerful seriousness. Ten minutes later we're walking the dog on Khomeini Street. All fashionable Iranians take pictures of Sasha the stray dog. They ask: 'Is that allowed, by the way, by the police? A dog?'