It was a road trip of a lifetime: 27,000km across 17 countries completed over four months and packed with adventure and incident.
But the most surreal moment for Clive and Gillian Raven – grandparents doing this monster drive from the UK to Singapore – came in China. There, one afternoon, they suddenly found themselves being pursued by a police motorcyclist, his lights flashing, his siren blasting.
“He pulled us over and, in broken English told us to follow him back to the local police station,” remembers Clive, 55. “We were saying to ourselves ‘What have we done? Are our visas definitely in order? Why are we in trouble?’ It was scary. We had no idea what was happening.”
When they arrived, the situation seemed to escalate as the local chief of police was brought out.
“The station was on a busy road and we noticed people starting to gather,” says Clive, a plant fitter from Sheffield in the UK. “We felt vulnerable. We were in a strange country where we didn’t speak the language, and we appeared to have caused a scene. Then someone started explaining what was happening: ‘The commander saw your car. It’s a classic. He wonders if you’d mind if he had his photo taken with it?’”
Perhaps, in hindsight, the response should have been expected. Everywhere the couple went, people fell in love with their vehicle.
Which is probably because when Gillian and Clive decided to do their massive two-continent road-trip, they eschewed buying some super-expensive 4x4 or a modern supercar. Instead they purchased a 1968 Triumph 1300 on eBay – for the equivalent of Dh3,500.
“We figured,” Clive told Friday, “that if it broke down en route we wouldn’t have spent much if we just had to abandon it somewhere.”
The car, as it turns out, lasted the full journey. And what a journey. The couple drove from England, through France, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, before ending up in Singapore.
Then, they put the motor in storage, caught a flight to the southern Indian state of Kerala, bought a Hindustan Ambassador car for even less than their Triumph (Dh3,000) and enjoyed a 3,000km, three-week spin around India too.
“Why did we do it all?” ponders Clive. “We like driving, I suppose. We’ve done the whole package holiday thing plenty of times before but we wanted to do something completely different. We know it’s generally young people who take a year out to see the world but why shouldn’t we do it at our age, too?
“I run my own business so getting the time off wasn’t a problem, and Gillian was allowed to take a year off from her work as a university special education needs coordinator.”
The incredible journey saw them come face-to-face with bandits in India, sandstorms in Mongolia and the sort of maverick attitude towards road safety in much of Asia that ended with them, one evening, being forced to drive the wrong way down a dual carriage, in the dark, for two miles. They braved the cold of the Siberian plains, the heat of the Gobi Desert and the chill of a Russian traffic officer asking, none too politely, for a bribe if he wasn’t to haul them to the station.
But in return they got to see half the world – the majesty of India’s natural beauty, the teeming resorts of Thailand, and the capitals of Europe. At night they camped out, slept in the car or stayed in cheap motels. And by day, they either kept on the road – they shared driving responsibilities – or spent time seeing the sights.
“And it was all absolutely brilliant,” says Gillian, 53. “Seeing so much of the world and engaging with so many cultures was wonderful. Personally, I adored India. So many of the people there have so little but they were so generous and warm. Everywhere we went we seemed to be welcomed with open arms.”
Plans for the adventure had begun two years earlier – in 2011 – when the couple, who are parents of four grown-up kids and grandparents of one, had decided they should bring forward their long-held but vague plans to see the world.
“We’d always promised ourselves we’d do something like this when we retired, then started thinking, why wait?” says Clive. “The kids are grown up and we were able to get the time off work. We just said ‘let’s do it’.”
The car may have cost only Dh3,500 but Clive needed to fix it up. Simultaneously, they planned a route, sorted visas, researched destinations and spoke to officials for advice.
They also bought dozens of road atlases. “I hate GPS,” explains Clive. “Unreliable. Give me a map and a compass any day.”
Then on June 1 last year, the couple – who have been married 34 years – pulled out of their driveway and aimed the car south.
“People said we must be mad,” says Clive. “Most of our friends and family were really supportive – especially our children – but a lot of people didn’t seem to think we’d make it. They asked if we were worried that we might break down or get injured or have some harm done to us, but I don’t think you can worry about ‘what ifs’. If you let possible problems stop you from doing something, you’d never leave the house in the morning.
“The way we saw it, we had each other and if problems occurred along the way, we’d be able to sort them out between us. We were just excited.”
As it turned out, the odd thing did go wrong. “The sandstorm in Mongolia wasn’t ideal,” admits Clive. “We were driving through the Gobi Desert and the weather wasn’t especially windy but I remember looking out of my side window and seeing it coming down on us. That’s not something you witness every day.”
The pair decided they should keep driving to ensure their wheels didn’t get stuck in the vast tracts of sand being blown on to the road but as visibility reduced, their speed slowed to a crawl. Then Gillian decided to do something rather unexpected: she got out of the car.
“It was actually quite calm,” she explains. “Just windy. And how often do you get to know what a sandstorm feels like?” She wrapped a sheet around her head, and walked in front of the Triumph, guiding Clive along the road.
However, neither of them got out of the car the evening they ran into suspected bandits – armed men manning a makeshift roadblock – on a dark rural road near Jamshedpur in India. “We started to drive at night over there because we didn’t have much time left and there was so much we wanted to see,” recalls Clive. “One night, we were travelling along a road a friend had told us had a reputation for being dangerous.
“We’d not seen another vehicle for ages when I saw a roadblock of tyres in the way. As we got nearer I saw it was manned by several men with sticks, signalling for us to stop.
“My instinct was there was nothing official about these guys, and I just put my foot down and drove straight through.
“They were hitting the car with their sticks but we were in the Ambassador by that point so they might as well have been hitting an elephant with fly swatters.”
In a different part of India, meanwhile, the pair found themselves going the wrong way down a dual carriageway, also at night. A lorry had broken down, causing a huge tailback to snarl up the entire road in one direction.
As Clive and Gillian sat waiting for the jam to clear, they watched in disbelief as a single car ahead pulled out, drove over the central reservation, and then continued its journey at full speed down the opposite side of the carriage way. “He was weaving in and out of the oncoming traffic,” remembers Clive. “I thought he must be mad.”
Five minutes later, however, the couple took the same course of action themselves.
“As soon as one car did it there was an exodus from the jam,” Clive continues. “I was blocking a couple of cars from making their way over the reservation. They started blowing their horns at me so I just thought: ‘Well, when in India...’ I made sure I got behind another car, and just followed it but it went on for about two miles. It was probably the scariest drive I’ve ever done.”
Trouble of another kind came knocking in Russia. Perhaps it was the unusual car that signalled them out as Westerners, but twice they were stopped by traffic police.
Each time, they were told there was some minor issue with their vehicle and they would have to accompany the officer to a station. Each time, it was suggested they might be delayed by up to a week or two – unless they could make it worth the officer’s while not to report the so-called ‘offence’.
“I’d been told to expect this,” remembers Clive. “The first time I gave the guy €20 (Dh92) and he sent me on my way. It felt horrible. The second time, I’m not sure where she suddenly got the idea but Gillian took a photo of the officer as he was talking to me. He sent us on our way without asking for any money.”
It wasn’t all overcoming difficulties, though. This trip, insist Clive and Gillian, was the kind of adventure everyone should experience once in their life.
They saw the Kremlin in Moscow, viewed the Terracotta Army in Xi’an and were wowed by the Taj Mahal in Agra. They watched the sun rise in Cambodia, stayed up late into the night in bustling Singapore and ate goat’s cheese in the house of a Mongolian family.
“We got talking and within a few minutes they were insisting we go to their house for tea,” recalls Clive. And then there was the moment, in India, Clive found himself crying for the first time since he was a boy. After parking the Ambassador in a rural hamlet close to the northern city of Patna, the couple were surrounded by locals keen to know who this foreign couple in the iconic Indian car were.
“The village didn’t have electricity for much of the day and most of the homes didn’t have toilets but the people couldn’t do enough for us.
“We were invited into homes and offered tea – even though most couldn’t speak English, and I’m afraid we don’t speak any other language.
“At one point I’d dropped my money without realising and someone came and found me and gave it back. We were strangers yet they treated us so well.
“I remember I started welling up. I don’t think Gillian knew what to do with me.”
The couple took no money with them on their trip but used cash machines en route. In total, they reckon they spent about Dh60,000. For food and drink, they ate and drank the local cuisine, and largely enjoyed it. Coming from England, they had sampled much of it already. They filled the car boot with three or four bags of essentials.
As for the couple themselves, they say they didn’t argue once during the whole of the 127-day trip.
“We were a team,” says Gillian. “When we finished, we just felt disappointed to have run out of road.”
Did they learn lessons about each other, Friday wonders?
Perhaps not, they reckon. “We’ve been married almost 40 years, so we know each other pretty well,” says Clive.
In fact, they were so disappointed that the trip was over they’re now looking to do the whole thing again – but in reverse.
When they finally left India they put the Ambassador in storage. They’d bought it after seeing it advertised online. It was inexpensive and, after Clive had looked it over, felt it would be reliable. They liked it very much, too, and they’re planning on heading back to India next year, and driving it all the way to the UK.
“Would we do anything different?” ponders Clive.
“Well, we’d perhaps go through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey on the way back to Europe, but I think the fact we got back safe and well proves we largely did things right.
“We’ve got the bug now. It was such an incredible four months.
“In many ways, what we’d achieved only sank in when we got back. I’m so glad we did it.”