Road trip! Switzerland to Central Asia

43,000+ kilometres ,14 countries and 273 days

Jonas and Lea ditched their jobs for a Dodge Durango and the open road. Switzerland to Central Asia

Jonas and Lea joined @battleface to share anecdotes and inspiration from their road trip from Berne in Switzerland to Central Asia.

Just start. It’s going to be OK.

When I released the brake on our modified 2000 Dodge Durango in May 2022 and started on the first of the 43,000 kilometres that we’d drive over the next 273 days, I wasn’t envisioning that weeks later Lea and I would watch a rocket launch from Baikonur. In hindsight, there were so many discoveries and incredible experiences that I can normalise the take-off of a space craft as just another experience in days that surprised us.

A lot of people asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ when we announced that we were leaving our jobs and comfortable lives for this eastern adventure. Everyone warned us of the Covid fallout, the war in Ukraine, bandits in the Caucus mountains and the untold dangers awaiting on lonely roads for a couple of Swiss travellers. We realised there could be potential risks on our route, but we decided to challenge our perceptions and biases. We wanted to make sure we would never have any regrets: our ambition to explore these amazing countries would not be diminished because of imaginary menaces that were created and then fuelled by our ignorance.

Naïve though we may have been, nothing bad or dangerous challenged us throughout our journey, and most of what we share with friends and family about our time away are the memories of strangers we met and their kindness and compassion.

Unexpected friendships

Strangers can become friends when you have opportunity and time to know each other – and this theme was central to what Lea and I learnt from our journey. We toasted fallen comrades with Georgian Special Forces in a forest; drank fresh goat milk offered by the kindest Turkish shepherd; were hosted by an Albanian Iman whose pride in his community overwhelmed us, and there were countless nights where we ate and slept in houses of people who opened their homes and hearts to us.

When you’re stuck in a traffic jam for 102 hours at the Astrakhan crossing where Russia borders Kazakhstan, you know it is right to share provisions and a gas stove with your roadside neighbours as you hear stories of death and war and the desperation to escape conscription into a senseless conflict. As the hours and days pass, smiles and shy acknowledgments turn into makeshift communication through sign language – then laughter and alcohol are shared as you slip into comfortable companionship with people who previously were just faces behind glass and metal on the same road.

Common ground

I wasn’t aware of how hospitable the people of lands east of Europe are. My education and life experiences had not prepared me for what I encountered, and I think the same can be said for Lea. We are Swiss, and our national character is known for its order and civility. But your Swiss-ness, Russian-ness, Georgian-ness, or whatever society, religion, or tribe you identify as, is just a mask for the fundamental human traits we all share. Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz people feel the same joy, fear, sorrow, and grief as Lea and me, and it wasn’t until recently that I began to see the universal humanity we have in common with people who were previously foreign to me.

By embracing the willingness to adjust, converse, and assimilate into new cultures during this adventure, my outlook on myself has shifted and I believe I have become significantly more accepting of those who are different. I hope this change reflects positively onto others who know me.

17,000 Kazakh kilometres

You can drive, drive and drive in Kazakhstan and not encounter another soul for hours on the road. Just be aware that if you go faster than the speed limit a police car will invariably notice you and then a game of bribery to escape sanction occurs. Dodging officialdom is just part of the wild charm of Kazakh highways. As we navigated our trusty Durango over paved and off-road tracks, we were surrounded by scenes that you think only Disney can create. The majesty of Kazakh wildlife and a vastness of space demands attention as it seduces you into a reflective state where your respect for the natural world expands.

Ice, snowstorms, camels, and interminable hours without phone reception are what you find on Kazakh roads, or if you’re as fortunate as we were, a game of Buzkashi – a contest in which riders on horseback compete to pick up, carry, and drop a goat or calf carcass into a goal. The game is a traditional part of the culture of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and now has two Swiss fans. We just couldn’t figure out which side we were supporting or when points were scored…

The practical Swiss

The best decision we made for our journey was the choice of vehicle. That magnificent Dodge Durango was our transport, kitchen, shelter and bedroom for the months we were on the road, and it had specific qualities to cover all requirements for the long journey.

I paid CHF3,000 for the Dodge which meant that it was cheap enough to park and forget if we were forced to abandon our trip at anytime without concern for a lost investment. Naturally, we wanted 4WD capability so we could access all types of terrain, and we needed space so we could pack all our gear and supplies securely within.

The hospitable Swiss

Next, our SUV had to have capability to host roof-top tent and at least two occupants. At various stages of our journey, we had family member fly and meet us – one of whom is my brother and has a physical disability so space and packing also had to consider his wheelchair. Our idea was for everyone to sleep in (or on top of) the car which meant that we were always flexible with our travel arrangements, and surprisingly, camping in our car seemed to lead to meeting more locals who inevitably invited us to dine and sleep in their homes. A win-win for us!

The Dodge was also able to manage low octane fuel, low quality engine oil and didn’t mind bumpy, pot-holed roads with its sturdy chassis and fat, rugged wheels. It handled weather conditions (the range we experienced was -37⁰ to 42⁰C) and as it was old it was easy to repair. Along route I replaced wheel bearings, fixed the cooling fan, swapped out the U-joint and replaced a blown cooling tube. Try doing any of that on a Tesla! I have to say that it was a mighty sad day when I drove it to be scrapped once we were back in Switzerland…

For those who consider any type of road trip, then I recommend subscribing to this the AskMechanics Reddit group for tips, guides and support for fixing your own car. The online contributors in this group are amazing.

Finally, the stats

Our journey lasted 273 days between May 2022 and February 2023. We travelled over 43,000 km and our route there and back was: Switzerland – Italy – (ferry) – Albania  – Greece – Turkey – Georgia – Armenia – Georgia – Russia – Kazakhstan – Uzbekistan – Kirgizstan – Kazakhstan – (ferry) – Azerbaijan – Georgia – Turkey – Greece – Albania – (ferry) – Italy – Switzerland.

Fuel costs varied from the highest (Greece) $US2.40/ℓ and lowest (Kazakhstan) $US0.34/ℓ, and our fuel economy was around 14ℓ/100km.

We intended to drive onwards to China and Mongolia, however Covid-zero policies were in place in China and that really made us think twice about consequences of being in isolation if we tested positive at any stage. Afghanistan and Iran were also countries that we wanted to visit, but recent unrest and fluid situations there also made us reconsider before we made our decision to begin our journey home.

Remember the laughter and the love

Travel to inspire – Road trippin’

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An avid international traveller, surfer, lover of the oceans, writer and researcher. Specialising in green travel and tourism.