What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.
Yue Chi, 48, is a native of northeast China who lives in Toronto. She and her husband, David Visagie, own and operate Drive the Silk Road (www.drivethesilkroad.com), which runs adventure expeditions across central Asia.
Q. Your trip is pretty unusual. How does it work?
A. This is a drive from Istanbul to Beijing. Our trip along the Silk Road goes through six countries. It starts in western Turkey and covers Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. It takes 60 days and 15,000 km (9,320 miles). We've done this route for four years; the next trip is April 22, 2011.
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The biggest expedition we've had was for 12 people, with three or four sharing each vehicle. My husband and I are in a lead vehicle with our local guides. We own five Landrovers, so we can take up to 16 travelers.
The trip costs $26,000 U.S. That covers everything from the day you arrive to the day you leave — food, petrol, documents, sightseeing, staying in hotels and three camping days.
For accommodations, we stay in Western-style hotels with running water and comfortable beds.
A. One night in the middle of the desert in Turkmenistan, with camping gear we provide. One night is in Iran: We charter an old caravanserai (tent ground) we "found" in a village. There are no quality hotels in the area, so the villagers bring clean bedding and towels. The other night we stay with families in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. We know families who have clean houses, so our group is scattered among them. These area great experiences.
Q. This is where Marco Polo went, right?
A. Roughly. The Silk Road is a network of different roads that connect East and West. Polo traveled the network several times on different routes. But the main route is the central Silk Road, one of the oldest major trade routes in the world. It was the ultimate route in that it connected people, knowledge, religion and ideas. And merchandise, of course.
Q. How long does it take you to prepare for this expedition?
A. About two months, including finalizing all hotel bookings, guide assigning, taking care of border documents and preparing the vehicles — which we have to ship from Canada to Europe. The shipping itself takes a month. Then we have to drive to Istanbul from Western Europe, usually Germany.
Q. What do you personally pack when you leave Toronto?
A. We ask people to take just one major suitcase for their clothes; this isn't a black-tie type of trip. It's rugged clothing, and you're not changing every now and again. You pack comfortable pants and shoes.
I pack my clothes, vitamin pills, daily accessories and a toiletry bag. I have a pair of running shoes and a pair of sandals. I also carry a medical kit if an emergency would come up.
Q. Where's the best stretch of road?
A. When it comes to quality, Turkey and Iran have the best. They're easy to drive and not much of a challenge. To kill the boredom, we'll have the driver go off the beaten track — on some dirt road to see a village — for the fun of it.
Turkmenistan is a desert country; Kyrgyzstan is mountainous. We're facing maybe 50 percent asphalt roads. But their roads are not at all difficult for the average driver to manage.
Drivers face a couple challenges. It's crowded traffic in Iran, especially Tehran and the surrounding cities. People drive differently. Farsi (Persian) and Chinese are the most difficult languages for Westerners to understand, and it can be hard to understand what road signs mean. But we overcome these and other issues.
Q. China's western frontier is high in the mountains. Where do you enter?
A. On a particular pass in Kyrgyzstan, the Turugart Pass. It's about 3,600 km (11,811 feet) above sea level and is covered with snow even in mid-June. It's beautiful scenery.
You then reach Kashgar, the westernmost city in China. It's known for its big Sunday bazaar.
That part of China is Muslim. The culture is very different from that of main China.
Q. So cultures don't stop and start at international boundaries. They blend?
A. There are gradual changes from culture to culture. You can feel that on the ancient Silk Road the world was one big globe people could travel freely and feel the threads of other cultures.
You see that cultures mix a lot. There are nomads in eastern Turkmenistan and western Iran, and in their heads there are no political boundaries. But at the same time, there are extended families divided by political borders.
Q. Favorite city on the Silk Road?
A. I'd say Samarkand, in the center of Uzbekistan and the halfway point. It was renowned as an ancient kingdom of Central Asia and is surrounded by deserts and mountains. There are beautiful palaces and unbelievable mosques, bazaars and markets. Samarkand has a rich history of cultured people. When you sit on the square of Samarkand, you look around and know that's what it's all about.
It feels like time stands still. Forget the 21st century. It's like you're back in medieval times and could be just standing next to a camel.
Q. How many languages do you speak?
A. Mainly Mandarin Chinese — my mother tongue — and English. Growing up near the Russian border, you get so you can speak enough of it to ask how much petrol is in the tank or how much something costs when you're negotiating a price. The central Asian countries are Russian-speaking. I handle the same basic questions in Turkish and Farsi.