Road to Damascus in a $500 Ford Escort

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Simon Raven (L) and Chris Raven (R) on the Road to Damascus

In the summer of 2007, my brother and I drove from the UK to Damascus. Four years after our road trip, Syria was plunged into Civil War. Our hearts go out to all the men, women and children who have lost their lives and affected by this armed conflict, and to the beautiful people we met along the way.

Written by Chris Raven

I wake at sunrise outside of the gates to the Göreme Museum in Cappadocia. In the distance a hot air balloon slowly drifts above the strange volcanic mushroom-shaped rock formations named fairy chimneys. There is a roaring sound and then a bright glow of a flame, followed by another burst of hot air as it disappears over the horizon. Slipping on my sunglasses, I admire the holes dotted across the rocks where ancient civilizations have carved windows and doorways into these natural dwellings and Byzantines have made chapels with paintings during the spread of Early Christianity.

Si drives south to the town of Nevşehir in the heart of Cappadocia, and we follow fields of yellow sunflowers all the way to the agricultural city of Nigde. The windows are down and there is an open road in front of us as we cruise the High Taurus; a mountain range brimming with important chromium deposits and other minerals such as silver, copper, iron, lignite and zinc. We climb the breathtaking Kolsuz Pass in the Niğde Province at an altitude of 1,490 metres (4,890 ft), and slowly make our way down towards Adana that produces grapes, cotton, wheat and barley. From the Levant region up into Turkey, the farming revolution began here 8,000 years ago creating a hub where farmers are first thought to have spread into Europe. We arrive on the Mediterranean coast at the port town of İskenderun. There is not much to see so we park up overlooking the port. Si rummages through the trunk and fishes out a saucepan and the gas stove. We cook a tin of meatballs with spaghetti, and I take the opportunity to have a shave using the hot spaghetti water.

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Up the Etna

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The Raven brothers spark up their Rover 214 and head for Sicily in their quest to drive to the top of Mt Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

By Chris Raven

Sicily, the largest of the beautiful Italian islands, has a rich Phoenician and Arab ancestry and rivals Greece for ancient Greek architecture (The Valley of the Temples). It is famous for the Mafia (Cosa Nostra and the Coppola), tasty desserts (cassata), the Sonnet, sea monsters, Palermo’s Catacombe dei Cappuccini, Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele – the largest opera house in Italy, great street food (arancini – Sicilian rice balls with a choice of meat or bacon, new-wave of wine-growers, Archimedes ‘Eureka!’ and skiing down a volcano (Mt Etna).

Our Mission: To drive up Mt Etna on the island of Sicily to Refugio Sapienza, elevation 6,500 feet.

Vehicle: Rover 214 GSi, silver, bought for $500 in cash on eBay. Assembled at the Longbridge car plant in Birmingham, UK, in the year the Iraqi forces invaded and conquered Kuwait. Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady, resigned as UK Prime Minister. The movie Dances with Wolves with Kevin Costner was a big hit and Something Happened On The Way To Heaven by Phil Collins was blaring out of every Pioneer LP turntable/record player music station around the world. Yep, the car was born in the year 1990. OK, so it was a rather old (almost a classic) vehicle, with fake wooden upholstery and a well thought out coin tray for your loose change, genius idea. The seats are comfy, music comes out of the radio, it has an electric sunroof, electric windows, and the brakes work, which is important, the engine looks like a proper engine and all of the four wheels roll. What more do we need?

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Ravens on the Road: Overland Travel Adventure

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Simon Raven in Vladivostok. photo by Chris Raven

Four overland adventures across the USA, Russia, Black Sea & South America

Driving the Trans-Siberian

by Chris Raven & Simon Raven

Ever had the desire to jump in your car and keep driving; to wave goodbye to routine and commitment, to drive into the unknown hungry for adventure? Well, that is precisely what overland travel writers, Chris Raven and Simon Raven, decided to do whilst stacking boxes of frozen oven chips in a -30 degrees freezer. Not being petrol heads and having zero knowledge of the internal combustion engine, the brothers fired up their rusty Ford Sierra Sapphire and headed east. 

After clocking up over 11,000 miles, quite literally living in the car, they miraculously arrived in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok in Siberia on the Sea of Japan. What they had in fact done was to drive the entire length of the new Amur Highway before it was finished, which crosses Russia and the notorious Zilov Gap in a 6,200 mile swath of cracked tarmac and potholes. Along the way our trusty heroes drink vodka with Chechen criminals, escape highway robbery, trade banana flavoured condoms with Russian cops, meet the eccentric and plain weird at truck stops in darkest Siberia, endure torturous road conditions and have a race to the finish with the Germans. Surviving this insane journey by the skin of their teeth the brothers are forced to confront their worst fears in this toe-curling comedy of extreme road trip adventure.

Priding themselves in going it alone, Simon and Chris have been noted by Lonely Planet for their talent to portray an “accurate view of what to expect”.

Buy on Amazon.com

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
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Mt Elbrus: The Frosty Caucasus

Exploring southern Russia’s wild west, Chris Raven and Simon Raven pay a little visit to Mt Elbrus considered to be the tallest mountain in Europe.
Mt Elbrus, South Ossetia-Alania, Russia. By Simon Raven
Extract from their book: BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Chris Raven

The rain thunders down as a veil of thick cloud swirls around the body of Mt Elbrus. Si flicks on the squeaky windscreen wipers, and on the glass I draw a smiley face in the condensation. Rising 5,642 metres above sea level, Mt Elbrus is a double-coned volcano with a permanent icecap that feeds twenty-two glaciers. This majestic fortress of rock and ice is located on a moving tectonic area, and was formed more than 2.5 million years ago. The name Elbrus “Alborz” is believed to have roots in Middle Persian and derives from a mountain in Iranian mythology called “Hara Berezaiti”, meaning “High Sentinel”. Located at the crossroads of cultures at the axis of migrating civilisations, Elbrus has names in many other languages including “Mingi Taw” in Turkic, meaning “Eternal Mountain” and “Oshkhamakhua” in Circassian, meaning “Mountain of Happiness”.

 
During the Hellenistic period the mountain was known as “Strobilus” (pine cone) in Latin; in reference to the volcanoes twisted peak. According to the curse of Zeus, everyday a giant eagle was to descend from the skies and devour Prometheus’s liver. During the night, his wounds would heal and the torture would begin again. The Titan was eventually saved by Hercules who defeated the eagle. In local Balkar mythology, they believe Mt Elbrus was trapped in ice by Allah as punishment for being too proud to bow in prayer to the Muslim holy site of Mount Arafat, east of Mecca.
 
Refusing to let the weather dampen our spirits, we drop by the 7Summit climbing shop and tour office in Terskol. We meet the assertive manager named Anna, who has shoulder length jet-black hair and rosy cheeks. We sip coffee and watch a group of climbers trying on hiking boots and choosing their ice axes and ski poles. There is an air of excitement in the shop, an anxious anticipation. Si sparks up a conversation with a ruddy-faced chap from Moscow, who strides around and tests out his new hiking boots. He tells us they hope to climb Elbrus in two days’ time when the weather is forecast to improve. Two women from Norway inspect their poles, while a young couple debate about whether a blue or orange jacket looks better on the mountain.
 

I join Si outside and we meet a local guide who is chatting to his wife and young son on his laptop. I leap in front of the webcam and sing “dobryy vecher!” The guide named Pavel laughs, he has a great sense of humour. When he hears about our quest to drive full circle around the Black Sea, he tells the story about the Russian adventurer, Alexander Abramov, who drove a Land Rover to the top of Elbrus in 1997. The vehicle had become stuck on the way down, and still remains on the mountain to this day. Mt Elbrus is considered to be Europe’s highest summit, with regards to the seven highest mountains of each of the seven continents. F. Crauford Grove and a Swiss guide, Peter Knubel, made the first recorded ascent of Mt Elbrus in July 1874. Grove was one of the best British climbers of his time and wrote a book ‘The Frosty Caucasus’.

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Turkey’s Black Sea Mountains

During an epic road trip driving full circle around the Black Sea, Chris Raven and Simon Raven, explore the high pasture village of Ayder in the Kackar mountains, in a region of Anatolian Turkey that is home to the Hemsin and the legend of the Laz Big foot.
Turkey’s Pontic Alps. The Kackar Mountains. Photo by Simon Raven
Extract from the book: BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Chris Raven
 
Waving farewell to Georgia we enter ancient Anatolia. To the left of the road the land rises steeply into the lush green Pontic Alps, a mountain range that stretches parallel with the southern Black Sea coast for a thousand kilometres. Studying the road atlas, Si reveals that directly south across this geological barrier lie Mount Ararat on the Armenian border and the predominantly Kurdish provinces in the southeast of the country bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Curious to explore these mysterious green mountains that are covered by alder, chestnuts and hornbeams, we continue west on the E70 highway to the small coastal town of Ardesen. Si turns sharply inland, and we pass tea growing on the hillside and climb steadily through the Firtina gorge into the rugged Kackar Mountains. This picturesque region is home to the highest part of the Pontic Mountains, with the tallest peak, Kackar Dagi, reaching an elevation of 3,937 metres. We begin to see winch wires stretching across the gorge, which are used for hoisting goods up to the wooden tea houses. An elderly woman and a small boy crank a handle and send a small basket over the river to a man standing on the opposite hillside. Turkey is the fifth largest producer of tea in the world, with 225,000 tonnes of the leaf being grown in 2012. Tea was introduced to Turkey in the 1940s and 1950s and was offered as an alternative to coffee, which had become expensive and comparatively rare.

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Driving the Georgian Military Highway

There are few roads in the world more spectacular than the Georgian Military Highway. Join Chris Raven and Simon Raven as they descend the GMH from the Russian border to the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi on a road trip of a lifetime.

Dramatic landscape on the Georgian Military Highway, Caucasus Mountains.

Photo by Chris Raven

Extract from their book: Black Sea Circuit

By Chris Raven

A dusty, unpaved stretch of the Georgian Military Highway winds through the Dariali Gorge the “Gate of the Alans”.

Pumped full of adrenaline, Si squeezes past a truck from Azerbaijan on a narrow shelf below a 1,800 metre vertical wall of granite. I try to remove the thought from my mind of rocks smashing through the windows, or a landslide forcing us into the steep valley below. This dramatic and ancient trade route is considered to be one of the most romantic places in the Caucasus, with both Lermontov and Pushkin drawing inspiration from the region. Concentrating on the road, Si reminds me to keep my eyes peeled for lammergeyers “bearded vultures” and griffon vultures nesting on the cliffs. In this remote region of Georgia there are plans to construct a new hydropower plant that would generate electricity to be used locally in winter and exported in the summer to Turkey, Syria and Iraq. If not built with care the threat of environmental disaster seems like a terrifying possibility.

 
After half an hour of negotiating switchback corners and hairpin bends, we cross the Tergi Bridge and arrive in the northeastern Georgian settlement of Kazbegi (1,797m). In the distance I can see the 14th century Holy Trinity Tsminda Sameba Church perched on the adjacent hilltop. The setting sun kisses the jagged horizon and silhouettes a group of hikers making their way up the mountain. In the main square we are immediately surrounded by a group of hard-faced local men touting rooms. A guy appears suddenly at my window. He has flecks of grey in his wiry bushy hair and deep lines embedded in his face. Wearing a brown woollen tank top over a checked shirt, he has the manner of a mountain warrior and despite his age he looks as strong as an ox. I notice his teeth are yellow and decaying and his lips are dry and cracked. The smell of tobacco drifts inside the car.
  ‘You want room?’ he asks, the corner of his mouth curling upwards in a slight smirk.
  I shake my head. ‘No, we go to Tbilisi. Can we buy car insurance here?’
  He drops his smile and raises his bushy, out of control eyebrows. ‘What?’ he growls, fixing his stare.
  ‘We need to buy insurance, for the car,’ Si adds, knocking his fists together to demonstrate a collision.
  The tout mutters something under his breath to the sun-dried gentlemen standing around him.
  ‘No room?’
  ‘No,’ I smile.
  Exhaling a deep sigh, he turns sharply away and marches over to a young traveller struggling up the hill with his rucksack. Si swings the Volvo over to a nearby petrol station. I ask the guy working the pump about car insurance, but we are both suddenly distracted by the surreal sight of a camel walking along the road. A man with long white hair runs alongside the animal and barks orders at its backside. I turn back to the petrol pump attendant, who looks equally puzzled. He shrugs his shoulders and suggests we try in the capital city of Tbilisi.
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Two Russia Road Trips by Chris Raven

Driving the Trans-Siberian

by Chris Raven, Simon Raven

Ever had the desire to jump in your car and keep driving, to wave goodbye to routine and commitment; to drive into the unknown hungry for adventure? Well, that is precisely what overland travel writers, Chris Raven and Simon Raven, decided to do whilst stacking boxes of frozen oven chips in a -30 degrees freezer. Not being petrol heads and having zero knowledge of the internal combustion engine, the brothers fired up their rusty Ford Sierra Sapphire and headed east.

After clocking up over 11,000 miles, quite literally living in the car, they miraculously arrived in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok in Siberia on the Sea of Japan. What they had in fact done was to drive the entire length of the new Amur Highway before it was finished, which crosses Russia and the notorious Zilov Gap in a 6,200 mile swath of cracked tarmac and potholes. Along the way our trusty heroes drink vodka with Chechen criminals, escape highway robbery, trade banana flavoured condoms with Russian cops, meet the eccentric and plain weird at truck stops in darkest Siberia, endure torturous road conditions and have a race to the finish with the Germans. Surviving this insane journey by the skin of their teeth the brothers are forced to confront their worst fears in this toe-curling comedy of extreme road trip adventure.

 

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers.

Black Sea Circuit

By Chris Raven, Simon Raven

The legends of Jason and the Argonauts, Noah’s Ark and a tribe of fierce female warriors known as the Amazons all originate from the Black Sea.

Gripped by curiosity, Simon and Chris fire up their twenty year old Volvo that looks, “as rustic and weather-beaten as a Cold War tank” and embark on a quest to drive full circle around this ancient body of water at the birthplace of civilisation.

 

In the shadow of rising tension in Ukraine, the brothers get up close and personal with the fascinating people who inhabit the six nations that surround these colourful shores. Living on the road like the nomadic horse bowmen who once ruled the steppe grasslands, they explore Crimea, the Caucasus region of southern Russia’s “Wild West”, the Georgian kingdom of Colchis, Turkey’s Pontic coast, the megacity of Istanbul and complete their journey in Romania at the outfall of the mighty River Danube.

A career in overland adventure travel was launched when Simon and Chris coaxed a rusty Ford Sierra across Siberia from the UK to Vladivostok. Priding themselves in going it alone, the brothers have been noted by Lonely Planet for their talent to portray an “accurate view of what to expect”.



Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

UK Amazon: Buy Black Sea Circuit >

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