London

We arrived at the final destination Wembley Plaza Hotel, London around 16:00 hrs, not in an intact convoy but individually. It seemed ironic that the convoy was able to remain intact through all the cities of China, Central Asia and Europe, but we couldn’t remain intact in London. Even the GPS didn’t help so navigation to Wembley was by stopping and asking the pedestrians.

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Anyway, we got to Wembley and I got a message from the Rotary Club of Wembley-Willesden that they were hosting dinner for us and we should be ready by 18:00 hrs. We were there at 18:00 hrs.  Unfortunately, there was a small misunderstanding and some convoy members were prevented entry to the banquet hall for being “improperly dressed.” The Brits were expecting us to be in coat and tie. I was busy in my room preparing the PowerPoint presentation of the journey as I was the Guest Speaker for the night. Fortunately, I got down early enough to sort out the misunderstanding about dress code. We were, by the way, dressed in our Convoy uniform. So that problem got sorted amicably.
 
President Miriam Specterman of RC Wembley-Willesden had arranged for an intercity meeting and she had some 60 Rotarians from 12 North London clubs attending.  They were mostly 60+ in age, very British and loved their pre-dinner drinks at the Bar. Our convoy members were already hungry and probably angry that the sit-down dinner hadn’t started.  But these Brits continued with their drinking and chatting among themselves. They were not very sociable and our Malaysians also kept to themselves. Having got my notebook PC hooked up to the LCD projector, I was making small talk with the Mayor and DGE 2006-07 when I was informed that the Convoy Leader had walked out with the Management Team and their wives in tow.
 
I chased after them and tried to persuade them to come back as the function was due to start soon.  But the Convoy Leader was adamant to stay out and go for dinner elsewhere. I later learned that he was displeased that the brief notes on the tables with the map of our journey paid tributes to me as Chef-de-Mission rather than him as the Convoy Leader.

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Fortunately about half the convoy didn’t join the walkout. They made small talk, waited patiently through all the Rotary formalities and had their dinner, which, by the way, they had already paid for.  So there was quite a lot of unconsumed food that night. Understandably the Rotary Club only paid for my dinner as I was the Guest Speaker.  But I was deeply embarrassed and found it difficult to explain to my host why some of the tables were empty. Anyway, in my speech I did pay tribute to the Convoy Leader for having led us — 35 souls and 15 cars — safely from KL to London in the planned time of 61 days.

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The next day, after their return from Southampton delivering the cars for shipping back to Malaysia, I took the opportunity to say farewell to them in a matter-of-fact manner, last nights’ insult still hurting. The wives however, were extremely nice and decent.  They remembered that Zaki’s birthday was the next day 13 Oct and gave him hugs and presents. That soften my heart and acknowledged that they were after all “good wives.”

So ended a two months journey over two continents, several deserts, plains and mountains, rivers, seas and oceans, multiples cultures and three major religions and civilizations that I was fortunate to experience first hand. I told myself “I’ll do this again” and sure enough I have been all over the world since this trip in 2005.

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Hungary and Europe

Into Hungary

Crossing the border into Hungary was not a problem.  But getting into the city of Budapest was quite a hassle.  Traffic was heavy and the feeling of being in a true European country was prevalent.  It’s a big city with some 1.7 million population.  It has a turbulent history but could boast of the Austro-Hungarian Empire since 1867 to 1918.  The Ottomans were here too and ruled it for 140 years from 1541.  Budapest comes from the merging of two cities, Buda and Pest in 1873.

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Besides wandering around the monuments and memorials at the Central Square some of us had our own agenda.  Zaki and I went for a cruise on the Danube (which was greyish and not at all blue).  It was nice though for photography because most of the nice buildings are on the banks of the river.  I then met up with reps from two Budapest Rotary clubs, one for lunch and the other for tea. We exchanged banners.

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That night, the Malaysian ambassador, Dato Wan Yusof Embong entertained us for dinner. He was so kind that he even got the Embassy wives to cook us nasi lemak and kueh-kueh for sahur or breakfast. Puasa started at Targu-Mures (in Romania) and Sheikh, Zaki & I fasted.  After dinner, we took a group photo the only one since the group left Kuala Lumpur. Hence, those that dropped along the way missed this opportunity.  Big deal.

Into Austria and Switzerland

From Budapest we went to Salzburg in Austria, famous for the movie “Sound of Music.”  It was just a night stop for us; but Sheikh Abas, Zaki and I had the opportunity to buka puasa with a biryani dinner at an Indian restaurant.
The next day it was off again, this time to Lucerne Switzerland where we stayed at the Hotel Europe.  The Malaysian embassy staff from Bern — Encik Jamal Shariffudin bin Johan and Encik Nordin — came and had dinner with us.

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Travelling in Europe since the formation of EU has become quite easy with minimal or no immigration or customs hassle. This we found since leaving Budapest, Hungary.

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Into Luxembourg and Belgium

From Lucerne, it was a leisurely drive to Luxembourg.  In spite of the beautiful Swiss countryside sceneries, snow capped mountains in the distance, the drive was getting quite boring; nothing compared to driving in Tibet or Central Asia or even Eastern Europe.  We had plenty of time to kill, and since Switzerland was famous for the cuckoo clock some of us wanted to look at them.  So we stopped at this roadside tourist shopping complex with an unpronounceable name where all kinds of knick-knacks including cuckoo clocks were available. We even had a lesson on how the clocks were manufactured, assembled and tuned.  A question was asked as to what to do if the clocks failed to function properly.  The answer from the salesman was “buy a new one.”  This fellow must have been an engineering student — he was very technical with his explanations — working part time to earn some money.  He was also too honest; and he lost his Malaysian customers.

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Well, it’s a fact that the ordinary watch/clock dealers cannot really repair a cuckoo clock apart from changing the batteries. It’s too intricate and cuckoo clock technicians are few and far between. The modern ones are not too expensive either.  So if the old one goes “cuckoo” just buy a new one.

     On Sunday 9 Oct, we arrived in Luxembourg and stayed at the Sofitel. I met two Rotary club presidents and exchanged banners.  They were of course impressed with our exploits and wished we could give talks about our experiences. Unfortunately, being Sunday we couldn’t attend their meetings.  In fact, I was unable to attend any of the meetings of clubs that met me on the journey — Baku, Tbilisi, Budapest and Luxembourg — because our dates of being at their location did not coincide with days of their weekly meetings.

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From Luxembourg we drove on to Bruges in Belgium, stopping on the way at Brussels to admire the beautiful buildings and architecture of the city.

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At Bruges, it was housekeeping time. All car owners were asked to sort out their loads in their cars to determine what was to remain, what to be thrown away and what were to be taken out as personal luggage. This was necessary as the cars were to be driven to Southampton for shipping back to Malaysia on the morning of 12 Oct, the day after arrival in London.  There was no time available for any sorting out then. So better do it in Bruges. I was also busy doing my housekeeping especially updating the website, sorting out gigabytes of pictures and videos and backing them up into my portable hard disk. Zaki went to the city and took pictures of these nice buildings; unfortunately we don’t know what they are.

Calais, France

We got to Calais from Bruges early in the morning of Tuesday 11 Oct, and got into the ferry after Immigration and Customs check without any hassle. The crossing was smooth and we arrived in Dover England after about 90 min.

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I felt a sense of relief and achievement having reached the end of the 2 months journey. I also felt privileged to join the few that have successfully made it in the past. Of course, it was easier for us to do it because of better roads and facilities; and communication and navigation aids.  The only hazards were the elements but still much safer that those people who did it in the past negotiating the Silk Roads having to deal with ruthless thieves and brigands.

Into England

We got into Dover without having to go through Immigration and Customs again.  How nice. After re-assembling we convoyed to London, very happy to drive on the left side of the road again.  Then we did a very sensible thing which was to stop for lunch and shopping at a factory outlet at Ashford.

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All the wives and the experienced 4×4 travellers discarded their clothing here (underwear especially) and bought a complete new set of new personal clothing.  I only discarded my underwear and bought new ones because my wife had sent my set of fresh clothes from Malaysia via the safe had of nephew Dilan to be delivered to Raja Aman’s flat in Maida Vale.

Romania

On 4 Oct 2005, we moved on north to Romania, another former Soviet satellite state. Romania is well known for the Romani people aka Roma or Gypsies to some.  These people are nomadic, live in wagons and are fiercely independent. History has it that they originated from northwest India and migrated west in the 6th Century. They are found all over the world actually, but mostly in the US, Brazil and Spain in that order. Romania comes 4th in population density of Romani people.

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Some gypsies are rich with apartments of strange designs

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The name Romania was formerly Rumania, a name change probably influenced by the fact that they were part of the Roman Empire, but officially only done in 1861.  They were also under Soviet influence just as Bulgaria was after the Russian-Turkish War. But now they are a member of NATO (2004) the EU (2007) .

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Crossing the Danube

Palace of the Parliament

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Camping in Targu Mures, Transylvania

…Dracula country

Nicolae Ceaușescu was the President (and dictator) of Romania from 1974 to 1989 when he was tried, convicted and shot by firing squad on 25 Dec 1989.  He had visions of grandeur and built the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest mid 1984. It was only completed by the new government in 1997. Total cost about €3bn. 

Transylvania is in Romania and that’s Dracula country, if you are into all that scary stuff.  We camped there in Targu Mures; fortunately nobody incurred the wrath of Dracula and we slept happily in our sleeping bags/tents. BTW, Ramadan also began on 5 Oct; so Sheikh Abas, Zaki and I had sahur that night in Dracula country.