Carrying on my Grand Adventures campaign, this week I asked Jamie Bunchuk to share some thoughts from one of his adventures. I asked Jamie to do this because this was his first big adventure, so I hope it resonates with people dreaming of making the leap to doing something big and exciting. It is also a journey inspired by the antics of an adventuring hero of Jamie’s, and I think following a hero is a great starting point for hatching an adventure plan. (It led me, for example, to the Empty Quarter desert). Finally, it is an adventure on horseback, which I’mm very jealous of: that remains high on my To Do list!
The basic idea of our adventure was to celebrate the centenary of an Anglo-Irish explorer’s journey through Central Asia. Sir Charles Howard-Bury made his way overland to the furthest reaches of the Tian Shan Mountains in present-day Kazakhstan. Matthew Traver and I wanted to replicate part of this historical journey. So we flew to Kazakhstan, bought three horses (named Charlie (Charles Howard-Bury), Arman (Kazakh for Dream) and Totoro (from Studio Ghibli, my guilty pleasure) and then rode south – unassisted by any form of outside support – along the isolated desert steppe on the eastern length of the country until we reached Almaty, 63 days later.
The highlight for me was taking my favourite and fastest horse for a ride one quiet evening on a rest day out in the steppe. We were in the middle of nowhere, the flat expanse of grass stretching on for miles and miles in every direction until blocked by the gentle curve of mountains on the horizon. There was not another soul around. Both the horse and I must have been bored from the enforced rest – due to bad weather – and I had barely hopped on him when he took-off full kilter. We rode like the clappers, the ground becoming a streaming blur of colour, the long grass swishing with a brisk gusting wind at our backs. It was really a bit dangerous; I had no helmet on and – considering no one knew where I was – a fall would have been quite dodgy. But the risk added to the experience and I’ve never felt such a vivid sensation of being alive before. As we galloped full tilt into the glow of a setting sun, I knew that moment would stay with me forever.
I think the beautiful thing in people is their ability to choose something completely irrational, nonsensical and potentially dangerous and then champion that idea with all their heart and soul, even if nobody else ‘gets it’. I guess that at the centre of things I’m a bit of a Don Quixote kind of character. I got completely attached to a romanticised notion that I could play the martyred hero, a modern-day explorer out on a brave quest through alien worlds on his trusty steed, trailing fame, fortune and adoration in my wake. Of course the reality of the expedition turned out quite differently; it always does. Really, we were just two fools quite unprepared for the many hardships we’d eventually have to face. Indeed, we bumbled our way through it all without much of a real clue. But still, I think life is generally a more interesting place when we apply our own fanciful narratives to the world around us, even if cynics just see you tilting at windmills.
The impact of this adventure was simply huge. I had the first seedlings of an idea for the journey when I was 21 and I’m now well on the way to being 26, so you can see it was pretty much the cornerstone of my twenties. This project indelibly altered my life: I lost touch with many of my dearest friends; I made no money at all and actively threw away the graduate career prospects I’d planned so dearly on whilst at university; I worked some truly shocking jobs (and some great ones too, mind); even my long-time girlfriend got fed up in the end and ditched me. So, it was a bit of a bum deal in many regards. But would I do the adventure again? Absolutely. Every time that answer will be yes.
The journey through Central Asia taught me so much about myself: about being confident in who you are and what you want your story to be, in learning true drive and determination and discovering that – ultimately – the banal things people always worry about don’t actually matter in the slightest. You’ll get round those inconveniences the same way you’ll get across an unknown country; granted it will be with a lot of mistakes, mis-steps and more bumbling but you’ll always make it to somewhere new in the end. To quite dreadfully quote Jurassic Park, ‘life finds a way,’ and this adventure taught me that I just have to keep pursuing the story I want my life to follow and it’ll all work out in the end. Or even if it doesn’t, at least it was an exciting ride.
Turning our dream into reality required planning. Seriously. We sent out hundreds of emails, made thousands of to-do lists, scoured maps, and had never-ending planning conversations back and forth about this trip. We’d never ridden horses before so we had to learn all about equestrian maintenance, purchasing, and indeed the riding itself. Without the contacts made through endless stints of networking, we’d have never received the five month visa we needed to stay in Kazakhstan for such an extended amount of time; never would have received the free flights to the country, nor the gear we acquired from over 20 generous sponsors. We’d would have had to pay almost double to make the expedition run, a cost we simply wouldn’t have been able to afford.
Some people may say you can wing it, and indeed once you’re on the ground you’ll probably have to. But don’t skimp to do more, learn more and pursue a more coherent picture of the adventure in your head when you have the opportunity to do so beforehand. Not doing your research is lazy. You may still have an exciting trip ‘on the hoof’ and it may still be fun, but the scope of your achievements will increase tenfold if you don’t dick around and get working hard prior to leaving.
I wish I had learned more Russian before beginning our journey. I have always resented falling into that British stereotype of not knowing any other language because you assume most people know English. But I went on the expedition with a very limited native language and we suffered greatly for it. The quality and experience of our journey would have increased massively if we were able to properly converse with the many colourful characters we’d met along the way.
The single most practical thing a person can do to make an adventure happen is to book their flights to that country. Then you’re committed; everything else you’ll just have to work at and work out and hopefully get right. I know I said previously that planning is key, but don’t wait for everything to be nailed down to the last detail before you commit, because an adventure can never be completely planned for. At some point you’re just going to have to jump into the deep end and see how the it all unfolds. Book the trip and you’ve already made the leap.
And make sure you bring a tent as you’ll avoid paying for hotels and buy instant Ramen noodles; they’ve got the best ratio of price-to-calories found anywhere in the world.
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!