This blog is about Seyyah. Indian author Gautham Reddy Nallavari recently wrote a book on his epic journey through 8 nations.
Few days ago I enjoyed reading Seyyah, the new travel book by Gautham Reddy Nallavari. It chronicles his journey which spans 20,000 kms and 8 nations viz. Greece, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, and Hong Kong. What made his epic journey memorable was that he followed the route many ancient traders took on the Silk Road. It is something that I personally wanted to do.
It’s quite an enviable feat which Gautham has achieved at one go. The book sure is unputdownable and left a void when I finished reading this book. It exposed me to obscure places like Kashgar in China. In fact I didn’t know that much of western part of China boasts of heavy Muslim population and very ‘Unchina’ in character.
My favourite was the account of a dictatorial regime in Turkmenistan. A salubrious part of the capital where the entire city is made up of marble, even the pavement, intrigued me. The fact that it’s illegal to wander on your own in Turkmenistan or take innocent pictures of the city or travel without a state appointed guide made it jump some places on my bucket list. Much like North Korea but less explored and talked about!
The arduous journey in mostly dictatorial countries and false democracies also made Gautham take a relook at his own country India and appreciate the freedom India offers. In his words, “I got to understand and appreciate how exponentially difficult it is to maintain democracy, fundamental rights, and the freedoms of people in an extremely diverse country like India.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Gautham. Pls click to read about his extraordinary journey. Do buy the book and immerse yourself in his magical offbeat journey across 8 countries.
Kudos to Notion Press for publishing young independent voices like Gautham’s! We need more of such content!
- Please tell the readers more about your book.
Answer: Following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, Alexander, and Genghis Khan, my journey is a quest to find the answers to what the Silk Road was and what it currently is. My 20,000 km journey transverses eight countries, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, and Hong Kong. Travelling by land on the silk route isn’t just about re-exploring the paths of ancient traders and conquerors, but also about observing centuries of the traversing of cultures, ideas, religions, food, and customs along the Silk Road from Asia to Europe. Everything I had heard about the modern-day silk route countries – the markets, the dictators, the rebels, and the people seemed inviting. Mountains, rivers, deserts, and oases seemed to challenge me to come explore, as they did to the ancient Silk Road travelers.
Part travelogue, part historical context, and part geopolitical and economic analysis, the book offers various schools of thought, observations, analyses, and perspectives, as I cross through some of the most difficult and still largely unknown countries in the world. Every day brings new adventures such as staying at a Buddhist monastery, getting interrogated by the police, attending underground parties, repairing a truck in the middle of the desert, trying to buy a goat, and crossing snowcapped mountains.
- It has been an inspiring journey. Tell me how you came up with the idea of traversing 20,000 kms in one go?
Answer: Travelling long distances, especially tens of thousands of kilometers is always intriguing. But I wanted to travel the Silk Road in its entirety. This was the primary goal. When this goal was set in stone, I had to find ways to achieve this. I was probably ten years old when I knew about the Silk Road, and I decided that one day I will traverse it. It took nineteen years to take the first step. I had to wait – to prepare myself physically and learn more about the history, culture, geography, traditions, religions, and geopolitical situations of each of the countries. Most importantly, I had to prepare to change my attitude and my thinking. I had to believe that I could do it. I had to believe that I could take on the physical, mental, and phycological challenges. I had to adjust my thinking to be able to meet people from multiple incredibly diverse cultures. I had to have an open mind to understand, assimilate, and experience the interactions. The last part took nineteen years.
- Turkmenistan was my favorite Which of the countries you visited was your favorite and why?
Answer: Turkmenistan is an interesting country. I had a lot of adventures. But my favorite country has been Iran. Iran changed my worldview completely. Even though I was prepared to find the hidden Iran, it was much more than I could imagine. The country I saw and experienced, the people I met, were completely opposite to what the media portrays. The hospitality of Iranians is second to none. I was invited into strangers’ homes, to their dinner tables, and underground parties. I saw an Iran which was very modern and well educated. Young Iranian rebels were dancing, partying, drinking, and exhibiting rebellious outbursts, although secretly. I don’t think I was ever that consistently drunk or hungover in any other country. I met multiple artists, filmmakers, DJs, and musicians who worked in secrecy. It gave me an appreciation for the freedom we have in India (and often forget) to be able to pursue your passions, dreams, and sometimes even get support from the government instead of a ban. Iran also had the absolutely beautiful and ancient cities of Esfahan and Persepolis which still had the grandeur of their once great past. In Esfahan, I met some young musicians who invited me to their village where we had very strong alcohol. It was all part of their immense hospitality and respect to outsiders.
- What did you do after the trip got over? Did you go back to a new job?
Answer: After I finished my trip, I moved to Istanbul and wrote my book based in Istanbul, my favorite Silk Road city. I wanted to write my story of the Silk Road while still in the Silk Road. I also continued to travel on smaller trips, making Istanbul my base. I traveled to places I hadn’t been in various European countries (France, Italy, Spain, etc. ) I spent two whole years travelling and writing. I also learned Turkish.
Later, I found a job, similar to what I had been doing previously – management consulting. I currently live in Istanbul, still my favorite silk route city, with my wife (who is Turkish). When I’m not reading and planning my next adventure while sipping Turkish chai, I’m either negotiating with the vendors in the spice bazaar or working as a management consultant.
- Any tips for someone who wants to attempt this trip of a lifetime?
Answer: I would suggest that they follow a process similar to mine. I put up specific objectives and rules for my journey years before I wanted to take it. It gave me perspective and a mental compass to prepare. If it’s a trip of a lifetime, it needs to be treated like one before you embark. The entire journey will become a vivid experience if you have objectives of why you want to travel and rules on how you want to travel. Here are mine below.
Following the ancient travelers’ footsteps, my objectives for re-discovering the ancient Silk Road were to:
- Compare the tales, legends, and myths about the Silk Road to what the Silk Road and its cities currently were
- Explore the diverse cultures, ideologies, and belief systems
- Interact with the people and understand the ground realities
- Analyze how these countries fit into today’s global economics
- Estimate the future, evolution, and the impact of Silk Route countries on other countries
The rules that I set for myself to accomplish my objectives, sometimes proved to be fun and at times very challenging. But nonetheless, I stuck to them.
- Travel in the most frugal way possible – bus/train/hitchhike/walk – no flights
- Stay with the locals and live with them in their homes. If not possible, I would limit myself to backpackers’ hostels
- Eat whatever the locals ate; no exceptions
- Question everything, even the uncomfortable truths and learn about the culture, history, and traditions of each country
- Do at least one crazy thing in each country
- Make friends in each country
- Return home wiser and happier
- How did you plan the entire trip?
Answer: As I mentioned in the second question, it took years of self-preparation to come to the point where I would start the real work of planning the trip. For the actual preparation, it was actually much more difficult and time-consuming than I thought.
First, I spent months figuring out the best route. The route needed to follow the historical Silk Road networks (business routes, conquest routes) so I could visit the sites that I listed down and the actual current day routes. I also had to select which borders to cross, as some had mines between them. I also had prepared multiple alternative routes to be able to quickly make changes if required. I also had to understand each country, the security in each province, road conditions, transport,and accommodation. I think I had at least ten different alternative routes within my main route. I also had to spend an enormous amount of time understanding visa procedures. Things were difficult for someone with an Indian passport. Most border guards had never seen an Indian crossing their borders before. It was shocking for them to see me with a visa. I had to time my visas as they had a limited period of entry and exit. All this work took about three to four months of intense preparation.
I also started interacting with multiple people online on my journey, choosing people who could provide me with a real picture of their city and country. That took good amount of time too.
- You have often talked about ‘internet forums’ in the book through which you meet locals who showed you their city. What are these forums called and how can a regular person find local hosts?
Answer: As I said above, I interacted with people mostly on Facebook groups (country specific, travel specific, backpacker specific) and also some of my friends connected to me to some of their acquaintances from these countries. I understood that there was something called couch surfing from the same people. Some invited me to stay at their place. Some gave me details about their friends and relatives in other cities. Some offered me a place even before I went. Some offered me shelter when I met them. My friends were in Athens and Shanghai/Hongkong which were almost the first and last cities I traveled to. I met them and stayed with them too. The rest of the 19000 km was completely alien to me. Also, I hadn’t visited any of those countries before.
- Since you were traveling on a shoestring budget, why didn’t you trycouchsurfing?
Answer: I would say frugal rather than shoestring. My idea wasn’t to spend money on pricey hotels and pricey travel options but to spend time with locals and try to experience the real culture. I met a lot of people and stayed with them, some through couch surfing, some through direct interactions (online and offline), some pure chance invitations, and some at hostels, community-based homestays, and tents etc. Everyday was a different adventure.
- What was the methodology you used to write this book? How many days did it take to write the book?
Answer: As I said in response to the first question about my book. It’s part travelogue, part historical context, part geopolitical, and economic analysis. The book addresses various schools of thought, observations, analyses and perspectives. Hence it needed different hats to write the same book. Being a management consultant, we came up with multiple strategy models and methodologies on how to tackle our clients’ problems, be it market expansion, competitive analysis, and other business problems. Before I started writing, I made a trip back to Paris and had a nice afternoon discussion with my MBA strategy professor on coming up with a methodology to write my book. He was as thrilled as me. Together, we came up with a methodology that each chapter and then each country will follow. Each chapter will have a part travelogue, part historical context, and part geopolitical and economic analysis in the correct proportions to keep the flow non-monetary. The geopolitical and economic analysis would be more towards the end of each country with more information I gather.
The content on economic analysis would also grow as I crossed countries and as I gained more perspective on the countries. The stories and the analysis provided needed to be consistent, coherent, and relate to each other. They also need to be within the scope of the Silk Road countries. The historical as well as the economic and geopolitical analysis required proper background research and substantiation. Each idea within the book needed to be checked to see if it fit into the model. I had two different core editors and compasses. A British history major from Cambridge would also look at the chapters from a historical point of view, and an IMM graduate looked through my research on economic analysis. Other than that, I had multiple mentors and smart people reading the chapters and giving me insights with their expertise.
- Are you planning any other such book or trip in future? If yes, let us know what it’s about?
Answer:I am always planning on next big thing, while I’m doing small things. Every year, I travel for a few months. I make multiple short trips to Tanzania, India, Kyrgyzstan, China, and multiple European countries.
- I want to start where I stopped the last time (Hong Kong) and cross the much more difficult Ocean Silk Road and come back to Europe, following the ancient ocean-based silk roads. I’m researching history, routes, and economics as I did for the last one. I guess I will take a few more years until I’m ready.
- I want to travel to South America and follow the conquistadors and the Having been to Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina for small reconnaissance trips, I’m preparing for a big one. Luckily, I have close friends in almost all of these countries (classmates, workmates, etc.) so it should be fun. I picked up Spanish fast thanks to my broken French. I will need to do that again once there.
- I want to travel through Siberia and the Arctic in the winter. Also, luckily I got friends families living deep in Siberia but will have to learn Russian first.
- What was the most easy and most difficult chapter to write?
Answer: Until now, I never thought about that. Frankly, I don’t know. As each chapter is linked to multiple chapters and I have edited each of them so many times, not a single chapter comes to my mind which was easy or difficult.
- Aren’t much of a foodie? Though the book did mention local food, the details of the food were absent.
Answer: There are mentions of it, although much lesser than what a foodie might expect. Moderation of information and perspective was key for each chapter. My editors were cruel and were cutting even the slightly non-influential information. I think I took out major chunks about food from the initial versions.
- What are you doing these days? Are you employed or still traveling?
Answer: As I wrote above, I am now working as a management consultant, after I successfully finished completed a draft of all the chapters. After one year of travel, and one year of writing and travel, I decided to get back to work. Work isn’t bad. I also travel for work which is nice. I now work mostly in Turkey.
- How did you fund your Silk Road trip and could we know how much money you spent on this trip (If you don’t mind!)?
Answer: Here is a simple calculation. I used to live in a small studio apartment in Paris for 800 Euros. I considered whether I should continue to stay in Paris in that apartment or travel the Silk Road for the next year or so. I made a decision and left. I managed with more or less the same amount per month, mostly for travel and entry tickets.
- How did this journey change the way you perceive your own country?
Answer: Oh absolutely. Most countries I passed through were dictatorial or countries with limited democracy. There was oppression, limited or no rights, difficulties for the people, which were based on the political structure of the country. It gave me respect for democratic values, institutions, and free market principles of India.
Talking to the people of these countries and the unique problems they face such as the banning of seemingly normal activities gave me an appreciation to what it means to have freedom. In India, we are able to pursue our passions, dreams, and sometimes even get support from the government instead of a ban.
Of course, there needs to be lot more development in India too, to reach really high standards. But for once I got to understand and appreciate how exponentially difficult it is to maintain democracy, fundamental rights, and the freedoms of people in an extremely diverse country like India.
- What were your biggest lessons from this epic trip of a lifetime?
Answer: This journey literally changed me. I truly started to understand the diversity the world offered. I started to lose something called the culture shock (after being shocked too many times). I started to understand that there are so many different ways of living life – the cultures, traditions, and belief systems. I started to be able to pick different aspects of different cultures and stitch them together and make it mine. I no longer had a sense of what was truly a home. Every place had an aspect of home. It was me who needs to decided which place to make a home for a while and move on.
When I finally reached Hyderabad after successfully finishing the Silk Road journey, after months of travel, with a very heavy backpack, sporting a beard and shorts, my father who came to pick me up couldn’t recognize me. His first words were ‘You’re a changed man now!’ Indeed, he was right in more than one way. As quoted by Oliver Homes, “A mind stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
- Please share your tips and advice to aspiring travel writers?
Answer: From my side, there is only one tip. Write your book as if you’re telling your story to a friend over a drink. A friend who knows you very well, a friend who challenges your way of thinking, a friend who you love to debate with! Boom, you got your travel book just like you always wanted.
- What are your tips for long-term international travel?
Answer: Questions 5 and 6 answer this perfectly.
- How many countries have you been to? How long have you been traveling on your own?
Answer: I didn’t count, and I don’t want to. It’s not a race for me. I started traveling in 2010. Until 2007, I had lived in Hyderabad all my life. I never even traveled within India. From 2000 to 2010, I lived in the U.S. for work. I still travelled very little, usually with friends to cliched destinations. It all changed when I moved to France to study. I started traveling with my friends in 2010-2011 to nicer destinations. In 2011, I started on my first solo trip. It’s never too late.
- Do you have any favorite travel books and travel writers?
Answer:I like William Dalrymple’s books very much. Xanadu is another Silk Road journey taken twenty-five years ago.
Thanks Gautham for the interview. You have inspired me to travel more internationally. I look forward to your books and further journeys on your social media platforms. You can buy the book on Amazon (International), Amazon (India), Infibeam, Flipkart and Shopclues
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