Packing their lives up and heading off on a lengthy road trip was something Nina and Kai Schakat, both from Germany, had envisioned doing together during their retirement.
But after the death of Nina’s father, and the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the couple, who have two children, Ben, 11 and Leni, 10, decided that they couldn’t wait any longer.
“We were just wondering why everybody waits until retiring,” Nina tells CNN Travel. “And we challenged ourselves to think if such a trip is possible to enjoy with the kids when they are in the right age to understand the journey and still keen to travel with us parents.”
When they began researching a potential trip around Asia, the Schakats, who have lived in Dubai for around 15 years, quickly realized that they’d struggle to afford the accommodation costs and flights for four people and started looking into alternative modes of transportation.
After noting that a van would perhaps be too small, as their children are “a little bit on the taller side,” they decided on a bus.
The Schakats then bought an old bus by an Indian vehicle manufacturer named Ashok Leyland for $6,000 and set about converting it into a fully equipped home on wheels.
Over a period of around nine months, they kitted out the vehicle, which measures 12 meters long and 2.4 meters wide, with a dining and lounge area, two bunk beds, a shower room and a master suite. The bus was also fitted with solar panels and a large water tank.
Finally, the couple brought in an artist friend to spray paint a colorful mural onto the exterior in order to give it a more fun and child friendly feel. The total cost of the conversion came to around $40,000, according to the Schakats.
“We have a fully equipped kitchen with a big household fridge, freezer and washing machine.” explains Kai, who has worked as a truck driver for several years, and managed to secure his bus driving license before the trip.
“We have everything [we need]. We can spend one week somewhere without needing water or power, and we have enough food supplies [to last us].”
Before completely committing to the trip, the family took a test drive from Dubai to Oman both “to see if they liked it,” as well as check that all of the new fittings and fixtures on the bus were running smoothly.
“There were a few hiccups that we had to resolve,” admits Nina.
Once they were satisfied, the Schakats threw themselves into preparing for the trip and getting things in order so that they could essentially put their life in Dubai on hold for 13 months.
“That was exhausting,” admits Nina, adding that both she and Kai worked up until the day before they left. “There were thousands of things to take care of.”
After shipping the bus to Iran last August, the Schakats traveled to the country by ferry to pick up their vehicle, got on board and set off on the journey they’d been dreaming about for years.
Although they had initially planned to drive from Iran to Pakistan, the heavy floods which hit parts of Pakistan from late summer last year meant abandoning that route.
Instead, they opted to drive to Turkey, spending a few weeks driving up to the central region of Cappadocia, famous for its “fairy chimney” landscapes, before making their way back to Iran and attempting to drive across to Pakistan once again.
Unfortunately, the political situation in Iran had altered significantly during their time in Turkey and their second visit proved to be a very different experience.
The death of a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman had led to protests, and authorities’ were attempting to contain the spread of demonstrations through internet blackouts.
This meant that mobile networks were largely shut down and access to Instagram and WhatsApp, which the family relied on to keep friends and family updated on their whereabouts, had been restricted.
“We drove through Iran very quickly, because we didn’t have any internet,” explains Nina. “We were always usually in touch with family and friends [before]. But then suddenly, we were completely out of the loop and nobody knew where we were.”
Dealing with setbacks
They had no choice but to remain in the country for around two weeks, as their visas to enter Pakistan could not be processed, and borders were shut due to the political situation.
After around 10 days of driving across Iran while waiting for their visas to be processed, they’d pretty much given up hope and were making plans to ship their bus back to Dubai.
However, just in time, the Schakats managed to secure their visas for Pakistan in mid-October. They were provided with an armed escort during their drive from Pakistan to India, which took around six days.
Since leaving Pakistan, the Schakats have been traveling across India, “tackling the country counter clockwise.”
Nina admits that it’s taken their children Ben and Leni, who she describes as “very social,” a little while to adapt to life on the road.
“Suddenly, you’re in a bus with four people, two nearly teenagers, 24/7,” she says. “You learn how far you can challenge the kids.”
She admits that they’ve all found having to keep up with online schooling while traveling difficult, particularly the children, who miss interacting with school friends.
“You get distracted all the time because you want to explore the area, and then you need to sit with a kid for a couple of hours a day to do the work, because there’s deadlines,” she adds.
And while the Schakats have been enjoying each others company for the most part, they can’t help but miss being around other people.
“We experience everything together,” says Kai. “There’s no new stories to tell really. But we still have a lot to talk about.”
Thankfully, the family’s eye-catching bus has proved to be quite the conversation starter, and has led them to many new people.
“It’s helped us a lot, “explains Nina. “It opens doors in terms of communication and connecting to people. It’s very child friendly. Everybody can see that we’re traveling with children.”
One of the standout moments of their trip so far has been spending Christmas on a “lonely beach” located between Mumbai and Goa with five other overlander families.
Meanwhile, Ben and Leni were bowled over by Hampi, an ancient village in the south Indian state of Karnataka.
“I think it’s their favorite [place] so far,” says Nina. “It’s like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, with all the temples, monkeys and the rocks from the formations of the landscape. It’s just amazing.”
Of course, there’s no getting away from the fact that driving a huge bus can undoubtedly lead to issues at times, and the family have had their fair share of setbacks.
“Everyday you have one heart attack,” says Nina, before describing some of the close calls they’ve had with motorbikes while driving through busy roads.
“My husband is a superstar in bus driving. The amount of hours he’s spent behind the wheel is pretty crazy. I think he’s got a couple of gray hairs on the trip.”
Although Nina had hoped to be able to take on some of the driving during the trip, she says she finds the gear stick difficult to maneuver, as well as driving on the left, which is the law in India, in a right-hand-drive bus.
“I tried, but I think it’s probably better that I don’t [drive],” she says.
In order to take the pressure off Kai, who got his truck license back in 1999, the family are now trying to take shorter trips, which ultimately means that they are spending longer than they planned in each new destination. They’ve also had to change their route a few times for various reasons.
Nina explains that they “lost one and a half months” due to the extended time they spent in Iran and that unplanned detour to Turkey.
While they were hoping to visit Myanmar at some stage, Nina says they’ve accepted that the border between India and Myanmar, which has been closed for months, is unlikely to reopen any time soon.
“We should have traveled much faster if we wanted to pursue Southeast Asia,” she says. “But we knew at a certain point that Myanmar was a ‘no’.
“And then the shipping cost for the bus would have been so expensive. We simply couldn’t have afforded it.”
They recently had to let Ben and Leni know they won’t be able to make two of the destinations that were top of their bucket lists.
“My daughter wanted to go to South Korea and my son to Japan,” explains Nina. “I’ve promised them that we will do it on a holiday separately, but we can’t manage it kilometer wise and entering country wise. That boat has left the harbor.”
While the list of countries they end up visiting over the next few months is likely to be shorter than they’d initially hoped, Nina feels that slowly down and spending more time in each place has been more rewarding.
Currently in Kochi, they plan to drive towards Chennai, before visiting Cambodia and Laos and then returning to India.
From here, they aim to drive towards Jaipur, Uttar Pradesh, where they’d enter Nepal and return via New Delhi or Agrar to Pakistan.
Although they’re due to return to Dubai this summer, the Schakats are already thinking about their next big trip, and hope to be able to drive around North and South America in the future.
However, Nina, who is currently on a sabbatical from her job as a project manager, stresses that such road trips are expensive, particularly when traveling as a foursome, and this may just have to be a once in a lifetime adventure for her family.
“I think we need to look at our finances and earn some money,” she adds. “We’ll see what we can do and how we can manage.”