Friday, 11 March 2016

Interview: Meet the Authors of Driving the Trans-Siberian

Chris Raven (left) & Simon Raven (right). Authors of 'Driving the Trans-Siberian'.

Esther Harper interviews twin brothers and road trip travel writers, Simon Raven and Chris Raven, following the relaunch of their epic overland adventure 'Driving the Trans-Siberian'.

Twitter: @EstherHarper88

Could you give me a brief biography of your background and careers, and what you both currently do?

Chris: I started out as a fashion photographer in London, before teaming up with Si who worked as a news editor and journalist. We’ve travelled and worked together for more than a decade as freelance travel writers and photographers. We’re the co-authors of four published travel books - Black Sea Circuit, Driving the Trans-Siberian, Living the Linger and Carnival Express.

You have both travelled considerably – could you tell me why you travel? What do you hope to gain from an experience in another country? For you, is travelling preferable to staying in England?

Chris: I think we’ve always been curious to know what lies over the horizon. It’s kept us on the move. England is a beautiful place to live, but I think it’s healthy to visit other places in order to draw comparison and question your reality.

Simon: Home is where your family and friends live. After years of travel, you begin to start seeing your own country as a destination. I appreciate more these days the moderate climate, the fascinating history and a pint of real ale in a 500 year old pub. I also know that there are alternative ways to exist, and struggle to imagine never travelling again. It would feel like being banished to a small remote corner of a very big world.

Why, after travelling to a place, do you write about it? Is it the cathartic value of writing, or do you feel you want to share your experiences with others? In other words, do you do it for yourself or for other people?

Simon: Travel can have such a profound affect on you, that there is undoubtedly a strong desire to share your experiences with anyone who will listen. The revelation that the world is beautiful, accessible and exciting could be compared to a religious epiphany or the realisation that you are in love. You want to shout what you have discovered from the rooftops. Not wishing to upset the neighbours or be labelled a travel bore, it’s far less anti-social to write it down and hope someone might read it and draw inspiration from what you have to say.

You have travelled to various places – why did you choose Russia as one of those places? What was it in particular that attracted you?

Chris: The absolute desire to experience the unknown. We had travelled on a number of adventures before we went to Russia, and had begun to seek out the less explored regions of planet Earth. We wanted to escape the crowds and experience a place less visited and not yet spoilt by mass tourism.

Simon: At the time we were working in a frozen food warehouse to fund our next trip. The cold temperatures of the refrigerated warehouse gave us the idea to research Siberia. Studying a world atlas we stumbled across a route traversing the Trans-Siberian Railway line. It was 2003, and the construction of the new Amur Highway was years from completion. We persuaded ourselves that there must be a way through. People had to get around. We made it to Vladivostok thanks to the help of the local people living in Russia and Siberia after driving 11,000 miles across the world.

What were your aims in going to Russia? Did you simply want to reach Vladivostok, and have fun along the way or were there other aims?

Chris: We had debated the idea of travelling across Russia in the past, but had been nervous of the high crime rate and the countries unsavoury reputation for corruption. As we travelled more over the coming years, we began to realise that people across the world, regardless of the countries internal problems, were in general friendly and helpful. We wanted to confirm this to ourselves by exploring a country by car that, at the time, was out of the comfort zone of most independent travellers.

Did you always plan to write, ‘Driving the Trans-Siberian’, about your trip to Russia?

Simon: When we set off on our journey across Russia we had no plans to publish a book about it. We’d just finished writing our first book, ‘Living the Linger’, about a road trip across the USA, and hadn’t given much thought to what we might do next. Our desire to travel across Russia was driven by the promise of an adventure, and the thrill of crossing a new frontier. We had discovered on our travels that the further we ventured off the beaten track the more interesting experiences we seemed to have. This was certainly the case when driving the Amur Highway to Vladivostok.

By Simon Raven & Chris Raven

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.

Driving the Trans-Siberian
by Simon Raven & Chris Raven *

Ever had the desire to jump in your car and keep driving? 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.


Interview continued...

Did you write while you were on the move in Russia, or in retrospect?

Chris: We wrote the book six months after we returned to England. We had both made notes during the month we spent crossing this enormous country, but we only put pen to paper after experiencing that familiar need to share our experience with our family and friends.

Could you give me some insight into the process of writing your book, particularly considering the dual-author aspect?

Simon: The process of jointly writing our first book ‘Living the Linger’ was incredibly painful. We’d agreed to write about our journey during the closing weeks of our trip, and felt that by combining forces we might be able to add depth to our shared experience. We sat side-by-side for weeks debating our writing styles, and trying to figure out the logistics of telling a story together. We eventually found ourselves writing in present tense, and taking turns narrating each scene as it occurred. Editing each others work, we were forced to be excruciatingly honest. We argued and screamed and shouted and re-wrote and re-wrote until we eventually had the first draft of a book. Writing the sequel was slightly easier. We had the format, our very own secret formula.

Who do you consider your main audience to be - people who are interested in Russia, people who are interested in you, those who like adventure travel etc?

Chris: I think the people who tend to buy our Russia books, are usually interested in Russia as a destination or historically. This isn’t always good, as our work isn’t a travel guide or a journey into the history of this fascinating country. Our goal was always to write about how a journey feels. If I were to describe the person who I thought might most enjoy our work, it would be someone who loves to read about adventure, and who is curious to know about the realities of travel and the people and situations that can occur along the way.

When writing, how much do you try to include yourself in what is happening in the plot, and how much do you try to make it as objective as possible? Do you consider how your presence throughout the book may contribute to/ interrupt the experience of the readers?

Simon: We write about events that are taking place. When you embark on a journey of this nature, in the beginning, you tend to try and control what is happening, but after a few days you begin to realise that you are not in control. Travel is unpredictable. You have highs and you have lows. Terrible things can happen, like being robbed, or the car breaking down in the middle of nowhere and, then, in an instant, something amazing happens. A mechanic invites you to sleep in his workshop, he feeds you borsch (beetroot soup) and fixes your car for free. A policeman fines you for a traffic offense, and then buys you a coffee and a hot dog with the money. Each individual’s journey and experience travelling the same route might be different, but the outcome will nearly always be the same. Good things and bad things can and will happen, but the act of travel can give you great faith in humanity.

Have you ever lied in your writing, to make your story more interesting or to give the reader something they might be expecting?

Simon: By working closely together we’ve been forced to be truthful. All the events in our books have happened, and the people and situations are very real. We have left certain events out that are repetitious, for example an exhaust problem happening twice, a second drunk man approaching begging for money, but in general we try to stay as closely to the chain of events as possible. In order not to send the reader to sleep, at moments where not much happened, we have manipulated the timeline and closed some gaps, leaving out the minor details.

Is there anything from your experience that you didn’t include in your account because it didn’t contribute to the overall image of Russia you wanted to offer?

Chris: We see it as our job to express what it feels like for two fairly ordinary guys to travel in a foreign place. It would seem very wrong, and a waste of great material to leave out the important elements that describe the essence of a people and place.

Do you have any regrets about things you didn’t do during your trip to Russia that make you want to go back and re-visit the country?

Simon: It’s impossible to see and experience everything that a country the size of Russia has to offer during one trip. For us, our journey in 2003 had been about crossing a new frontier and meeting the Russian people who lived along one of the longest railway lines in the world. Research for our fourth book led us to return to Russia again to visit the ancient archaeological sites around the Black Sea. In this fascinating country steeped in history, wilderness, indigenous culture and booming urban growth, it would take a lifetime to see everything.

Through your experience and writing, did you set out to dispel myths about Russia or to strengthen any stereotypes you were aware of?

Simon: We embarked on our journey to Russia with open minds. I remember being surprised that some of the Russian stereotypes that were reflected in fictional movies and books about Russia were sometimes true. The staff working in hotels and behind the counter of fuel stations could be direct in their manner. They were clearly uncomfortable dealing with foreigners and were at times hostile and impatient. The further we travelled away from the larger cities of European Russia, and entered the smaller communities of Russia and Siberia our perception quickly changed. The local people were incredibly friendly. They offered us food and made us feel very welcome indeed. By the time we reached Vladivostok, we had a collection of gifts people had given to us during our journey including, a police man’s hat and tie pin, half a bottle of Vodka, a Russian bible, a packet of London cigarettes, three banana flavoured condoms and a Russian rock music tape. We didn’t set out to dispel myths about Russia, but we have learnt over the years that the majority of people everywhere in the world are honest and kind.

Do you consider yourselves as being in a position of responsibility in portraying Russia to those who have never been?

Chris: I think it’s important to remember that you are an ambassador of your country when travelling abroad, and can play an active role in the exchange of culture. We’ve always done our very best to get to the heart of a place, and desperately want to share what we often know to be true. People everywhere share the same basic human needs, and I don’t think either of us will ever grow tired of witnessing the beauty of peoples instinct to feed the weary traveller or offer a helping hand to those in distress.

What can you glean from your experience about where Russia is going in the future? If you were to go back to Russia in 20 years’ time, what do you think you might be writing?

Simon: In 2003 Russia was in the process of modernisation. Driving the Trans-Siberian across Russia we witnessed the last of the old communist Lada’s, which were replaced the further east we drove by brand new SUV’s and saloon cars that were being imported from Japan. We would stumble across impressive cities deep in Siberia with a population of a million people that were heavily under construction. Russia was clearly on the move, and I often wondered what effect it might have on the remote villages we past through deep in the Siberian taiga that were locked away in time. Weaving through river canyons across the notorious Zilov Gap, and passing below hundreds of concrete pillars belonging to flyovers that were under construction, we witnessed the development of a highway that would link Europe with Asia. It was clear even then that exciting times were ahead. To return to Russia in twenty years time, would be to visit a booming modern country. Tall glass buildings covered in solar panels will undoubtedly reach into the clouds, and super fast energy efficient trains will glide silently into grand old railway stations. Maybe Chris and I will return there, to see this with our own eyes, and to go in search of the people of the world who we meet everywhere, regardless of borders, who make us feel at home where ever we go.


Join the Raven brothers on four epic overland adventures across the USA, Russia, Black Sea and South America!

By Simon Raven & Chris Raven

Driving the Trans-SiberianThe Ultimate Road Trip Across Russia

Black Sea Circuit: An Adventure Through the Caucasus *

Carnival Express: A South America Adventure *

Living the Linger: Freedom on the American Highway *

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