We are a little deprived here in Singapore. I have written previously in material for our driving trips that Singapore is a cage of frustration for the enthusiastic driver and Malaysia is hardly any substitute either, for though the roads are good, they aren’t very pretty and apart from Kuala Lumpur and Gua Musang, there’s not much else to drive to or for.
Clearly more ingredients are needed for such an enterprise. A study of history combined with geography reveals four key characteristics for a country to be an excellent road trip destination. Latitude, feudalism, continuity and theme.
Firstly, it should be north of the Tropic of Cancer, or south of the Tropic of Capricorn. There are a number of reasons for this. The weather is as much a significant factor now as it was a thousand years ago. You may notice that of the top 20 significant cities, with the exception of Singapore, are all around 45? north of the equator or the equivalent down under. The cool dry air at these latitudes promotes a comfortable building and working environment – particularly important in a time when cities were free to sprout without stepping on the toes of international sovereignty laws.
Building on this, the country should have a long history. Long histories that run for perhaps a thousand years or more usually begin from a system of feudalism. Typically, feudalism began in a society when, faced with a declining birth rate and a technology that was still labour intensive, imperial overlords instituted laws that froze peasants into a culture of succession on the same plot of land. That is, peasants at that point lost the freedom to travel and find work as suited their tastes, skills and the laws of demand and supply. They were then required to produce heirs to take over their work in their fixed plot of land as they died. This system started in 10th Century BC China, 9th Century Europe, 12th Century Japan and so on.
The lack of mobility of people meant a less developed long distance trading system, entailing greater self-sufficiency in a small area. The regional lords which were responsible for enforcing these succession laws from their manors thus depended less on their imperial overlords, and feudal obligations to defend these territories meant regional military power, which then meant they were able to develop their manors into a proper court of administration.That meant a town naturally grew around the manor to supply its trading and service needs. Some of them grew into large cities eventually. This is known as the system of Manorialism. When you see a chateau in a small town for instance, this is its likely origin.
The regional parcels were often presents to warriors in exchange for their fighting services or anyone with the means of paying feudal obligations such as taxation and providing a militia in times of war. Often they were from other parts of the country, or indeed from another country altogether. Hence the development of dialects and cultural differences owing to the lord and his retainers speaking a different language and merging with the local language over time.
The small size of these regional parcels by today’s standards owing to transport speeds, results in a closely-knit network of towns. This density must be combined with a history of continuous cultural development right up to modern times in order to provide excellent transport links to a great variety of food and art culture since the car as a means of popular transport has only been around for about 50 years. Unfortunately, the development of some countries was interrupted, most typically by Communism, thus eliminating some countries. Continuity of development also means a suitably wealthy domestic and visiting market for which to provide interesting cars which really is the whole point of a road trip. You can do it in a Bentley Continental GT or a beat up trippy hippy Volkswagen Microbus, so why do it in a boggo Ford Fiesta?
It seems fair to say now that there are themes to a road trip. The earlier criteria best fits the general traveller interested in what could be labelled the finer things in life – viticulture, gastronomy, shopping, spas – much like our Topless Fun in the Tuscan Sun road trip. Were one to take a road trip in the USA for instance, driving distances between cities stretch for several hours, even days, as one goes further inland. Yet what could seem monotonous to some would be zen-like for others. There is a certain indie-movie film noir charm to cruising the desert roads in a Ford Mustang, watching tumbleweed blow by and chancing upon an old western saloon. The natural thing to do then would be to fill up on cheap gas and pump shots from your Winchester at passing coyotes.
Then you have the desert ranger type of road trip. Somewhat off the beaten track, these are probably best experienced in places like Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia, Western China or any one of the ‘Stan countries. You will probably need a handy and trustworthy guide, possibly also a semi-automatic weapon to shoo off opportunists. This is the sort of trip where you need a completely reliable and easily repairable Toyota Land Cruiser, of the spec used by Chad and Libya in 1987 in what is now known as the Toyota War.
And you will be getting a 1987 spec Toyota, because it appears civilisation appears to have escaped most of these areas for the entire duration of the computer age. Only Western China, the Xinjiang area, seems to have experienced some sort of freshening up. Partly because people have heard of Borat, the Dalai Lama, the Silk Road and the Wild Wild West of China, and partly to see stunning blond people speak perfect Mandarin because that’s how the indigenous Uyghur people are. Check back with us for our upcoming group roadtrip to these parts.
Then you have road trips for the road as a destination. If you watch Top Gear or Fifth Gear, you may see people going on about things like dampers and traction. The uninterested will wonder what Australian bread and osteopathy may have to do with a car show. But for the speed enthusiast, driving has as many milimetric facets as the finest game of chess and the stakes are much higher. From where the engine is installed in the car to the size of the brakes, it all makes a vast difference to the driving experience. We have one such road trip up on our website for October and it precisely is about the fastest cars, the most challenging roads and the biggest balls in Europe.
Then there is the Thelma and Louise type of road trip. Although I am hardly suggesting murdering someone as the raison d’etre of all road trips, this mostly entails jumping into a car with friends and heading out at a random direction into the great unknown without much planning. This guarantees an interesting time, although one may also freely substitute the words insane, wonderful and what-the-hell-were-you-thinking, depending on the occasion. And indeed I find that the most unexpectedly wonderful things happen to you when you are completely lost and meet the most amazing people. There is this mountain pass in France, where you must be fully fuelled up before driving up as there is absolutely no indication that the next petrol station requires a full tank’s range. Standing around for half a day on a narrow mountain pass waiting for the AA was definitely a mixture of wonderful and insane.
Satisfy all of these variables, and it is clear why the best drivers in the world come from Europe. A roadtrip is arguably the most value-driven of all types of holidays because the journey is itself an integral part of the holiday and every minute of it you are enjoying yourself. Since journeys typically take up half your holidaying time, for the same money you now have yourself twice the holiday.