Interview: Trans-Siberian authors drive the Black Sea

Simon Raven (below) & Chris Raven (above).
Photo © Samosir Books

Esther Harper interviews Trans-Siberian authors, The Raven Brothers, following the launch of their latest travel odyssey 'Black Sea Circuit: An Adventure Through the Caucasus'.

Twitter: @EstherHarper88

It’s great to be interviewing you both again – the first time we met was back in June 2013 when we chatted about your book ‘Driving the Trans-Siberian’. You mentioned that you were just about to head off on the Black Sea trip, so it’s a real pleasure to have my hands on a copy!

Why did you choose to do this journey? What was it that appealed to you?

CHRIS: It seemed like the right time to check out more of Russia and explore the six fascinating nations that surround the Black Sea’s colourful shores. For many decades the Caucasus region of southern Russia has been plagued by war. When Si first suggested the idea of driving through this less visited region of Eurasia, bordering Chechnya, I immediately dismissed the idea. But following further investigation, it appeared the northern Caucasus was experiencing a period of relative peace for the first time in many decades. Vladimir Putin was preparing to host the Sochi Winter Olympics, showcasing Russia as a country capable of glamour and sport. The thought of driving around an entire sea seemed all too irresistible…

In our first interview you spoke about how it was never the plan to write a book about your road trip across Russia. Was it always the plan to write a book this time? If so, how do you think this book compares to Driving the Trans-Siberian?

SIMON: When we set off on an adventure we are never sure if it will be a book. We always document our expeditions with photography, but not all journeys have the right ingredients for a story. We did more background reading for Black Sea Circuit than Driving the Trans-Siberian, and only planned the journey in the sense that we knew we could drive clockwise around this mysterious inland sea.

Connected to the last question, if it was planned, how did you record your experiences and memories as you travelled? Notes, diaries, photos?

CHRIS: By the end of the trip the glove box of our Volvo saloon was rammed full of notepads, and whenever we get a chance we type up our notes on a laptop. We also take hundreds of photographs for description.

Who do you think the main audience for Black Sea Circuit is? Or, what type of audience did you have in mind when you were writing?

SIMON: I think the book appeals to a wide audience. Anyone who yearns to know what lies over the horizon would enjoy Black Sea Circuit.

CHRIS: History plays an important role in understanding the Black Sea. If you love archaeology, tales of wandering Knights or facts about Stalin’s early life as a bandit, our book aims to take you there. 

I love the dynamic of having two writers and two points of view throughout, and the two of you together seem to attract some interesting characters and situations! As this was your fourth book together, do you feel that your writing relationship has developed since your first?

SIMON: I think we have definitely grown stronger as a creative partnership. We are more able to appreciate the importance of what we are seeing in contrast to other places we have explored or past experiences we have had living on the road.

CHRIS: When we first started travelling together we would argue and fight. I think over the years we have learnt to appreciate each others strengths and compensate for our weaknesses. The books have given us a common goal, to get to the heart of a place, and we help each other more now to achieve this.

Particularly as this trip involved going back to Russia where you’d been before, do you think that for that portion of the trip you had different expectations to the first time you went?

SIMON: Russia is such an enormous country. I don’t think we really knew what to expect. The northern Caucasus is home to a diverse, multi-ethnic population and has a long history of war, terrorism and violence. Our experience of Russia in the past had been a nation of friendly proud people, but we had little concept of what it would be like in southern Russia’s "Wild West". 

CHRIS: You never truly know what a place is like until you’ve been there...

Did you write while you were on the move in Russia, or in retrospect? How much did you actively research the places you were going to be visiting before you went? Why did you/did you not research them?

CHRIS: We knew the Black Sea was rich in history, so in order to fully understand it we made a concerted effort to research the region before we left England, and also along route. We wanted to stand where great cities had once thrived thousands of years before the birth of Abrahamic religions in the Levant.

SIMON: Our knowledge paid off, because we were able to identify the many people from diverse ethnic origins who call the shores of the Black Sea home. It was crucial to understand the dynamics of this region in order to paint a true picture of these six fascinating countries. 

For you, where do you really ‘get to grips’ with a new country – through the people you meet, the landscapes you see, the museums you visit, or a mixture?

CHRIS: The beauty of a road trip is that you get to experience all of these important aspects of travel side-by-side. You pause to ask a Georgian shepherd herder for directions with a breathtaking backdrop of the Caucasus mountains. A school teacher shares his fears of civil war in East Ukraine while you’re wallowing in the warm green waters of the Sea of Azov. The people, the cuisine, crumbling ruins, dramatic landscapes, all of these elements together enable the traveller to form a mental picture of a destination.

What do you think ‘Black Sea Circuit’ adds to the overall discourse about the region we get through the media?

SIMON: Black Sea Circuit focuses on the very real lives of the people who live around this enchanting sea. Many innocent men, women and children have suffered over the decades, centuries and millenniums as a result of powerful rulers and warring nations. Meet a few of these people on our journey and you will realise that they have the same basic needs and aspirations as anyone else. Their ethnicity gives them colour but in no way defines them.

Where does it sit alongside other travelogues about the countries you visited? What sets it apart (the method of travel, the ‘full circle’ linking countries element?)

CHRIS: Driving around an entire sea is without a doubt an experience that will stay ingrained in my memory forever. When I first looked at a map of the Black Sea there were a lot of question marks. Now I have countless images of faces, mountains, vast fields of sunflowers and crumbling ruins.

SIMON: Each journey takes its own form. Black Sea Circuit is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful we have been on, because for almost the entire trip we were by the coast. The landscape of Crimea and the Caucasus is dramatic and awe-inspiring, the people across the region diverse, generous and kind. We were made to feel at home all the way along the route. I think it would be fair to say that during our journey we both fell in love with this strange inland sea.

Have you read/do you read other creative travel writing (as opposed to travel guides) about the places you are visiting and aim to fill a gap in the market, or do you just go for it and see what comes out of the trip?

SIMON: We never plan to write a book. It would be futile, as you cannot force a journey to be a story. It either is, or it isn’t. Some trips have an energy, you return home with a story to tell. If your pursuit of travel writing is financial gain, in the long term you will fail. In the words of Don Juan, “For me there is only the travelling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worth-while challenge is to traverse its full length. And there I travel looking breathlessly.”

How much was this trip planned (aside from the obvious visas etc) and how much do you just drive and see what happens?

CHRIS: Sadly, we’re the most disorganised explorers on the planet! We get an idea in our heads and we run with it. We never book ahead, or tie ourselves down in any way. Spontaneity is freedom. You never know what lies ahead. The open road is filled with unpredictability.

SIMON: I think quite often, we also don’t know if we’re going to make it. Frequently we’re travelling in old cars and crossing new frontiers. When we travelled across Siberia we genuinely had no idea if the road would be passable. Sometimes you have to give yourself up to the unknown. Who knows what might be lurking around the next corner.

Why do you think driving is a particularly good way to visit new places? What about trains or aeroplanes?

CHRIS: The flexibility of a road trip by car is hugely beneficial. You can travel to remote places where there isn’t public transport. To have your shelter and transport with you at all times is fantastically convenient. You’re also more independent with wheels. It’s more economical as well. We don’t have to worry about hotels. We’re less concerned about arriving at our destination as we’re already on the trip. We can stop when we like. Swim in remote places. Really explore deep.

How much was this book about achieving the feat of driving around the Black Sea, and how much about discovering the countries?

SIMON: We would have probably written about this fascinating region even if we’d failed in our mission to drive full circle around the Black Sea. The six nations that encircle these colourful shores are culturally rich, they’re crying out to be heard!

Did you feel that your experiences of each of the six countries confirmed or dispelled the stereotypes or preconceptions you may have had in mind about them?

SIMON: All too often people's perception of a country is influenced by what they hear in the news. Many of the nations around the Black Sea have experienced war in recent times and naturally people associate these places with violence and danger. The reality is that when you travel to almost any country on the globe people are not so different to one another. The kindness we experienced from strangers that we met across the region was humbling, and a poignant reminder that we must strive to maintain good relations with our neighbours who live within invisible borders. 

Where can readers get hold of a copy of Black Sea Circuit and any of your other books?

What’s next?! Do you have any plans for more travels?

SIMON & CHRIS: Colombia...

Books by The Raven Brothers


Driving the Trans-Siberian 
The Ultimate Road Trip Across Russia

An Adventure Through the Caucasus

A South America Adventure

Freedom on the American Highway

Hike, Drive, Stayin' Alive!

by The Raven Brothers

On Amazon >

Out of shape and unprepared, The Raven Brothers return to the road in a collection of ten quests to travel to their dream destinations against all odds! After two decades pioneering new routes across the globe, you would expect the authors of 'Driving the Trans-Siberian' to be hotshot explorers, with a sixth sense and an ability to survive in almost any situation. Think again! With virtually zero knowledge of the workings of the internal combustion engine and very limited skills of wilderness survival, Simon and Chris struggle into their hiking boots and power across three continents by river, tarmac and trail.

Venture to the top of Norway, cruise the road to Damascus, hike the Camino trail into Spain’s Wild West, row the Ganges, explore Frida Kahlo’s world in Mexico City, hangout with the dead in Sicily’s eerie catacombs, crawl deep inside Bolivia’s notorious silver mine, seek lions in Gujarat, wellness in Berlin and journey into the Naga Hills where tribal kings still rule.

Noted by Lonely Planet for their talent to portray an “accurate view of what to expect”, 'Hike, Drive, Stayin’ Alive!' signals a return to the duo writing “buttock clenching” travel comedy with the first in a series of candid stories of adventure by The Raven Brothers.