There are hundreds of different ways to be a vegan advocate and help animals. But here’s one I bet you haven’t thought of: driving across the mountains, deserts and steppes of Europe and Asia, in a tiny, dilapidated car that is clearly not up to the task.
Sound crazy? Well, that’s exactly what our guest blogger Dan Friedman did! Not only did he find vegan food all along the route, he also raised a truckload of money for animal charities in the process. Here’s Dan to share his story and show you how to be vegan anywhere - even Turkmenistan!
I recently spent about five weeks driving from England to Tajikistan with two friends as part of the Mongol Rally.
We crossed 14 countries and about 10,000 kilometers while driving a small, ridiculous car.
We managed to raise $20k to help animals. The money raised will be donated to The Humane League, Mercy For Animals and Animal Equality – the top-rated animal charities as rated by Animal Charity Evaluators.
We ate vegan food the whole way, and I'm about to tell you how we did it. The advice here can, however, be applied anywhere and is specific not just to someone taking a long road trip across Eastern Europe and Central Asia but to anybody wanting to travel and eat vegan food in more far-flung parts of the world.
I’ve been vegan for 13 years, and in that time I've traveled in about 50 countries, so I consider myself to be a pretty experienced vegan traveler. My two travel companions (who were previously non-veg but veg-friendly) both decided to try being vegan for this journey in solidarity with our mission to raise money for animals and raise awareness of issues related to animal agriculture around the world.
I was happy to see that, as the trip progressed, they both not only felt good eating vegan but were surprised by how easy it was, even in countries like Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
These are countries with very little to offer in the way of vegetarian restaurants, but with plenty of veg food nonetheless. (If they thought it was easy there, wait 'til they try it at home!)
Being vegan is not as hard as everyone thinks, even when traveling, and even in some of the least veg-friendly countries. You just need to do a little homework before you go and keep a few things in mind when you’re there.
Odds are, you have probably taken at least one trip or vacation somewhere, possibly in a foreign country, and have dealt with finding vegan food when on the road and out of your comfort zone. You may have been lucky enough to travel somewhere where you could communicate easily and where it was possible to stay in hotels and eat out every meal at vegetarian or veg-friendly restaurants.
The advice I'll give here isn’t really for trips like that.
Instead, it's for places where HappyCow has nothing, where maybe there is no Internet, occasionally no electricity, where the commonly spoken language is not one you know, and where perhaps vegetarianism is something people don’t really know about and meat is in almost everything.
You’re going to be fine, don’t panic!
What kind of trip are you on?
We traveled for 5 to 6 weeks by car, covering a lot of distance each day and having total control over where we went whenever we felt like it. Because of the length of our trip, we could stay in a town for longer or leave earlier, we could go to the grocery store whenever we wanted to, and if we found out there was an interesting restaurant in a town we were visiting, we could go look for it in our car, stopping to ask locals ten times if they’d heard of it or knew where it was.
Depending on the nature and length of your trip, you may not have as much control as we did on our journey. Since we had a car, we could carry several bags of groceries with us, including veggies to cook for a few days, cooking oil, herbs, spices, picnic ingredients, snacks and more.
How long of a trip are you going to be on? How much control will you have over where you go and where you eat? Is it a package tour, or are you traveling independently? Will you have control over your own meals? Will you have a car or be primarily on foot? Or will you be using public transportation?
All these questions are important ones to ask when planning, and preparation is a huge part of knowing how you will get good food and not struggle once you’re there. All the advice below can apply to each of these situations, but it’s the planning that will make it easy once you’ve arrived, so think ahead!
This is the one that intimidates people the most, but it's the most important. You just have to give it a try and learn the basics of the language spoken in the place you’re visiting. You can and should get a copy of the Vegan Passport too, and/or print out the pages for the countries you are visiting. This will come in handy, but also learn to say the words you'll need to have the basic vegan conversation.
Learn the numbers so that you can ask how much things cost and tell sellers in the bazaar how many kilos of dried apricots you want.
Learn how to ask what something is called in the local language. I started learning Russian months before this trip, studying a little bit each day. My Russian isn’t very good, but I learned enough to have those market and restaurant conversations and to pick out non-veg ingredients on the back of a package of cookies (very slowly) if I need to.
Don’t be intimidated by different alphabets! You don’t need to become fluent; just learn a few dozen words and that’ll make a huge difference. I made a Cyrillic cheat sheet for myself, which I printed out and kept in the car for all of us to use. Don’t drive yourself nuts, but don’t give up before you try either!
A little bit really does go a long way. People will be thrilled and supportive of your efforts, and you’ll feel far less frustrated than if you knew nothing at all. Being hungry is much worse than being embarrassed by your bad Russian accent.
If you have local friends then great, but if not, or even if you do, sign up for Couchsurfing. It’s a totally free homesharing website, and even if you don’t stay with any Couchsurfers you can still search for keywords like “vegetarian” and “vegan” in the profiles of users who live in the places you’re visiting. That way, you can find people to write to and ask about local veg stuff.
There’s usually at least one vegetarian or vegan Couchsurfer somewhere in the country who will have good tips for you. They will know about dishes that are part of the local cuisine or are locally available that you won’t find out about otherwise. They will also be able to hook you into the local veg scene, if one exists.
And even in places where you wouldn’t expect one to exist, it does! In Tashkent, Uzbekistan I met two local vegetarians at a newly opened falafel place run by the former owners of a vegetarian restaurant that was not yet able to hack it in Uzbekistan as pure veg.
In Bukhara, Uzbekistan a Couchsurfer made us vegan Uzbek dumplings (manti) filled with pumpkin, carrot and onion.
She also made us a vegan breakfast with grapes picked from right outside of her door.
In Tbilisi, Georgia a local friend bought us a bean-filled bread we didn’t know existed, called lobiani.
Once, on another trip in Egypt, a Couchsurfer I met told me about koshary, the national dish, which happens to be vegan and which I ate almost every day when I was there some years ago.
Another vegan Couchsurfer there cooked me a huge vegan Egyptian meal. Yet another vegan Couchsurfer connected me with a raw vegan who runs a hotel in Tajikistan and who let us stay there for free to support our cause! You get the point. They’re everywhere, and they want to help! If you're going to visit the US, I want to help! Write and say hello!
When it comes to finding vegan food, the Lonely Planet is not enough, and neither is Wikitravel/Wikivoyage. Definitely try searching online for vegan food, vegan restaurants, and vegan people in the place you’re visiting and see what you find. Couchsurfing, though, is the best tool for connecting with actual vegetarian and vegan locals before you go.
In the places we’re talking about, veg groups are less likely to exist. Having said that, Tashkent has a 250+ person Facebook vegetarian group, so it’s never out of the question. Check Facebook, check Instagram, check Meetup, and ask Couchsurfers about local veg communities and you’ll be surprised at what you can find in the most unlikely places.
Supermarkets and bazaars
Even in the US, people always tell me (and probably you) that being vegan is so difficult. I thought about this while walking through a huge bazaar in Tajikistan, because almost everything within sight was vegan!
Sure, there’s a meat aisle (which I recommend avoiding at all costs in pretty much any bazaar) and a cheese section, but as you wander though these enormous bazaars (which often feels like stepping back in time), the vast majority of the aisles will be overflowing with fresh fruits, dried fruits, veggies, freshly made bread, grains, nuts, tea, herbs, spices and lots more.
The bang for your buck is absurd, and you won’t believe how much you can buy for a few dollars. We would often just get bread or enough fruit or veggies for a day or two, apart from long-lasting veggies like cabbage, potatoes and onions, since in the summer nothing else is going to keep for very long. In addition to traditional bazaars, there are supermarkets or smaller markets everywhere that sell the basic seasonally-available items.
The vegetables we saw most often were cucumbers, tomatoes, green and red peppers, and maybe eggplants. The larger markets and bazaars of course had a larger selection. One day in Bukhara, Uzbekistan I bought two cucumbers, two tomatoes and two onions for 8 US cents.
Kitchens or camp cooking
So if you’re not going to be able to reliably eat at restaurants, you’re going to have to cook. That’s what a lot of this advice will boil down to. You might get lucky and have Couchsurfing hosts cook for you as we did several times, but more often than not you’ll be making your own meals or maybe cooking together with some locals and showing them a few vegan tricks.
Besides being a great source of local information, Couchsurfing also enables you to stay with locals. This is highly recommended and rewarding on many levels, but in particular it will give you easy access to kitchens. We stayed with locals every night of our trip for the first 2-3 weeks.
It became a bit harder to find hosts after we crossed the Caspian sea and entered Turkmenistan.
Sometimes, you can find hostels or guesthouses where kitchens are available. This is not too reliable outside of large cities, though it's still possible. If you’re traveling in these countries and you want to have hot, vegan meals, you’re going to have to cook. There isn’t much way around that.
One day, on the two-day ferry ride across the Caspian Sea, we used our camping stove to make lentils (dal) and bulgur with some veggies. We didn’t have much time to shop before that one, but it was a delicious meal.
Another day, we had a can of beans that we mixed with some dry herbs we’d bought in a Bulgarian market along with some onions, cucumbers and tomatoes to make a sort of cold bean salad. We ate this with some fresh bread we’d bought the day before.
Some days, we’d cook pasta with garlic and oil - an easy meal. That’s nutritional yeast on top that I bought at Veganz in Vienna and used throughout the rest of the trip!
We’d often chop our veggies on small camping plates with Sophie’s Swiss Army Knife. This shows that you needn’t carry around tons of cooking utensils; it’s more than possible to make do without a lot of supplies.
Sometimes your host will have a blender and you can make smoothie bowls for breakfast!
Sorry for the poor lighting, but here are some veggie skewers we made in Bulgaria to cook over an open fire!
Picnics and snacks
During the day while driving, we tended to do snacks and picnics. We’d look for a nice spot with some shade, some greenery, maybe a body of water if possible, and some seating or a spot to put a blanket down if we were lucky.
We had a jar of peanut butter we picked up in Europe, and that made for quick and easy sandwiches. We’d always have some fresh bread from a market each day. It was easy to find anywhere. We’d cut up veggies and make salads, until we reached areas where the local water quality was a little questionable.
We’d eat nut and seed bars that we found in local markets. We’d make use of beans and nuts, and we’d buy hummus until we stopped seeing it. I think the last time we saw it was in Baku, Azerbaijan. Why yes, those are two bottles of wine.
We found a great walnut/tomato spread in a supermarket in Ankara, Turkey that was a pleasant surprise. We were able to read the ingredients enough to determine it was vegan. You can always ask a stranger in the supermarket to help if you’re not sure. We’d always have bags of dried fruits, chips and other snackables, and we’d combine those things to make a meal.
Restaurants (bonus points)
In many cases, the online restaurant listings that we rely on in the US and Europe are not well-maintained for these countries. That's because there just aren’t enough people updating the sites.
This is true not only for HappyCow but also for sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor and others. That doesn’t mean there aren’t restaurants that will have good veg food; it just means you have to find them the old-fashioned way.
In Dushanbe, Tajikistan I found listings on TripAdvisor for Indian and Chinese restaurants. When I went to look for them, they were all gone. I did still manage to find a new Indian place down the street from one of the closed ones though.
I also found, simply by accident, a Chinese place that makes their own fresh tofu a few blocks away from my hostel. I happened to walk past it on the way home one night.
Just because they aren’t online doesn’t mean they don’t exist! In Ashgabat, Turkmenistan - a vegan black hole - we found a brand new Indian restaurant that had just opened a few months earlier. Few samosas will taste as good as those tasted to me that day.
Throughout Turkey there is a lot of good veg food, even in the eastern part of the country. Around Cappadocia, it’s easy to find gözleme everywhere. This is a Turkish flatbread with a variety of filling options, including potato and spinach or both. You just need to ask them not to add butter (which some places do), and you’ve got a delicious and cheap meal almost anywhere in eastern Turkey.
In Cappadocia, vegan food is everywhere…
Also çiğ köfte is a delicious and completely vegan dish that is widely available in Turkey. It consists of a slightly spicy bulgur and veggie mash wrapped in a thin piece of flatbread with a few veggies. It costs about $1 and is super easy to find throughout Turkey (and Europe for that matter.)
There are so many places out there; they just need to be sought out. If you do find one that isn’t listed, update HappyCow. Or, if you find a place closed, update the listings on those sites to help people who will be visiting these spots after you. You probably won't have Internet access, so make a note reminding yourself to do it when you get home.
The world is getting more vegan-friendly every day, and with a little planning you can travel just about anywhere and eat good meals every single day. The time when you would have to worry about what to eat is over. It’s only going to get easier!
Email me any questions you have about upcoming trips and I’d be happy to help and offer my advice. Happy vegan travels!
Dan Friedman has been vegan for 13 years, traveled in 50 countries, and found vegan food in thousands of restaurants. He created the free app More Than Salad (not currently available) to help people find vegan food around the world and now tries to figure out the most effective ways to help animals. You can email him your questions about vegan travel at dan[at]morethansalad[dot]com.