Had I missed a big piece of news? Riot police with machine guns, shields, steel baseball bats loomed in every direction. And the electric body scanners and bag searches on every street corner (literally) made me wonder if I should get the hell out when I reached Kashgar, my first stop in China.
And every 50km or so on the roads, I was asked to step out of the car to have my passport examined. This could either be a quick affair of 10 minutes, or longer.
This inconvenience meant that the locals didn’t want the hassle of taking me with them and it would be a true test of patience in the coming weeks.
The entire country had a strong air of surveillance – countless cameras overhead, flashing as you drive past and small, semi-concealed posts with red and blue lights flashing to remind you that they might be watching.
In Xinjiang region where I found myself now, just a few years ago, the oppressed people rose up against the authorities, killing a large number of police and now the government has taken extreme measures to prevent a repeat.
Once I had checked in to the only hostel in the city, I had the challenge of getting past the heavily restricted Chinese internet and gaining access to social media to update my blogs and to let people know I had survived the Pamir Highway.
A VPN (a proxy which changes the location of your phone to somewhere outside China) is required to do this, and people told me I should have already downloaded one.
It took a few days to work out how to obtain a VPN while inside the country (someone bluetoothed the program file to me), but in the meantime another traveller let me use their phone. Being offline for 12 days had worried my mother and she was very glad I had managed to get in contact. Goodness knows how she is still sane.
I met another hitchhiker from the UK who had just come the way I was going and warned me about the road ahead. I did not fully appreciate his warning until it was too late.
Once rested, I went to leave for Turpan, the next city worth stopping in. Normally, I would leave late evening to walk out the city and find a place to camp to begin shortly after waking, but in Kashgar, getting caught at this time in the city by the police would not be good. Still, I left in the evening and found a spot between some trees, not wide enough for my tent, but wide enough for me. My tent looked like it had grown between the trees.
I walked for most of the day before coming to a Police checkpoint and being taken in to the station for questioning.
The police no idea what they were doing, which is why it took four hours. They were kids in costumes, on their phones, laughing with eachother, smoking cigarettes and chatting with me while one of them (they took turns) asked me more serious questions.
The one advantage of this ordeal was one of them handed me her Chinese flag patch to sew on to my backpack.
They would not let me continue though, as it was now evening. Hitchhiking and camping is something they are not familiar with, and they don’t like things like that. They stopped a car to take me to a hotel, which I could not afford. Once they were out of sight, I got out of the car, crawled into a bush and slept for a few hours until sunrise.
The next day I hitched a ride to the first petrol station on the expressway. It felt like being back in Europe, having to hitch between service stations. Traffic was very thin, but all of it was being forced into the services for a police check. This was the same throughout the region.
Surrounding me now was dry, beige desert, with small cratered peaks and dry, dead-looking shrubs. I was glad to be moving between places with water.
Another ride took me 300km, but to a police checkpoint where they took me out and tried to put me in a taxi. For an hour I waited with them, trying to tell them I couldn’t pay. Eventually, they pretended they didn’t know what I was doing, and I found a truck to Aksu, the next city another 300km away.
He regretted picking me up when we came to the next checkpoint and I had to stop while the officials worked out what to do with me. They let me through after copying down my Russian visa details, thinking it was my passport data page. This was a common occurrence. Notable were the times when one official opened the back page of my passport and examined the stamps for Georgia and Azerbaijan for a few minutes, evidently clueless; another one putting my Russian visa into the passport scanner and having no idea why it was not working; and one thinking than GBR, my country code, indicated I was German and wanted to know why I was lying. It was all fun and games.
Now in Aksu, I felt like I was in a real-life Grand Theft Auto game; I had to outrun the police to get to the outside of the city. Hiding between parked cars while they walked past, snaking down streets they weren’t on, running away while they popped into the station, I lasted a long time. But two on a motorbike caught up with me and tried to get me in a hotel again.
The cheapest was $30 and I didn’t want to pay it. They were just as clueless as their colleagues in Kashgar. The government requires a certain amount of police officers, but does not supply the large number with sufficient training. They were asking me what to do.
‘What will we do if you can’t stay in a hotel?’
‘I will take a train through the night,’ I replied, hoping they would leave me alone, maybe after taking me to the station, and I could find a place to camp.
They drove me to the station and walked me to three of their colleagues. They then took me, staying very close by, through the three bag and body scanners to the ticket office.
How am I going to get through this evening without breaking my rules? I thought.
They walked me to the desk and asked the details of my journey. All I could think to do was to type ‘I have no money for the train. Can you help me?’ into their translation app.
They looked at each other with unsure faces- no real change from their previous expressions – and walked into the corner together.
‘We must call the Immigration Department. Please wait here,’ it said on one of their phones
At what point do I tell the truth? I asked myself.
But 5 minutes later, one of them pulled the train fare out of his own wallet, told me to run through the barrier for the train which was leaving in just a few minutes. I had been given a free 960km ride to Turpan, having begun the evening being told I had to pay for an expensive hotel room. Not bad going!
If you have ever been on the train in China, you will know how it feels to be an alien. Whenever I looked up, I was being stared at. Behind me, nothing but ice-cold gazes. Going into and out of the toilet, it felt like I had done something wrong to everyone on the train. I managed to get some sleep, but every time I opened my eyes, the couple opposite me were staring too. The Chinese don’t seem to think staring is rude and through the whole country, I would feel like an animal on display. People took secret photos with me, and some not so secretly – one man even took his phone out and put it in my face.
Just before the train pulled into the station, a police officer on the train took me to one side to work out if he had to deport me.
‘You said you have no money, is this true?’ he queried.
‘Currently, yes. But my mother controls my money, sending me a small amount every week,’ I lied.
‘And how do you travel across China?’
‘By train, sometimes by bus,’ I told him like a sociopath.
He seemed satisfied with those answers and the ones that followed. But it almost fell apart when I asked him if I could get some breakfast on the train.
‘But you have no money?’ he queried.
‘Is it not included in the ticket price?’ I returned like a goal keeper saving a penalty.
Turpan station came into view and I left behind the events of the last 24 hours. The station had had been built 60km away from the city itself, but it was an easy hitch there and my driver took me straight to the hostel.
Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure
On 01/06/17, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world
With a shiny new Chinese visa in my passport, I put the last 10 months of crippling stress behind me and looked to the road ahead.
I thought I would be ecstatic, but I was not even half way around the world yet. Instead, I felt a sense of pride and modesty, realising my small victory but not celebrating prematurely.
Having already reached Almaty before turning West to Georgia back in September 2017, I took a flight back there.
I picked up a new tent, being told by two travellers that my tarp and walking pole construction was very dangerous.
My plan was to travel through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan before heading East into China. Almaty was right next to the Chinese border, but I would never be in this part of the world again and I wanted to see these two countries.
I had gotten comfortable over the winter. I no longer wanted to eat plain bread for breakfast, or go days without a shower and Wi-Fi. I put off leaving the hostel in Almaty for a couple of days. But my apprehension to leave was nowhere near as severe as it was before I had the Chinese visa. Now, the road ahead was open and with that I could feel excited again.
At 3pm, I walked out of Almaty. I bought some cigarettes to offer to drivers, which was an idea that didn’t last very long. One man approached me asking for a cigarette. I could give one to him, but I had forgotten to buy a lighter. Well done, me.
I had stopped in the park because I was nervous again about hitchhiking. But now, with no uncertainty about visas, I didn’t need to be. I walked to the road and put my thumb out. Two cars stopped, both asking for money, then a van pulled in without me asking and offered to take me all the way to the Kyrgyz border. They even bought me dinner!
I crossed the border, walked past the taxi drivers and camped in a farmer’s field. The next morning, while I was in a sleepy daze, I think someone was trying to talk to me from the outside, but I might have dreamed it.
I felt much safer in my new tent from bugs, animals etc. the coming weeks I would be extremely thankful for it.
I caught a ride to the outside of Bishkek and looked at the map for the route to the hostel. 12km. 3 hours’ walking. I’ve had longer walks into cities.
I found a doner kebab stand, one of the many in this country. For just $1.20, I could fill myself with energy for most of the day. I ate one a day for a week, until the last three made me quite ill. The first made me rush to the toilet at 2am, the second made me throw up violently one evening, and the third did the same as the first. After the third, I knew it was time to stop.
Kyrgyzstan was a lot warmer than Georgia, and the sudden change caught me by surprise; sunburn and mild heat exhaustion came about from me power walking into the city. And because I walked so fast, I missed a turning and added 8km on to my walk.
It was great to see Yusuf though, my top-knotted Turkish friend. We hugged eachother like brothers and the amount of beer we drank that night did no favours for me with my reaction to the heat.
Bishkek felt a lot more Asian than Almaty. With stalls instead of skyscrapers, it was a capital village. I took three days there to give my now lobster-red skin a chance to go brown.
The heat was such a sudden change for me, that I struggled to go out in the daytime. I was gifted with a rainy day and I utilised it to walk out of the city.
My socks became sodden and my clothing heavy, over the 4 hour drudge to the outskirts. I put the tent up, changed out of my wet clothes and settled into my sleeping bag. with some Peep Show, which made everything okay again.
The next morning, I would realise one of the flaws of my cheap tent – When it rains, the single-layer construction acts poorly. My damp sleeping bag raised concerns over the coming weeks through the mountain roads.
Whether you want to set a business up in one of the best countries to do so, get visas to countries such as China and Russia, or just settle down, Georgia is the place where many foreigners end up at some time or another.
If, like I did, you need to get the residency permit, this article will take you everything you need to know and guide you past the mistranslations and outdated information on the official website.
Below are the documents you will need to apply, followed by the process.
What you need to apply
1- Statement of employment or bank statement
You can get this either by getting a job or by volunteering at almost any hostel in Tbilisi. The statement is not a contract, but a document stating your full name, date of birth, passport number and length of time working there. You can ask for any length of time from 6 months to 5 years.
either Georgian, or English or Russian with a notarized translation.
On it, you need to have their 9-digit business number included somewhere and it also needs to be stamped and signed by the person writing it.
This is one route, but the other option is to present a Georgian bank statement with 4000GEL or more in it. Some nationalities are not allowed to set a Georgian account up, like UK citizens. For most people, a bank account is quick and easy to create; just go to one, most easy is TBC, with your passport and the 10GEL fee.
2- Copy of passport data page
A simple photocopy is all you will need.
3- A passport photo
You don’t need to spend money on this. Just one taken with your phone or webcam will do. Make sure it is high resolution (minimum 2MP) or they will ask you to retake it.
4- Proof of legal stay
This is just your entry stamp or visa. Photocopy that page of your passport.
Once you have all of these, go to this site and open a new application. Fill the details in and upload the documents and a link will appear to video call an agent. They will make sure everything is to the required level before asking you to pay online.
Depending on how quickly you need to permit, there are three different prices.
Expect it to take as long as is stated.
You will be given a code to check the status online, but if you provide a Georgian telephone number they will call it when it is ready.
You will be asked to come to the Public Service Hall in Tbilisi (The light grey building which looks like a load of orange peel piled up. Address is 2 Zviad Gamsakhurdia Named Right Bank, Tbilisi 0106, Georgia) in person to submit a hard copy of your statement of employment or bank statement.
Once you know it is ready, go back to the Public Service Hall and pick up a printed letter of approval, which is] sufficient for visa applications while waiting up to 10 days for your shiny residence card – a nice souvenir!
Did this guide work for you? Maybe you know someone it would be useful for? Feel free to add your own experience in the comments section!
Georgia was an adventure in itself in so many ways; for 6 months, I would struggle through a series of immense character transformations, get a dream job, almost die, fall in love properly for the first time and explore a country that does not technically exist.
I would meet some of the most influential people of my life, some of whom I do not talk to anymore and whose names I have changed here for reasons that will become apparent.
But before any of this could happen, I had to find a job!
If you would have told the anxious version of me a few years before getting here that I would be walking into a country I knew nothing about (except that I could get a visa for China), knowing no one and with no leads for finding a job, you can guess how I would have reacted. Even the idea of doing this in a different city in the UK would have scared me. But now, it was exciting.
I had asked everyone I met in the approaching weeks to crossing the border for help, but nothing came through. So, after checking into a hostel in the capital city of Tbilisi, I went to a Couchsurfing meet-up and found one Camilla Wilson, also from the UK and editor of one of Georgia’s newspapers for English speakers.
“So, why are you in Georgia?” she asked.
“I need to find a job. Can you help?”
“Can you write?” she replied, after a brief smiling pause.
“Well, I am an aspiring Travel Writer…”
It seemed too good to be true when she asked me to send her a piece of my work, but having a native speaker on her team would save her an awful lot of editing. She later told me that it took 5 minutes to correct my work, whereas a Georgian’s could take 45. It took me five days and a lot of help from my mum and her boyfriend to put something together. I got called for an interview.
The boss met me alone and began by asking what my professional background was. I realized how far out of my depth I was here. I was not a writer and I didn’t know how to be. I turned the questions onto him, asking what he would expect of me, and tore apart some of the paper’s articles. He gave me the job.
We agreed on 1-2 articles per day, which I thought would be impossible, but it turns out that this is a very small contribution which, towards the end of my time in Georgia, I managed to bang out in about 15-30 minutes. The great thing was I could work from anywhere, as long as I had an internet connection.
I literally googled ‘how to be a journalist’ and followed the advice I found. It turned out that a lot of what journalists do is re-write what is already online from other sites. I could do that!
I was sent to some interviews, which I hated, and eventually refused to go to. I never said ‘I don’t want to go’, I just made up excuses or pretended to be offline. Why spend 3 hours decoding 1 hour of speech when I can spend 30 minutes mindlessly rewriting something else?
Through working at the paper, I met Máté (ma-tey). A few years younger than me, he seemed fairly ordinary on first sight; average height, tamed brown hair, grey-blue eyes and a slightly hipster dress sense. He became my best friend in Georgia after we realised we shared the same lazy approach to journalism. Despite this, he is a very talented writer and I expect he will do very well in the future.
In these early days, I also met Charlie who was also from the UK but with roots from the Caribbean. He was full of energy and could make a depressive person laugh back into normal health. He puts his wise words into books and, as a published author, he gave me some valuable advice for achieving my own dream.
Towards the end of my time there, he took me with him to explore some of the final parts of the country, such as Mtskheta, the country’s old capital, and the Katskhi Pillar, a monastery on top of a pillar of limestone with one lone monk living inside it. He was just starting a tour company – Hikechum – which I highly recommend you use if you want to see the ‘real’ Georgia. He works for the experience, not the payment.
Writing had now become a profession for me, and it felt amazing. There was only one problem – I was earning equivalent to 100EUR per month (a standard, minimum wage in Georgia). But it only just covered my rent.
I asked around some more and, as a native English speaker (I swear, being one is the same as having a Master’s degree in some countries) and with my experience as Head Walks Officer for the Expedition Society, I found a job as a guide for a free walking tour company.
The payment was purely through tips, but I was now managing to earn enough to live on and to save a bit.
After only two weeks there, I had to walk around as if I knew the place. I told people I had been living in Georgia for over a year and to divert questions I knew nothing about, I either made something up or turned the question onto something else. Luckily, I was given a script of about 20 pages, all full of interesting information which was easy to learn.
Unfortunately, the boss of the company really did not know how to treat her team. Before too long, I would get told off after most tours for making small mistakes in the script, or forgetting to add the location to photos on social media. She did not just point my shortcomings out, she really laid into me. She asked “how could you be so stupid as to forget such a basic thing?” and “you need to watch other guides to see how it is done properly.” I do not care how good a job is, or how easy the work is, nobody speaks to me like that anymore.
I went through most of the time in Georgia without enough money coming in. The 100EUR per month meant I made a smaller dent in my shriveling expedition budget. I did myself no favours; I ate out a lot and consumed countless liters of Georgian wine.
Georgia is the oldest known maker of wine (I even wrote the paper article when 8000 year-old evidence was found just 30km south of me!) and almost every family has their own kit. It is what they pride themselves on and I never had a bad glass of it. It was costing as little as 1EUR per liter and the best part was it didn’t give me a hangover.
I’d been living in Tbilisi for almost two months, working two jobs for most of it and never leaving the area around my hostel. Going from hitchhiking to new places every day to this had hit me hard, and I needed a taste of adventure.
I was so deprived of the drug-like effects it provides that I decided to go extreme and leave with nothing but some food, water and a small survival kit.
Armenia, Georgia’s neighbour to the South, was just a 3-hour drive away, according to Google Maps. I had never been, and what better way to spend a few days off than to go to a new country?
So, with a small backpack and my chosen items, I went to the city limits in the south of Tbilisi, stuck out my thumb and within 5 minutes I was on the way.
There were two parents in the front and a 16-year-old daughter in the back who spoke English. They took me about halfway, from where I caught a truck that took me to the border. He was a very religious man, as many are in this country, and he kissed his bible and crossed himself every time we passed a church.
Hitchhiking in Georgia was very easy and I never waited for more that 20 minutes for a ride.
A man picked me up from the other side and took me to eat at his house with his family. I started to relax, thinking I had a place to sleep for the night. But at midnight, he drove me to the road and left me to fend for myself.
I walked down the road, which was too narrow to hitchhike on, and realized I had to camp. Now in late November, I could feel the chill on my cheeks. I passed a farm and took as much straw as I could stuff into my clothing – I’d seen Bear Grylls do it once.
Still enthusiastic, I walked off into the woods, stuffed myself like a scarecrow and fell asleep curled up like a ball, sitting against a tree.
At 2am, I woke up with my teeth chattering. I slipped back into a light sleep and woke shortly after having gone beyond shivering. I needed to make a fire fast.
With the sky as black as the ink of an octopus and the moonlight persevering through the wintery tree branches, I scouted for wood. I scraped some twigs together and got out my survival kit. Luckily, I found some larger sticks and spent 30 minutes making a number of piles to put on when the blaze began to die down.
Every 30-45 minutes, I would wake because this happened, but as soon as I put the new sticks on, I slipped back to sleep.
The next day was spent in a dreamlike ] state. I had no time to go any further, so I wandered around the small villages and admired the post-Soviet remains, such as a rusty stationary cable car and concrete buildings which were beyond repair.
Getting back to Georgia was not a problem and I found someone to take me all the way from where I stood. It was another short wait on the other side of the border, finding someone to take me all the way back to the city.
As I reentered the Tbilisi, greeted by the sign indicating as much, I felt a sense of coming home – something I never thought I would feel in a foreign land.
December crept in and I was getting bored of the routine of working and living in one place again. That was until a lovely Columbian girl checked in to the hostel. Jessica was about my age with dirty-blonde hair, sharp, blue eyes and a lovely soft voice. She was also a nymphomaniac.
Before Jessica came along, I had been living my time in Georgia in a great hostel with a lovely owner, a comfy, clean bed and room and a low per-night price of $3. I had planned to stay there for the whole winter, but that changed on her first night when we started to drink together.
Perhaps it was something in her culture, but doing it in a 6-bed dormitory room seemed no different from in a private room; in fact, it felt better to her. But this is not why we got kicked out; we actually broke one of the beds.
With the disapproving, disappointed look from the owner that I used to see in my parents’ eyes, I said goodbye and took to the road with my new friend.
We hitchhiked around Georgia together for three weeks. We even spent Christmas day together, making an excellent Christmas dinner with one frying pan. Being away for so long from home means sacrifices, like missing Christmas with the family, but the one with Jessica was a lovely substitution.
Most nights, we would drink liters of cheap but good quality Georgian wine, blacking out sometimes and getting kicked out of other hostels because of what we apparently got up to. On three occasions, we were kicked out because she got so drunk that she emptied her bladder over the mattress.
We even decided to get married – not out of love, but because we both wanted each-others citizenships. She had an American passport, and I a British one and an Irish one. Unfortunately, it would have been far too difficult and costly. It was a shame it didn’t work out.
Meeting Jessica was a key moment in my development into the person I am now. Part of the anxiety I used to suffer from included being very afraid of approaching women. Even if I knew they were attracted to me, I could not do it.
She left on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve and over the coming months, with my new-found confidence, I had a lot more success with women, dating someone new every few days. I began to dress in black, I adopted an over-confident look and carried myself like I was better than everyone else.
During this time, I visited a mysterious place called ‘Abkhazia’ with Máté and his female friend from Lithuania, Jelena.
On a map of Georgia, Abkhazia is the top-left slither about 200km in length. It claims to be an independent country, but this is recognised by only 4 UN member states. It is almost entirely dependent on Russia, and Russia believes (secretly) that it is part of their territory; it certainly felt that way.
The real lure for me, especially at this unstable time in my life, was the way it was described by my country’s travel advisory service. “[We] advise against all travel to the breakaway region of Abkhazia.” This level of warning is given to places such as Syria and parts of Afghanistan.
The process of getting in to Abkhazia was fairly straight-forward, albeit quite strange. And it seemed to be, in my eyes, a bit pretentious. First of all, we had to send a request, no less than 5 days before proposed entry, to the Abkhaz Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sokhumi (or ‘Sokhum’, as they call it there). Once the letter had been issued, we brought it, along with our passports, to the occupation line.
We were brought into a small interview room and asked a series of seemingly irrelevant questions; it was as if they were just doing it for show. We thought the same for the ‘bag search’ that happened afterwards, because all that we were asked to do was open our backpacks and show what was on the top. I felt like how I imagine my parents did when I was a child playing games in imaginary worlds. They used to go along with such fantasies to keep me happy, they were good like that. And we were doing very much the same today for these men today, who were pretending that we were entering a “country.”
Very few times in life do places turn out to be how you imagined, but the border crossing to war-ruined Abkhazia was an eerie exception. It was a truly depressing scene; the sodden sky was like a grey sponge looming over us with irregular, light downpours. Before it could meet the horizon, it blended into a surrounding ring of heavy ominous clouds which snaked around the mountains, suffocating the beauty of the landscape.
As we crossed the bridge from the Georgian checkpoint to the Abkhaz, a number of roadblocks had been placed to slow vehicles down, and behind them were road spikes ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. The air felt heavy with the evident tension from the unsettled disagreement.
If you have ever owned an orchid flower then you will know how difficult it is to care for, and how, when not properly treated, it slowly recedes into itself, gradually dropping leaves and losing roots. Sokhumi (our first stop and base) was like the last sign of life from the orchid which is Abkhazia, and on the drive in we saw the result of mal-treatment. The 60-minute journey was even more depressing than the border crossing; littered with derelict concrete constructions, the consequence of an uncomfortably recent war; it was like being taken through the set of a post-apocalyptic film.
Sokhumi was, and still is, a holiday destination for Russian tourists. It was comparable to other seaside spots in the region; but, if you walk for 5 minutes in any direction (apart from into the sea), even this part of the territory is haunted by the concrete skeletons of times when the population was much bigger.
What we saw on the surface of this first day was a translucent sheet over what really goes on, and with the rest of our first evening we made plans for our remaining days. We would find people to interview, ideally locals, and explore the area in greater depth.
We really got the feeling we were being watched during our time there; people seemed to be ever so slightly afraid, and it was as if they had been told not to talk to tourists about anything to do with the Georgian conflict. The convenient gap in memory was apparent in everyone we talked to.
One man, a Government Official, took a liking to our Lithuanian friend. He took us out a few times and kept trying to get me and Mate friend away so he could have her to himself. We felt like bodyguards. She tried to squeeze something out of him (not in that way), but even her powers of female persuasion couldn’t break the secrecy.
But I think that it was he who was trying to get information out of us. We must’ve aroused suspicion when we spoke English in front of him, naively assuming he couldn’t understand us. We used such words as ‘journalist’ and ‘article,’ with ‘Abkhazia’ and ‘Georgia’ in the same sentences. The next day he took us to visit a church, where we met a ‘Priest’. He spoke English surprisingly well, and with his friendly charm, lured us into a sense of relaxation. Out of nowhere, he looked invasively into my eyes, freezing me in place as if he were physically holding me there, and asked “are you a journalist?”
I have only ever experienced this look in someone’s eyes once before in my life, when I crossed the border into Russia. I was overwhelming and the shock of being asked such a question, which I could tell he had been previously informed about, caught me off-guard, and I think I gave away that he was right. I don’t know if we succeeded in convincing him otherwise, or whether he just didn’t see us as a threat, but we managed to avoid further questioning during our time in Abkhazia.
It’s no wonder we attracted attention, because we weren’t behaving like ordinary tourists. Stepping inside the burnt-out government building on ‘Freedom Square’, we felt like we were entering the set of a zombie film; we half-anxiously entered each room, worrying about what could jump out from the corner. Ivy and other plant life had claimed the structure, just as the Abkhaz and Russian forces had done to the region.
Underground, we found what we believed to be a Soviet interrogation room. It was ever-so-slightly too small and contained a basic table and a chair with two back legs missing. If you believe in ghosts, then there were definitely some in there with us; the temperature dropped, and the air got heavy as we explored the lower floors. The eerie silence seemed to allow cries of the past to be heard.
One final thing we had to do before leaving was get the ‘visa’. To do this, we had to go to the ‘Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ in Sokhumi with our invitation letter, wait 15 minutes while they pretended to do something in the office, and pay the equivalent to $5 each. We were handed a piece of paper which was so cheaply-produced that some of the words were slightly slanted. It looked like someone had gone to the effort of forging an official document but had done so poorly. We laughed about it and slipped them into our passports to keep as a souvenir, but they wouldn’t let us cross the border back with them, making it feel like more of a ticket to an amusement park than permission to visit a country.
Máté and I became good friends after this adventure and on returning from Abkhazia, he let me live in his flat rent-free for a couple of weeks. And whenever he was out in my remaining months, he would let me occupy it, saving me a lot of money on hostels. I am very grateful for that.
During the final months, in recognising how I used to be and how confident I had become now, I went a bit out of control I was starting to become a bad person. But being in Georgia provided me with an opportunity most people never get – to fully explore myself. It sounds bad, but I knew that once I left, I never had to see these people again. My behaviour bordered on that of a sociopath and I was lucky to have been saved.
Camilla, my boss at the paper, invited me out to drink one night. Her being from the UK and my deprivation of British company meant that I mistook things for having feelings for her. This led to me moving in with her, rent-free and with her paying for a lot of the food and wine.
A big part of why I moved in with her, apart from saving a lot of money, is because it became apparent that she was a truly evil person. Manipulative and narcissistic, I wanted to be around her because at this point, I thought I was the same. But after just two weeks together, I realised I was just lost.
Through her, I met Nino, who would have the biggest influence on me out of everyone in this country. I had never really been in love before, but with her I felt it for the first time. Because of her, I stopped moving between women every week and settled into a re-adjusted, re-built and stable version of myself.
The connection we formed was one that neither of us thought we would ever experience, so we agreed to continue our relationship after I left. I promised her that I would be back in no more than a year, which we both thought feasible. At the time of writing, it is still going strong!
She had had a very tough life, even more than mine, and because of it we had very similar personalities – cold on the outside and strong and able to deal with anything.
It was through her that I saw Georgia for what it really was. It was not the happy, friendly, sunny place that travellers believed it to be. Behind closed doors, it was disgusting. Women in this country are not treated as people, but as objects for men to do as they wish; it is the most Christian country in the world.
For 8 dark years, she endured a marriage she had been forced in to, while making a plan to escape. Towards the end, when her husband learned of this, he gave her a concussion. She ran out to seek help from the neighbours, but they simply told her to go back and obey her husband.
I did not tell my boss about Nino, she found out herself; Nino actually worked for her too, hence why I didn’t want to say anything. Before this, I had agreed with her to continue to contribute to the paper after I had left on a per-article basis. That wasn’t going to happen any more. And bringing Nino into her bed when she was away in Baku did not help things.
I checked into one last hostel, where I would stay for the remaining time in Georgia. There I met Rica, the cynical, sarcastic German girl with whom I could say anything and be completely honest, and Mike, the Columbian man motorbiking around the world. They stayed there for most of my final weeks and with them, I processed the huge character exploration I had just experienced. I realised that I can be a bad person, I think we all can, but I prefer to be a good one; I enjoy making people smile, because it makes me do the same.
I had gotten comfortable in Georgia. Soon I’d be back to eating cheap food, being tired all the time, waiting on roadsides and getting into danger. It was now Early March and winter was starting to pass.
Ahead of me was an ferocious challenge, and I am not talking about the route home. The Chinese visa process was something I didn’t want to get started with.
First, I would need the Georgian residence permit, because the consulate required me to apply from a country of residence. It was supposed to be the easy part, but it ended up being more challenging than the visa.
I had been hopelessly pursuing this small piece of paper for over 9 months now; I could have had a child in that time. So, when I submitted the required documents and they told me it was not enough, I put things off for another two weeks because I was so scared of getting bad news, like ignoring a suspicious lump on your body. The entire trip weighed on me getting this visa and once again, I felt things come into question.
Those two weeks were spent in a hostel doing nothing but updating my blog and getting to know Rica and Mike. I finally got myself together and sent the documents properly. 30 days was the provisional waiting time, and 30 days it took.
With the letter of approval finally in my hands, I rushed to the Chinese consulate on a Monday morning to find that it would be closed for the next four days.
It was now April and I had wanted to leave a month ago. I became even more restless, but once the application form was submitted on Friday, there were no more problems and I picked my passport up with permission to enter the country twice for 30 days. An enormous smile grew in my cheeks as I put the biggest challenge of this expedition in the past.
From my train-track-side camping spot, I rose with the sun and jumped over the fence back to the road into the city.
I had slept there because I couldn’t find an open Wi-Fi signal to find a hostel, as I do whenever I enter a new city. But I had finally found one outside a hotel, so I sat there looking homeless (again) and arranged to meet my next host, Igor, in the evening.
Tashkent seemed like a clean, recently modernized city. On the center anyway. It was terribly hot, and so dry that my sweat dried instantly. I was very quickly out of water and had no local currency.
Economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that banks and ATMs had no money. It is not possible to leave the country with more money than you entered it with. The only way to get local currency was to exchange US Dollars. Luckily, I had $100 with me, as I do everywhere I go. 800,000 somoni were handed to me, I was almost a millionaire.
I met Igor outside his local supermarket. He was Russian-born, but living here. He had the typical cold demeaner, but of course the warm heart too. He let me stay in his room while he slept on the sofa for two nights.
He showed me two of his favorite cafes, which produced excellent variations on plov – the rice, beef and carrot national food. The bill came to $1.50 for the both of us, so I paid for everything, feeling even more like a rich man; I was one in Uzbekistan.
The hot weather had got to me and I was suffering from mild heat exhaustion, so I decided to make the 14km walk out of the city after dark.
I found out four nights too late that I was supposed to register with a hotel every third night of my stay. I came to the police checkpoint at the outskirts of the city and didn’t want to risk going any further. Igor told me I could have problems when I leave the border. Best case, I get a week in prison.
I found some half-built houses, which I thought looked fine, but as I walked in with my headtorch, a man called out to me in a groggy voice. I turned around almost out of reflex and walked away. His voice grew angrier and my legs moved faster.
Across the road, I found a field with trash scattered and some concrete pillars that had been dumped there. I didn’t bother getting any camping equipment out, I just put all of my warm layers on and curled into a ball. I slept surprisingly well, and the starry night was one of the clearest I’d ever seen.
The next day I woke naturally with the sunrise and as I emerged from the scattered blocks, I saw a man doing some kind of work in the field. I was lucky I didn’t get everything out of my backpack! I shoved my layers in as tidily as I could and waited until his back was turned for me to escape. I made it about 100 meters before he began calling to me, but I ignored him and sped up. He could well have just been curious, maybe he wanted to invite me for tea, but I didn’t want to take the risk because I probably wasn’t allowed in this space.
The first ride I caught on the way to Samarkand was from a man delivering some wooden panels to a house. While he was unloading I met the family’s children.
‘Have you ever seen an English person?’ asked the driver, interrogating the children who were staring at me as if I had two heads.
One of them shook his head while the other remained in a confused trance. After a while they regained their normal expressions again and could look at something other than me. I taught them the ‘fist bump’ and ‘high-five’ and gave them some London Underground tickets (I had no sweets or anything better to give them).
The truck driver took me most of the way, but there was still another 80km to go. I stood for about 20 minutes with my thumb out when the two men pulled in and said they could take me all the way there.
They invited me to stay the night at their house in the small village just before it. They took me for a meal and made sure I was more than full before we left the restaurant.
Back at their house I found myself running around the place with the 6-year-old son, both of us holding bits of wood we used as guns. It was great to be a kid again.
Just before bed, my hosts asked if I could help them to get a visa to visit the UK. I thought they wanted help with the form or a letter of invitation, but they asked me to send them the physical visa in the post. I don’t have that power!
The next morning, I was given some bread and jam for breakfast, which would be condoments for a grueling show. I’d never seen a chicken being slaughtered before, but I couldn’t look away. It is true that the head and body remain able to move independent of each other after separation.
They paid for a taxi to the city, refusing to let me hitchhike.
My first task on arrival was to find a place to stay. As I walked through the late-summer heat with everything stuck my back and sweat waterfalling from my forehead, I caught my first sight of the ancient buildings. I have never quite understood the phrase ‘take my breath away’, but seeing them today, I experienced this for the first time.
Following the walk out of Almaty, I’d spent the night outside a shopping mall among some tall, dry and dusty weeds. My face scarf had kept me from sneezing through the night. I was on an 800km leg to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
I had a dream that I’d given in and gone back to the UK to get visas. I felt happy because the biggest problem so far had been resolved, but I also felt bad because I’d divided the trip. I realized that this is why I don’t want to go home mid-way. I am tired, lonely and exhausted, and I want to arrive home having endured it. A marathon runner does not stop half-way at a restaurant.
I had only gotten more tired over the months since leaving England, and I took a while to even put my thumb out. I knew that if someone stopped, I would have to awkwardly explain that I couldn’t pay. They would then either drive away, or worse, stop, which would mean I have to spend an unknown amount of time speaking a language I don’t know, or better, sit in silence. I walked for a couple of hours before telling myself that if I couldn’t motivate myself to put out my thumb, then my expedition would take a very long time.
This apprehension would only worsen over the coming weeks to Georgia. My worrying heart rate had not improved since leaving Almaty and uncertainty still loomed. But this is what I asked for. This is what an adventure is. I told myself to stop being a little bitch and to get on with it.
I finally caught a lift and made it 200km. I had left it late, so I found some half-built houses to rest in. I slept for 14 hours in the chalky overgrown concrete lost cause.
I was now on a long road of small villages and the cars were only going locally. It took 45 minutes, once I managed to get my thumb up, to get a lift. The first two men wanted money to take me, but the third took me for free.
He left me on the main three-lane highway to Tashkent, which had been built with great ambitions in mind, but I only saw one vehicle every few minutes. I was now 500km from Uzbekistan’s capital and I stopped for some lunch at the truck stop. The air was hot, sticky and sandy. The sun invaded my Irish-British blue eyes and forced me to keep my squinted gaze down to the ground.
A truck driver was sitting across from me and was going to Tashkent. He spoke no English and I thought I had arranged a lift with him. I finished my food quickly, went to the toilet, but he had gone by the time I got back. Easy come, easy go, as they say.
One of the few cars to pass on this road stopped pretty quickly. I told the driver I couldn’t pay, and he initially drove off, but stopped before getting out of first gear. He and his family, who occupied the other three seats wanted to know all about my journey and what I thought of their country. I told them only good things.
I was now in Taraz, one of the many ancient cities on the Silk Road which I would be travelling through for the coming weeks to Georgia. People behaved differently here, they were friendlier. I began my walk out of the city when a man walked up to me inviting me into his home for the evening. There was nothing sinister in his demeanor, and his huge smile with one missing front tooth warmed my heart.
Men in this part of the world are so kind, but to their woman they are the opposite. He treated his wife as a slave waitress, raising his teacup in expectation, ordering her to cook, clean and not speak with me.
He took me and his youngest child of three to a swimming pool. I didn’t know what to do, I don’t enjoy swimming, but I pretended to anyway.
That evening, his wife made a kind of beef pasta dish, ‘Beshbarmak’, one of their national foods. It tasted a lot like lasagna.
The next day, he paid for a taxi to take me another 200km to Shymkent. He told me that a friend of his was taking me, otherwise I wouldn’t have let him pay. But I was already in the 8-seater and he handed the money over at a distance.
It was getting a lot warmer now, and Shymkent took a while to walk through. I was approached by countless men and children who either shook my hand and walked off or wanted to know what a strange white man with a backpack was doing in their city. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I’ve learned just to go along with things like this.
The heat was getting a bit much and I took short breaks every few minutes between shaded spots. The anxiety returned over putting my thumb out, but a man pulled in without me asking, having seen the backpack. He took me all the way to the border.
This crossing between countries was far simpler than the previous two; the only issues were that my passport photo of a well-kept version of myself no longer looked like me, and the migration card was not written in English. The border guards searched my backpack more out of curiosity than anything else, and I was free to pass. ‘Welcome to Uzbekistan’, the last guard said as his AK-47 swung round and he directed me to the green hills ahead.
I caught a ride to Tashkent where I had hoped to find an open Wi-Fi signal and book a cheap hostel, but there was nothing. Instead, I jumped over the fence to the train track and laid my bivvy bag out 3 meters away from it. A few times through the night, someone would walk nearby, or the train would shake the ground underneath me. I didn’t care anymore.
When your girlfriend works long hours and you rarely find strong, reliable Wi-Fi, then having those important conversations becomes a real challenge. But after a week, we finally found a time.
With the distance and uncertainty on how long this trip would take, we decided to go on a break. I knew we would agree on this, and I think I had already grieved for it, because all I felt now was freedom, excited for what lay ahead.
The only worry now was money, but Merce, the lovely lady who lent me $3000 to book the refundable flights to try for the Chinese visa, agreed to let me hold onto it until I got back to the UK and had a job. I could do anything I wanted to now. I got my world map out and lost the day pouring over it. I could go for another year, or another 5, it was up to me!
The future seemed bright, but my mind quickly fell back to the present visa problem – I needed to get through either Russia or China first. I wanted to do it as soon as I could, before winter came in, lest I get homesick and go home early as I did on my first solo trip.
It seemed to feel stress more than it usually would have because this journey was the only thing I was focusing on.
I began reading Walking the Amazon by Ed Stafford, and I found many similarities in his journey and mine. He had experienced the same mental challenges as I was now, and he talked about how he overcame them.
I began to realize that I was perhaps putting too much pressure on myself to get to my destination as quickly as possible. Now I didn’t have to. This was causing me a lot of stress, and I was not enjoying the trip.
His partner told him in a similar situation “I think that you are being too impatient. I think that this will take time and that you need to relax, and when a path turns into brambles and thorns for 2 hours you need to take a deep breath, smile and accept it as part of the adventure.”
The biggest one for me, which I would need a few weeks to truly understand, was reading that I have control over how I react to challenges.
The city of Astana itself was an interesting spectacle – built in the late 90s by the President to better link the country with Russia and Europe – was all show but no soul. The old capital, Almaty, was my next destination.
Ready for a 20km walk out of Astana, someone called me over and bought me coffee. I assumed the man was the owner, but no, he was a normal man who just wanted to buy me a coffee. We talked for a bit and he went on to say he could take me outside the city. While I was waiting, the barista bought me food over.
This journey, like coping with anxiety, is about recognizing small victories. He told me that if I needed help to find a job or a place to stay, then he could help me. I did need help, I really did. If he could help me to get residency, I could stay in Kazakhstan over winter and get the visa to Russia. It didn’t work out, unfortunately because the residence permit application was far too complicated.
He took me 20km out of the city where I set my tarp up for the night.
I woke from my tight spot in the trees, unwrapped the corners of my tent and packed it away. I was in Petropavlovsk – the central and northernmost city in Kazakhstan. But before I could have a look, I had been told I needed to “register my arrival.” Did this mean check in with the police? Police in Kazakhstan are infamous for making trouble for foreigners to get bribes. Or perhaps it meant I had to stay in a hotel? I secretly wanted to – warm shower, clean bed and security for one night.
I wandered the streets towards the center, phone in-hand, trying to find an open Wi-Fi signal. But I wasn’t in Europe anymore and it took a few hours and a lot of aching steps do this.
Finally, outside a shopping mall, from a few reliable web sources I found that it had already been done at the border. The need to register was a few years old.
Petropavlovsk was, in one sentence, an amalgamation between the last influence of Russia and the first of Kazakhstan; slum-like houses began to appear and people were squatting instead of sitting. I only noticed this in hindsight, because the cultural change had happened so gradually as a result of travelling by land from the UK instead of flying.
Kazakhstan speaks Russian and not English too, but by now I had picked up enough to get by. As a consequence, I would improve it further.
I still felt the usual anxiety that I do when I enter a new country and I needed a few days to adjust. I walked out the other side of the city towards Astana and stayed in the woods for two nights. I built a huge fire and took comfort in the familiarity of camping. I brewed tea, read a book and cooked dinner.
The next day, all I did was venture back into the city, leaving my tent, sleeping bag, etc. behind, to resupply food and water. I maintained the cold Russian neutrality and did not speak with anyone, but here, I noticed, people are a lot more open; they speak to strangers. So, I began to do the same.
Finding Wi-Fi caused a flood of notifications to overwhelm my phone. One was from September, saying she wanted to go on a break. I tried calling via WhatsApp, but the Wi-Fi kept cutting out. Then I tried finding other open spots, but it was the same story. That time-sensitive conversation would have to wait.
I managed to talk to my best friend, Jack, about it and he managed to comfort me a bit. He had just gotten a normal-person job.
I wandered back to the woods knowing what September and I would say, but trying to store the emotions for a few days’ time. The fire was even bigger than the night before, and its mesmerizingly infinite number of appearances made me forget my problems, it warmed me until I slipped into the safety of my tent and crossed the border into sleep.
It was 28 Celsius when I got going at 10am; I was greasy and smelly and didn’t want to get any worse. I found a lake next to the road which I walked into, rinsed my clothes in and walked out of, soaking wet. I walked for another 10 minutes, by which point I had dried completely and put out my thumb feeling nice and cool.
The first lift was from a friendly Kazakh man whose car I think was so old and beaten up, that it was restricted to first gear.
Second, I got taken to a gas station where I saw my first number plate of Tajikistan. I bought bottled water for the first time since day one, and some pastry to keep me going until Astana, the capital.
The next lift took me to the halfway point, but by now it was after dark. I didn’t want to hitchhike at night, after what happened in Russia, so I set up camp behind a gas station. As I did so, I knelt on a piece of broken glass which went quite deeply into my knee. I cleaned it and it seemed to clot quickly, but the next morning I woke up with a small patch of blood on my cargo pants. Luckily, some water cleared it mostly.
I only had 5 hours’ sleep, because I needed to be packed away and walking before anyone saw me at the gas station. The result of this was quite pleasant – walking next to the sun as it climbed the horizon to my left.
I came up to a police checkpoint and they called me over. ‘Here we go’, I thought. He asked to see my passport, and after asking where my visa for Kazakhstan was and finding the stamp, he showed me YouTube videos for about 20 minutes. I was free to go after that.
A dog (below) then came up to me. I could see that he didn’t receive much attention. I gave him some water out of the bottom of a nearby can, which was a mistake because he followed then wouldn’t leave.
But I began to consider it, having a dog with me. Romantic images began to enter my mind – man and dog, travelling together around the world. Reality quickly set in when he began barking and chasing ever single car that passed. It wasn’t meant to be I suppose.
A car pulled in for me and all I could do was get in and leave him, and his confused eyes. This car took me all the way to Astana.
Despite the roads being in a dangerously poor condition, they do present some exceptional views. Travelling south through the steppe I could see nothing but desert. Looking ahead, the road trailed off into infinity. Quite often, the only car I could see was the one I was in.
I checked into a $5 hostel in Astana feeling full of energy and motivated to be productive. I was going to read Ed Stafford’s ‘Walking the Amazon,’, because I was told, by him speaking at an event, that he documented how he overcame the most difficult challenge in any expedition – the mental one.
But as I sat on my bed, I realized I only had the energy to take a shower and get under the covers. I slept until the following morning. Tomorrow, I would talk with September.
The two Sergeys arranged a lift to the Kazakhstan border for me before leaving. At the fork in the road, they went left and we went right. they honked their horns to say goodbye and good luck. I would never see them again, but I didn’t want to; the memories I had from the days with them were some of the best of my life and I didn’t want to spoil them.
My new driver did not speak much, but it was fine, some don’t want to. As a hitchhiker, you have to follow the lead of the driver. I was entertained by his windscreen bunting with topless women printed on it.
He asked if I had a visa. I didn’t, but according to the British FCO website, I didn’t need one. Still, it was an anxious 30-minute ride. This was to be the first of many non-European border crossing – stories I had been told of long waits, fake fines, confusion and bureaucracy all leaked into the path ahead of me.
At the first of the four-stage crossing, I was met my a Russian police officer who checked my passport.
“Where is your visa for Kazakhstan?” He asked.
“Britain – no need.” I nervously replied in broken Russian.
He paused and took my passport to the office.
I stood for 10 minutes in this place where forest blends to desert. It was quiet, dry and there was a warm smell in the air.
He returned, sending me through with an authoritative stance, as if to say ‘you got away with it this time.’
Next, the border official was unsure if my passport photo was one of me. The clean-shaven Tom was gone and she now had a different person in front of her. Standing in front of the window, my legs shook but my upper body remained calm. She had to call her boss over to verify my identity.
I walked into the space between countries – an empty place where no one belongs. Stagnant water stood still in dead rivers either side of the road, which was contained by tall, chain-link fences. The weak woodland a few forbidden steps away seemed restricted, like a man being kept in one room for his whole life.
Trucks were queued up waiting to enter Russia. One curious Kazakh driver called me over and invited me in for coffee. We had a fairly smooth conversation in Russian about each other and my journey. It is amazing how much Russian I had learned in just 3 weeks, considering I knew nothing but the word ‘vodka’ when I entered.
After completing a migration card with not one word of English written on it, I was free to cross into Kazakhstan. A UK number plate caught my eye and I jogged over to say hello. I was so excited, having seen none of my own people since Poland. I talked a bit with them and felt relief in not having to try to roll my R’s, slow down my speech and try to speak another language. It reminded me so much of being back home – unwelcome. They were not interested in me, as us Brits generally aren’t. They just wanted to keep to themselves, and even telling them I had hitchhiked here from the UK did not change this. The contrasting generosity I had received from that truck driver just minutes ago was eye-opening.
I lunched at the border cafe, and the two women behind the counter asked to get a signed photocopy of my magic letter.
The road was now quite empty and I saw just one vehicle every 5 minutes. A car stopped after 15 minutes, but they asked for money. I had been told this would happen, and I would just have to explain each time that I didn’t have any. I devised an ingenious hand movement to use internationally – pointing to myself, rubbing my index finger and thumb together, then shaking my head. Me – money – none. It has never failed me since. they drove off a bit angry as many would do in the coming months.
Tiredness began to set in and I scouted for camping spots. Luckily, a man picked me up and took me to Petropavlas, the northernmost city of this country. The sun set in the passion-fruit sky of this new country. I was nervous, as I always am in a new country, and I now couldn’t find anywhere to camp.
I walked for an hour before finding a small cliff with three trees at the bottom. I climbed down carefully and set my tent up in the middle of them. I had to twist the corners to accommodate the small ground space. Someone had watched me do this and I was concerned they might come and rob me, but I was too tired to care.
“…Travel doesn’t make you a different person, it just helps you to realize yourself.”
It had been very challenging getting to Kazan but I was finally here, albeit a bit late – my host had given up on me and since I didn’t have a local sim card, I couldn’t update him. I found WiFi outside a bank in the city center and contacted him. He said I could stay for two nights.
Alexei was not what I expected, and for the first time he asked me to buy food items. I had gotten used to being given food for free and I realize now that I was being silly in complaining, but at the time I ranted about it in my diary.
I arrived with sticky skin from long days accumulating exhaust fumes; it was like the residue left behind from cheap stickers. I needed a shower and a lot of rest, but his shower was broken and all he could offer was a bucket and a cold tap. As for sleeping, I was looking forward to sleeping in, like I was normally allowed to do, but I had to leave at 7am with him. I walked around Kazan a bit and took a nap in public. I didn’t care.
I now had to cross the border with Kazakhstan some 1500km away in less than a week. I didn’t have time to use cars, I needed to ask some truck drivers. I had even seen some driving after dark and I had a theory that they drove through the night to avoid daytime traffic. I made a plan to go to the nearby truck stop in the latter part of the day and ask around.
I’m very British in the way that I’d rather struggle than bother somebody by asking for help. I’m naturally quite a shy person too. I thought that hitchhiking all this way from the UK would have changed this, but I’ve come to realize that travel doesn’t make you a different person, it just helps you to realize yourself.
I nervously walked, no quicker than I had to, to the truck stop outside of the city at around 15:00, feeling like I was an unwelcome child on the first day of school. I didn’t let myself dwell too much though because it would only make me more nervous. It was an old, trashy and relatively small uneven concrete space with a whitewashed café. There was already one truck parked with its windows open. I approached the driver with my best attempt at a newly learned Russian question ‘pashawosta podbroshe minya doh Chelyabinsk’ (please can you take me to Chelyabinsk)? I knew he would turn me down, as getting accepted by the first driver would be too easy, and 10 minutes later he was gone and another truck had parked up.
Before I knew it a whole hour had passed. I began to enjoy the situation; I could sit down, use the café’s free Wi-Fi and every 5-10 minutes ask someone for a lift. After approaching the first few drivers I didn’t feel nervous anymore and it was far better than standing on a roadside, breathing in the exhaust fumes and getting whipped by the sharp Russian wind every time a large vehicle rushed past.
I repeated this process until 10pm when, with no more trucks coming in, I decided to find somewhere to put my tent up. My theory was wrong; truck drivers do drive for a while after dark but they stop to sleep at about 21:00 and asking in the early evening had greatly decreased my chances of finding a lift. If they were to take me a long way then they would want to meet me in the morning with enough time to form a bond before potentially sleeping in the same vehicle.
It was of little surprise then that at 9am the next morning a driver finally agreed to take me. The ride was only about an hour long, but at the next stop the driver asked a pair of men standing outside their trucks for me securing me a lift that would take me all the way to Kazakhstan.
Sergei and Sergei were co-workers who had known each other longer than I had been alive. Throughout their careers they had travelled the country together. When they met, the long road that now lay ahead of us had no cafés or shops. In their place were holes in the ground which they used as toilets. They had seen small settlements develop into towns and cities and potholed dirt tracks change to modern tarmac.
There is only one main road across Russia and it runs like a scar from Moscow to Magadan. I was now leaving the more developed European side of the country and as I did, the road got straighter and straighter until all I could see ahead of me was the horizon which seemed to meet infinity and reveal all of Russia. Either side of me I could see nothing but pure emerald-green woodland that would have been too wild to enter.
We reached the more rugged part of the road and we were going up and down peaks and troughs. It described the entire trip to me – when I was on a low, all I could do was focus on what was immediately ahead, but on a high, I could see the whole road ahead and wanted to go all the way round the world.
The three days I spent with them felt like a dream. During this time, we taught each other some of the language and culture of our respective countries. They could see I was travelling on a tight budget and kindly paid for all of my meals, as well as giving me tea, coffee and, of course, vodka. We formed a firm friendship together and as we said goodbye in the dry and dusty truck stop near the border, all I had to give them to say ‘thanks’ were two 1p coins from home. They had never seen English money before so were thrilled.
Overcoming my very British problems and enduring an uncertain seven hours of rejection at the truck stop outside Kazan had really paid off. This initial hardship had made it much easier for me in the long run, covering the 1500km in just three days. I had not spent anything during that time either and I had made two new friends. I left Russia with some lovely last memories and crossed into Kazakhstan with a smile.
In one sentence, Moscow was like London but in a different alphabet – the sticky, smoggy wind blowing from the underground stations, the rushing, nervous business people chattering gibberish around me and the beeping of thick traffic which never stops. And at night, street and car headlights illuminated the city which does not rest.
But these similarities did not make Moscow a disappointment; quite the contrary. The Kremlin, Red Square and Cathedral transported me back in time to my childhood memories of Disneyland; I basked in its beauty, and this made me happy because I’d been true to myself and not missed Moscow from my route because of my rules.
I explored such places on both of my days there. I had to.
Arrival Day – I returned from a night walk on my first evening to find a photocopy of my British passport on the front desk. Strange, I thought. Shortly after, a tall, skinny man greeted me enthusiastically.
“We don’t see many British people here in Moscow!” he said. “Come, join us!”
He was a volunteer at the hostel and I sat with him and the other staff that evening. I was knackered, and my body wanted me to go to bed. But I told myself that nobody remembers the nights they get a good night’s sleep. Well, I do, but I stayed anyway.
Day 1 and 2 – The chest-tightening loneliness I had been feeling in recent days had faded and I was excited to continue my journey. I was in Moscow, having hitchhiked all the way from Cornwall! I was still planning to only reach Singapore at this stage, but ideas of going around the world began to enter my mind. I knew I could do it, but I wasn’t sure if I could last that long away from home. Even if I decided to go for it, I would also have to find a way to fund it. I told no one of my idea because it was still young.
I walked around various tourist spots, wading through the selfie-addicted masses. I made the decision to pay for transport for the first time since leaving the UK – It was tough, but without doing it I would end up with a countless list of missed experiences. I returned to the same spot afterwards, making my new, adapted rule.
That evening, I received a message from someone who pointed out a huge hole in my plan to hitchhike from Estonia across all of Russia to Vladivostok. I would only be able to obtain a 30-day visa for Russia. Even a double entry would be 30 days, but split over two visits.
Yet again I was hit by a potentially adventure-ending crisis but I didn’t react nearly as badly as I would have, had this happened a month ago. I was much stronger now.
I got out my phone and exhausted Google for my options. After a couple of hours, I found a small country in-between Turkey and Iran gave EU passport-holders like me a one-year stamp at the border, with no costs or forms. Georgia was my new savior, because China and Russia class a country of residence as a place of living for minimum 6-months, so I could get my visas there!
During my time exploring the city, I scouted the buses to decide if I would try to hitch one out the other side. Some had ticket checkers on board, some were full, and others were empty. But I was not brave enough to break the law in Russia again, so I walked. Doing this out of Europe’s largest city in the peak of summer proved to be a long and sticky challenge, but I made it.
I left, by my standards, early in the morning to complete a 25km hike to a spot on the outskirts. I really struggled with it and felt awful after because I did not eat enough calories as I had expended. Doing this kind of thing back home, I would ordinarily end the day with a thick, jaw-locking, greasy cheese burger, but this day ended with a couple of packs instant noodles.
Managing a sufficient intake of calories is something I find difficult when on the road.
Reaching the spot, I put my thumb out to the slow-moving, rush-hour traffic, – a hitchhikers’ dream. A man pulled in within minutes and took me 20km. From there, another man took me 40km. A 10km hop followed, and I got concerned that these short distances would become normal. They did, and I learned that this is the case with traffic going away from the world’s major capital cities. The next few days would be tough…
Ilya’s mother dying just before I arrived to his home meant I didn’t spend very long in Veliky Novgorod; I explored the city in a day and left after the second night. Touristy, it wasn’t. Apart from experiencing a ‘real’ Russian town, I took a look at some government buildings, probably arousing further suspicion to that when I entered the country.
The day to leave came and it was a 30-minute walk from the apartment to the main road. Today, I would head to Moscow. I was picked up towards the end of the walk and taken just 10km. From there, it was a 90-minute walk, and the frightening realization set in during this time that these long waits could be the norm here in Russia.
The sky had now turned grey and the air was heavy. I got left at the wrong side of a small village, about 2km in length, and had to walk through. I had entered a small pocket of lesser development – around me were small, wooden shacks, with paint stripping and wood swelling – I wondered how they withstand the lethal winters. I felt vulnerable and out of place with my blue backpack with sewn-on flags. I kept my face forward and powered through.
The road led my eyes to the ominous horizon where Moscow lay. I waited for two hours and began to feel invisible before someone finally pulled in.
He didn’t want to speak, which was fine, some people don’t want to. Instead, I slept. He took me all the way to the outside of the city.
I stopped for my first meal of the day- white bread, pickles, tomato and onion helped down my the comforting cup of tea; a life-saver to any English person. My gas stove and tea bags are probably among my most important piece of kit; many times have I been saved by them.
Initially, I had decided to miss Moscow, because I had planned to loop back round for winter and come this way again. But, on the outer ring road of Moscow, I began to feel quite somber about not ticking off Russia’s beautiful capital. I asked myself ‘what would I choose if I wasn’t hitchhiking?’ I would choose to spend a night in the city and carry on the next day. I admitted to myself that it was the thought of paying for a bus that was putting me off.
I wasn’t being true to myself. It’s my adventure, nobody elses and I have to make myself happy. It’s the same in everyday life as well.
I changed direction and headed towards the centre. I jumped on a bus but nobody asked me for a ticket. Could I hitchhike a bus to the centre of Moscow?
I got off the first one, because everyone else did, and got on another. This one had a barrier. I pretended to have no idea what I was doing, putting notes in a card slot and pushing non-existent buttons. A random man came up and swiped his travel card for me. 20 minutes later I was in central Moscow, I’d hitchhiked two buses!
I checked in to a hostel in the center and went to bed excited for the next day and glad to have made a decision for myself.
Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure
– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –
The unsettling sense of worry which we feel when we aren’t sure if we can achieve what is ahead of us came over me again while I took a day to myself in my tent just outside St. Petersburg. It was stronger than it had been before and was exasperated by a small but significant stomach sickness, which I suspected I’d caused myself by having poor hygiene; I was rarely around a sink and therefore never really washed my hands.
Contributing to this was the physical result of grieving over my relationship with September, which I felt, as she probably did, was ending because of the distance. I missed my family a lot too, and now that I was in Russia it was too expensive to contact them away from WiFi.
I felt very lonely in that damp tent.
Such feelings led me to quit my previous – and first ever – trip to Southeast Asia. I was like a child in a strange place away from home for the first time and I let it get the better of me. But I was a very different person then; the burden of anxiety still occupied and controlled my thoughts. And to make things worse during that trip, I never really let myself rest, I didn’t really integrate with people or places around me – instead, I talked to my parents and friends every day.
But I had become much stronger since then. I made a list of pros and cons of doing this adventure alone and began to see that the positives outweighed the negatives. I realized where I was, what I was doing and how lucky I was. I was free. As I sat there in my sleeping bag, legs semi-crossed in the tight space as I hunched forward with nothing to lean on, the same two Muse albums playing from my phone because I had nothing else downloaded, wet grass around me, I recorded my change of mood in my journal:
“I am on a real adventure! I have dreamed about this for a long time and I am happy to be here. I don’t want to give up. Bad days are inevitable. I have wet feet, damp clothes, I am smelly, but I love it.”
I stayed for another night before preparing to hitchhike 200km to my next Russian stop – Veliky Novgorod.
Packed up, I walked back to the M-road. I found a hitchhikers’ dream spot – next to a speed bump. With the cars being forced to slow down, I only had to wait 30 minutes. 160 kilometers were covered with a lovely couple who bought me a coffee – this kindness never ceases to make me a bit emotional. But where they left me would be a hitchhikers’ nightmare.
Russia has only one main road traversing the country, so when there are roadworks it causes a very long queue. I stood there for two hours as the cars passed which had been waiting in line for around the same mount of time, not wanting to stop again. But before too long, a man did stop for me and took me right to the front door of my next host.
Unfortunately, my host’s mother had died on my way to his house and he was not able to spend time with me. He said I could stay as agreed, but I felt a strong suggestion that he wanted me out of the way. I needed to leave earlier than I’d asked for anyway, because I had underestimated the size of Russia; the total of 3000km from there to Kazakhstan was the same distance I had covered from the UK to Russia. I needed to get a move on!
Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure
– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –
‘Estonia’ – before going for the first time, that melodic name painted pictures in my mind of scenes from children’s books read to me by my parents. We often create an over-romanticized idea of a new place, but the moment I crossed the border, my imagination materialized.
It is one of those magic places I thought didn’t really exist, and for the three days I spent with Marko and his little brother, we did the kinds of things you would expect in a work of fiction.
We walked for hours in the dense woodland behind his house, built a raft with trees we cut down, and made a huge campfire. Navigating through the forest, it was as if he was speaking to the trees the same way that I would speak to strangers when finding my way through a city.
He told me there was a risk of encountering wild boars and bears, and he even felt the need to tell me what to do in the event of encountering one of them. I’ve never had to climb a tree before, and I didn’t want to have to try.
As we walked, we foraged berries to keep our energy, and picked mushrooms to cook that evening. I felt truly disconnected from the rest of the world; my phone didn’t even have any signal in some parts of the forest.
Marko pointed out a number of abandoned wooden houses to me – much of Estonia’s population left the country after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving villages such as Marko’s either partially or completely empty. According to him, I could occupy one of them for free, given I contacted the owner and kept the place from falling apart because they still want to sell it.
Many Estonians have a sauna in their house – much is the same in Latvia and some part of Russia. In Marko’s house, it is what they use instead of a shower.
He invited me to use it, but before we went in he asked me if I was comfortable with what we were about to do. “Most foreigners aren’t,” he told me.
It turned out that they use it naked. I figured that if Marko and his brother were fine with it, then there was no need for me to feel awkward.
So, with a 27-year-old man and 11-year-old child, I stood naked in the hot, steamy room. I had a look, of course.
Marko and his brother left and I stayed behind to finish washing. When I walked out into the garden, I saw, what I think, was the gayest thing I’ve ever encountered. They were lying naked in the front garden as if they were in a religious painting.
“If you cannot walk around naked in your own front garden, then it is not a real garden,” Marko told me, as he urged me to join them.
Alas, I popped some underwear on.
My worries had been absent for most of the day, but in the evening they returned. Would I try to cover Russia in one month, or take it slow and find another way to get the visa for China? Deep down, I knew which choice I should pick but I couldn’t let myself think clearly and honestly, lest I leave myself vulnerable to failure.
That evening, Marko and I made a huge campfire behind his house. With the glittery indigo sky watching over us and mysterious mist snaking in-between the thick and tall pine trees, we left the world of introductory conversation behind and went beneath the surface to discuss some very personal subjects. Marko allowed me to truly let go of the seriousness of my situation, letting me listen to myself.
Gazing into the roaring fire as we spoke, the conversations we were having became independent of each other; I was interpreting what he saying differently to how he meant it, and vice versa.
Rushing over one month just to say I had traversed Eurasia, but missing everything in-between, seemed wrong now.
He told me that I should stay in Estonia for winter, gain residency and apply for the Chinese and/or Russian visa that way. My EU citizenship would make this very straight-forward, and I felt the lure of Estonia draw me to the idea. It felt right.
As the possibility materialized, I envisioned myself in a small cabin in the woods, keeping the fire going with the wood cut down in summer, snowed-in with just books and food.
I learned something from this – making big plans stresses me out, but making possibilities is exciting.
As the sun came up, Marko went to bed, but I went for a walk down the road near his house. It was as straight as a ruler and on either side of me were fields topped with pockets of mist which look like clouds. It was like I was in heaven.
The horizon at each end was shrouded by the similar clouds. As I started to walk, I realized I was inside a metaphor for my life – I am on an infinite road and completely free to walk it for as long as I want to. I moved forwards and the clouds continued to hide the horizon from me; there are always more things to see than I have time to.
I slept until midday and woke to the sun shining its golden rays into my room. My eyes opened willingly. The idea of spending winter in Estonia seemed too good to be true and I didn’t want to bring up conversations we had the night before, in case the fragile idea shattered while being carried into reality. But as the day went on, things seemed to be just as relaxed as last night.
Marko told me, with enthusiasm, that he thought it was a great idea. He then told me that he doesn’t live in his house between November and March and that if I was to live in it, I would be doing him a favor.
It was the happiest I’d ever felt.
The next day, I left for Tallinn where I would pick up my passport which had been sent to me by the visa company without a Chinese visa. I had imagined receiving this passport following the failed application would upset me, but not getting a the visa turned out to be one of the best things to happen to me.
“Hope is the opposite of fear.”
The crisp, morning air from the half-opened window welcomed me into the new day and breathed hope into my problem.
Despite what had burdened me over the last few days, I was relaxed. I made a big breakfast for Tambet and me, which we enjoyed on his balcony while further discussing my options for reaching the end of the continent without having to fly home first. Just having him there to talk to helped a lot.
He left for work and I threw myself back on the couch. I opened my email box to check if the visa agency had been successful in their enquiry at the Chinese consulate into whether they could conduct the visa interview over Skype, or over telephone, or any logical solution for somebody who is travelling away from their own country.
The subject line gave nothing away.
This is not a piece of fiction, therefore I cannot write whatever I want. So, of course, it was unsuccessful. I either had to fly home, staining the hitchhiking element of my trip, or the visa application would be refused.
I learned a valuable lesson on how to stay positive from this trip-threatening fiasco – Hope is the opposite of fear.
We get fearful when our mind focuses on negative possibilities, and hope is the result of thinking about the equally likely positive outcomes. The happy ones among us are those who focus on the latter. In most situations, things seem to play out not terribly, nor extremely well, but somewhere half-way.
Remaining hopeful before this news had kept me much calmer than I would have been without it. I think we worry because we feel like we can change things by doing so, but the reality is that we have very little to no control over what happens to us. Once we accept this, we are free be happy.
I needed to vent, badly, so I picked up the pillow which I had slept on so peacefully the night before, folded it in half and forced all of my frustration into it. I felt the veins on my eyes pop up, as well as the ones on the side of my head. Unsatisfied, I let out another scream. Almost finished, I let out a final one, which I felt shake the walls of the old, wooden apartment.
That night, Tambet and I went to a party at his friend’s country house. It was one of the final parties of the short Estonian summer. Few of them work during this season, because most of the year it is too cold to host such events.
They were very welcoming. Some of them spoke English very well, some of the not so much; they all learn it in school, but few of them get the chance to practice speaking.
My new friends sensed there was something troubling me and were empathetic. One of them suggested a new idea – going through Afghanistan and Pakistan. I considered it, seeing as my journey is all about questioning the dangers of the world presented by mainstream news, but after quite a lot of research I deemed it to dangerous.
We sat outside together around the campfire next to the woods and the mist-shrouded fields. Tambet explained what the design of the Estonian flag was based on; the three equally-sized horizontal bars – blue on top, black in the middle, followed by white – were right in front of me as I looked into the landscape. The dark blue sky was above the silhouette of the trees, which was based on the white mist.
The night ended as the sun came up, and we all wasted the next day. As the sun clung to the final hours of the day, Tambet and some friends took me to the main road to Tallinn, the capital city, but I didn’t need or want to make any progress today so I set up my tent.
Jack called me that evening to discuss my current situation. He presented a new idea: I still had a Russian visa in my passport which hasn’t been used yet, why not just go around China? I did some quick calculations to find that if I averaged an achievable 400 kilometers per day, I could make it within my 30-day visa. Could I really traverse the largest country in the world in that tight time-frame? Could I really go for a month without resting? Where would I sleep?
I spent the rest of the evening with my map, before falling into a half-excited slumber.
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“…We always remember the past better than it was at the time.”
I choose to walk out of cities – and everywhere I stop, for that matter – because of my rule to circumnavigate the planet without paying for transport. This restricts me to either walking, hitchhiking, or if someone is kind enough, I am allowed to take any mode of transport. I don’t see this as a grueling feature of the adventure, however; I enjoy walking, because I get to take a lot more of the place in. Paying for transport is great, but you miss a lot of the experience. You see the best bits, yes, but that’s like rushing to the last page of a book, and saying ‘I know what happens in this story’.
My destination was now Latvia, and the 10km walk out of Vilnius presented me with a closing view of Lithuania – the beautiful, untouched-by-Soviet-Union center, which blended like watercolor to the grey, standard-issue concrete tower blocks which are the same almost everywhere across the former USSR.
Before I left, I made a couple of vegetable baguettes – I tend to eat things like this while on the road because they are very cheap to make, healthy, lots of energy and a bonus is that they taste great.
I was now at the start of a 300km journey. I only had to wait for 10 minutes before by first car pulled in. He was, in fact, going all the way to my destination, but he would be picking up 4 people where he was to leave me. Not a bad start!
With 150km traveled, I felt proud of what I had already achieved. The road was now much emptier than what I had been used to; the flow of traffic was now a small stream on the lower course of a river, which I had reached down the mighty river of Western Europe
I was there for about an hour before a quirky Latvian man pulled in, who claimed he had just driven all the way from Scotland in the last 36 hours. I couldn’t quite understand his reason for doing this, but I gathered it was something about having to sell his car here, because its easier than swapping the steering wheel over to the other side. I think he was a bit mad.
He took me to Riga though, and all I had to do now was walk to my next host’s apartment. It was another 8km, and I sent her a message to say I would be there at 21:40. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t just get on a bus, and my reply of ‘my challenge is to draw a line around the planet, which is unbroken by paid transport’, seemed a bit silly even to myself, given I would be walking for 2 hours, opposed to getting on a bus for 20 minutes for around the same price of the food I’d burn off. But this is my challenge, and, as mentioned, I do enjoy it really.
Walking 10km out of Vilnius, and 8km in to Riga required more energy than I had digested from those vegetable baguettes, and all I could find when hunger struck was a Spar store. I bought their own brand chocolate cookies, which happened to be the same ones I used to buy in Falmouth. I crunched the first, and as I chewed the crunchy-but-soft goodness, and the flavor made the connections to memories in my brain, I was transported back to the small Cornish town, and back to a time when everything was great (at least as I remember it, we always remember the past better than it was at the time). The chocolate cookies were delicious, and a much needed energy boost, but remembering a golden time than was now over made me feel low, and my stomach got heavy with sadness. Not wanting to dwell, I moved forward.
My new host’s name was Augusta, she was 27 with ginger hair. I arrived at her and received an over-enthusiastic welcome and tour of the flat. We settled in together watching YouTube videos, eating cheese and drinking red wine.
The next day, she showed me her city which was yet another beautiful Baltic capital. With a population of just 2 million, there was a lot of room to move around in and Augusta found it hard to comprehend my description of how cramped London is.
The city was similar to Vilnius in the respect that it has remained untouched architecturally in the center, but, as I was walking in the previous evening, there were nothing but worn down, defeated, concrete tower blocks left behind from Soviet times. Augusta told me all about how the Soviet Union poisoned Riga, and the more I heard, the more I was shocked at how evil the whole regime was.
Any word of freedom, speaking foreign languages, or reading forbidden books (anything not published in Russian in Soviet times), could and probably would get you kidnapped, interrogated, and maybe even exiled to Siberia and/or executed. It was so easy to slip up, the people who valued their lives dared not even think about such things. KGB agents were sent to befriend people, and learn their deepest secrets, opinions and plans.
We visited a building which operated as a KGB interrogation place and prison. People were brought in, stripped, searched and violated. They could spend years here. The red carpets echoed ghostly screams from just 25 years ago, and were put there to absorb the inevitable blood stains. The cracked wall tiles looked like they had been put there deliberately to make it a set for a horror film, and the eerie, foreboding light seemed intentional
We left (thankfully of our own accord) and I realized how lucky I was, to have been born in the year and in the country I was. ‘How easily could I have been one of the victims here?’ I thought. I moved on without thinking too much about it. As we walked down the street, the damage of these times was still visible in the sad, defeated eyes of the older generation.
Things lightened up later that day, when I had a bit of fun at the expense of others. I have been told that when people meet and don’t speak the same language as one another, it is polite to speak a language which everyone can understand. So, since I can’t speak Latvian, Augusta and her sister always spoke in English. Well, when I was in the room they did, but as soon as I stepped out the door they would switch back to Latvian. I mention this, because the day I noticed it. I decided to test it. I walked out of the room, and back in, and back out again, and then back in. Every time, they would switch languages, almost mid-sentence one time. I giggled to myself menacingly each time I went out. Sorry, Augusta, if you read this.
Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure
– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –
– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –
“I began to feel like I’d had enough of the trip for now; I’d been going for over 6 weeks already, and that was the longest I’d ever been away from home. Maybe it was time to go back for a bit, and resume my trip at a later date. But I realised I owed it to myself, after the struggles I had already endured, not to waste what I’d achieved by simply giving up.”
Once the Chinese visa application had been posted, I had already been in Kaunas for 6 days and had nothing else to do or see. I was, however, exhausted; the stress of this thing – rushing to make a travel itinerary in two days, making fake flight and hotel bookings and having to borrow a few thousand pounds to do so, and worrying it might not work out and cause the trip to be a failure – had worn me out again, undoing 5 nights of full, deep, and undisturbed rest. I was unsure if I should stay another night in Rima’s apartment or to go to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city. I went to the supermarket to restock the things which I had used, such as cooking oil and milk. As I walked along the isles, I found myself picking up some beers and snacks, and with a grin I realized I wasn’t going anywhere tonight.
I aimed to leave at midday, which became 2pm, then 3pm (for certain!) and then 4pm. I made myself one final coffee and said when I finish it, then I would have to leave. Rima then bought some pizza from a place down the street, so I ended up staying for another hour and a half. ‘Will I ever really leave’? I thought. I knew it was an easy trip to Vilnius; just 100km, perhaps one lift. But I was finding it so difficult to get going. I had stopped for too long and now it was difficult to get going again. I had a comfy bed, electricity, internet, gas, cooking facilities, and even a bathroom! Now I was going back to my usual way of traveling – either sleeping on roadsides or in cheap, dirty hostels. I began to feel like I’d had enough of the trip for now; I’d been going for over 6 weeks already, and that was the longest I’d ever been away from home. Maybe it was time to go back for a bit, and resume my trip at a later date. But I realised I owed it to myself, after the struggles I had already endured, not to waste what I’d achieved by simply giving up.
I stalled some more time away from myself by writing my diary, but I quickly updated it, and once again had no excuse to stay. Rima went back to work, and I sat there on my phone pretending to myself to be doing something. It took me until 17:30 to find the will to grab my bag, say goodbye to Rima, and walk to the road.
It was another straight-forward lift to the capital, once I actually got going. I walked to the highway which was a few minutes away and held my sign up. A man stopped the car after a few dozen others had passed, and took me all the way there.
Although I had already spent a week in Lithuania, I knew almost nothing about its history, which was still eerily present around me; so I asked my new friend. After a few questions, I began to understand why the Lithuanians I had already seen were so cold – The minimum salary here is 350EUR per month, which is just enough to survive on, but not to live on. The government takes 50% of this salary, too. People constantly have worries over money, not just once or twice a month, but every single day. It’s no wonder I hadn’t seen anybody smile. People were snappy, aggressive and miserable. Rightfully so.
He then began telling me about what life was like in the times of the Soviet Union – How shop shelves were sparsely stacked, meat was rarely sold, and meals consisted of mainly flavorless rice or potato. Green beans made an appearance around Christmas time, if you were lucky. And a banana was like something from a fairy tale.
But independence from the USSR didn’t bring much positive change; Russia cut off the energy supply, meaning Lithuania had to begin fending for themselves after being dependent for such a long time. Financially, nowadays, they are in shambles. Basic things like repairing roads and pavements have been pushed to the back of the line and no new buildings have been erected in the last 25 years in Kaunas.
I checked in to the new hostel and collapsed into my bed until sunrise. The next day as I made breakfast, I felt an unfriendly atmosphere in the kitchen, so I ended up being just as reserved. But later on in the evening, three Ukrainian men who I thought were unfriendly (and a bit scary!) invited me over for Vodka and Borsch (a kind of potato, tomato and meat soup). How could I have been so quick to judge them? They were lovely! They filled me up with their food, which was helped down with copious amounts of vodka. And it was here I learned how to let them know you want to stop drinking, because you don’t have their alcohol tolerance. You don’t say ‘no, thank you’, you simply don’t drink the shot in front of you, because if you do, they will fill it up regardless you say.
Because I had eaten so much food (I felt like an over-inflated balloon), the vodka didn’t hit me until I lay down in my bed. An enormous grin occupied my face as I lay there giggling to myself. I wondered what the other people in the room were thinking, but I was too pissed to care. I finished my night by sending various memes, which I found either hilarious, profound, or both at the time, to my friends and family.
The city itself was very nice – every other building seemed to be a church. The architecture was like that from the Disney universe – exactly what I had expected from a place called something so melodious as ‘Lithuania’. Despite being a capital city there was a lot of room to move around in. It surprised me, having grown up thinking London was something to base other capitals on.
– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –
“About $5500 left my account that day.”
Up until this week of the adventure I had started to tell people that it was becoming a bit too easy – I was staying for free with Couchsurfing hosts for 2-3 nights while getting cooked for, then hitchhiking a bit, and repeating. I learned very quickly, after this complaint, that I should never say something is too easy.
I arrived in Kaunas, Lithuania after a non-taxing 10-minute wait in Suwalki. The driver took me directly to the city center where I met my next host, Rima. She told me first that she had been called away to Norway on business and that she wouldn’t be back for a week, but I could still stay. She introduced me to her flat, which had various passwords written on sticky-notes, money lying around and various other things that I and others from Western Europe would be shocked by. ‘How can you be so trusting of someone you have known for less than an hour?’ I asked, puzzled.
‘If you want to steal my spare pens, or loose change, be my guest!’ she replied.
I noticed after this explanation that she had everything required for a comfortable life, but nothing more. I realized throughout my stay in Kaunas that everyone here has the same. I observed the view from the kitchen window, as Rima prepared some oil-soaked Lithuanian food – The troubled, ash-stained clouds dominated the sky and blocked the sun from shining optimism into the view; concrete tower blocks, which seemed to mere pencil outlines against this sky, stood as cold reminders of the very recent national hardship, consequent of the Soviet Union. Over the coming two weeks I spent in Lithuania, I only saw one person smile, and that was Rima.
Rima was different to the other Lithuanians I met; like a small bubble attached to a much larger one, she had a sense of humor and a calm, friendly voice. I was sad to see her leave the next morning, but I now had six whole days to myself in a private flat with food, water, electricity and internet; it was quite an upgrade from sleeping on the roadsides.
The Chinese Visa Crisis
The visa for china, which I didn’t yet have, was an essential part of my trip to reach Singapore; there was no way around the fourth largest country in the world (apart form going through Afghanistan), which was an enormous land block between Europe and South-East Asia. The following morning.
So, why didn’t I just get the visa before I left the UK? Well, the Chinese government, for reasons I will probably never understand, set two very restrictive rules. The first is that you cannot apply for the visa more than 3 months before your proposed date of entry – an impossible time restriction for me; second is that you must apply in your country of residence.
So, my plan was to get a second passport, through my Irish father, post it home while still carrying my main British one, have someone apply on my behalf, get the visa, and have it posted back to me. It seemed like a good idea – well, it was the only workable option I had, apart from returning home. Everything was riding on a second passport being issued in time. The estimated time for this to happen was 6 weeks, and I was brought back down to earth like a bungee jumper who’s cord had snapped when I opened the internet on my first morning alone. The passport wouldn’t be issued for another 8 weeks, by which time I’d hoped to be about to cross the border.
The pixels on the screen which illuminated the contrast in colour to describe the letters and numbers to me which said I’m fucked made my heart drop into my stomach. ‘Well, this is it,’ was my initial reaction, ‘I’ve failed’.
Over the hours of that morning, I went from an initially knee-weakened state of pale, lightheadedness to one of hope – I could still apply for the visa if I posted my British passport home. I still had to cross into Latvia and Estonia to get to the Russian Border, but not carrying it shouldn’t be a problem because I was still with in the European Union’s Schengen area, which has no crossing points on its borders. I had one month before my Russian visa started, and that was enough time, I figured.
The next two days were spent completing the application, which took far more work than expected. Not only did I need to send my passport, some photos, and money, but a full itinerary for my double-entry journey, including proof of flights to and from the UK and hotel bookings for every night of stay.
I wasn’t going to take any fucking planes, or stay in hotels, but I had to pretend, so I made some bookings which I cancelled immediately after printing the confirmations. About $5500 left my account that day, and would take up to a month to be returned. It was very scary playing with that amount of money. And most of it wasn’t even mine – I had to ask a lovely lady called Merce, with whom I used to work; I think she saved the trip with the $3000 she lent me. My mother also lent me a $800, and to both ladies I am extremely grateful.
Everything was prepared, so I sealed everything in an envelope and ran through the heavy rain and thunder storm to the post office, which was shut because of a national fucking holiday. Resisting the voice in my head telling me to punch the window in, I returned the next day to send it via the fastest possible service.
All I could do now was hope.