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Hitchhiking Around the World – China Part 2 – Turpan to Dunhuang

Xinjang (shing-yang) province was the worst introduction to China I could have imagined, but I had made it to Turpan, very near the end of the province, and I was getting ready to head East to the next one which I hoped would be an improvement.

Just two more days of hitchhiking and I would be there – I would be able to hitchhike and camp freely at any time of day or night without police interfering; no longer would I be taken out of perfectly good rides for them to try putting me in a taxi, nor would I have to try to outrun them like in a Grand Theft Auto game.

I had been in Turpan for 4 days, resting after more of the above than I could handle. Hitchhiking in itself is tiring, but with added hassle, it was exhausting.

Just before leaving, a long tear in the rear of my cargo trousers appeared all the way from my bum to my inner knee, making my bright red underwear very visible (don’t ask why it is that colour). It was already too late in the day to stop and repair them, so I headed out, hoping that, at 5pm, the police would not pull me in to the station for another 4 hours’ questioning.

Within the first few minutes, a police man came up to me and ordered me into the station. But this time, I acted very annoyed and impatient, so they let me go after just 5 minutes. Sometimes it works being an asshole.

After leaving the police station, I walked quickly towards the outside of the city. I would not begin hitchhiking tonight, I only wanted to get there and camp to begin early the next day.

All around the streets, children in potty training had a similar tear in their trousers to me. The locals must have thought that I was just a ‘special’ adult – one of those weird foreigners.

The shitting in public was not limited to children. In the service stations, locals were openly doing it over squat toilets. And the worst things was there were lockable doors, they just chose not to use them! I walked in and they all looked up at me. I refused to do it while being stared at by a group of Chinese men. I would hold it in, because the doors were made of translucent glass.

Four nervous kilometers passed in my journey out of Turpan and the police presence was hotter here than anywhere else. Almost every street corner had a police station and on any one small stretch of road, a police car was driving up and down it slowly. To get around this, I cunningly hid in bus stops on the side of the road going towards the city centre until they were out of sight, when I would move to the next one.

I made it to the outskirts after just 3 hours, but there was one final police station ahead of me. Luckily, there was a well-hidden spot in a field adjacent to it. I walked on quickly, but was seen by one of the officers. Swiftly and acting as if I was doing nothing wrong, I continued walking and managed to jump over a hedge before they could send anyone after me. I laid there for about 30 minutes while the red and blue lights flashed by slowly. I felt like an outlaw, out on the run.

I was now in a farmer’s field in the evening and the police had given up. The illusion of safety that a closed tent provides allowed me to sleep that night, a few meters away from the police station.

The next day, the temperature rose to a dangerous level and the 4 liters of water I always carry ran out quickly, like the bottles had holes in them. I was waiting in a terrible spot too, on the expressway, where vehicles were going 100km or more.

But after an hour, I heard a truck driver beep at me from the other side of the road. A few minutes after this, he then pulled up next to me, telling me he had passed me the first time, but had turned around to pick me up. How kind! He even bought me lunch.

Asians often have trouble differentiating between Westerners because our facial features are so different. We all look the same to them, and they to us. I had a small episode with this when my driver disappeared to the toilet. When he came back, I didn’t recognise him. I thought he was a man who worked at the cafe, showing me the menu. But then he sat next to me and two bowls of noodles arrived.

He took me a whole 500km and I felt great. One more short lift and I would be out of this forsaken province. I walked off of the service station he left me at to put my tent up on a roadside with a thin rows of trees leading to a small settlement. Before I got in, I had been seen.

By this point, I was no longer worried about getting murdered while camping – I’ve realised I am probably more scary for them – so I went up to the man and said hello. He asked if I wanted to sleep in his house that night, but I had my tent setup with Peep Show paused, snacks out and a cup of tea. I honestly wanted nothing more.

The next day, I had the longest wait I would have in China. 3 hours passed quickly and after a while the petrol station workers tried to help me find a lift by asking truck drivers who were filling up.

Finally, just as I was thinking of giving up and having lunch, a man took me in, gave me a lot of cigarettes and took me in for the night.

Over my time in China, I would smoke many cigarettes. Every driver automatically hands you one, and then another, and one every 20-30 minutes. It is hard not to smoke them when they are in your mouth and I did begin to enjoy the feeling, but I believe that nicotine is a made-up idea by the tobacco companies to sell more. After fully smoking around 50 cigarettes, I still do not have any cravings to smoke more myself. But they are fecking disgusting.

This man drove me outside of the region and invited me for dinner and to stay in his home. Now out of Xinjang and in Gansu, I was happy to stop in the afternoon.

He and his friends filled me up with barbecued meat, rice and vegetables, all helped down with home-brewed rice wine. Oh, and enough cigarettes to kill a cat.

On the way back to his apartment, a small street dog took me as a threat and bit my left calf. It did not hurt, nor did it bleed beyond a small break in the skin, but I now had to get to a clinic as soon as possible for rabies treatment.

I had had the preexposure vaccination before leaving the UK, so I had more than a day to get to one. Also, I would not have to wait around for a month for the four or five injections, I only had to lose a week waiting for two.

It was a challenge communicating this to the doctors, and it carried a lot more weight than the usual things I need to tell people – Rabies kills, if not treated properly. Would they just give me the first two shots? Did they know what they were doing? It didn’t seem like it.

Dunhuang was 130km away and had been recommended to me by three different people. I hitchhiked there the following morning and got the first injection.

The second injection went less smoothly. Air bubbles in the bloodstream can be fatal and so when the nurse, evidently undertrained, went at me with the syringe with a huge one floating inside it, I asked her what the hell she was doing. It was lucky I had some basic medical training!

Fully cured, I packed my bag and headed East. I was now one third of the way through China.

This was not the China I had envisioned – Hitchhiking around the world

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

The Pamir Highway and Kulma Pass to China – Hitchhiking Around the World

Standing next to the sign telling me I was on the city limits of Dushanbe, I gazed ahead to the daunting white mountains which began the 1000km Pamir highway and my road to China – one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Gradually ascending to 4600m, traffic on this route would be incredibly thin. And I had an extra added difficulty: I couldn’t pay for transport. I knew what I was getting into, though.

I had rested well at a hostel from the grueling ride there; three days off were what I needed to recover for the challenge ahead.

I had just spent the night, after a 3-hour walk out of the city, camping in a large field, not realising it was private land. I was woken at 6am by a man telling me I couldn’t be there. At the beginning of this trip, the thought of getting spotted really scared me, but I didn’t seem to care anymore.

Tajikistan’s capital was quite a bit more developed than I had expected, having gone south from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital village. But the rest of the country was far behind its neighbour.

The apprehension to wave a car down had come back. Why? I wasn’t tired. The thought of putting out my thumb was followed by pictures of ‘talking’ with the driver, for about 5 minutes before he realised I couldn’t speak any Russian beyond the basics. Then we would sit in awkward silence for the duration of the lift. Either that, or he would throw a load of words at me, expecting me to understand, which was much worse. Walking, I had none of this, and I liked it that way. Unfortunately, to get around the world within the decade, I would need to hitch a ride at least a few times.

The first vehicle to pass, a truck, stopped. Could he be going all the way to China? Would I ride the whole way if he was? He only took me 30km. In the wrong direction.

The GPS on my phone had stopped working momentarily, and the road sneakily changed direction. I had to keep going straight, but he had turned right without me noticing.

It was a very quiet ride, and of course, awkward. I managed to hitch a ride to just a few kilometers where I began the day. Great start.

I reached the beginning of the Pamir Highway after a few more stop-and-start lifts. Ahead were dark mountains with thin, ghostly clouds snaking around them, licking them. Light rain added to my apprehension and replayed the voices of those who told me not to hitchhike this road. There was absolutely no traffic, as if this road had been abandoned years ago. If I were a man who believed in signs, I think that something was telling me to turn back – I kept seeing single magpies too.

I walked for an hour before perching myself on a boulder. A few cars passed me, but they were full of locals.

After two hours, I was scared. This road was going to become incredibly wild and remote. Settlements would be hundreds of kilometers apart, and it would exceed 4600m above the sea in one stretch.

I consulted my map for some comfort and found that there were airports every 200km, so if I was at risk of overstaying the remaining 3 weeks on my visa, I could walk to one and return to Kyrgyzstan.

I let my worries get the better of me, and I ended up sitting there with no will to put my thumb out, but a vehicle pulled in without me asking. It looked like a minibus, but it was being driven by a soldier. He offered me a ride for free, and I got in with four of his colleagues.

I had no idea how far they were taking me, but at least I was making distance. The first big settlement, Qalai Khumb, was 200km away. They tried to talk with me, and I with them, but we gave up after a few sentences.

We came to a police checkpoint. They approached the van and asked what this strange, blonde homeless man was doing with them. They responded with something like ‘we don’t know. He’s from England, heading to Qalai Khumb’. They inspected my passport and let me proceed.

The soldiers left me almost half way to the settlement. It was now 3 hours until sunset. I walked over the bridge to where the road became indistinguishable from the surrounding rocks. A villager pointed me in the right direction, because there were not even tyre tracks to guide me. This was not doing anything for my confidence in my route to China.

Now 1500m above sea level, I continued walking. It was raining lightly, but the damp had a drastic effect on my body temperature. I had to keep walking to stay warm. It was almost dark, so I began scouting for camping spots. Villagers I passed were warning me not to get caught here after nightfall. They made the mime for a wolf, putting their index fingers to depict their pointy ears. I thought I might be fine; I had pepper spay, and I knew to put my food outside my tent. I walked off the road, but before I could get far, a car pulled in going the other direction.

A police officer told me to get to the next village, 5km away, for my own safety. I followed his advice. An armoured military tank-jeep hybrid picked me up and took me there.

Walking into the village, two men crossed my path, one who was an English teacher. He told me that the sun was going down soon, and that I should rest at his house tonight. There was no hesitation from me.

My socks were sodden, my trousers damp, but my upper-body dry, thanks to my Rab raincoat. I had washed some clothes in Dushanbe, but they were not yet dry and for the coming days my feet would be constantly wet, sandy and cold, apart from when I put my tent up, when they were just cold in the sleeping bag.

Wet socks exasperate a bad smell, and I did my best to conceal it from my host. I strongly suspect I failed, though.

He was very happy that I had gone with him, as he kept telling me in an enthusiastic Borat voice, and he made sure I was more than full before letting me leave the next day. He would not take any money from me, and I did try very hard to make him accept it. But it is the Muslim way – help travellers as much as you can, even if you don’t want to, and never take anything in return. The remainder of the Pamir highway would present me with even more of this kindness.

He had even tried to find me a lift to the next settlement, Khorog, 200km away, but had not been successful. He felt guilty, but wished me luck for the road ahead.

The dirt turned to compressed stones and sand and rivers were running over it. The road’s glaring fragility was a reminder that nature will always win. Throughout the highway, I saw 5 or 6 roads which were built around old collapsed ones. The one ahead of me now had bunches of sticks worked into the rocky undersurface, to delay the inevitable. The Pamir highway can be closed unexpectedly, I just had to hoped I wouldn’t get stuck.

The road surface quickly turned from rock and sand to just sand, and the puddles occupied the path so much that I had to just walk through them. The cold water was refreshing.

Today, there really were no cars. I walked to keep warm, and to give myself the illusion of making progress. I thought I was hallucinating car sounds behind me because whenever I turned a corner, the sound of the river would get louder. I gave up turning my head after a while.

Two hours went by. Then another, and one more. Four hours in, I was cold, wet, and seriously thinking I had made a mistake in taking this road. Could I walk to China if I had to? I worked it out – 35km a day with a lot of elevation. But even if I did, if I saw no traffic, then there would be nothing on the other side of the border. I had been in Almaty, a couple of hours from the border with loads of traffic, why did I choose to go this way?

I knew vehicles would come eventually, but I also knew they would most likely ask for money. Could I wait for hours and hours, just to turn down a lift because it went against my rules? No, I would just play dumb and argue with the driver – that was much easier.

Before the fifth hour began, the stillness of the view was broken by a jeep. Another one followed it. Were all the cars coming at once now?

I watched it cover the distance I had trudged though over a couple of hours in just 5 minutes. The car stopped for me and I got in.

The man spoke English perfectly and even understood the concept of hitchhiking. He and three other women, who were nurses, were going to Qalai Khumb, the first big settlement. I had waited and struggled, and it had paid off – for now anyway.

I rested for one night in a guesthouse before walking back to the main road the following morning; the day began just as so many others had, but today was different. To my right was a mighty river, dividing me and Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The name of that country carries with it so many negative images, and it is talked about in such a way that it doesn’t seem real. But there it was ahead of me. I waved to some children playing football and saw their parents tending to the washing. Motorbikes trailed the road behind.

Afghanistan

I would be riding adjacent to this forbidden country for the next few days, all the way to the next settlement. Traffic was now a bit healthier and a truck driver even picked me up within the first hour.

The road changed from wide, puddle-laden sand to a thin, snakey lane with hairpin turns and a sheer drop to the right. The road was in such poor condition that it took an hour to travel 15km. My driver had a bit too much confidence in himself and took the corners quite aggressively. I’m a calm person, but on multiple occasions in his passenger seat, my hands went cold, my heart went up into my mouth and I had to just look away from what was happening on the other side of the windscreen. On two occasions, the wheel even went over the edge, causing the dirt to scatter down into the river.

We passed a truck which had its front caved in from one of the car-sized boulders which had fallen from the cliff hanging over our heads. Many more lay on the roadside, pushed away to allow the flow of traffic to continue. The frame had not gone in so far that it would have caused injury, which was some comfort to me, as I shrunk down in my seat.

If you do ever decide to put your thumb out in Tajikistan, I highly recommend you take headphones with you. Long journeys with truck drives involve just one CD usually, with about 8 tracks on it, and their local music is just someone making noise for the sake of it. I do not like to slag off the people who have been so kind to me, but there is a reason Western music plays on their radio stations. The sound of radio static overtook one driver’s torture after countless hours, and I felt relief in hearing a more pleasing sound.

I was lucky I suppose, because after 12 hours together, he couldn’t deal with the awkward absence of conversation caused by the lack of common language. Even though he had two beds in his cabin, he told me I should stay at the guest house nearby. I took the hint.

I found an excellent camping spot, enclosed in a small three-sided concrete shelter which hid my tent completely and sheltered me from the wind.

I saw more traffic this day and I felt a bit more confident with my chance of finishing this road to China. I was more relaxed about getting up early, so Peep Show occupied the next morning as I breakfasted with bread and coffee. At midday, I finally packed away and got moving.

I was 2500m up in the mountains and the scenery was breathtaking (literally). I didn’t want to remove myself from the experience by getting into a car with the windows up, so I walked for a couple of hours.

Everyone I passed said ‘hello’. Everyone. Apart from the confused and suspicious old men. Some even followed with ‘what is your name?’ This may not sound like anything worth writing about, but through all of the former Soviet countries, people have either kept to themselves, or greeted me in Russian. Even the more modern part of this country was like this. So why, on the Pamir highway, were things different?

That evening, after getting taken all the way to Khorog, I met a young English teacher. He told me that everyone in the GBAO region wants to learn the language, to have more opportunities in the world. I went with him to one of his lessons. People of all ages were there, learning (incorrectly) how to greet people. He put me up for the night, and of course, he and his family fed me to bursting point.

He was terribly excited the next morning to offer me the “delicacy of the village” – milk tea. When I told him that everyone in the UK drinks this, he was surprised. But his tea was different. It had salt instead of sugar. I played a prank on someone at my old job once by putting salt in place of sugar, and seeing them spit it out in shock was hilarious. But here I was now, drinking it as a norm. Karma works in mysterious ways, I suppose.

Now 3000m up, my host took me with his father to the truck stop on the outside of his village. He secured me a lift with the first man he spoke to.

The road condition had improved now and we were no longer snaking along a sheer drop. We travelled two-three times faster than before and made it to Murgab, the final settlement before the push to China, in just 15 hours.

The views became like those of another planet. People and settlements disappeared completely, and I felt that (apart from the road underneath us) we could be anywhere in time.

We ascended to a long stretch at 4300m and I felt fine until we stopped for dinner. I stepped out the truck and began to feel drunk. At this altitude, I was only breathing in 50% of the amount of oxygen I am used to. I found myself having to walk at half my usual speed, otherwise I would began wheezing as if I had just run a marathon. When I ate my food, my hands and legs went tingly because the blood had to go to my stomach. I felt terrible, not just drunk anymore, but ill. I sat there with a half-eaten meal taking deep breaths just to try and feel normal. My driver was absolutely fine.

I was both exhausted from the road and suffering from altitude sickness, so when my driver said that I needed to pay him for the ride, I really didn’t have the energy for the coming argument.

I just said, in my own language, that I cannot pay, that he should have agreed a price when I got in 15 hours ago, not 2 hours from the destination. He wasn’t having it, so I began to pack my things, telling him I would walk the remainder of the distance. I was serious and he could see it. He gave in and agreed to take me for free. I felt a bit bad because he needed the $25 more than me, but paying for this ride would mean failure for my expedition. I bought his dinner as a thanks.

We descended, thankfully, by about 300m and I felt a bit better when we arrived to Murgab.

I spent the following two days doing very little apart from resting for the long road ahead through China. The altitude suffering seemed to settle into a headache for the time there, and general tiredness.

I failed to change my Tajik currency, $140 equivalent, and any of the three banks there, which were all closed in the middle of the day.

Murgab was cold, sandy, windy and desolate. The mud houses sheltered a few, but were partially empty. The bazar was relatively busy, but by Asian standards, it was like the last signs of life in the coma victim which was the settlement.

I lazily left my final guesthouse in Tajikistan at 9am, which was just after the early-morning trucks had all gone by. I walked down the main road and tried to wave down three stragglers which passed by, but I had no success. I walked on to the outside of the settlement and waited until 11.30am, by which time it was too late to catch a lift because the border would be closing by the time I reached it.

I walked off the road and made the decision to camp behind some boulders and wake up very early the next day.

Two or three vehicles passed me throughout the rest of the day, which was not great for my confidence in my idea to get to China taking this route.

I was now 8km away from the nearest shop and I had used up most of my food and water. For the first time in the trip, I had to ration. I had the opportunity to get more of both, but I didn’t seem to want to. I knew that ahead was very challenging land, and on the Chinese side the road showed no settlement for hundreds of kilometers. Nor was there anything on the way there. This was my last chance to get food if I didn’t want to starve, but still I didn’t move. I realised that deep down, this struggle was what I wanted from my adventure.

And a struggle it was.

It was a cold night, but a warm one for me inside my sleeping bag, which I had put inside a second, borrowed one, while wearing three puffy charity shop coats.

Thin sheets of ice were coated on the inside of my tent when I woke up at 5am, much like on car windows on the first frost of the English winter. I packed away promptly, to be waiting before 6am when the first truckers began their day.

I sat against my pack in the moon-like landscape for four-and-a-half hours before deciding to walk back towards the guesthouse, lest I don’t get picked up before 11.30 again. But, just after starting to walk, a truck came around the corner and agreed to take me to the border.

This man was mad – He was beeping his various modified horn sounds throughout the entire 3 hour ride. He was honking at farmers, their animals, children, drivers and more. He kept singing to himself too, which kept the awkward silence away.

I ignored my rumbling stomach, but my driver didn’t. He forced me to eat bread and canned meat, with little chocolates in-between. He could see I needed it, and I was full for the rest of the day.

We ascended gradually to the Kulma pass at 4360m where a light snowstorm made us move quickly between the vehicle and the buildings needed for the various checks.

I had only read one report online from earlier this year of this border being open to foreigners; before that had only been reports of them being turned away.

The Tajik side stamped my visa, making meaning I could no longer turn back. The Chinese seemed friendly, and separated themselves from the job they were required to do of searching me and my things thoroughly. They even filled my water bottle up, seeing as I now had only one which was empty.

It was the first time my whole body had been x-rayed, and seeing my organs and bones was a strange feeling. One of the guards pointed something out in my stomach. What it was, I will never know.

My bag was x-rayed too, and I was simply asked to show them my gas bottle, survival kit and hip flask. They checked my phone, camera and tablet, finding the naughty images downloaded for private time.

Three officials gathered around my passport, trying to decipher the Latin alphabet which none of them were able to read. It is advisable to learn how to say the name of your country in Chinese, and after I said “Engwen” (England in a Chinese accent), they were satisfied. The official at the stamp desk poured over it for 15 minutes, purely out of curiosity it seemed, as it was likely the first time he had seen a British passport.

After learning a few Chinese phrases while I waited with the other officials, I was stamped in and free to enter China.

The road to the first city, Kashgar, had more traffic than I had anticipated and I caught a lift with a truck within the first hour. He left me at a police checkpoint though, which there would be very many of throughout this first region.

I was now on the Karakhorum highway, the highest road in the world. It was late and I knew I wouldn’t arrive to the city until midnight. I had no food or local currency, but luckily, a litre of water. So, uncomfortably, I put my tent up under a small bridge designed to divert the water from the river under the road. It was like a wind tunnel, concentrating the wind from the mountains into a small area, and through the night it was like sleeping at the top of a flag pole. The canvas slapped me continuously, and the next morning I forgot I had not put pegs down (being on concrete) and the whole thing blew away from me.

Kyrgyzstan Part 2/2 – Bishkek to Dushanbe – Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

May 2018

Having walked for a few kilometers beyond the end of settlement in Bishkek, it worried me when a man stopped the car in-line with my tent and got out.

I shrunk down behind the half-zipped door, trying not to move while watching him anxiously. Peep Show was playing quietly next to me, like a friend trying to calm me down.

He stood there for 5 long minutes, after which time he got back in and drove away.

The next morning was warm, bright, green and airy, as most would be in this mountainous country. I was picked up quickly and taken a few dozen kilometers, bought breakfast and some fruit for the next couple of days.

I walked for a bit before getting too hot and ducking out into the shade of a tree.

Afterwards, three separate drivers asked for money to take me before one took me 50km to the beginning of a mountain pass. The highest peak ahead caught my eye and I had no idea I would soon be summiting in a truck.

The white peaks divided the North of Kyrgyzstan from the center. We came to what looked like a minor border crossing, beyond which was a very remote stretch of 300km.

I walked beyond the crossing and a truck driver pulled in within a minute to ask if I wanted a lift. When I got in, he laughed at the thought of me trying to walk the treacherous road ahead.

The truck waded through the thick masses of cattle present throughout the journey.. It was a sharp contrast between old and new – the age-old nomadic way of life meeting the new, modern world.

We ascended the steep, hairpin bends with almost every other vehicle overtaking us. Over the coming hours, the lush green nature became coated in thick, white snow.

We reached the highest point at 3149m and my driver stepped out to use the toilet. I opened the door and took my jacket off because I wanted to get an idea of how could it would be in the Pamir Highway, which I would be tackling in a few weeks’ time. It was fecking cold!

Night took over at around 9pm. but my driver was getting ready to drive through the night. I took his bed until 4am when he took a break for 2 hours to continue at 6. For that time, I was in the passenger seat, half sitting, half lieing. It was such an unnatural position that my back became terribly painful; I was dreaming when it happened, and in that dream I was with Mate and his friend, screaming and breaking down after every step. I woke up, readjusted slowly and slipped back into a few more minutes’ sleep.

A truck took me all the way from where I was to Osh – halfway through the country. He even tried to give me 10p to cover the bus fare into the city center, but I felt uncomfortable taking money from a poorer man and decided to walk in.

After 3 days’ rest, ahead was a road of around 800km, which normally would comfortably take 2 days, but the next country was 93% mountain and and I definitely underestimated the time it would take.

The daytime temperature was now around 30 degrees and I was not yet used to it, so I had to wait until near sundown, lets I get heat exhaustion again.

At 7pm, I brought my backpack from my room and went to say goodbye to everyone. As I put it on my back, the owner asked ‘are you leaving?’

‘No, I’m just doing my impression of a turtle,” I sarcastically replied, smiling.

‘Are you joking?’ he asked, confused.

I have noticed that British humour does not translate well, and not being to make jokes like this and get the response I am used to has started to bother me.

I walked out of the city comfortably over 2 hours and, without difficulty, found a camp spot behind some roadside trees. I slept about 11 hours. For some reason, I find it far too easy to sleep-in unnecessarily when camping.

The midday sun heated the inside of my tent to a dangerous level, and I was now dizzy and dehydrated.

After standing up and getting a nauseating head rush, I walked in a daze to the nearby shop. Fruit, sugary snacks and sparkling water was what I needed and after a bit, I felt okay again.

I had allowed myself today and tomorrow to reach Dushanbe, and the day was already nearly over. ‘I really need to be more disciplined’ I thought.

Halfway on this route was the border. Just make it there today, I told myself. A long wait lay ahead, partly my fault. Well, mostly actually.

5/6 drivers will ask for money in Kyrgyzstan, and I have realised that those drivers will most likely be in small and/or old cars. For that reason, to avoid the awkward conversation, I let them pass. I only put my thumb up for trucks and 4x4s, which tuned out to be about 5% of the traffic, and still in a daze, it took me 3 hours to realise this.

A couple pulled in and gave me a bottle of vodka. I didn’t want it, so I offered it to the next car to stop, which happened to be going all the way to border.

I crossed at 00:15 on Kyrgyz time, but Tajik time was one hour behind, so in my passport, it is recorded that I entered one country while still in another.

I set my tent up, knowing that in 4 hours I would need to be packing away. I was on a farmer’s field, because there was no other option available. The ground was hard as concrete. I didn’t bother getting my sleeping bag or roll mat out, besides, if I woke up from the cold it would be easier to get moving again. And it was.

With a sore back, I packed away and went to walk away when the farmer came out of his house. There was no anger in his tone, just interest in why an English man was sleeping next to his house, and why I hadn’t asked to sleep inside.

Ahead of me was the 400km to Dushanbe and the initial road from the border saw only one vehicle every 3-5 minutes, so I started to walk. Tajikistan was going to be different; people are poorer, therefore fewer cars and more people asking for money.

A man stopped before too long without me even putting my thumb out. He took me for free, bought me breakfast and even arranged a lift 100km more with his friend.

His friend then drove me round the city showing me everything and took me out of his way to the outskirts to continue easily.

A stranger then stopped me just to make sure I was okay and to ask if there was any way he could help me. Tajikistan is a Muslim country, and I certainly felt very welcome in my first half-a-day.

Next came two very short lifts to the middle of nowhere, where I would then wait for 4 hours. I quickly realised I couldn’t be picky with which vehicles I put my thumb out to, and about 15 cars then bstopped, all asking for money. 2 locals came up to me separately on that roadside to tell me I had no chance and needed to pay for a taxi.

What was confusing was that up until now, in the last 12 months of hitchhiking, getting to the capital city has always been easy. But no one was going there, it seemed. Between me and Dushanbe was yet another mountain pass, and it seemed to split Tajikistan into two.

Another short lift of 5km took me even more into the middle of nowhere. To my right were the mountains I was set to pass over. I was passed by about a hundred sheep being herded by their farmers, all of whom gave me a wave. Hitchhiking is, in my opinion, the best way to experience a country, and even when I’m waiting on a roadside, things still happen.

Finally, I was picked up and taken all the way to Dushanbe. I slept for a lot of the drive.

The Winter of Shifting Personality – Georgia – Hitchhiking Around the World

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.

Azerbaijan Part 2/2 – Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

October 2017

Winter was certainly here and the nights were too cold for my inadequate equipment. I knew I needed to push on to get to Georgia within the next few days. I would have one more stop in Azerbaijan – Ganja, where I was meeting a Couchsurfing host the next day.

It started to rain, something I hadn’t experienced for over a month, and the sound of it pattering on the concrete and the warm smell of petrichor it brought about seemed to bring back pleasant memories of England. I didn’t put my coat on because I wanted to feel soaked again, but the novelty soon passed.

As I walked to keep warm, a man in a van stopped because he felt bad for me and took me to a city 100km from Ganja.

I caught one more ride of a few kilometers to the outside of this city before setting my tarp up on the roadside.

I had not eaten in almost 24 hours and after the walking I had done today, I was shaking. My mood dropped like dumbbell and I frantically searched my bag for food. I boiled some water to prepare the last of my noodles

After waiting impatiently for the water to boil, I managed to knock it over as I picked up the cup. A piece of me died inside. Luckily, there was a supermarket down from me on the roadside.

I hung my damp clothes up inside the tarp and snacked on noodles, sunflower seeds and smarties. Despite being wet, I slept well and warm.

After a short night, I rose early to reach Ganja before 11am and meet my host at the train station. Surely, I thought, I would have no problems getting a ride there.

Next, I experienced the first hour-long wait in months. Once I did get a ride, my driver took me a few kilometers, waited for 30 mins and then said he was stopping here. For feck sake.

I waited for another 45 minutes before getting picked up again, eventually accepting that I would be late to meeting my next host.

Two Government workers then picked me up and told me they thought I worked for MI6, saying I “looked like I was undercover.” Nothing bad came of this encounter, once they realised I was harmless.

They dropped me off on the outside of Ganja. I walked in to find Wi-Fi to contact my host, Hakim. I was over an hour late and he had already sent a taxi to pick me up from our meeting point, which was the train station. I walked for an hour to reach it, found Wi-Fi again and contacted him.

He told me to wait there, but complications arose when he didn’t show up for over an hour. There was no internet at the station so I left to find some again, during which time his friend came and went. Eventually, I got taken to his house and we laughed about it.

Hakim lived with his wife, child and parents and grandparents – four generations – and it was lovely to see this. They made me traditional meals, curry-type things, rice and meat, etc. And whenever my tea cup was almost empty, someone would already be walking over to fill it up for me.

I had washed some clothes in the river the day before yesterday, but they had not yet dried fully. Hand washing in cold water makes it hard to completely clean the clothes, and when they stay damp for a couple of days, it exasperates the smell.

After showering, I changed into these clothes. Hakim was not the kind of person to be polite when something needed to be said and he told me that I had a bad smell about me, and that it was upsetting his family. He disappeared to fetch a bottle of aftershave which he then coated me in.

Was it just the wet clothes, or did I always smell while on the road? How many people could I have met who were too nice to say anything?

Unfortunately, Hakim had to leave on the first evening for a job interview in Baku, but his wife spoke English well enough.

Ganja itself I explored alone. It was a very poor city, sitting in stark contrast to Baku. After having four separate children grab my leg and beg for money, I reached a river which was mostly full of rubbish and decided to jus go back to the house.

On the morning of the day I left, I went with Hakim’s wife to the school she taught at. The children were just as excited as the ones in Uzbekistan were.

I made probably the most essential purchase of the adventure before leaving the city – headphones. Now, I could avoid the countless people asking where I was from every 30 seconds. I had had more than enough of it at this point and it was no longer just annoying, it was sending me insane.

The 14km walk went by swiftly and before I knew it I was on the outside of the city. The sun slipped behind the purple, silhouetted mountains and it was time to find somewhere to camp.

Vast, green, flat and open was the field I walked into at the foot of the mountains. Far off to my left and right were two farmers grazing their cattle. They would look very confused as I packed away the next morning.

The gas bottle that had been with me since Estonia finally ran out when I was making my morning coffee. Luckily, I had a paraffin cube in my survival kit, intended for emergencies (which this definitely was).

One truck driver took me all the way to the border. He was a lovely welcome to the country, offering me grapes and chocolate.

At the border crossing, the official didn’t even check my passport page. She just glanced at the EU emblem on the front and stamped me in for one year. And as easily as that, I was in Georgia!

A river ran between the two countries and I was welcomed by lush green trees and crumbling concrete houses scattered around the landscape. Birds chirped around me and squirrels scurried up trees.

The road was virtually empty and it took two hours to get a ride to Tbilisi, the capital city and my home-to-be until Spring.

Once I finally reached the city, I contacted my next Couchsurfing host who I hoped could help me to settle in, but he had been called away for business. Luckily, he had left the key with a neighbour.

I took out local currency, bought a liter of cheap beer, some ice cream and a kebab and relaxed on my first night of my new temporary country of residence.

Ahead of me now was the tail end of the biggest challenge of the trip so far – getting the visa to China outside of my home country. But I didn’t have to worry about that for another 5 months or so; I would wait the winter out in Georgia, while resting from the craziest and most emotionally draining experience of my life, finding a job and putting some money back into my account to help sustain a now vastly extended expedition.

Azerbaijan Part 1/2 – Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

October 2017

Countries blend together like paints on a palette and now that I had gone West from Central Asia, Europe’s influence was seeping in. The familiar feeling of being in a big city was brought back by the sounds of revving engines, squeaking tyres, uninterpretable chatter, all blended with the smell of exhaust fumes and the sticky, grimy pavements. Buildings were tall now, shops were well-stocked and streets housed expensive brands of clothing and electronics.

Source: Thinkstock

I observed my reflection in one of the shop windows and saw a very tired, unkept, messy traveller. I was relieved to be so close to neighbouring Georgia and my resting place for the winter. I still didn’t have a job or place to stay arranged and I didn’t know anyone there, but after the challenges faced thus far, these ones didn’t seem to bother me.

For now, I was staying in Baku for three nights. The feeling of homesickness combined with self-doubt and loneliness came creeping back when I started to relax. But when Brian and Lorenzo, two cyclists from America and Spain, walked in, those negative emotions went away.

Over the course of the first evening, I finally realised that it was the lack of conversation I was suffering from; travelling for months with people I cannot say more than ‘hello’, ‘my name is Tom’, and ‘I like your country’ to had had its effect on me. I had gone too much into my own mind. Laughing again, genuinely, not politely, was like re-learning a skill.

I made a promise to myself to make English-speaking friends in Georgia and build a temporary life for myself so I felt ready to continue in Spring.

After three nights of long, deep sleep, I felt fantastic. I made another promise to myself to go more slowly from now on; positive thinking became my normal state of mind when well rested, contrasting starkly the negative feelings which seemed natural to a more tired mind.

Before leaving Baku, I put the doubts about me doing this trip to bed once and for all. I made a list of all the positives of me doing this trip and realised that I was one of the luckiest people in the world. I wrote:

– I am free to make my own choices; I can rest when I want, move when I want and go where I want.

– There is no negativity that I seem to get from people when I know them for a long time. And if I don’t like someone, I can just move on.

– People are much nicer on the road.

– I am not obliged to talk or listen to anyone, if I don’t want to.

– No competitiveness between me and my partner.

– Hitchhiking alone is easier, trucks have one spare seat.

– Listen to music whenever I want.

– I can go at my own speed.

I walked out of the rich city of Baku, which I thought was an introduction to the rest of the country. But Azerbaijan after the city limits sat in a dark shadow of the capital; the government is very wealthy, but it does not filter down to the general population.

The road became shrouded in light grey mist, which was loomed over by trees losing their leaves for the winter. Littered ahead of me were men and children selling bags of walnuts. The first man shook my hand and then followed me, the next grabbed my arm which I pulled back, and after him I just ignored them.

I walked West towards Georgia for two hours before coming to a café. I stopped not because I was hungry, but because there were three men lurking behind me as I was walking.

I spent an hour in the café enjoying the internet and a plate of chips I had treated myself to. The usual questions from interested locals came.

‘Are you a tourist?’

‘No, I’m a fucking local. What do you think?’

I didn’t say that, obviously.

Stepping out of the café into the hazy distance I could see nothing but even more salespeople. Luckily, a shiny white car pulled in next to me with an English-speaking man who asked if I wanted a lift.

He took me to Gebele, about half way through this small country. I had not planned to stop here at all, but when I arrived, I was overwhelmed by the rugged, sugar-white mountains in the distance.

I bought a few days’ of food, hiked up the river and found a spot in the trees. My summer sleeping bag and tarpaulin would not be enough for the cold nights ahead, so I would have to make a fire and keep it going over night.

My phone ran out of battery as I was enjoying some Pink Floyd with a cup of tea. No pictures would come from the coming days, but I liked the purity of that.

The next day, I opened my eyes to see mist snaking between the peaks as if it was constricting them. After some time, a hidden peak was revealed. I felt hypnotized by its glistening icy face. As if I was possessed, I walked up the river towards it.

After an hour, two armed soldiers came into view. They told me that I was about to walk illegally into Russia.

I did nothing else that day, apart from piling up the fire wood for another cold sleep.

…To the End of the World – Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure – Uzbekistan Part 3/3

September 2017

As I woke up on my last day in Nukus, a wave of sadness came over me. I had made friends, integrated into the community and started to get comfortable. I knew I wouldn’t be back again, as is the case for almost all of the places I pass through. I didn’t think too much as I packed my bag, knowing that as soon as I got picked up, this city would be in the past.

As I followed the road beyond the city, the usual stream of traffic flew past; the staring locals who slowed down to have a good stare at the white, blonde tourist bearing the biggest bag they’ve ever seen, the small motorbikes with engines like hair clippers, and the occasional taxi driver or public minibus beeping for my attention.

As the sun began to fall, a small boy (left) ran up to me asking if I wanted to come for tea.

Why not? I thought.

He told me to take off my shoes and walk in, but I wasn’t so sure I’d be welcome – A strange, bearded man that your child has taken in? What would the adults think? I waited nervously at the door before the grandmother waved me in frantically, as if I was standing in the pouring rain.

She laid out some nuts, sweets and a pot of tea, with some small square pastry things which they call ‘ball sack’, with emphasis on the double ‘l’ and the ‘a’ pronounced like ‘ah’. I thought they were have a joke with me.

The rest of the family arrived one after the other, amazed to see a real English person not only in their house, but in their city. The father took a particular interest in me; I don’t think the smile left his face all evening. He and the son spent the our time together trying to give me items from their house which I took a slightly prolonged look at – Such things as a large, metal teapot, a frying pan and a wooden plate ornament were handed to me. They did give me a taxidermied wolf’s claw, to protect me against what they translated as ‘infiltration’.

The father showed me around the house, which evidenced that they were a richer-than-most family.

Despite its earlier days, Google Translate now works between English and Russian extremely well and we had a substantial conversation over the course of the evening. It did make a mistake though, at least I hope it did. As I was being shown around, the father leaned into a dark closet and the app said ‘I love you’. As this happened, he turned around with a glimmer in his eyes.

They are very hospitable people in this country; anything you need, even if you don’t know it yourself, they will give. When I needed the toilet, the son would take me by the arm like I was a blind man. I felt a bit uncomfortable during the evening because they were so far in my personal space, they were almost sitting on me.

If you ever visit Uzbekistan, know that it’s okay to leave food on your plate. In the UK it’s rude, but here it means you’re still hungry, and I was about one mouthful away from hospital.

This was the last family I met here and a great last memory. They even filled my backpack with food – sweets, pasta sauce, crisps and a big bag of ‘ballsack’.

Ahead of me now was a 400km stretch of dry, uninhabited emptiness that runs to the border with Kazakhstan. Beyond that would be more desert, until I reached the city of Aktua, the first and last in the country.

I was worried about hitchhiking through this, because traffic was very sparse and you have to put a lot of trust into your driver and their vehicle. Other hitchhikers have often taken the inexpensive train. But, as I was walking out of the city the following morning, a lone trucker was pulled in drinking his morning cup of tea. He saw me walking and called me over, without thinking it seemed.

‘Where are you going?’ he asked.

‘Kazakhstan’ I replied.

‘Come with me, then!’

And as easily as that, I had a lift to the border!

The long, straight, dry and lifeless road out of Uzbekistan seemed at first glance to have snow around it, but it was actually salt. The Caspian sea, which continues to dry daily, used to be three times the size it is now.

I didn’t have much of a conversation with the driver and the ride seemed to be over very quickly, probably because of the lack of stimuli around the road.

I crossed back into Kazakhstan and was picked up by a taxi driver who had already been paid for. He took me 200km to Beyneu – the junction that goes either to Aktau or to Russia. I was still in the middle of nothing, and very tired, so, with nothing and no one around me, except the occasional herd of horses kicking up sand or or group of camels nodding along, I decided to take a couple of days off.

It was a chilly couple of nights. Winter was definitely sweeping in and I was glad to be almost in Georgia. When I did wake up from the cold, I could hear no vehicles on the road. I experienced the best night sky I’ve ever seen, too.

The emptiness glistened, which I thought was strange seeing as it was all sand. On closer inspection, I found that parts of it were being used as a rubbish dump. Just as every negative has a positive attached, I found some wood to make a fire. This attracted the attention of two wild dogs. There was a different bark coming from them, one I had never heard before. The thunderous sound shook my bones and I realised that they were not simply warning me away from their land. They wanted to hurt me. But if I was to run, they would take me down, so all I could do was remain standing, make myself look big and fearless. I stood for about 30 minutes until their barks became hoarse before they gave up and walked off. The fire was what kept me safe that night. Without it, who knows what would’ve happened.

I took the this as a hint to leave. The next morning, another truck driver had pulled in to take a break and called me over to ask where I was going. I got taken all the way to Aktau.

There were four of them traveling in convoy with some kind of construction vehicle on the back. We went terribly slowly, and it took 3 days to make the 500km to Aktau.
For hundreds of kilometers, apart from the occasional shop and gas station, there were no buildings, not even small huts or shacks. I saw the world for what it really is; a huge round rock shaped by the winds of fate, with a few relatively recent, small and temporary clusters of concrete that we call cities.

This part of the world was undisturbed by us. It was still free. The wind had its own voice. Phone signal didn’t even reach out there! We are all so very temporary and we do not own this earth, we merely inhabit it.

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We rolled in after dark and I found somewhere to camp on the outskirts. There was grass again, so I had no issues in putting my pegs in. I’d given up trying to hide my tent, because nobody seems to mind here.

As I got out of my lovely green home the following morning, a man was approaching me from the distance. ‘This is it’. I thought. ‘I’m going to die’. But as he got closer, I could see the neutrality and harmlessness of his facial expression; all he wanted to do was ask where I was from and where I was going. He was a perfectly friendly man and I gifted him with some instant coffee. He didn’t speak Russian, so we had to get by with hand movements. It was strange, finding a Kazakh who doesn’t speak Russian is like someone from the Netherlands not speaking English.

Aktau, the first and last city of Kazakhstan, was dead on the outside – like most people in the UK. There was an ominous end-of-the-world atmosphere as I walked in, with the heavy clouds looming menacingly overhead. The outskirts felt like a ghost town – the remains of Soviet times. But centrally, it was as full of life as a major European city. The city seemed to be like a plant that had been starved of water; once full of life, it had slowly receded into itself, leaving behind once healthy leaves to wither away.

My task was now to get across the Caspian sea to Baku in Azerbaijan, 200km away. From there I would get to Georgia, find a job over winter and get the visa to China. I wanted to try and hitchhike the boat across, but I’d spoken to hitchhikers and other travelers before arriving about getting across for free and they all seemed to believe it wasn’t possible.

I still gave it a go. I made it to the port and began asking truck drivers, one of whom agreed to take me. The only problem was the port authorities with their very strict security rules wouldn’t allow it.

The only other thing I came up with was to bribe my was past the ticket check, which kind of defeated the object of not paying for transport. I was very anxious to try this, but I got some cash out and proceeded to the waiting room. They asked to see my ticket there and then, in front of police officers and other travelers, so I took it as a sign and asked to buy one. They wouldn’t even let me buy a ticket, and a flight cost around the same, so I went for that option.

I was disappointed at the time, but I realized that I’m paying to go backwards, not forwards. Also, I’d return to the same spot in a few months, so I hadn’t broken my rules.

Just before leaving, I went to change my money into USD. I put my passport down in the bank as I waited and managed to leave it there. I walked away in a tired daze before checking my pockets. My backpack is heavy, but I managed to sprint.

Luckily, they had it waiting for me. It could’ve been the end of the adventure. After all I’d been through since leaving the UK, a few tears broke out when I realised I was able to continue. With this, I realised how much it meant to me and all of the doubts around whether or not I wanted to continue this journey disappeared.

The Second Time I Almost Got Married – Uzbekistan Part 2/3 – Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

September 2017

On the roadside on the outskirts of Samarkand after walking out early morning, a car pulled in. I did the usual ‘I cannot pay’ mime and the man did not drive off. Thinking he had agreed to take me for free, I got in. But things felt different; There were no questions about me or my trip and he looked like a man doing business. He then told me he wanted me to pay him.

‘No, I can’t pay you.’

‘Then how do you expect to get to Bukhara? No one will take you for free’.

I told him to just let me out, but he wouldn’t. I began to get angry, and when he stopped at the traffic lights, I just took my bag and left.

I had no problems getting there for free, none that I didn’t bring on myself anyway. After managing to hitch a ride with a truck driver for a few dozen kilometers, I got picked up by two brothers. They were in their ealry forties and set on making me feel very welcome in their country. They took me most of the way and, overwhelmed with excitement to have met a real English person, they took me to a restaurant and ordered copious amounts of meat and vodka.

I learned a very valuable lesson with these men – if you don’t want another vodka shot, don’t finish the one in front of you and say ‘no more’. Just leave it. Half a pint of Samarkand vodka later, I had to follow the waiter to the bathroom. I kept it all in, but the next thing I knew I was in a ditch with the early morning sun forcing my aching eyelids open. All of my organs were still in my body, but they were experiencing the hardest day of my life.

I was amazed how, blackout drunk, I had still managed to find a well-hidden camping spot.

I walked in autopilot mode to the road and sat in a bus stop for 20 minutes to recompose myself. A man came up to me and told me that I was on the wrong side of the road to get to Bukhara. I had completely lost my bearings, and on that morning, I thought the sun rose in the West.

It was really warming up, and I didn’t want to be on the long harsh road when the alcohol wore off.

I was picked up quickly by a man who thankful didn’t want to talk a lot. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a man who looked like he had died and come back to life. Maybe I had. ‘I’m never drinking again, I told myself, as I have before and will again.

Before I knew it, we were on the outskirts of Bukhara. It was only a 4km walk to the center. Normally, that distance takes me under an hour to walk, but today, it took be at least 3. I needed to sweat out the vodka anyway.

Reeking of stale alcohol, I walked into a supermarket to get some sugary snacks and water. The assistant followed me closely around the shop, probably thinking I was a homeless man.

I felt like I had floated into the city center. After checking-in to a hostel, I peeled my sodden t-shirt off my skin and very nearly threw up from the smell exasperated by the action. I considered throwing it away because after two hand washes, the smell stuck to it like gonorrhea.

I took a walk with the last hour of daylight and the realization hit me of why I have been getting so many stares. I saw another white person and he looked terribly out of place against the background of this Asian country – like a badly photoshopped image; even I stared a bit.

I do not think the stares are rude, they are just interested, and a friendly wave always seems to break their trance-like state. However, hearing the repetitive phrase ‘Otkuda?’ (Where are you from?) over and over like a broken CD player was getting on my tits a bit.

I felt terrible the following morning and thoughts of going home had returned. I had been feeling this a lot recently and despite knowing I was just hungover, I began to spiral. My mind was put to ease though when I walked in to the kitchen to find an open map of Georgia out on the work surface. ‘Get to Georgia, get the visa to China, and carry on’, I heard a voice in my head tell me.

I could not wait to rest over winter. I was having days where I would wake up with sore muscles and a sick feeling others where I felt like I had endless energy and motivation. My body was now running on reserve energy and some days it ran out.

Uzbekistan has not yet been ruined by tourism, as many countries have (especially in Southeast Asia); nobody tries to sell you anything you aren’t interested in and shop and cafe owners do not attempt to rip you off. Once I even gave more than I had been asked because I felt guilty. Visit as soon as you can, before it is too late.

I walked out of Bukhara before the sun came up to avoid the heat. Traffic was thin now as I headed further West into the desert. I enjoyed the beginning of this serenity as I continued to walk.

I hopelessly put my thumb out to a truck with both of the seats occupied, but they stopped for me anyway.

They took me all the way to Nukus – a 12 hour ride on surprisingly good road. We talked for about 7 minutes during the ride, which was fine by me because it meant I could read and sleep on their bed.

I watched the gradual progression in landscape as the road went from civilized desert to sandy blankness.

They left me on the outside of the city where I got my sleeping bag and roll mat out and slept on the sand. This was a new feeling for me and I managed to keep my equipment relatively sand-free.

Nukus was the last city before entering the vast, open desert, meeting settlement again in Aktau on the Caspian Sea.. There were two tasks I had here – get an e-visa for Azerbaijan and print it, and register my stay in Nukus, since it had been almost the maximum 3 nights since I last did it.

For these tasks I would need a print shop and Wi-Fi. I walked for hours seemingly hopelessly to the other side of the city in the humid, sandy and windy streets. I had to wear my face scarf to stop myself sneezing every few seconds.

Finally, like an oasis, a printing shop emerged. I used their Wi-Fi to submit the application for the e-visa, which, it turned out, would take up to 3 days to be issued. At first, I didn’t like this, but I was glad because I would have to rest. I walked back out of the city to a a spot among the dry desert vegetation and looked forward to the coming days of having nothing to do but read, eat, sleep and write.

The next morning, I navigated from memory to the Wi-Fi spot to find that the visa hadn’t been issued yet. I got some lunch in a small café where I hung out for a few hours.

A very attractive girl, about my age, called to me. ‘You’re from England?’ she asked, as if I were a celebrity. I mistook Gulbahkar’s enthusiasm for attraction.

‘It is my dream to go to London’, she told me; as was every Uzbek’s dream. What did we do to them?

I considered marrying her, just to get around my visa problem by getting free entry into Russia. After a bit of research, it turned out I would have to give up my Irish and British citizenships to obtain Uzbek. Oh well.

She took me to the school where she taught English and the students were even more excited than she was. They couldn’t ask any more than what my name was, where I was from, and how old I was, and I went between 4 classes and got asked those questions more times than I can remember. I spoke a bit about my adventure, told them where I had slept and travelled to. The shining looks of excitement and inspiration on their faces really inspired me to start public speaking and that evening, the email to send to potential hosts was written in a few minutes.

After another night in the shrubs, I spent most of the day doing nothing but reading and drinking tea. My visa had finally been issued and I checked in to the only Hotel in Nukus to get the final registration slip; there would be no more on the way to the border with Kazakhstan.

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure: Uzbekistan Part 1/3: Tashkent to Samarkand

September 2017

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.

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure: Almaty to Tashkent

September 2017

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.

Almaty, breaking the 3.5-month hurdle  

September 2017

I spent almost two weeks in or around Almaty, the longest I’d stopped in the three-and-a-half month trip so far. I arrived exhausted but left even more tired.

For 10 days, I stayed in a hostel and let myself focus on the looming and likely possibility of failure. Being around backpackers with nowhere near the same level of stress didn’t help, and I began to think that it was just me overreacting.

There were a number of options I could pursue to continue my journey East; every day, I was set on something different. Being in Almaty, I wanted to try to get a Russian visa. My Irish passport had just been issued, so I had my mum post it out to me; with it, I was increasing my chances of succeeding, because I could post it home, or leave it at a consulate while I continued.

I let myself sleep in far too late most days, because I had no reason to get up. I didn’t really want to get up either, because I knew that only stress waited for me on the other side of the duvet.

After a few days, my heart rate became almost twice what it normally is. Falling asleep each night, it got no better, and a few times I experienced tight-chestiness. I knew how it felt to be depressed and I was getting that way again.

I was in a good hostel though, the owners, Yusuf and his wife, were very empathetic. It helped that everyone in the hostel spoke English, which was a needed break.

Someone else from the UK checked in. Dan. His voice, southern accent and mannerisms transported me back home.

We went out one night with some of the other guests to try and make me feel better. It ended with just me and him in a club. Most of my drinks had been paid for and I lost control a bit. Dan and I went into the smoking room and all I could focus on was a shiny red thing. I watched myself pick it up, pull the seal out and squeeze the nozzle. The fire extinguisher coated dan in a thick layer of white powder, and his blue eyes flickered opened like something out of a cartoon.

I left the room and immediately forgot what I’d done. I turned around to see Dan, looking like the Terminatior, shooting me back from a few dozen meters away.

We then both forgot what had happened and returned to the dance floor. Shortly after, a large man came up to me and asked If I had set off the fire extinguisher. ‘Not me!’ I told him.

He looked at my and Dan’s powdered clothes and told me that they had CCTV. ‘Now you must pay $50, or we will call the police’, he told me.

I sobered up just enough to tell Dan and make a plan. We agreed that I had to escape, because I was the one who had done something wrong. With the management team standing at the bar in disapproving expectation, I walked past them with my phone to my ear, telling them I had to call someone to help me out. My walk begame a power walk, which became a jog and finally, a run. I ran as fast as I could in the straightest line possible. Bouncing around the pavement like a pinball, I made the hour-long walk to the hostel in about three hours. When I got back, Dan was still not there.

He had been kept back my the security guards who were trying to force him to pay the fine. In his drunken state, he was telling them to call the police, because he didn’t care. He actually called their bluff, and they eventually let him go.

We debriefed each other the eext afternoon, and for the next few days we would be findinh white powder almost everywhere.

Even though I got out and did something, I was still spiraling. I began to develop a sore throat, headache, loss of appetite and general sluggishness. Thankfully around that time, Chris and Yula from the UK and Venezuela respectively checked-in and asked me if I wanted to go out of the city with them for a few days.

When I read a couple of week before in Ed Stafford’s Walking the Amazon that we can choose how we react when faced with obstacles, I didn’t fully understand what he meant. I would discover it fully over the coming days. It seemed untrue, but humoring these words, I told myself that I would be strong and happy.

The night before, we visited a friend of theirs, played cards and had some food. I could not feel hungry, but I forced some down. I was silent for most of the night, unable to suppress the flu symptoms. We returned to the hostel for a few hours’ sleep, after which I felt good.

We rode a few hundred kilometers to a small village called Suti. It was partially unoccupied and the houses that were being lived in looked like they weren’t. It was arid, dusty and hot. We hitched most of the way to the first and continued walking with the dry, beige mountains at our sides.

Our plan was not concreted, but we decided to head towards the first lake which was 16km away. From there, another 9 would take us to the second, and the third was a bit out of reach.

Another lift took us a bit further, and we then walked the remaining few kilometers to the first lake. The final steps took us up to a peak, over which we were introduced to the oasis that was the turquoise lake, surrounded by proud, veranda pine trees. This is where we would camp for the first night.

Chris and Yula didn’t have camping equipment with them because they were traveling normally – between hostels. I assured them that, if we could find a woodland, then we could get a fire going and survive the night. ‘Survive’ was just the word.

We spent an hour gathering all thicknesses and lengths of wood before setting my tarp up open to the fire, so that the heat would warm us from the front and reflect on to the back of us.

Chris and Yula lay down their towels as camping mats and put all of their clothes on. I gave them what I could, and after some delicious noodles and bread with tea, I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag. We lay my camping mat out to fit the top of our bodies on. I must have been slightly warmer than Chris, because it was always he who was tending to the fire whenever I woke up from the chill.

To reach the second lake, we had a lot of elevation to achieve, so we hid our unneeded equipment, such as spare clothes and my tarp, in the trees. We only took one backpack too, which Chris and I alternated carrying.

It was tough mentally to push through the hours going up, but I reminded myself that I could decide how to behave when faced with challenges. I chose to succeed. We made it to the second lake, which was even more stunning than the first. Chris took a picture of me – I had a smile of victory on me, my chest was puffed out and I felt the strongest I had ever been.

Now came the 30km back to the village to get a ride back to Almaty. We had allowed the whole night to walk it, lest we didn’t get picked up at all, which we didn’t. Before the hike, we filled ourselves with carbohydrates and filled our pockets with high-energy snacks.

The average person can walk 4km in one hour on level terrain, so it took us a full working day to get back. We began to snap at each other from exhaustion, but laughed about it right after.

I went into autopilot towards the end and my legs seemed to walk themselves.

We reached the village at 5am, when the bus was allegedly leaving for Almaty. With no sign of life, we set up my tent again and made a fire until sunrise. One of the people in the village arranged a lift back and even cooked us some food.

Back in Almaty, my Irish passport had arrived, and I was refreshed, mentally and physically, and ready to continue. The trip which I had given up on before had been 3.5 months, but this time I had stuck with it and overcome the low point.

I made the decision to work my way backwards to Georgia where I could get the visas needed to complete my trip.

Astana to Almaty

“I began talking to myself on the roadside as I waited for a car to stop in the thin traffic. This is one step away from madness, but as long as I didn’t start a two-sided conversation with myself, I would be fine.”

August 2017

I received an unbelievable amount of kindness on my way to Almaty. The old capital was 500km from the new one, Astana.

I had been left just on the outskirts, where I camped. The green North, adjacent with Russia, was now blending into sandy beige, like the colors on a paint palette. Consequentially, the land was much more exposed and I could not hide my tent. I had walked about a kilometer away from the road but would still have been visible to anyone wanting to look in my direction. Police cars had stopped on the roadside twice during the night, but I took comfort in the fact that there were no better spots around.

The sun rose and I wanted to sleep more, so I knocked my walking pole down and slipped away for a while longer until the sun heated my tarp to the point that I wasn’t able to keep my eyes shut.

On the roadside, I breakfasted on the pastry I had bought the evening before in preparation for the walk out of Astana, which I didn’t have to eat because I had been taken from outside the shop.

I could not even finish it before someone pulled in, having seen me there with my backpack. The man could only take me a few kilometers before he had to turn off, but he gave me enough cash to get some lunch.

Next came a construction worker in his truck. He said nothing at all, but he did shake my hand when we said bye. He took me to the outside of Karaganda – one third of the way to Almaty. Now I had to find a lift to take me all the way through the city; it was a big one and would take too long to walk it, as I often end up doing because most of the traffic going into cities stays there.

I stopped for lunch to find that a beer can, which I had bought to boost morale after last nights walk-to-be, had opened itself inside my backpack. I now not only smelled like an alcoholic, but my power-bank and Kindle were damaged, and my brother’s DSLR destroyed.

A woman and her mother picked me up next. Although they were only going into the city center, they wanted to take me all the way to the other side. As well as that, they took me to a supermarket and filled up my backpack. Why they did this for someone they have only just met and will never see again still does not make sense to me, and when they left me, I had to walk off the road for 15 minutes to recompose myself.

During that time, I felt homesick again. I knew I didn’t want to quit, because I would regret it for the rest of my life. Then I realised that if I had a visa for China or Russia, then I would be enjoying my time. The visas were the center and cause of my distress.

I woke the next day, after 12 hours of sleep, and realized that I tiredness had played a huge role in my mood. Rest, food and water seem to be the three things that control my mood now, and I think the same is true for most of us in normal life.

Whenever I feel down now, I first ask myself if I am tired. If not, then I ask if I am hungry. My mood has never been affected by anything else, apart from apparent sources such as visas.

Back to the roadside and feeling overwhelmed, yet again someone stopped without me having my thumb out. He was a Muslim, and wanted to reassure me, over and over, that he was not a terrorist. When he heard I was from England, he said ‘Prince Charles’, ‘Princess Diana’ and other royal names. It was a good conversation.

His car broke down after a few kilometers and we waited in the middle of nothing for a rescue truck to come and take his car back to Karaganda. His friend picked him and me up from the barren road, where I did not want to be left, lest I die, and took me to a café and bought me dinner. ‘Welcome to Kazakhstan’ they said as they turned my money down to help with the bill. I would be hearing this phrase quite often during my time here.

In the middle of the steppe and half-way to Almaty, he left me to camp. Apart from the small truck stop, there was nothing around me but small, crater-like, isolated peaks which made me feel like I was on the moon. The stars looked like grains of sparkling silver on a bed of powdered, purple-black charcoal.

The change in my mood the next day was astonishing – after 12 hours of sleep I felt capable of anything, and very hopeful for the visa situation working out. I felt good about myself, and I was happy to be where I was and doing what I was doing.

I began talking to myself on the roadside as I waited for a car to stop in the thin traffic. This is one step away from madness, but as long as I didn’t start a two-sided conversation with myself, I would be fine.

It was 34 degrees, according to the gas station behind me, but I did not feel it in the dry air. I drank a lot of water though. I restocked at the gas station and made the mistake of using the toilet. Never in my life have I smelled something as evil as that – I thought that my brain would destroy my sense of smell. Even with my face scarf on, the smell still penetrated. ‘Next time, I will hold it in’, I told myself.

Back on the road, after 10 minutes, Vladamir stopped in his 4×4. He took me the final 8 hours to Almaty. The road condition deteriorated the further from Astana we got, before getting better approaching Almaty.

Statistically, the most likely cause of death to me on this trip would be a road accident. Therefore, I was now in the most dangerous country of the journey so far.

At the worst point, for about 50km, it was better to drive off-road. The potholes were so deep, that apparently in the rain, it is like driving a boat. I feared for my life as he drove like nihilist. I asked why he didn’t go slower, and he said that with more speed, there are less potholes.

He lost control of the car twice, and I realized that we could well have been killed.

We made it, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. He drove me around the city to find me a hostel before heading off.

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure
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On 01/06/17, I left the UK to hitchhike around the world. Currently in: Kyrgyzstan
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#hitchhiking #adventure #travel #expedition #thumbsup #backpacking #wildcamping #hitchhikersguidetothegalaxy #hitchhiker #solotravel #backpacking #tomsbighitchhikingadventure #Kazakhstan #almaty

Astana

August 2017

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.

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The Road to Astana

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Into Kazakhstan

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.

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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.

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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.

Tom Hitchhikes the Earth – Days 74-78: What it Means to be British

“…Travel doesn’t make you a different person, it just helps you to realize yourself.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tom Hitchhikes the Planet – Day 71-73 – A Mistaken Kidnapping and Sleeping on an Ants’ Nest

“My gut was telling me not to get in this man’s car, but I am British and British people are too polite, so I got in anyway. As I loaded my backpack into his car boot, I asked myself what the hell I was doing.”

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The road to Moscow was easy, everyone was going there, but going away from the capital presented me with nothing but irritatingly short lifts of a few dozen kilometers at a time, as well as typical waiting times of around an hour or more. It took me 2 days to cover 200km, the distance typical usually achieved in half a day. The remaining 590km was made on day 3, when I thought I had been kidnapped.

It was especially frustrating, because I had to move quickly now, having underestimated the distance to Kazakhstan; within my 30-day visa, I would have to travel a total of 3000km – the same distance as from the UK to the Russian border, which I made in 60 days.

The evenings did not help my mood at all. One evening, I set my floor-less tent up on an ants’ nest. The spicy sensation on my upper back and shoulders as I was falling asleep was not very welcome, nor was the cloud of mosquitoes on the other side of my net. It makes me itchy typing this, but I got up, ran a few feet to avoid the blood-suckers, smacked the itchy areas of my skin, returned to the scene and moved everything further into the woods. The occasional ant would show up under my clothes over the duration of the night. It smelled ever so slightly of shit, too. Truth be told, times like these are a part of the adventure, I love them, I just don’t like them.

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On the third day, my hair was too greasy to let down and I had lost my hair bobble, so I was keeping it up with my sunglasses – my eyes would just have to suffer. A truck driver took me 50km and bought me lunch. The feeling of chewing and swallowing someone other than bread and cheese puffs was better than many of my sexual experiences.

That night at 10pm, to avoid another mosquito attack, I sat on the roadside drinking a beer and eating my noodles before going into the woods. It was great – I had Muse playing from my phone as I enjoyed my warm food. Suddenly, a white car pulled up behind me. Shit, I thought, it is the police.

It turned out to be a man who asked me where I was going. I told him I was going 390km to Kazan and he said he was going there. I had an immediate bad feeling about him.

I anticipated this happening on my adventure, and before leaving on this trip, I told myself, and those worried for my safety, that I would be fine because I would always deny a lift if I had a bad gut feeling. My gut was telling me not to get in this man’s car, but I am British and British people are too polite, so I got in anyway. As I loaded my backpack into his car boot, I asked myself what the hell I was doing.

He pulled away from my roadside spot and I began to go over a plan of action in my head. Panicking would make things worse, so I maintained a relaxed demeanor. What could I do? Everything I thought I could do if this scenario arose I now realized was quite unrealistic. Do I ask him to let me out? – No, I can’t just say that. Do I grab the steering wheel and cause a crash? – No, this is real life.

He remained eerily silent. I came up with a plan to ask him to stop to let me go to the toilet when we got to the safety of a gas station – I would just take my backpack and not get back in, and someone else would be there. But as we approached one, I couldn’t bring myself to ask.

There is only one main road through Russia and as long as he didn’t deviate from that path, I would be fine, I thought. Next thing I knew, he was driving off of it.

He stopped the car, took a photo of the road sign and then returned to the main road. Next, he began to quietly take phone calls of 10-20 seconds. Whom was he talking to? The organ harvesters? Could he be telling them to get the rusty scalpel ready to cut my kidneys out?

We reached over half-way and I figured I could let him take me a bit further; I had a lot of distance to make!

Another hundred kilometers passed, and he asked me a bit about myself. I coldly gave him a short answer. Don’t talk to the organ harvester, I thought.

We were very near Kazan now, and he asked me where I wanted to be left. He then told me his wife, children and pet dog were a small distance before the city and that he couldn’t take me all the way into the center. Strange, I thought. Psychopaths don’t have animals or children

He took me as far as he could, got out the car, handed me my backpack and gave me a bottle of beer. He smiled, shook my hand and said goodbye. I felt very bad, because I had been cold towards a nice man. Had he taken me in the daytime, I would probably have reacted differently.

I was now a 10km hop to Kazan and my next Couchsurfing host, Alexi. I set up my tent, cracked open the cold, rewarding beer, knowing my kidneys were still there to process it made it.

 

Моscow and Another Adventure-Ending Crisis

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

 

Hello, Russia!

I was about to cross into Russia, and it dawned on me that I had only ever crossed without apprehension between EU countries.This was a new kind of border and I was nervous.

The border official, who had the obligatory fear-inducing expression and tone of voice, asked for my documents. She inspected them as if she were a detective at a murder scene, and as she did, the possibility of getting turned away arose.

With a look on her face which said ‘you got lucky this time’, I crossed into my 30th country. I did not have a good first impression of this new land – barbed wire fences held my excitement in, as did the defeated looks on people’s faces.

I was met once again by the abundance of nature apparent in Estonia, but here, it was darker. It felt dangerous, not delightful and it certainly wasn’t as magical. The roads were now laden with potholes and the vehicles were beaten up, scratched and dented.

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The first man to pick me up had such a car. He spoke not one word of English, as I would come to realize was the case in almost all of Russia – They do have the biggest country in the world, after all.

I listened to the indecipherable streams of sound flowing from his mouth, but could understand not one word. A few years back, being in a country and not being able to communicate would have petrified me, but now it actually excited me.

When he left me, he gave me a look to say ‘best of luck, you will need it!’.

The next car took me to St. Petersburg, where I would stay with my next host for three nights. It was a suspiciously new and shiny white Lexus, which stood out from every other vehicle on the road. The immaculate interior of his car stood out to me too, because there was no personality to it, as if it wasn’t his. The man driving it was different, too – There was something about his eyes; he was using them to interrogate me with aggressive curiosity.

After a lot of hitchhiking, you begin to realize that safe people will seem a bit excited and often a bit lonely. When you get in, they ask the same kind of questions: ‘how old are you?’, ‘what’s your name?’, etc. I know that if anyone breaks these patterns, then I should start to worry.

This man asked me what I was doing in Russia, what was in my backpack, why I was alone, etc. He even asked if I knew about MI6.

I got warned by a Royal Marine back in the UK that I’d be on their radar as soon as I crossed, being a British man travelling alone without flights or a tour group. After an hour’s ride though, he took me to the city, as he said he would, and I never saw him again; that’s not to say he never saw me again.

The 20km walk into central St. Petersburg presented me with the transition from the grimy, slimy grayness, with the stench of the sewers steaming into the cold, humid air from the drains, to golden light bouncing off Orthodox churches sitting on the riverside, making everything seems okay again; walking into a city gives this well-rounded experience of a place – a worm’s-eye view, which is a perk of my rule of never paying for transport.

Once there, I sat in a McDonald’s for three hours while I waited for my host to finish work, during which time a man in his fifties was sitting at the other end of the restaurant to me, with no food. He was looking in my direction, but not directly at me. I managed to catch his eyes after an hour and he got up and left before coming back five minutes later and sitting somewhere else to resume his surveillance. Luckily, I had nothing to feel nervous about.

Just before midnight, Alexander met me outside his apartment. He was a friendly Russian who spoke English well enough. He looked like a body guard. Maybe he was, secretly? He showed me to the living room sofa-bed and asked if I was tired, to which I couldn’t lie. Without room for argument, he told me to sleep and I didn’t put up a struggle…

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Alexander, my host and ex-tour-guide, showed me around the highlights the following day, with great enthusiasm. I won’t pretend to remember or understand what he said, but his energy made the beauty of the place quite memorable.

He taught me some basic Russian, which I realized I needed now because English is not enough in this country. But even the basics like ‘hello’ (preeveyet), ‘please’ (pashawesta), and ‘thank you’ (spasseba), were tough to memorize. Not to mention the alphabet being different, but I managed to pick that up within a few days, given that all road signs had the Cryillic and Latin characters together on road signs. Shop signs were all in that alphabet, so I was forced to learn quickly.

He told me that across the country, as consequence of reshuffling of the population during Soviet times, they can understand each other without much difference in accent or dialect. Europe, which is significantly smaller, has completely different languages just hundreds of kilometers apart. In the UK, I cannot understand what some people from the North of the country are saying.

Despite having most of the time in this city to myself while Alex was at work, I did nothing but rest. I was knackered. All I managed to do was cancel the $4000 worth of fake flights needed for failed chinese visa application and delete all of the photos from Latvia Lithuania and Estonia. I was not best pleased.

Within three days of my arrival to Russia, I had to ‘register my arrival’ with the police service. After a lot of research, I found that Alexander could do it for meat the Post Office. At 8am (how the hell did I used to wake up this early?) on my final and third day, we went and waited for two hours. Finally, I was given a piece of paper stating that the relevant information had been sent to the relevant body. I was very grateful for him doing this, because he had to take the morning off work.

I made him dinner that evening, as a combined thanks for also letting me stay.

We said goodbye the next day and he expressed his confusion around me choosing to walk out of the city.

Up until this point, I had followed the rule of never paying for transport, but during the 30km drudge out of St. Petersburg, which went back the way I had alread came, I began to realize I was doing it unnecessarily. It rained, I had blisters in-between my toes, and I spent more on food than I would have on a metro ticket. I enjoy the struggle that comes with adventure, but I realized here that as long as I wasn’t paying to advance, then I wasn’t breaking my rule. I only realized this once I reached the outside of the city, with my damp clothes hanging up inside my tent.

Goodbye, Estonia – Day 66 – 68

The sun was low in the sky as it clung to the last hours of the day. It shone sharply into my blue, British-Irish eyes – a feeling I was not used to, having  so far only hitchhiked East. But now I was going backwards towards Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

I had left very late and was anxiously scouting out possible camping spots as I stood on the roadside. But after just thirty minutes, a man and woman picked me up. I told them about my adventure – where I sleep, how I cover distance and what I eat. It was like I was telling them a story about meeting a man with two heads. They wanted to know as much as they could in the thirty-minute ride, but the language barrier held us back.

Left just five kilometers from the flat that Marko said I could stay in while he was away, I walked. My tiredness seemed to blur the walk, and before I knew it, I was there.

I spent 45 minutes buying a load of useless ingredients in the shop next door before returning to the flat and passing out for 11 hours before I could figure out what to cook.

Suffice to say, I slept very well on that sofa bed.

I hadn’t been alone for a long time. The relief of having my own space and not having to entertain a host or driver quickly turned to a deep loneliness. I was tired, yes, but there was something else. I pondered for a while before getting a call from September. Talking to her brought a lot of emotions up. Today, she was accepting of the pause on our relationship, but I knew that both of us felt a full break was imminent.

I wrote in my journal that night:

“September is struggling with the distance and [length of] time [I will be away for], but some things are more important than a relationship. I expect we will break up soon. Part of me is upset, but another isn’t. Perhaps it is for the best. If we do remain together through this, then it really is love. If not, then it is best to end it now than in twenty years when we have bought a load of furniture together.”

Reading back through my journal entries tends to transport me right back into my body at the time I wrote them; I re-experience tastes, sounds, emotions and sights. Apart from feeling low, I enjoyed an effortless rest. I slept for 10 hours that night, woke up and ate breakfast, then fell asleep for another hour. It might not sound like much, but I have documented it because it was incredible.

Tallinn was very similar to Riga and Vilnius – marvelous, medieval-looking and a bit magical. Apart from exploring, I collected my passport which had been posted to me following the failed attempt at obtaining the visa for China. At least it arrived quickly, before my Russian visa began. I took a total of to days before leaving to cover the 400km to the border.

I walked out of the city and found a nice, well-hidden woodland spot. Despite being away from the main path, some people came along just as I was falling asleep and played their music. I quietly got out my mugger’s phone and wallet, should they see me. After thirty minutes, they left – I wasn’t sure if it was because they saw me, or because they just got bored. Regardless, I fell into another deep rest.

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I was eased into the new day by the sweet pattering of rain on my tarpaulin; it was like the subtle opening of a symphony by an orchestra – the smooth transition across the anxious border of consciousness, across which we are so often dragged.

The aching chest of loneliness had faded with my sleep and I was ready to enter my 30th country. Today, I would head towards St. Petersburg and stay with my next host – Alexander.

I was on the last road in Estonia, and it was as empty as any other road approaching a border. I savored the last moment of this country, which has more nature than civilization. I would be back, I just knew it.

My final lift, Dimirti, bought me a coffee and muffin. It was a huge morale boost, though I was already quite happy that day. I was now just a few steps away from the Russian Federation.

 

 

Dumpster Diving and a Sh**ty Situation – Hitchhiking Around the World Day 63

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I woke in the early afternoon and sat up in my sleeping bag, admiring the emerald-green countryside with its buttercup-yellow fields as I ate the last of my food scraps. I took a few hours to myself in my tiny bubble of ignorance, attached to a much larger one which was the real world. Hunger crept back in before too long, but I ignored it; I didn’t want the simplicity of this moment to end.

I had to leave eventually though. There were no shops nearby, nor was there good place to hitchhike. After about 20 minutes of walking, my legs began to operate on reserve energy.

I found a bus stop at which I waited for a very little amount of time before a man named Timo stopped and took me the whole 100km to Tallinn.

He spoke English well enough to have a good conversation with me – He was a family man and on his way to get the ferry to neighboring Finland, where he works for 6 months of the year, makes a lot of money in the stronger currency and then returns home for the remainder of the year to spend with his wife and children.

he left me in the capital, but I wouldn’t stay to explore it. I would need to be back in a few days to pick my passport up anyway, and I had already arranged with a Couchsurfing host to stay for 3 nights in a small village halfway to the Russian border.

All I had to do now was find some food and a place to camp for the night. I bought a baguette of garlic bread and a liter of strawberry milkshake which went down like a fat person tripping over.

Finding somewhere to camp in a city is never easy, but fewer than 4km away from the center, I found an overgrown area of land which looked as if it had once been set aside for another tower block.

The following description of that night in my tent might paint for an awful image for some, but I truly enjoyed it, as I do every aspect of this adventure. I wrote in my diary under my not-completely-secure mosquito net with about 20 of the little bastards sitting on it, waiting for me to make a mistake – I couldn’t keep the net tucked under my sleeping bag and be comfortable at the same time; I tried lying sideways and writing which made my hand go numb, then I tried sitting up which pushed some of my bare skin against the net. The most comfortable position I found was lying on my back, but this caused the pen to stop flowing. I settled on the last one, but sitting up a bit – painful on my stomach after a while, but it was the lesser of three evils.

The next morning, nature called and I had no toilet paper with me. All I could think of was my bag of dirty clothes, which luckily contained a pair of socks beyond repair.

The next thing I did was slightly less disgusting. Dumpster diving is a great way to travel for free, and now that I knew the journey was going to take longer than I had budgeted for, I had to make changes.  I found a supermarket with unlocked bins – there were people watching, but I didn’t care anymore. I found more sandwiches in them that I knew what to do with. They had been thrown out that day and were still sealed.

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I filled my backpack up to the brim and opened one to eat as I walked; it was no different to the paid version. I’m not an activist, but I think the amount of food we throw away is quite terrible.

At the main road again, I caught a car within one minute of putting my thumb out – one of my easier hitches. Elar was a 28-year-old camera man and we had a great conversation about relationships, travel and food. He gave me some ice cream, and I thought about giving him a sandwich, but I didn’t want to tell him where it had come from. He took me to a bus stop just outside my Couchsurfing host’s house where I waited for him to be free.

I didn’t tell Marko that I was waiting for him in the bus shelter, because the wooden panels prevented me from seeing around me and I was worried he would scare me. He knew I was there and, of course, I shat myself (metaphorically, not like earlier in this blog). He seemed to be excited to tell me something…

After we exchanged the regular niceties that you do when you meet a new person – especially one whom you are going to be spending the next few nights with – he told me that the man who had just dropped me off was one of his best friends who did not yet know the new address.

According to him, everyone is connected through a mutual friend in Estonia, if they are not already friends; it is a small country with a small population.

Marko looked typically Eastern European, with his bleach blonde hair blue eyes. He had a very soft voice and a slender build. He led me to his house – a cute wooden 1950’s home which he inherited from his grandparents. What I wouldn’t give to be given a dream house like this – it was perfect! He showed me to my room and we conversed over a cup of tea. I felt safe, relaxed and happy there. And what was to happen over the next few days would set my mind at ease.

 

Hitchhiking Around the World Day 59

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We all experience, at least once in our lives, the feeling of being unable to get out of bed because what we must face that day is something we don’t want to accept the reality of; if the very reality of something is too hard to process, then it is usually, to us, quite terrible. The sunlight diffusing through the fabric of my tent was unwelcome as it illuminated my hiding place from the problems ahead of me. As it forced my eyes open, I didn’t feel tired, but nevertheless went back to sleep to escape for just a while longer. I continued to do so until getting too hot to be in my sleeping bag, and having to face reality.

I felt physically and mentally weak. It must have been because I was hungry, but I didn’t feel it; my mind was occupied by something worse.

I caught the smell of the fear-inducing garlic sauce, which I had stupidly stored upside-down in my backpack and had opened over some of my kit the night before. I quarantined the affected items, luckily nothing that couldn’t be cleaned, and packed everything else away separately. That was one hurdle over with, now to move on to the next – Reaching Estonia.

The road in Latvia on which I now stood had low traffic, but I didn’t have any room to be worried about how long I could be waiting. Thankfully, it wasn’t for very long. A very serious Russian-looking man took me 1/3 of the way. He kept asking me if he could have my email address, to make “a business proposal” I would be interested in. I didn’t give him my real one.

As he let me out and drove away, the cursed glass garlic sauce bottle decided to fall out of my backpack’s side-pocket and shatter on the road. I begrudgingly picked up the bigger pieces and once again had the sauce on my hands. It was like closure when I threw the debris in the bin; now I could move on.

I was now only 100km from the border with Estonia, but the roads that go to border crossings, as I have learned the hard way, see very few cars going all the way.

My mind was somewhere else that day, and an hour passed by in what seemed like minutes. A truck approached, with an Estonian number plate, but I didn’t have hope for it stopping because trucks seldom do once they’re moving; they are going too fast to stop in good time. But after he passed, I heard brakes screeching and gravel crunching – “no way!” I whispered to myself, with a little bit of happiness restored.

He spoke no English, and I made a poor attempt to speak Russian, and we settled on comfortable silence after a few minutes. He took me all the way to Tartu, where I was to stay with my next Couchsurfing host, Tambet, for a few nights.

I now had a small walk into the center of the city where I would meet Tambet in a few hours’ time. I couldn’t follow my GPS, because my phone was very nearly out of battery.  Instead, I used common sense and followed the main flow of traffic. I also couldn’t check my messages as regularly as I’d have liked, to see when he was free, but he told me “around 8pm,” so I checked once an hour.

I spotted a supermarket and, now that I had calmed down a bit, felt hungry again. I almost swallowed the sandwiches whole.

I looked up to the clear, blue sky and actually prayed for my visa application to come through. There was still hope – the visa agency was going to ask the embassy if there was any way around going to London for an interview. Deep down I knew it was almost impossible, but the hope kept me from flying home.

I caught a glimpse of myself in a car window. I looked miserable. I felt worse.

As I sat on a bench outside the shop, an elderly man approached me and curiously asked me some questions in Estonian. Despite being in Estonia, and speaking with an Estonian man, I expected him to speak English with me. I felt bad about that, but I can’t learn all the languages of all the countries I go through during this adventure.

Many people, including myself, were worried that, on this trip, I would be alone and when faced with problems such as the one on my doorstep now, I wouldn’t have anyone to help me. Thankfully, when one travels, there are always people who want to help, especially when you travel alone (and are as good-looking as me). Never on this journey have I felt truly alone, and never have I not had anyone to talk to and help me through tough times. Tambet asked me if I was okay when I met with him that evening, to which I replied “no, not really.”

We talked about it, and he reassured me that there is always hope, and that my problem wasn’t as bad as I perceived it to be. He was a good friend and said I could stay for longer that we had agreed, if I needed to. We came up with a few possibilities to get around the China visa problem: One was to fly back home to the UK, get the visa, and return to where I flew from; another was to go very quickly through Russia, the largest country in the world, covering 10,000km (or 400km/day), which was possible within my one month visa; we also speculated that I could go south into Africa, or backwards to America and reach Singapore that way; finally, we realized I could stay in Estonia and gain residency (the only requirement to apply for a Chinese visa outside of your home country). With all these possibilities being thought up over the course of an evening, I felt good again. And the next day, I felt excited to get out of bed.

 

 

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The Day it All Went Wrong – Latvia Part 2/2 – Hitchhiking Around the World Days 51 – 58

“Not only had I been punched in the stomach, now I had been kicked in the balls, too.”

I had been in Latvia for a week and experienced the capital city, Riga. Now I wanted to see somewhere that wasn’t a tourist magnet – somewhere in the countryside, somewhere which would show me the ‘real’ Latvia. I checked all of the small villages on Couchsurfing and found a host in a town called Saldus, 200km to the West. My host said he could pick me up from Riga and drive me straight there. This time, I remembered not to complain about how easy things are.

It wasn’t much to write about, just a small Latvian town, but my host family were very welcoming.

Next was Jelgava, another small city in the lush green countryside to the East. Antra and Peter were very hospitable, and I felt very guilty receiving free food and beer for the two days I stayed with them. They refused anything from me, but I managed to slip a bottle of wine on to the table with a ‘thank you’ note the morning I left.

Augusta (my host in Riga) sent me a message telling me I had forgotten my army mug. I couldn’t leave it behind, because it was, and still is, one of the most important pieces of equipment on my kit list – it can be used as a tea mug, or a cooking pot, or to boil unsafe water. It is also indestructible – I have even used it to hit tent pegs into hard earth. Luckily, I had to go in that direction to get to Estonia, so I paid her a visit.

It was nice to see her again but she couldn’t talk for long, so I only stayed for a quick cup of tea. If I would have known what was going happen that evening, I would not have left her apartment.

Ahead of me was the long walk out of Riga, which ended up being about 18km (4.5 hours of walking). It was sharp, sodden and spirit-damaging weather; I even had to set up my tarp a couple of times to avoid downpours. Towards the end of the tummy-rumbling drudge, I found a business park which I nabbed Wi-Fi from. ‘Why not check my notifications?’ I thought. ‘My Chinese visa is due today’.

Opening my email inbox, I saw, in block capitals, an email from the visa agency I was using to get the visa to China. ‘URGENT – INTERVIEW REQUESTED’, read the subject line. As my heart began to repeatedly smack the inside of my rib cage in an ever-increasing fit of panic as if it were trying to free itself, and as I realized what those capitalized words meant for my journey, I opened the message.

“Dear Mr. Day,

I have tried to contact you over the phone but was not successful.

We have got a problem with your Chinese visa. Your application was successfully submitted on the 13th of July, so your visa was due today. However, when our courier came to collect it, he was told by the visa center that the Consulate selected you for an interview [in person, in London]. Unfortunately, we are not sure what the reason is, as the Consulate does not explain the nature of it.

The interview can be attended any working day between 9:30 and 11 am. Could you get in touch with us confirming when you can attend the interview, so we could book it for you?”

I had planned for almost anything which could go wrong, but for this I had nothing.

I had no idea what I was going to do.

I had expected it to be issued today and to be in my hands within a week, so I could have crossed into Russia and continued East.

I was stunned.

The confusion quickly wore off and became panic at the realization that my trip was most likely over.

I hadn’t even made it out of Europe yet!

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

I was on my own, too; nobody was there to reassure me.

I could feel my journey crumbling like a dry mud hut under heavy rain, and I needed a friend. I called Jack, but he could only talk for a few minutes. I couldn’t call my Mum or Dad, because I didn’t want to worry them. And I couldn’t call September, because I knew that hearing her voice would make me return to the comfort of home.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I caught a ride with some very friendly people, who of course were asking me about my trip. ‘Singapore?!’ they asked in amazement, when I told them my end destination (at the time), but I didn’t say it with enthusiasm anymore, because I no longer believed it to be true.

Defeated, I carried myself into a woodland and lazily set my tent up. I was too stressed to feel hungry, but I knew I must be after the hike, so I boiled some rice. Earlier, I had bought a bottle of garlic sauce to treat myself to some flavor and, inevitably, that evening was the one that fate had chosen to open it inside my bag. It was stored upside-down and, as I lifted it out, the lid came loose and the garlic liquid engulfed the contents of my backpack like a flash flood. Not only had I been punched in the stomach, now I had been kicked in the balls, too.

‘One problem at a time’, I told myself.

Shortly after, I realized I didn’t even have any cutlery – I must’ve left it behind with one of my hosts. So, with my penknife, I shoveled in a few mouthfuls of garlic-flavored rice, before giving up and retreating to my sleeping bag, which now acted as a barrier from my newly-dealt problems.

Maybe it was all a bad dream.

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Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –

 

 

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A Near-Death Experience: Hitchhiking Around the World Days 32 and 33

“I thought that the tall grass would be a safe, well-hidden place for sleeping in, but I was forced out of my sleeping bag just after sunrise by a man driving a lawnmower inches away from my tent.”

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I spent a total of 3 days in the small town of Konin. It was my first experience of Couchsurfing, which I have been using throughout my trip as a way of meeting local people and learning about what life is really like in the places I visit.

Marcin and his family were very hospitable. They showed me around their town and surrounding area, and even paid for my bus tickets. Thanks again!

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The next stop on my hitchhiking adventure was Suwalki, Poland’s coldest town in the North-East. The border town would be my final break in Poland before entering Lithuania. I arranged to stay with another Couchsurfing host, Julia, and told her that I would arrive in just one day.

It was about 500km there, which was achievable, if I didn’t make any mistakes, with the summer daylight hours I had been blessed with.

 

Mistakes were made

I stood at the outskirts of Konin, where the settlement stopped and road carried on into the emptiness, with the damp grey sky teasing me with the chance of rain. Traffic was low and I realized I was already in a difficult situation.

I held up my sign and the drivers just passed by. They didn’t even acknowledge me, which is always a bad sign. I waited for over an hour before the woman pictured below finally pulled in. She wasn’t even going on the motorway but she took me there anyway. She then went on to ask drivers for me using her female charm, quickly securing me a lift to Warsaw.

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I was on the highway now, and it felt as if my luck had returned. My new driver, Pawel, even bought me a coffee, some food and a bottle of water. He had traveled in the same way that I am now, and we talked about how, on journeys like ours, one’s mood can quickly change from an overwhelming high to a crippling low. During this ride, I was on a high, and I was about to prove our observation.

He left me somewhere with a lot of traffic, and I felt positive; It was somewhere I’d normally wait for no more than 20 minutes. But I stood there, looking like an untalented street-performer, for over two hours. If you wait for an abnormal amount of time, then you are most likely doing something wrong. Perhaps the cars were going too fast, or I wasn’t visible enough. regardless, I decided to walk on in the hope of finding a petrol station.

The pavement blended into the road and I was now putting myself at risk. Luckily, someone pulled in because he thought the same; I wasn’t even putting my thumb out.

We passed a large service station, which would have been perfect to continue with, but I became greedy and decided to go on with him. He took me a total of about 50km, but left me somewhere with almost non-existent traffic.

I had to illegally walk on the motorway. After an anxious and exhausting 3 hours, a petrol station finally came into view. My excitement quickly turned to distress when I realized it was as underused as the road. It was old, badly-kept and receding into nature. ‘I could be here for days,’ I realized.

But there are always people in every flow of traffic who have hitchhiked, and they will always stop if they’re going the same way; it’s just a case of how long you have to wait. This theory kept me hopeful, and before too long I was taken back to the big service station I’d stupidly missed the first time round.

I was back in it, only having lost about half a day. I had to get going because my host in Suwalki was calling me, wondering where I was. I got picked up fairly quickly again and taken another 100km.

The sun set as we approached my final hitchhiking spot. I now only had about an hour of sunlight left. Nobody stopped, and I finally accepted I wasn’t going to make it in time. I begrudgingly messaged my host, telling her that I wouldn’t arrive for the special meal she’d prepared for me. With that, I retreated to some tall grass on the roadside to setup my tent for the evening. I reflected on the day, recognizing that it was just a bad one. It wasn’t over yet though, tomorrow would be just as bad!

 

The next day

I thought that the tall grass would be a safe, well-hidden place for sleeping in, but I was forced out of my sleeping bag just after sunrise by a man driving a lawnmower inches away from my tent. I’m assuming he saw me, because his trail indicated he deliberately steered around me.

I waited at the same spot as last night for a further 2 hours before thinking, yet again, that I was doing something wrong. I walked 5km back on myself to a petrol station which was, again, very empty. There were, however, a few trucks coming in, about one every 30 minutes. I was still very scared to ask people for a lift at this point of the adventure, but it was my only chance.

A truck with Lithuanian number plate pulled in first. ‘ I could be out of here’, I thought. I enthusiastically asked him to take me, in my best Russian, but he just said ‘No’. This went on for about 3 hours.

Finally, another driver with a Latvian number plate pulled in. He could see how desperate I was, and he laughed at that. Out of pity, he agreed to me to Suwalki.

It was a short ride of about an hour, and I waited for my host to finish work in a small café. Out of nowhere, a menacing rainstorm took over the skies. Wind seemed to challenge the structural integrity of the building and the rain forced people off the streets. When I met my host, she told me an annual storm had arrived, and that I was very lucky to have gotten picked up when I did.

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Getting Lucky in a McDonald’s – Hitchhiking Around the World Day 27-32

On 1 June 2017, I left the small English town of Falmouth to hitchhike alone around the world.

After a month-long 3100km sprint from Falmouth, I had arrived in Poland and I needed to rest. I found a cheap hostel which was empty and slept 10-12 hours every night and 2-3 during the day. Despite this, I was still very tired when I left. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but now I know; hitchhiking means you are always thinking, worrying, assessing and deciding. ‘Do they know where I want to get out?’ ‘Will they let me out?’ ‘Are they dangerous?’ ‘What would I do if they turned out to be? Even though I am standing and sitting most of the time, it is exhausting. Exhausting isn’t a good enough word; most nights are spent outside and I never properly rest when I’m illegally sleeping outside of a motorway service station.

When I wasn’t sleeping, I spent some time taking the place in. This new country felt very different to Germany, where I’d just come from. I noticed a lot of tower blocks and other buildings that felt very Soviet influenced – cold, concrete, communist and created equally. Poland used to be under Russian command and some buildings had been painted with bright colors to cover this, but they were still ugly.

Despite the ex-soviet introduction, the city was beautiful; it was colorful and full of creativity and inspiration.

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After 3 days, I was (kind of ) ready for the next push to Konin, a small town that travelers rarely go to. I’m not a fan of cities. They’re busy, uncomfortable, dirty, expensive and I don’t feel that they should represent the country. When people say they’ve been to England and have only visited London, I don’t feel they’ve really experienced my country. I figured then, when I visit other countries, that I would avoid capital cities. I chose to miss Warsaw.

I walked for a couple of hours out of Wroclaw, new cardboard sign in hand, and began hitching. I got picked up within a few seconds by a man named Patryk. He was about 27, friendly, talkative. He could speak English very well and told me about the difficulty of life in Poland; the living wage is too low and the cost of living too high. He gets paid around £377/month and rents a room that costs about the same. I finally understood why so many Polish emigrate to places like Germany and England. And it’s no wonder the people seem so cold and paranoid.

19601335_1736175380012996_3187885278488409258_n.jpgAs we approached the place where he had to leave me, a deep blue storm was fast approaching with its menacing clouds. When Patryk dropped me off, it began to rain quite heavily. Luckily I was right next to a McDonald’s, where I rushed in to get a coffee. I stayed there for a few comfortable hours, writing my diary and sipping coffee in the warmth. It’s a hard life.

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I’m not sponsored by McDonald’s, but their restaurants are safe places for me while hitchhiking; no matter where I am in the world, there’s always WiFi, electricity, warmth, seats and coffee. If I ever need a place to find my bearings and I see the golden arches, I hate to say it, but I know I’ll be okay.

It took so long for the rain to pass, that when I finally emerged from the building it was already sunset. I found a roadside camping spot and passed out for another 12 hours. The next day I was picked up promptly and taken the rest of the way to Konin.

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German Prostitutes and Another Swollen Face; Hitchhiking Around the World Day 20 – 27

– On 1 June 2017, I left the small English town of Falmouth to hitchhike alone around the world – 

There are two types of fun. Type 1 is something that you thoroughly enjoy while it’s happening; you don’t want it to end, like enjoying a bottle of wine with friends. Type 2 is something that makes you miserable at the time, but looking back later you realize you did it.

I’d experienced mostly type 2 fun so far on my adventure and I was expecting these next  seven days to be straightforward, enjoyable and uneventful. But following the tone of the last few blog posts, the week ended up being yet another fiasco.

I had been staying in the Netherlands with Dylan, my old roommate, and the rest of the Verkuil family. They washed my damp, stench-wrenching clothes in the washing machine (a lovely change from rivers and public bathrooms), fed me and showed me around without asking for anything in return. It’s people like these who make this trip possible.

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Now I was continuing East to Germany and Mr. Verkuil was kind enough to drive me to the petrol station on the day I left.

Avgun (below) picked me up straight away. He was a very talented rapper and even rapped in front of me, which was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen! Originally he came from Albania, Europe’s poorest country. He knows what it is to have nothing and bought me lunch, dinner and drinks throughout the day. He was only planning to go to Uterecht, a relatively short hop, but we really got on so he made the decision to just carry on driving. He lives every day not knowing how it will turn out. It’s the best way to live, I think. This drive was definitely type 1 fun. If everyone I met were like him, this trip would be easier and cheaper than taking a plane.

I took a photo of his holding the two signs I made for the day (most people don’t travel across the country and holding up a ‘Deutschland’ sign too early would’ve put people off). He took me so far that these two signs were made redundant. I could have gone even further with him but the offer of having a German prostitute bought for me was a bit too much.

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A Detour into Denmark.

We crossed in to Germany and Avgun left me at the first service station. He made sure that I was happy with the spot before leaving. It was now after sunset so I retreated into the nearby woodland to spend the night.

My first lift of the day was difficult to catch. Nobody was stopping and after an hour I started to walk towards the fuel pumps. Luckily, a man slowed down just after I put my sign down to ask where I wanted to go.

“Berlin, what about you?” I replied.

“I’m actually heading to Denmark. Wanna come?” He queried.

It was an 800km detour and a new country. “why the hell not?!” I said with a grin.

We really bonded during the long but captivating drive and conversation and got to Copenhagen after the late-summer sun had already set. I couldn’t find an emergency Couchsurfing host and the cheapest hostel was $30/night! He knew the struggle and helped me to search for a well-hidden camping spot.

It’s often difficult, having to part ways with drivers. You get to know someone in a different way when you know you only have a few hours together. The façade we all endeavor to put up, the masks we wear to survive are removed and you can talk about things you wouldn’t normally mention to even close friends; you can see people for who they really are.

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Back into Germany

The Danish seem to be happy people; they have enough money to not have to worry about it and there isn’t a big rich-poor divide. They cycle as much as Holland and share similarities in architecture. It was a short visit to their country, but I was happy enough with spending one day there since I hadn’t even planned to come in the first place.

I was able to leave Copenhagen with relative ease, getting picked up within a few minutes and making it about half way to the German border. That night, camping in-between two motorway lanes in the tall sharp grass, I experienced the moisture falling from the air as the air temperature fell. I was just in my bivvy bag, no tent, and I thought I had gotten caught in a rain storm. I put my tent up around me very shoddily, while half-asleep; I basically tucked it underneath me and put the walking pole up by my hips.

The next day, I got to the stop just before Berlin on the East side of Germany. I had made it across the country in just two days, despite the detour to Denmark.

I camped out at the service station before Berlin in a woodland spot behind the trucks. There were dirty nappies, condoms and needles around me and an army of aggressive mosquitoes. My mosquito head net and repellent didn’t do a thing and I now looked like I’ve been in a brutal fight. Type 2 fun. Luckily the bites didn’t really show up, because they were on my top lip underneath my moustache and spread symmetrically on my nose. My face throbbed but I didn’t look too much like a victim.

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I stood for over an hour at the exit to the service station but despite the hundreds of German cars surely going into the capital city, only about 3 polish cars passed me. This wasn’t good enough. I could be here all day, so I had to do what every British citizen dreads… Bothering someone by asking for help.

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At the beginning of this trip the idea of approaching people scared me, but now it was my only chance. Luckily, the first truck driver I asked said yes. He took me into Poland and to another truck stop where I quickly secured a lift to Wroclaw, where I would make my first break.

After a 3100km sprint from Falmouth, I sat there in the passenger seat and began to wind down. My eye lids became heavy, my eyes burned and, if I wasn’t following the map on my phone, I’d have passed out. I found a hostel for £4/night and talked to no one apart from the receptionist when I checked in. I slept from 100 years and eventually, after 3 days, ventured out to see the city.

Strange Men in the Night and a Swollen Face; Hitchhiking Around the World Day 13-20

On 1 June 2017, I left the small Cornish town of Falmouth to hitchhike alone around the world. 

“I was dirty, smelly, had empty stomach and two inflated insect bites on my face. I looked miserable. A man approached me as I was sitting against a wall in the street and tried giving me some change, thinking I was a homeless man.”

I had made it to France after a grueling and uncertain nine-and-a-half-hour wait at Dover, but I was now in mainland Eurasia. My first stop would be in the Netherlands with my old roommate Dylan (who I hitchhiked to Luxembourg with). From here it should be easy, I thought.

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The two men who were kind enough to take me for free across the sea left me at a service station just South of Calais. By this point, the sun was going down and I was knackered, so I decided to find somewhere to sleep for the night.

Walking out of the clean, shiny and well-stocked European-standard gas station I walked off down a once busy but now derelict single-lane road that followed the autoroute. I couldn’t immediately see anywhere suitable for sleeping; it was either thorny or too exposed. I found a few places, but they had empty sleeping bags in them, the ghostly result of the refugee crisis. After about 20 minutes I found an area of tall grass that was good enough.

As I lay there in my sleeping bag writing my diary I heard something in the distance. I turned my headlight off and looked up slowly to see three silhouetted figures walking about 400 meters away from me. I sunk back into the grass like a snake and waited. My anxiety increased as I thought I could hear footsteps getting louder and louder. What was I going to do now? Run away? The sound that I thought was footsteps turned out to be the sound of my vein on my temple rubbing against the inside of my nylon hood and as I got increasingly worried, that sound only got louder until I thought they were right next to me. I looked up and there was no one there.

What a knob.

I woke the next day with determination and excitement, which I carried with me back to the gas station. It took a couple of hours to find a lift because the bulk of the traffic was either tourists going to the UK or locals going to Calais. But before I knew it though I was in Belguim. Catching lifts along this road proved to be much easier than in the UK.

It got to 20:00, but, blessed with those long summer days, I could continue for another few hours. After a short while, a car with a Dutch number plate stopped and took me to the third country of the day.

In Western Europe it is illegal to hitchhike on the motorways themselves, so you have to hop between service stations.

It was all going smoothly until we missed the last gas station where we were supposed to part ways. He had to go to the East of the country and I to the West. This happens sometimes, you get engrossed in conversation or it doesn’t come in to view until it’s too late. It was all going well until this point. I didn’t know it, but I was about to endure yet another big struggle.

He left me outside a small Dutch village and with a thin flow of traffic, my chances of getting picked up here were slim. I had seen a service station on the way in so decided to walk to it.

After an hour, it came into view. I had to break the law to get to it, walking a hundred feet on the motorway. The cashier saw me walking through this tall grass from the darkness to get there and was very confused. I purchased some coffee and filled up my water and disappeared back into the night without an explanation.

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I was about to set up camp on the motorway when a police car pulled in next to me. I knew what they were going to say, so I played the stupid foreigner card pretending not to know it was illegal.

After being told to move on by the Dutch police I slept just off the motorway behind the gas station. I achieved 2 hours of interrupted sleep before sunrise at 5:30. I decided not to return to the same station at risk of getting into more trouble.

To add to my discomfort, I felt two insect bites beginning to swell up on my face. I followed the motorway using the back road which led me to Amersfoort. My phone had run out, so I couldn’t contact Dylan when I arrived. I had no food left and only had about a liter and a half of water. I arrived at the town center just as the church bells chimed for 7am but here nothing opens until 9am. I decided to carry on towards Alkmaar, 120km away.

I found a Shell garage where I got some pastry and filled up my water. I was dirty, smelly, had empty stomach and two inflated insect bites on my face. I looked miserable. A man approached me as I was sitting against a wall in the street and tried giving me some change, thinking I was a homeless man.

I ran out of water a few hours later and it was 26 degrees. My melting point, being half Irish, is 25. I walked on without reward hoping to find another petrol station. Failing, I sat under a tree and began to feel dizzy.

I tried hitchhiking using the traffic from Amersfoort, but it wasn’t working at all. People were just ignoring me, which is always an indication you will be there all day.

My only option was to walk on. I prayed to be gifted with a service station as I turned the corner. My prayer was answered.

Shortly after, I got picked me up and taken straight to Dylan’s front door. It’s amazing how your luck can change so quickly and unexpectedly.

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Being so close to the UK, I thought The Netherlands would be more similar. There are more bikes than people; each family of 4 has on average 6 bikes. There are dedicated cycle lanes, there are even some lanes where the “cars are guests.” The people here are thin and healthy and generally happier. I had no idea that there was a separate pedestrian lane, so I annoyed a few Dutch people on my first day.

In the first evening, I got on a bike and clumsily worked out the alternate braking system of turning the peddles backwards. I didn’t fall off, but Dylan found it pretty hilarious. It’s clear now why I’m not undertaking a cycling expedition.

 

 

Goodbye, England (Finally!): Hitchhiking Around the World Days 11-13

On 1 June 2017, I left the small Cornish town of Falmouth to hitchhike alone around the world.

“…After twenty kilometers the White Cliffs of Dover became one with the deep cobalt horizon and the distance I was set to achieve all fell into perspective. For the first time I realized that I was not travelling in a straight line, I was going around; a readjustment of a certain piece of knowledge.”

Finally, only a week behind schedule, I was free to continue. I felt like a weight had been lifted, getting my dental problem seen to. I still had the huge weight of my backpack to carry, though.

I walked out of the activity center to the corner shop I used to visit every day.

“Going for a walk?” said the old man behind the counter, seeing my kit.

“…Something like that,” I replied.

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I picked up some snacks for the day and followed the road towards France. After 3 lifts and a lot of walking, I made it to outside the Eurotunnel terminal. I’d gone to France this way before; it was one of two free options along with the Dover ferry. I stood for over 3 hours with no success in sight and so decided to move on to Dover.

I posted this update on social media and to my surprise, someone sent me a message saying he could take me as far as I needed to go. Oz Chapman picked me up and took me to the service station just before Dover (Thanks again, it saved me a lot of time!).

I tried to catch a ride with the final hours of summer daylight, but had no success. I walked onto the roundabout outside the station and put up my tent.

The next day was full of unplanned long walks and uncertain waiting times. I decided to walk on from the service station because all I was getting from passing drivers were smiles and laughter at my ‘FRANCE’ sign, as if to say “I appreciate the joke!” It wasn’t a joke, I really was trying to get there!

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For a few hours I walked up and down a small country road with no space for cars to pull in. ‘Get me out of this bloody country,’ I repeated to myself. I had to keep pushing myself into the thorny bushes, which once pierced my plastic water bottle making it shoot water like a small dog.

Finally though, an A-road emerged and I was picked up quickly to be taken to Dover. It was extremely difficult to catch a lift out of the last town of the UK, probably due to the heightened security around the port resultant of the refugee crisis.

Having no luck after a few hours on this first day, I walked off into some bushes and laid my sleeping bag out. I was meters away from the pavement and managed to use the free Wi-Fi from the hotel across the street.

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I rose at 5am the next day and considered paying for a lift. I had next to no hope for getting out of the country for free, but the strict rules I have set myself would’ve meant I’d failed. I’d just narrowly avoided failure and I wasn’t going to waste this second chance. I approached truck drivers (unthinkable of a British man!), people at a petrol station (also unthinkable) and, failing these two, walked up and down an A-road to find a better spot to stand (for probably the same distance from Dover to Calais). ‘Get me out of this bloody country’, I repeated to myself.

Finally, as if I had slipped into a daydream, after nine-and-a-half hours, two men pulled in… I am a professional writer, but I can’t describe the relief I felt at this moment. Well, I could, but children could be reading this.

“Are you carrying any drugs or weapons?” the driver asked.

“No, of course not,” I replied (thinking ‘please, please, please, don’t drive away!’).

“Okay, get in.”

On the ferry, after twenty kilometers the White Cliffs of Dover became one with the deep cobalt horizon and the distance I was set to achieve all fell into perspective. For the first time I realized that I was not travelling in a straight line, I was going around; a readjustment of a certain piece of knowledge.

I saw my home country disappear into the sea air and relished in the uncertainty of my return date.

 

 

Hitchhiking Around the World: Day 2–10

On 1 June 2017, I left the small Cornish town of Falmouth to hitchhike around the world.

“Your mother is right, kids. Brush your teeth!”

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Before leaving on this adventure, I needed to have a dental check-up. I’ve had a fear of the dentist since a root-deep filling went wrong 4 years before and because of this I hadn’t been for all of that time. My mother always used to tell me, “take care of your teeth, or they’ll fall out!” I never really believed her.

The appointment was arranged for 2 months before the leaving date. Enough time, I thought. It led to another deep filling, which seemed to be the end of it, but as the anesthetic began to wear off I knew something was wrong. Over the next few days the pain became unbearable and I had to call in sick to work. I thought it might settle on its own though and I didn’t want to phone the dentist again, in case they told me something I didn’t want to hear.

I lasted about a day of keeping it to myself. They said that I now needed “root canal treatment” which would take “at least month and cost around £600”. The money wasn’t the real problem here, the time was. I chose my June leaving date so that I could get through Russia before winter. The whole trip was now looking to be a failure before I’d even left England.

Shit.

I decided to bury my head in the sand again and leave in the hope that it would get better on its own. Who knows, maybe the experienced medical professional was wrong.

I was making excellent progress too, already reaching the end of the UK on the third day. I was almost ready to make the final distance to the ferry port to France, but I was now in too much pain to think about anything else. It was like a little girl screaming right into my ear. It was all I could focus on. Sometimes the pain did go away but whenever I was starting to enjoy this trip, it would come back.

The sobering realization came to me that, as I went on, the further from quality dental treatment I’d be. Something had to be done.

The trip was now, in the first few days, hanging by a half-sliced piece of string. Best case scenario I would be delayed by a week, worst case it could be months and using NHS services often involves long waits.

And where would I stay? There were no cheap hostels in this part of the country. I sent a message to all of my friends who lived in the area, but nobody could take me in. Would I camp for this unknown amount of time? Would I endure not only the pain of a swollen root, but put up with being smelly, cold and uncomfortable too?

Luckily my old job at a residential outdoor activity center, which I’d left a week ago, had kindly agreed to let me stay for free in a guest room. That was one less thing to worry about. I was just 15km from the place and I was committed to staying with my ‘never-paying-for-transport rule.’ I could have taken a bus and returned to the same spot, but the trip was barely surviving as it was and if I did this, that would have meant it falling apart.

So with that, I trudged through the light, British downpour for 6 hours. The cold discomfort and aching feet were a nice distraction from the shooting pain inside my mouth. I got there on a Friday night and as I lay in bed waiting for the dentist office to open on Monday I thought up the available options:

1- Give up

2- Postpone the trip until next year;

3- Following dental treatment, rush the first part of the trip (I already had the Russian visa issued and I would have to cover the rest of Europe in a matter of weeks); or

4- Have the tooth taken out

Option 2, I really couldn’t face. Not because of the embarrassment of leaving on a huge trip I’ve been telling everybody about for the past year only to make it as far as my workplace, it was because I would have hated myself for failing a once-in-a-lifetime-trip due to taking bad care of my teeth. Postponing for another year could mean never doing it at all. Who knows, maybe I’d get comfortable? Maybe accidentally start a family? No, it had to be now. There was only one other option: have the tooth taken out.

We always know when something is wrong for us, it stays in the back of our mind and slowly nags at us as we continue to ignore it. Having the tooth taken out was the wrong choice and I knew it deep down, but I wouldn’t let myself think it.

As Monday approached I finally said it out loud and the pressure of the problem eased. This allowed me to come up with a fourth idea: depending on how the treatment went, I could still continue the trip but at a slower pace. I could spend more time in Europe and when winter passed I could continue with the original plan. This option became the favorite. I called the dentist’s reception desk and got an appointment for Thursday morning.

The time went very slowly inside my temporary room. All of what I had been through over the last half-week had worn me out and I slept 9 hours every night, plus 3 hours some afternoons. How the hell was I going to last to the other side of the planet?

Everyone I used to work with was walking past the closed curtains. I didn’t want to see anyone. I was a brave adventurer now! But all I had done so far was make it as far as here. I did venture out after a few days though, which further weakened the feeling of my journey continuing.

On Thursday morning, I had the first meeting with the dentist. I walked in feeling hopeless, but also relieved to finally be confronting the issue.

I voiced my concern, asking “Do you know how long will it take?”

“…We’ll see,” he answered unhopefully.

He started working right away, removing the root and putting a temporary filling in place. After 30 minutes, he said “come back in 6 weeks, Mr. Day.”

Shit.

“Is there any chance you can do this a bit quicker? I have a flight to catch next week.” I asked, half-desperately.

“Oh, if that’s easier, come by tomorrow morning and I’ll finish it off.”

And it was that easy. Within a week, I’d dealt with my first problem of the expedition. The stories other people had told me might have been true, but I had gotten lucky. Very lucky. The root canal treatment was quick and painless and he even did it for free!

Your mother is right, kids. Brush your teeth!

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure: Day 1

On 1 June 2017, I left the small Cornish town of Falmouth to hitchhike alone to the other side of the world.

“…The magnitude of what I was attempting hit me like a stampede. I began to feel sick, but that could have been the hangover from my the night before.”

I knew the night before that, when I woke up, I wouldn’t want to leave. I’d talked about it for a year, but the time had really come. As the uninvited sun filled the room with its piercing rays and my eyes opened themselves, I found myself paralyzed in my bed. Back to sleep I went.

Falmouth in South-West England is where I blossomed from an anxiety sufferer to the man I am now. I have so many golden memories from that small seaside town that I’d struggled for a long time to leave it behind; those University years were the happiest I’d ever had, but they were over. To move on, I chose to leave from there on my solo hitchhiking adventure around the world; I would leave the old life to begin my new one as an Adventurer.

Never have I procrastinated as much as I did on that day. Finally, at 3pm, Jack, my last remaining friend there, and I walked out of his front door to the town center. This was the last time I’d see the place as it knew it. My throat knotted, and my legs stiffened. No quicker than we had to, we walked to the road going East. We took, what we thought was, a shortcut. When I pictured myself on the first day of a big, brave, life-changing adventure, I never imagined getting lost.

With my self-confidence knocked, it was time for Jack to leave me. When he disappeared around the corner, the magnitude of what I was attempting hit me like a stampede. I began to feel sick, but that could have been the hangover from the night before.

‘Who does this kind of trip?’ I thought to myself. ‘Only those explorers you see on TV. I’m not one of them! Behind me is safety. I can’t make it around the world alone!’

I couldn’t bring myself to put my thumb out; people stared as they rushed past in their cars. I felt like an untalented street performer. I couldn’t go forward, and I didn’t want to go back, so I sat down and broke out some biscuits. I looked at the whole route on my phone. This was the mistake I was making; nobody climbs a mountain in one big step. I zoomed in to the UK section and told myself to focus on that part for now. And with that, I felt just about able to carry on. I finally saw what was ahead of me with complete clarity: a mammoth, but achievable, challenge.

Like a depressed person struggling to get out of bed, I avoided putting my thumb out for as long as possible. I walked until there was no pavement, then I disconnected my mind from my body and watched my thumb go up. I got picked up right away. I was on my way!