Category Archives: Uncategorized

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure: 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
.
On 01/06/17, I left the UK to hitchhike around the world. Currently in: Kyrgyzstan
.
#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.

IMG_0988.JPG

IMG_1019.JPG

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.

IMG_0783 (1).jpg

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.

IMG_0911.jpg

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.

IMG_20170823_064803830.jpg

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.

21433270_1763926783904522_7172230065404108598_n.jpg

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.

IMG_0952.JPG

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.

IMG_0835.JPG

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.”

IMG_0555.JPG

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.

IMG_0553.JPG

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.

21246575_1760986544198546_1336149075278668641_o.jpg

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.”

moscow to kazan.png

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.

IMG_0487.JPG

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.

IMG_0370.JPG

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.

IMG_0442.JPG

IMG_0335.JPG

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.

IMG_0381.JPG

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.

IMG_0473.JPG

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.

IMG_20170801_155456252.jpg

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.

St. Petersburg on the outskirts seemed a lot like London – smoggy, grey, rainy and full of depressed-looking people. I must have aroused further suspicion by walking the sixteen kilometers into the center.

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…

IMG_20170804_091619087.jpg

 

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.

IMG_0985.jpg

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

IMG_20170728_191541190.jpg

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.

IMG_20170731_175332583.jpg

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

IMG_0066.JPG

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.

 

 

If you enjoyed this, do remember to click ‘Follow’ at the bottom of this page.

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.

IMG_0754.JPG

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

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

 

 

If you enjoyed this, do remember to click ‘Follow’ at the bottom of this page.

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.”

Picture1.png

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!

19787405_1738206733143194_6806796736281067064_o.jpg

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.

19800983_1738998043064063_326656482271103831_o.jpg

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.

19984131_1740750142888853_144528924080338718_o.jpg

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.

19598685_1735185050112029_2285230181382446214_n (1).jpg

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.

19642789_1736291136668087_911743526923305899_n.jpg

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.

19702547_1736752493288618_4424952267586244217_n.jpg

 

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.

19452989_1731863327110868_4056850028182354940_o

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.

19243305_1732057883758079_1669407891194611069_o

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.

19477463_1733835220247012_8274632221095173867_o

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.

19467982_1734225890207945_1025267616282237914_o (1)

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.

19477372_1734195546877646_1394230184383148608_o

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.

19105715_1727014257595775_4316296600348185857_n.jpg

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.

19420523_1729888657308335_5982617621879708424_n.jpg

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.

19274944_1730754220555112_8606178998511114724_n.jpg

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.

18952819_1726133954350472_856602759226150017_n (1).jpg

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!

19055095_1727005967596604_6388037625500592259_o.jpg

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.

19025050_1726231027674098_6423456512832555802_o.jpg

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!”

IMG_0065.JPG

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!