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

Georgia was an adventure in itself in so many ways; for 6 months, I would struggle through a series of immense character transformations, get a dream job, almost die, fall in love properly for the first time and explore a country that does not technically exist.

I would meet some of the most influential people of my life, some of whom I do not talk to anymore and whose names I have changed here for reasons that will become apparent.

But before any of this could happen, I had to find a job!

If you would have told the anxious version of me a few years before getting here that I would be walking into a country I knew nothing about (except that I could get a visa for China), knowing no one and with no leads for finding a job, you can guess how I would have reacted. Even the idea of doing this in a different city in the UK would have scared me. But now, it was exciting.

I had asked everyone I met in the approaching weeks to crossing the border for help, but nothing came through. So, after checking into a hostel in the capital city of Tbilisi, I went to a Couchsurfing meet-up and found one Camilla Wilson, also from the UK and editor of one of Georgia’s newspapers for English speakers.

“So, why are you in Georgia?” she asked.

“I need to find a job. Can you help?”

“Can you write?” she replied, after a brief smiling pause.

“Well, I am an aspiring Travel Writer…”

It seemed too good to be true when she asked me to send her a piece of my work, but having a native speaker on her team would save her an awful lot of editing. She later told me that it took 5 minutes to correct my work, whereas a Georgian’s could take 45. It took me five days and a lot of help from my mum and her boyfriend to put something together. I got called for an interview.

The boss met me alone and began by asking what my professional background was. I realized how far out of my depth I was here. I was not a writer and I didn’t know how to be. I turned the questions onto him, asking what he would expect of me, and tore apart some of the paper’s articles. He gave me the job.

We agreed on 1-2 articles per day, which I thought would be impossible, but it turns out that this is a very small contribution which, towards the end of my time in Georgia, I managed to bang out in about 15-30 minutes. The great thing was I could work from anywhere, as long as I had an internet connection.

I literally googled ‘how to be a journalist’ and followed the advice I found. It turned out that a lot of what journalists do is re-write what is already online from other sites. I could do that!

I was sent to some interviews, which I hated, and eventually refused to go to. I never said ‘I don’t want to go’, I just made up excuses or pretended to be offline. Why spend 3 hours decoding 1 hour of speech when I can spend 30 minutes mindlessly rewriting something else?

Through working at the paper, I met Máté (ma-tey). A few years younger than me, he seemed fairly ordinary on first sight; average height, tamed brown hair, grey-blue eyes and a slightly hipster dress sense. He became my best friend in Georgia after we realised we shared the same lazy approach to journalism. Despite this, he is a very talented writer and I expect he will do very well in the future.

In these early days, I also met Charlie who was also from the UK but with roots from the Caribbean. He was full of energy and could make a depressive person laugh back into normal health. He puts his wise words into books and, as a published author, he gave me some valuable advice for achieving my own dream.

Towards the end of my time there, he took me with him to explore some of the final parts of the country, such as Mtskheta, the country’s old capital, and the Katskhi Pillar, a monastery on top of a pillar of limestone with one lone monk living inside it. He was just starting a tour company – Hikechum – which I highly recommend you use if you want to see the ‘real’ Georgia. He works for the experience, not the payment.

Writing had now become a profession for me, and it felt amazing. There was only one problem – I was earning equivalent to 100EUR per month (a standard, minimum wage in Georgia). But it only just covered my rent.

I asked around some more and, as a native English speaker (I swear, being one is the same as having a Master’s degree in some countries) and with my experience as Head Walks Officer for the Expedition Society, I found a job as a guide for a free walking tour company.

The payment was purely through tips, but I was now managing to earn enough to live on and to save a bit.

After only two weeks there, I had to walk around as if I knew the place. I told people I had been living in Georgia for over a year and to divert questions I knew nothing about, I either made something up or turned the question onto something else. Luckily, I was given a script of about 20 pages, all full of interesting information which was easy to learn.

Unfortunately, the boss of the company really did not know how to treat her team. Before too long, I would get told off after most tours for making small mistakes in the script, or forgetting to add the location to photos on social media. She did not just point my shortcomings out, she really laid into me. She asked “how could you be so stupid as to forget such a basic thing?” and “you need to watch other guides to see how it is done properly.” I do not care how good a job is, or how easy the work is, nobody speaks to me like that anymore.

I went through most of the time in Georgia without enough money coming in. The 100EUR per month meant I made a smaller dent in my shriveling expedition budget. I did myself no favours; I ate out a lot and consumed countless liters of Georgian wine.

Georgia is the oldest known maker of wine (I even wrote the paper article when 8000 year-old evidence was found just 30km south of me!) and almost every family has their own kit. It is what they pride themselves on and I never had a bad glass of it. It was costing as little as 1EUR per liter and the best part was it didn’t give me a hangover.

I’d been living in Tbilisi for almost two months, working two jobs for most of it and never leaving the area around my hostel. Going from hitchhiking to new places every day to this had hit me hard, and I needed a taste of adventure.

I was so deprived of the drug-like effects it provides that I decided to go extreme and leave with nothing but some food, water and a small survival kit.

Armenia, Georgia’s neighbour to the South, was just a 3-hour drive away, according to Google Maps. I had never been, and what better way to spend a few days off than to go to a new country?

So, with a small backpack and my chosen items, I went to the city limits in the south of Tbilisi, stuck out my thumb and within 5 minutes I was on the way.

There were two parents in the front and a 16-year-old daughter in the back who spoke English. They took me about halfway, from where I caught a truck that took me to the border. He was a very religious man, as many are in this country, and he kissed his bible and crossed himself every time we passed a church.

Hitchhiking in Georgia was very easy and I never waited for more that 20 minutes for a ride.

A man picked me up from the other side and took me to eat at his house with his family. I started to relax, thinking I had a place to sleep for the night. But at midnight, he drove me to the road and left me to fend for myself.

I walked down the road, which was too narrow to hitchhike on, and realized I had to camp. Now in late November, I could feel the chill on my cheeks. I passed a farm and took as much straw as I could stuff into my clothing – I’d seen Bear Grylls do it once.

Still enthusiastic, I walked off into the woods, stuffed myself like a scarecrow and fell asleep curled up like a ball, sitting against a tree.

At 2am, I woke up with my teeth chattering. I slipped back into a light sleep and woke shortly after having gone beyond shivering. I needed to make a fire fast.

With the sky as black as the ink of an octopus and the moonlight persevering through the wintery tree branches, I scouted for wood. I scraped some twigs together and got out my survival kit. Luckily, I found some larger sticks and spent 30 minutes making a number of piles to put on when the blaze began to die down.

Every 30-45 minutes, I would wake because this happened, but as soon as I put the new sticks on, I slipped back to sleep.

The next day was spent in a dreamlike ] state. I had no time to go any further, so I wandered around the small villages and admired the post-Soviet remains, such as a rusty stationary cable car and concrete buildings which were beyond repair.

Getting back to Georgia was not a problem and I found someone to take me all the way from where I stood. It was another short wait on the other side of the border, finding someone to take me all the way back to the city.

As I reentered the Tbilisi, greeted by the sign indicating as much, I felt a sense of coming home – something I never thought I would feel in a foreign land.

December crept in and I was getting bored of the routine of working and living in one place again. That was until a lovely Columbian girl checked in to the hostel. Jessica was about my age with dirty-blonde hair, sharp, blue eyes and a lovely soft voice. She was also a nymphomaniac.

Before Jessica came along, I had been living my time in Georgia in a great hostel with a lovely owner, a comfy, clean bed and room and a low per-night price of $3. I had planned to stay there for the whole winter, but that changed on her first night when we started to drink together.

Perhaps it was something in her culture, but doing it in a 6-bed dormitory room seemed no different from in a private room; in fact, it felt better to her. But this is not why we got kicked out; we actually broke one of the beds.

With the disapproving, disappointed look from the owner that I used to see in my parents’ eyes, I said goodbye and took to the road with my new friend.

We hitchhiked around Georgia together for three weeks. We even spent Christmas day together, making an excellent Christmas dinner with one frying pan. Being away for so long from home means sacrifices, like missing Christmas with the family, but the one with Jessica was a lovely substitution.

Most nights, we would drink liters of cheap but good quality Georgian wine, blacking out sometimes and getting kicked out of other hostels because of what we apparently got up to. On three occasions, we were kicked out because she got so drunk that she emptied her bladder over the mattress.

We even decided to get married – not out of love, but because we both wanted each-others citizenships. She had an American passport, and I a British one and an Irish one. Unfortunately, it would have been far too difficult and costly. It was a shame it didn’t work out.

Meeting Jessica was a key moment in my development into the person I am now. Part of the anxiety I used to suffer from included being very afraid of approaching women. Even if I knew they were attracted to me, I could not do it.

She left on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve and over the coming months, with my new-found confidence, I had a lot more success with women, dating someone new every few days. I began to dress in black, I adopted an over-confident look and carried myself like I was better than everyone else.

During this time, I visited a mysterious place called ‘Abkhazia’ with Máté and his female friend from Lithuania, Jelena.

On a map of Georgia, Abkhazia is the top-left slither about 200km in length. It claims to be an independent country, but this is recognised by only 4 UN member states. It is almost entirely dependent on Russia, and Russia believes (secretly) that it is part of their territory; it certainly felt that way.

The real lure for me, especially at this unstable time in my life, was the way it was described by my country’s travel advisory service. “[We] advise against all travel to the breakaway region of Abkhazia.” This level of warning is given to places such as Syria and parts of Afghanistan.

The process of getting in to Abkhazia was fairly straight-forward, albeit quite strange. And it seemed to be, in my eyes, a bit pretentious. First of all, we had to send a request, no less than 5 days before proposed entry, to the Abkhaz Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sokhumi (or ‘Sokhum’, as they call it there). Once the letter had been issued, we brought it, along with our passports, to the occupation line.

We were brought into a small interview room and asked a series of seemingly irrelevant questions; it was as if they were just doing it for show. We thought the same for the ‘bag search’ that happened afterwards, because all that we were asked to do was open our backpacks and show what was on the top. I felt like how I imagine my parents did when I was a child playing games in imaginary worlds. They used to go along with such fantasies to keep me happy, they were good like that. And we were doing very much the same today for these men today, who were pretending that we were entering a “country.”

Very few times in life do places turn out to be how you imagined, but the border crossing to war-ruined Abkhazia was an eerie exception. It was a truly depressing scene; the sodden sky was like a grey sponge looming over us with irregular, light downpours. Before it could meet the horizon, it blended into a surrounding ring of heavy ominous clouds which snaked around the mountains, suffocating the beauty of the landscape.

As we crossed the bridge from the Georgian checkpoint to the Abkhaz, a number of roadblocks had been placed to slow vehicles down, and behind them were road spikes ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. The air felt heavy with the evident tension from the unsettled disagreement.

If you have ever owned an orchid flower then you will know how difficult it is to care for, and how, when not properly treated, it slowly recedes into itself, gradually dropping leaves and losing roots. Sokhumi (our first stop and base) was like the last sign of life from the orchid which is Abkhazia, and on the drive in we saw the result of mal-treatment. The 60-minute journey was even more depressing than the border crossing; littered with derelict concrete constructions, the consequence of an uncomfortably recent war; it was like being taken through the set of a post-apocalyptic film.

Sokhumi was, and still is, a holiday destination for Russian tourists. It was comparable to other seaside spots in the region; but, if you walk for 5 minutes in any direction (apart from into the sea), even this part of the territory is haunted by the concrete skeletons of times when the population was much bigger.

What we saw on the surface of this first day was a translucent sheet over what really goes on, and with the rest of our first evening we made plans for our remaining days. We would find people to interview, ideally locals, and explore the area in greater depth.

We really got the feeling we were being watched during our time there; people seemed to be ever so slightly afraid, and it was as if they had been told not to talk to tourists about anything to do with the Georgian conflict. The convenient gap in memory was apparent in everyone we talked to.

One man, a Government Official, took a liking to our Lithuanian friend. He took us out a few times and kept trying to get me and Mate friend away so he could have her to himself. We felt like bodyguards. She tried to squeeze something out of him (not in that way), but even her powers of female persuasion couldn’t break the secrecy.

But I think that it was he who was trying to get information out of us. We must’ve aroused suspicion when we spoke English in front of him, naively assuming he couldn’t understand us. We used such words as ‘journalist’ and ‘article,’ with ‘Abkhazia’ and ‘Georgia’ in the same sentences. The next day he took us to visit a church, where we met a ‘Priest’. He spoke English surprisingly well, and with his friendly charm, lured us into a sense of relaxation. Out of nowhere, he looked invasively into my eyes, freezing me in place as if he were physically holding me there, and asked “are you a journalist?”

I have only ever experienced this look in someone’s eyes once before in my life, when I crossed the border into Russia. I was overwhelming and the shock of being asked such a question, which I could tell he had been previously informed about, caught me off-guard, and I think I gave away that he was right. I don’t know if we succeeded in convincing him otherwise, or whether he just didn’t see us as a threat, but we managed to avoid further questioning during our time in Abkhazia.

It’s no wonder we attracted attention, because we weren’t behaving like ordinary tourists. Stepping inside the burnt-out government building on ‘Freedom Square’, we felt like we were entering the set of a zombie film; we half-anxiously entered each room, worrying about what could jump out from the corner. Ivy and other plant life had claimed the structure, just as the Abkhaz and Russian forces had done to the region.

Underground, we found what we believed to be a Soviet interrogation room. It was ever-so-slightly too small and contained a basic table and a chair with two back legs missing. If you believe in ghosts, then there were definitely some in there with us; the temperature dropped, and the air got heavy as we explored the lower floors. The eerie silence seemed to allow cries of the past to be heard.

One final thing we had to do before leaving was get the ‘visa’. To do this, we had to go to the ‘Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ in Sokhumi with our invitation letter, wait 15 minutes while they pretended to do something in the office, and pay the equivalent to $5 each. We were handed a piece of paper which was so cheaply-produced that some of the words were slightly slanted. It looked like someone had gone to the effort of forging an official document but had done so poorly. We laughed about it and slipped them into our passports to keep as a souvenir, but they wouldn’t let us cross the border back with them, making it feel like more of a ticket to an amusement park than permission to visit a country.

Máté and I became good friends after this adventure and on returning from Abkhazia, he let me live in his flat rent-free for a couple of weeks. And whenever he was out in my remaining months, he would let me occupy it, saving me a lot of money on hostels. I am very grateful for that.

During the final months, in recognising how I used to be and how confident I had become now, I went a bit out of control I was starting to become a bad person. But being in Georgia provided me with an opportunity most people never get – to fully explore myself. It sounds bad, but I knew that once I left, I never had to see these people again. My behaviour bordered on that of a sociopath and I was lucky to have been saved.

Camilla, my boss at the paper, invited me out to drink one night. Her being from the UK and my deprivation of British company meant that I mistook things for having feelings for her. This led to me moving in with her, rent-free and with her paying for a lot of the food and wine.

A big part of why I moved in with her, apart from saving a lot of money, is because it became apparent that she was a truly evil person. Manipulative and narcissistic, I wanted to be around her because at this point, I thought I was the same. But after just two weeks together, I realised I was just lost.

Through her, I met Nino, who would have the biggest influence on me out of everyone in this country. I had never really been in love before, but with her I felt it for the first time. Because of her, I stopped moving between women every week and settled into a re-adjusted, re-built and stable version of myself.

The connection we formed was one that neither of us thought we would ever experience, so we agreed to continue our relationship after I left. I promised her that I would be back in no more than a year, which we both thought feasible. At the time of writing, it is still going strong!

She had had a very tough life, even more than mine, and because of it we had very similar personalities – cold on the outside and strong and able to deal with anything.

It was through her that I saw Georgia for what it really was. It was not the happy, friendly, sunny place that travellers believed it to be. Behind closed doors, it was disgusting. Women in this country are not treated as people, but as objects for men to do as they wish; it is the most Christian country in the world.

For 8 dark years, she endured a marriage she had been forced in to, while making a plan to escape. Towards the end, when her husband learned of this, he gave her a concussion. She ran out to seek help from the neighbours, but they simply told her to go back and obey her husband.

I did not tell my boss about Nino, she found out herself; Nino actually worked for her too, hence why I didn’t want to say anything. Before this, I had agreed with her to continue to contribute to the paper after I had left on a per-article basis. That wasn’t going to happen any more. And bringing Nino into her bed when she was away in Baku did not help things.

I checked into one last hostel, where I would stay for the remaining time in Georgia. There I met Rica, the cynical, sarcastic German girl with whom I could say anything and be completely honest, and Mike, the Columbian man motorbiking around the world. They stayed there for most of my final weeks and with them, I processed the huge character exploration I had just experienced. I realised that I can be a bad person, I think we all can, but I prefer to be a good one; I enjoy making people smile, because it makes me do the same.

I had gotten comfortable in Georgia. Soon I’d be back to eating cheap food, being tired all the time, waiting on roadsides and getting into danger. It was now Early March and winter was starting to pass.

Ahead of me was an ferocious challenge, and I am not talking about the route home. The Chinese visa process was something I didn’t want to get started with.

First, I would need the Georgian residence permit, because the consulate required me to apply from a country of residence. It was supposed to be the easy part, but it ended up being more challenging than the visa.

I had been hopelessly pursuing this small piece of paper for over 9 months now; I could have had a child in that time. So, when I submitted the required documents and they told me it was not enough, I put things off for another two weeks because I was so scared of getting bad news, like ignoring a suspicious lump on your body. The entire trip weighed on me getting this visa and once again, I felt things come into question.

Those two weeks were spent in a hostel doing nothing but updating my blog and getting to know Rica and Mike. I finally got myself together and sent the documents properly. 30 days was the provisional waiting time, and 30 days it took.

With the letter of approval finally in my hands, I rushed to the Chinese consulate on a Monday morning to find that it would be closed for the next four days.

It was now April and I had wanted to leave a month ago. I became even more restless, but once the application form was submitted on Friday, there were no more problems and I picked my passport up with permission to enter the country twice for 30 days. An enormous smile grew in my cheeks as I put the biggest challenge of this expedition in the past.

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

October 2017

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

Source: Thinkstock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– People are much nicer on the road.

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

– No competitiveness between me and my partner.

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

– Listen to music whenever I want.

– I can go at my own speed.

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

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

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

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

‘Are you a tourist?’

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

I didn’t say that, obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2017

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

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

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

Why not? I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where are you going?’ he asked.

‘Kazakhstan’ I replied.

‘Come with me, then!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2017

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

‘No, I can’t pay you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Road to Astana

I woke from my tight spot in the trees, unwrapped the corners of my tent and packed it away. I was in Petropavlovsk – the central and northernmost city in Kazakhstan. But before I could have a look, I had been told I needed to “register my arrival.” Did this mean check in with the police? Police in Kazakhstan are infamous for making trouble for foreigners to get bribes. Or perhaps it meant I had to stay in a hotel? I secretly wanted to – warm shower, clean bed and security for one night.

I wandered the streets towards the center, phone in-hand, trying to find an open Wi-Fi signal. But I wasn’t in Europe anymore and it took a few hours and a lot of aching steps do this.

Finally, outside a shopping mall, from a few reliable web sources I found that it had already been done at the border. The need to register was a few years old.

Petropavlovsk was, in one sentence, an amalgamation between the last influence of Russia and the first of Kazakhstan; slum-like houses began to appear and people were squatting instead of sitting. I only noticed this in hindsight, because the cultural change had happened so gradually as a result of travelling by land from the UK instead of flying.

Kazakhstan speaks Russian and not English too, but by now I had picked up enough to get by. As a consequence, I would improve it further.

I still felt the usual anxiety that I do when I enter a new country and I needed a few days to adjust. I walked out the other side of the city towards Astana and stayed in the woods for two nights. I built a huge fire and took comfort in the familiarity of camping. I brewed tea, read a book and cooked dinner.

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The next day, all I did was venture back into the city, leaving my tent, sleeping bag, etc. behind, to resupply food and water. I maintained the cold Russian neutrality and did not speak with anyone, but here, I noticed, people are a lot more open; they speak to strangers. So, I began to do the same.

Finding Wi-Fi caused a flood of notifications to overwhelm my phone. One was from September, saying she wanted to go on a break. I tried calling via WhatsApp, but the Wi-Fi kept cutting out. Then I tried finding other open spots, but it was the same story. That time-sensitive conversation would have to wait.

I managed to talk to my best friend, Jack, about it and he managed to comfort me a bit. He had just gotten a normal-person job.

I wandered back to the woods knowing what September and I would say, but trying to store the emotions for a few days’ time. The fire was even bigger than the night before, and its mesmerizingly infinite number of appearances made me forget my problems, it warmed me until I slipped into the safety of my tent and crossed the border into sleep.

It was 28 Celsius when I got going at 10am; I was greasy and smelly and didn’t want to get any worse. I found a lake next to the road which I walked into, rinsed my clothes in and walked out of, soaking wet. I walked for another 10 minutes, by which point I had dried completely and put out my thumb feeling nice and cool.

The first lift was from a friendly Kazakh man whose car I think was so old and beaten up, that it was restricted to first gear.

Second, I got taken to a gas station where I saw my first number plate of Tajikistan. I bought bottled water for the first time since day one, and some pastry to keep me going until Astana, the capital.

The next lift took me to the halfway point, but by now it was after dark. I didn’t want to hitchhike at night, after what happened in Russia, so I set up camp behind a gas station. As I did so, I knelt on a piece of broken glass which went quite deeply into my knee. I cleaned it and it seemed to clot quickly, but the next morning I woke up with a small patch of blood on my cargo pants. Luckily, some water cleared it mostly.

I only had 5 hours’ sleep, because I needed to be packed away and walking before anyone saw me at the gas station. The result of this was quite pleasant – walking next to the sun as it climbed the horizon to my left.

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I came up to a police checkpoint and they called me over. ‘Here we go’, I thought. He asked to see my passport, and after asking where my visa for Kazakhstan was and finding the stamp, he showed me YouTube videos for about 20 minutes. I was free to go after that.

A dog (below) then came up to me. I could see that he didn’t receive much attention. I gave him some water out of the bottom of a nearby can, which was a mistake because he followed then wouldn’t leave.

But I began to consider it, having a dog with me. Romantic images began to enter my mind – man and dog, travelling together around the world. Reality quickly set in when he began barking and chasing ever single car that passed. It wasn’t meant to be I suppose.

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A car pulled in for me and all I could do was get in and leave him, and his confused eyes. This car took me all the way to Astana.

Despite the roads being in a dangerously poor condition, they do present some exceptional views. Travelling south through the steppe I could see nothing but desert. Looking ahead, the road trailed off into infinity. Quite often, the only car I could see was the one I was in.

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I checked into a $5 hostel in Astana feeling full of energy and motivated to be productive. I was going to read Ed Stafford’s ‘Walking the Amazon,’, because I was told, by him speaking at an event, that he documented how he overcame the most difficult challenge in any expedition – the mental one.

But as I sat on my bed, I realized I only had the energy to take a shower and get under the covers. I slept until the following morning. Tomorrow, I would talk with September.

Into Kazakhstan

The two Sergeys arranged a lift to the Kazakhstan border for me before leaving. At the fork in the road, they went left and we went right. they honked their horns to say goodbye and good luck. I would never see them again, but I didn’t want to; the memories I had from the days with them were some of the best of my life and I didn’t want to spoil them.

My new driver did not speak much, but it was fine, some don’t want to. As a hitchhiker, you have to follow the lead of the driver. I was entertained by his windscreen bunting with topless women printed on it.

He asked if I had a visa. I didn’t, but according to the British FCO website, I didn’t need one. Still, it was an anxious 30-minute ride. This was to be the first of many non-European border crossing – stories I had been told of long waits, fake fines, confusion and bureaucracy all leaked into the path ahead of me.

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At the first of the four-stage crossing, I was met my a Russian police officer who checked my passport.

“Where is your visa for Kazakhstan?” He asked.

“Britain – no need.” I nervously replied in broken Russian.

He paused and took my passport to the office.

I stood for 10 minutes in this place where forest blends to desert. It was quiet, dry and there was a warm smell in the air.

He returned, sending me through with an authoritative stance, as if to say ‘you got away with it this time.’

Next, the border official was unsure if my passport photo was one of me. The clean-shaven Tom was gone and she now had a different person in front of her. Standing in front of the window, my legs shook but my upper body remained calm. She had to call her boss over to verify my identity.

I walked into the space between countries – an empty place where no one belongs. Stagnant water stood still in dead rivers either side of the road, which was contained by tall, chain-link fences. The weak woodland a few forbidden steps away seemed restricted, like a man being kept in one room for his whole life.

Trucks were queued up waiting to enter Russia. One curious Kazakh driver called me over and invited me in for coffee. We had a fairly smooth conversation in Russian about each other and my journey. It is amazing how much Russian I had learned in just 3 weeks, considering I knew nothing but the word ‘vodka’ when I entered.

After completing a migration card with not one word of English written on it, I was free to cross into Kazakhstan. A UK number plate caught my eye and I jogged over to say hello. I was so excited, having seen none of my own people since Poland. I talked a bit with them and felt relief in not having to try to roll my R’s, slow down my speech and try to speak another language. It reminded me so much of being back home – unwelcome. They were not interested in me, as us Brits generally aren’t. They just wanted to keep to themselves, and even telling them I had hitchhiked here from the UK did not change this. The contrasting generosity I had received from that truck driver just minutes ago was eye-opening.

I lunched at the border cafe, and the two women behind the counter asked to get a signed photocopy of my magic letter.

The road was now quite empty and I saw just one vehicle every 5 minutes. A car stopped after 15 minutes, but they asked for money. I had been told this would happen, and I would just have to explain each time that I didn’t have any. I devised an ingenious hand movement to use internationally – pointing to myself, rubbing my index finger and thumb together, then shaking my head. Me – money – none. It has never failed me since. they drove off a bit angry as many would do in the coming months.

Tiredness began to set in and I scouted for camping spots. Luckily, a man picked me up and took me to Petropavlas, the northernmost city of this country. The sun set in the passion-fruit sky of this new country. I was nervous, as I always am in a new country, and I now couldn’t find anywhere to camp.

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I walked for an hour before finding a small cliff with three trees at the bottom. I climbed down carefully and set my tent up in the middle of them. I had to twist the corners to accommodate the small ground space. Someone had watched me do this and I was concerned they might come and rob me, but I was too tired to care.