Tag Archives: central asia

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.

Astana

August 2017

When your girlfriend works long hours and you rarely find strong, reliable Wi-Fi, then having those important conversations becomes a real challenge. But after a week, we finally found a time.

With the distance and uncertainty on how long this trip would take, we decided to go on a break. I knew we would agree on this, and I think I had already grieved for it, because all I felt now was freedom, excited for what lay ahead.

The only worry now was money, but Merce, the lovely lady who lent me $3000 to book the refundable flights to try for the Chinese visa, agreed to let me hold onto it until I got back to the UK and had a job. I could do anything I wanted to now. I got my world map out and lost the day pouring over it. I could go for another year, or another 5, it was up to me!

The future seemed bright, but my mind quickly fell back to the present visa problem – I needed to get through either Russia or China first. I wanted to do it as soon as I could, before winter came in, lest I get homesick and go home early as I did on my first solo trip.

It seemed to feel stress more than it usually would have because this journey was the only thing I was focusing on.

I began reading Walking the Amazon by Ed Stafford, and I found many similarities in his journey and mine. He had experienced the same mental challenges as I was now, and he talked about how he overcame them.

I began to realize that I was perhaps putting too much pressure on myself to get to my destination as quickly as possible. Now I didn’t have to. This was causing me a lot of stress, and I was not enjoying the trip.

His partner told him in a similar situation “I think that you are being too impatient. I think that this will take time and that you need to relax, and when a path turns into brambles and thorns for 2 hours you need to take a deep breath, smile and accept it as part of the adventure.”

The biggest one for me, which I would need a few weeks to truly understand, was reading that I have control over how I react to challenges.

The city of Astana itself was an interesting spectacle – built in the late 90s by the President to better link the country with Russia and Europe – was all show but no soul. The old capital, Almaty, was my next destination.

Ready for a 20km walk out of Astana, someone called me over and bought me coffee. I assumed the man was the owner, but no, he was a normal man who just wanted to buy me a coffee. We talked for a bit and he went on to say he could take me outside the city. While I was waiting, the barista bought me food over.

This journey, like coping with anxiety, is about recognizing small victories. He told me that if I needed help to find a job or a place to stay, then he could help me. I did need help, I really did. If he could help me to get residency, I could stay in Kazakhstan over winter and get the visa to Russia. It didn’t work out, unfortunately because the residence permit application was far too complicated.

He took me 20km out of the city where I set my tarp up for the night.

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The Road to Astana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into Kazakhstan

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

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

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

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

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

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

He paused and took my passport to the office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It had been very challenging getting to Kazan but I was finally here, albeit a bit late – my host had given up on me and since I didn’t have a local sim card, I couldn’t update him. I found WiFi outside a bank in the city center and contacted him. He said I could stay for two nights.

Alexei was not what I expected, and for the first time he asked me to buy food items. I had gotten used to being given food for free and I realize now that I was being silly in complaining, but at the time I ranted about it in my diary.

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I arrived with sticky skin from long days accumulating exhaust fumes; it was like the residue left behind from cheap stickers. I needed a shower and a lot of rest, but his shower was broken and all he could offer was a bucket and a cold tap. As for sleeping, I was looking forward to sleeping in, like I was normally allowed to do, but I had to leave at 7am with him. I walked around Kazan a bit and took a nap in public. I didn’t care.

I now had to cross the border with Kazakhstan some 1500km away in less than a week. I didn’t have time to use cars, I needed to ask some truck drivers. I had even seen some driving after dark and I had a theory that they drove through the night to avoid daytime traffic. I made a plan to go to the nearby truck stop in the latter part of the day and ask around.

I’m very British in the way that I’d rather struggle than bother somebody by asking for help. I’m naturally quite a shy person too. I thought that hitchhiking all this way from the UK would have changed this, but I’ve come to realize that travel doesn’t make you a different person, it just helps you to realize yourself.

I nervously walked, no quicker than I had to, to the truck stop outside of the city at around 15:00, feeling like I was an unwelcome child on the first day of school. I didn’t let myself dwell too much though because it would only make me more nervous. It was an old, trashy and relatively small uneven concrete space with a whitewashed café. There was already one truck parked with its windows open. I approached the driver with my best attempt at a newly learned Russian question ‘pashawosta podbroshe minya doh Chelyabinsk’ (please can you take me to Chelyabinsk)? I knew he would turn me down, as getting accepted by the first driver would be too easy, and 10 minutes later he was gone and another truck had parked up.

Before I knew it a whole hour had passed. I began to enjoy the situation; I could sit down, use the café’s free Wi-Fi and every 5-10 minutes ask someone for a lift. After approaching the first few drivers I didn’t feel nervous anymore and it was far better than standing on a roadside, breathing in the exhaust fumes and getting whipped by the sharp Russian wind every time a large vehicle rushed past.

I repeated this process until 10pm when, with no more trucks coming in, I decided to find somewhere to put my tent up. My theory was wrong; truck drivers do drive for a while after dark but they stop to sleep at about 21:00 and asking in the early evening had greatly decreased my chances of finding a lift. If they were to take me a long way then they would want to meet me in the morning with enough time to form a bond before potentially sleeping in the same vehicle.

It was of little surprise then that at 9am the next morning a driver finally agreed to take me. The ride was only about an hour long, but at the next stop the driver asked a pair of men standing outside their trucks for me securing me a lift that would take me all the way to Kazakhstan.

Sergei and Sergei were co-workers who had known each other longer than I had been alive. Throughout their careers they had travelled the country together. When they met, the long road that now lay ahead of us had no cafés or shops. In their place were holes in the ground which they used as toilets. They had seen small settlements develop into towns and cities and potholed dirt tracks change to modern tarmac.

There is only one main road across Russia and it runs like a scar from Moscow to Magadan. I was now leaving the more developed European side of the country and as I did, the road got straighter and straighter until all I could see ahead of me was the horizon which seemed to meet infinity and reveal all of Russia. Either side of me I could see nothing but pure emerald-green woodland that would have been too wild to enter.

We reached the more rugged part of the road and we were going up and down peaks and troughs. It described the entire trip to me – when I was on a low, all I could do was focus on what was immediately ahead, but on a high, I could see the whole road ahead and wanted to go all the way round the world.

The three days I spent with them felt like a dream. During this time, we taught each other some of the language and culture of our respective countries. They could see I was travelling on a tight budget and kindly paid for all of my meals, as well as giving me tea, coffee and, of course, vodka. We formed a firm friendship together and as we said goodbye in the dry and dusty truck stop near the border, all I had to give them to say ‘thanks’ were two 1p coins from home. They had never seen English money before so were thrilled.

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Overcoming my very British problems and enduring an uncertain seven hours of rejection at the truck stop outside Kazan had really paid off. This initial hardship had made it much easier for me in the long run, covering the 1500km in just three days. I had not spent anything during that time either and I had made two new friends. I left Russia with some lovely last memories and crossed into Kazakhstan with a smile.

Estonia: Dropping Plans, Picking Possibilities – Hitchhiking Around the World Days 64-66

‘Estonia’ – before going for the first time, that melodic name painted pictures in my mind of scenes from children’s books read to me by my parents. We often create an over-romanticized idea of a new place, but the moment I crossed the border, my imagination materialized.

It is one of those magic places I thought didn’t really exist, and for the three days I spent with Marko and his little brother, we did the kinds of things you would expect in a work of fiction.

We walked for hours in the dense woodland behind his house, built a raft with trees we cut down, and made a huge campfire. Navigating through the forest, it was as if he was speaking to the trees the same way that I would speak to strangers when finding my way through a city.

He told me there was a risk of encountering wild boars and bears, and he even felt the need to tell me what to do in the event of encountering one of them. I’ve never had to climb a tree before, and I didn’t want to have to try.

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As we walked, we foraged berries to keep our energy, and picked mushrooms to cook that evening. I felt truly disconnected from the rest of the world; my phone didn’t even have any signal in some parts of the forest.

Marko pointed out a number of abandoned wooden houses to me – much of Estonia’s population left the country after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving villages such as Marko’s either partially or completely empty. According to him, I could occupy one of them for free, given I contacted the owner and kept the place from falling apart because they still want to sell it.

Many Estonians have a sauna in their house – much is the same in Latvia and some part of Russia. In Marko’s house, it is what they use instead of a shower.

He invited me to use it, but before we went in he asked me if I was comfortable with what we were about to do. “Most foreigners aren’t,” he told me.

It turned out that they use it naked. I figured that if Marko and his brother were fine with it, then there was no need for me to feel awkward.

So, with a 27-year-old man and 11-year-old child, I stood naked in the hot, steamy room. I had a look, of course.

Marko and his brother left and I stayed behind to finish washing. When I walked out into the garden, I saw, what I think, was the gayest thing I’ve ever encountered. They were lying naked in the front garden as if they were in a religious painting.

“If you cannot walk around naked in your own front garden, then it is not a real garden,” Marko told me, as he urged me to join them.

Alas, I popped some underwear on.

My worries had been absent for most of the day, but in the evening they returned. Would I try to cover Russia in one month, or take it slow and find another way to get the visa for China? Deep down, I knew which choice I should pick but I couldn’t let myself think clearly and honestly, lest I leave myself vulnerable to failure.

That evening, Marko and I made a huge campfire behind his house. With the glittery indigo sky watching over us and mysterious mist snaking in-between the thick and tall pine trees, we left the world of introductory conversation behind and went beneath the surface to discuss some very personal subjects. Marko allowed me to truly let go of the seriousness of my situation, letting me listen to myself.

Gazing into the roaring fire as we spoke, the conversations we were having became independent of each other; I was interpreting what he saying differently to how he meant it, and vice versa.

Rushing over one month just to say I had traversed Eurasia, but missing everything in-between, seemed wrong now.

He told me that I should stay in Estonia for winter, gain residency and apply for the Chinese and/or Russian visa that way. My EU citizenship would make this very straight-forward, and I felt the lure of Estonia draw me to the idea. It felt right.

As the possibility materialized, I envisioned myself in a small cabin in the woods, keeping the fire going with the wood cut down in summer, snowed-in with just books and food.

I learned something from this – making big plans stresses me out, but making possibilities is exciting.

As the sun came up, Marko went to bed, but I went for a walk down the road near his house. It was as straight as a ruler and on either side of me were fields topped with pockets of mist which look like clouds. It was like I was in heaven.

The horizon at each end was shrouded by the similar clouds. As I started to walk, I realized I was inside a metaphor for my life – I am on an infinite road and completely free to walk it for as long as I want to. I moved forwards and the clouds continued to hide the horizon from me; there are always more things to see than I have time to.

I slept until midday and woke to the sun shining its golden rays into my room. My eyes opened willingly. The idea of spending winter in Estonia seemed too good to be true and I didn’t want to bring up conversations we had the night before, in case the fragile idea shattered while being carried into reality.  But as the day went on, things seemed to be just as relaxed as last night.

Marko told me, with enthusiasm, that he thought it was a great idea. He then told me that he doesn’t live in his house between November and March and that if I was to live in it, I would be doing him a favor.

It was the happiest I’d ever felt.

The next day, I left for Tallinn where I would pick up my passport which had been sent to me by the visa company without a Chinese visa. I had imagined receiving this passport following the failed application would upset me, but not getting a the visa turned out to be one of the best things to happen to me.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Mr. Day,

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

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

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

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

I had no idea what I was going to do.

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

I was stunned.

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

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

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it was all a bad dream.

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Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

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

 

 

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Latvia Part 1/2 – Riga. Hitchhiking Around the World Days 43 -50

“…We always remember the past better than it was at the time.”

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Independence Monument, Riga, Latvia

Leaving Lithuania

I choose to walk out of cities – and everywhere I stop, for that matter – because of my rule to circumnavigate the planet without paying for transport. This restricts me to either walking, hitchhiking, or if someone is kind enough, I am allowed to take any mode of transport. I don’t see this as a grueling feature of the adventure, however; I enjoy walking, because I get to take a lot more of the place in. Paying for transport is great, but you miss a lot of the experience. You see the best bits, yes, but that’s like rushing to the last page of a book, and saying ‘I know what happens in this story’.

My destination was now Latvia, and the 10km walk out of Vilnius presented me with a closing view of Lithuania – the beautiful, untouched-by-Soviet-Union center, which blended like watercolor to the grey, standard-issue concrete tower blocks which are the same almost everywhere across the former USSR.

Before I left, I made a couple of vegetable baguettes – I tend to eat things like this while on the road because they are very cheap to make, healthy, lots of energy and a bonus is that they taste great.

I was now at the start of a 300km journey. I only had to wait for 10 minutes before by first car pulled in. He was, in fact, going all the way to my destination, but he would be picking up 4 people where he was to leave me. Not a bad start!

With 150km traveled, I felt proud of what I had already achieved. The road was now much emptier than what I had been used to; the flow of traffic was now a small stream on the lower course of a river, which I had reached down the mighty river of Western Europe

Into Riga

I was there for about an hour before a quirky Latvian man pulled in, who claimed he had just driven all the way from Scotland in the last 36 hours. I couldn’t quite understand his reason for doing this, but I gathered it was something about having to sell his car here, because its easier than swapping the steering wheel over to the other side. I think he was a bit mad.

He took me to Riga though, and all I had to do now was walk to my next host’s apartment. It was another 8km, and I sent her a message to say I would be there at 21:40. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t just get on a bus, and my reply of ‘my challenge is to draw a line around the planet, which is unbroken by paid transport’, seemed a bit silly even to myself, given I would be walking for 2 hours, opposed to getting on a bus for 20 minutes for around the same price of the food I’d burn off. But this is my challenge, and, as mentioned, I do enjoy it really.

Walking 10km out of Vilnius, and 8km in to Riga required more energy than I had digested from those vegetable baguettes, and all I could find when hunger struck was a Spar store. I bought their own brand chocolate cookies, which happened to be the same ones I used to buy in Falmouth. I crunched the first, and as I chewed the crunchy-but-soft goodness, and the flavor made the connections to memories in my brain, I was transported back to the small Cornish town, and back to a time when everything was great (at least as I remember it, we always remember the past better than it was at the time). The chocolate cookies were delicious, and a much needed energy boost, but remembering a golden time than was now over made me feel low, and my stomach got heavy with sadness. Not wanting to dwell, I moved forward.

My new host’s name was Augusta, she was 27 with ginger hair. I arrived at her and received an over-enthusiastic welcome and tour of the flat. We settled in together watching YouTube videos, eating cheese and drinking red wine.

The next day, she showed me her city which was yet another beautiful Baltic capital. With a population of just 2 million, there was a lot of room to move around in and Augusta found it hard to comprehend my description of how cramped London is.

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The city was similar to Vilnius in the respect that it has remained untouched architecturally in the center, but, as I was walking in the previous evening, there were nothing but worn down, defeated, concrete tower blocks left behind from Soviet times. Augusta told me all about how the Soviet Union poisoned Riga, and the more I heard, the more I was shocked at how evil the whole regime was.

Any word of freedom, speaking foreign languages, or reading forbidden books (anything not published in Russian in Soviet times), could and probably would get you kidnapped, interrogated, and maybe even exiled to Siberia and/or executed. It was so easy to slip up, the people who valued their lives dared not even think about such things. KGB agents were sent to befriend people, and learn their deepest secrets, opinions and plans.

We visited a building which operated as a KGB interrogation place and prison. People were brought in, stripped, searched and violated. They could spend years here. The red carpets echoed ghostly screams from just 25 years ago, and were put there to absorb the inevitable blood stains. The cracked wall tiles looked like they had been put there deliberately to make it a set for a horror film, and the eerie, foreboding light seemed intentional

We left (thankfully of our own accord) and I realized how lucky I was, to have been born in the year and in the country I was. ‘How easily could I have been one of the victims here?’ I thought. I moved on without thinking too much about it. As we walked down the street, the damage of these times was still visible in the sad, defeated eyes of the older generation.

Things lightened up later that day, when I had a bit of fun at the expense of others. I have been told that when people meet and don’t speak the same language as one another, it is polite to speak a language which everyone can understand. So, since I can’t speak Latvian, Augusta and her sister always spoke in English. Well, when I was in the room they did, but as soon as I stepped out the door they would switch back to Latvian. I mention this, because the day I noticed it. I decided to test it. I walked out of the room, and back in, and back out again, and then back in. Every time, they would switch languages, almost mid-sentence one time. I giggled to myself menacingly each time I went out. Sorry, Augusta, if you read this.

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

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

Hitchhiking Around the World: Days 41 and 42

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

“I began to feel like I’d had enough of the trip for now; I’d been going for over 6 weeks already, and that was the longest I’d ever been away from home. Maybe it was time to go back for a bit, and resume my trip at a later date. But I realised I owed it to myself, after the struggles I had already endured, not to waste what I’d achieved by simply giving up.”

Once the Chinese visa application had been posted, I had already been in Kaunas for 6 days and had nothing else to do or see. I was, however, exhausted; the stress of this thing – rushing to make a travel itinerary in two days, making fake flight and hotel bookings and having to borrow a few thousand pounds to do so, and worrying it might not work out and cause the trip to be a failure – had worn me out again, undoing 5 nights of full, deep, and undisturbed rest. I was unsure if I should stay another night in Rima’s apartment or to go to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city. I went to the supermarket to restock the things which I had used, such as cooking oil and milk. As I walked along the isles, I found myself picking up some beers and snacks, and with a grin I realized I wasn’t going anywhere tonight.

I aimed to leave at midday, which became 2pm, then 3pm (for certain!) and then 4pm. I made myself one final coffee and said when I finish it, then I would have to leave. Rima then bought some pizza from a place down the street, so I ended up staying for another hour and a half. ‘Will I ever really leave’? I thought. I knew it was an easy trip to Vilnius; just 100km, perhaps one lift. But I was finding it so difficult to get going. I had stopped for too long and now it was difficult to get going again. I had a comfy bed, electricity, internet, gas, cooking facilities, and even a bathroom! Now I was going back to my usual way of traveling – either sleeping on roadsides or in cheap, dirty hostels. I began to feel like I’d had enough of the trip for now; I’d been going for over 6 weeks already, and that was the longest I’d ever been away from home. Maybe it was time to go back for a bit, and resume my trip at a later date. But I realised I owed it to myself, after the struggles I had already endured, not to waste what I’d achieved by simply giving up.

I stalled some more time away from myself by writing my diary, but I quickly updated it, and once again had no excuse to stay. Rima went back to work, and I sat there on my phone pretending to myself to be doing something. It took me until 17:30 to find the will to grab my bag, say goodbye to Rima, and walk to the road.

It was another straight-forward lift to the capital, once I actually got going. I walked to the highway which was a few minutes away and held my sign up. A man stopped the car after a few dozen others had passed, and took me all the way there.

Although I had already spent a week in Lithuania, I knew almost nothing about its history, which was still eerily present around me; so I asked my new friend. After a few questions, I began to understand why the Lithuanians I had already seen were so cold – The minimum salary here is 350EUR per month, which is just enough to survive on, but not to live on. The government takes 50% of this salary, too. People constantly have worries over money, not just once or twice a month, but every single day. It’s no wonder I hadn’t seen anybody smile. People were snappy, aggressive and miserable. Rightfully so.

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He then began telling me about what life was like in the times of the Soviet Union – How shop shelves were sparsely stacked, meat was rarely sold, and meals consisted of mainly flavorless rice or potato. Green beans made an appearance around Christmas time, if you were lucky. And a banana was like something from a fairy tale.

But independence from the USSR didn’t bring much positive change; Russia cut off the energy supply, meaning Lithuania had to begin fending for themselves after being dependent for such a long time. Financially, nowadays, they are in shambles. Basic things like repairing roads and pavements have been pushed to the back of the line and no new buildings have been erected in the last 25 years in Kaunas.

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I checked in to the new hostel and collapsed into my bed until sunrise. The next day as I made breakfast, I felt an unfriendly atmosphere in the kitchen, so I ended up being just as reserved. But later on in the evening, three Ukrainian men who I thought were unfriendly (and a bit scary!) invited me over for Vodka and Borsch (a kind of potato, tomato and meat soup). How could I have been so quick to judge them? They were lovely! They filled me up with their food, which was helped down with copious amounts of vodka. And it was here I learned how to let them know you want to stop drinking, because you don’t have their alcohol tolerance. You don’t say ‘no, thank you’, you simply don’t drink the shot in front of you, because if you do, they will fill it up regardless you say.

Because I had eaten so much food (I felt like an over-inflated balloon), the vodka didn’t hit me until I lay down in my bed. An enormous grin occupied my face as I lay there giggling to myself. I wondered what the other people in the room were thinking, but I was too pissed to care. I finished my night by sending various memes, which I found either hilarious, profound, or both at the time, to my friends and family.

The city itself was very nice – every other building seemed to be a church. The architecture was like that from the Disney universe – exactly what I had expected from a place called something so melodious as ‘Lithuania’. Despite being a capital city there was a lot of room to move around in. It surprised me, having grown up thinking London was something to base other capitals on.

Into the Former USSR and the Chinese Visa Crisis; Hitchhiking Around the World: Days 34 – 40

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

“About $5500 left my account that day.”

Up until this week of the adventure I had started to tell people that it was becoming a bit too easy – I was staying for free with Couchsurfing hosts for 2-3 nights while getting cooked for, then hitchhiking a bit, and repeating. I learned very quickly, after this complaint, that I should never say something is too easy.

I arrived in Kaunas, Lithuania after a non-taxing 10-minute wait in Suwalki. The driver took me directly to the city center where I met my next host, Rima. She told me first that she had been called away to Norway on business and that she wouldn’t be back for a week, but I could still stay. She introduced me to her flat, which had various passwords written on sticky-notes, money lying around and various other things that I and others from Western Europe would be shocked by. ‘How can you be so trusting of someone you have known for less than an hour?’ I asked, puzzled.

‘If you want to steal my spare pens, or loose change, be my guest!’ she replied.

I noticed after this explanation that she had everything required for a comfortable life, but nothing more. I realized throughout my stay in Kaunas that everyone here has the same. I observed the view from the kitchen window, as Rima prepared some oil-soaked Lithuanian food – The troubled, ash-stained clouds dominated the sky and blocked the sun from shining optimism into the view; concrete tower blocks, which seemed to mere pencil outlines against this sky, stood as cold reminders of the very recent national hardship, consequent of the Soviet Union. Over the coming two weeks I spent in Lithuania, I only saw one person smile, and that was Rima.

Rima was different to the other Lithuanians I met; like a small bubble attached to a much larger one, she had a sense of humor and a calm, friendly voice. I was sad to see her leave the next morning, but I now had six whole days to myself in a private flat with food, water, electricity and internet; it was quite an upgrade from sleeping on the roadsides.

The Chinese Visa Crisis

The visa for china, which I didn’t yet have, was an essential part of my trip to reach Singapore; there was no way around the fourth largest country in the world (apart form going through Afghanistan), which was an enormous land block between Europe and South-East Asia. The following morning.

So, why didn’t I just get the visa before I left the UK? Well, the Chinese government, for reasons I will probably never understand, set two very restrictive rules. The first is that you cannot apply for the visa more than 3 months before your proposed date of entry – an impossible time restriction for me; second is that you must apply in your country of residence.

So, my plan was to get a second passport, through my Irish father, post it home while still carrying my main British one, have someone apply on my behalf, get the visa, and have it posted back to me. It seemed like a good idea – well, it was the only workable option I had, apart from returning home. Everything was riding on a second passport being issued in time. The estimated time for this to happen was 6 weeks, and I was brought back down to earth like a bungee jumper who’s cord had snapped when I opened the internet on my first morning alone. The passport wouldn’t be issued for another 8 weeks, by which time I’d hoped to be about to cross the border.

The pixels on the screen which illuminated the contrast in colour to describe the letters and numbers to me which said I’m fucked made my heart drop into my stomach. ‘Well, this is it,’ was my initial reaction, ‘I’ve failed’.

Over the hours of that morning, I went from an initially knee-weakened state of pale, lightheadedness to one of hope – I could still apply for the visa if I posted my British passport home. I still had to cross into Latvia and Estonia to get to the Russian Border, but not carrying it shouldn’t be a problem because I was still with in the European Union’s Schengen area, which has no crossing points on its borders. I had one month before my Russian visa started, and that was enough time, I figured.

The next two days were spent completing the application, which took far more work than expected. Not only did I need to send my passport, some photos, and money, but a full itinerary for my double-entry journey, including proof of flights to and from the UK and hotel bookings for every night of stay.

I wasn’t going to take any fucking planes, or stay in hotels, but I had to pretend, so I made some bookings which I cancelled immediately after printing the confirmations. About $5500 left my account that day, and would take up to a month to be returned. It was very scary playing with that amount of money. And most of it wasn’t even mine – I had to ask a lovely lady called Merce, with whom I used to work; I think she saved the trip with the $3000 she lent me. My mother also lent me a $800, and to both ladies I am extremely grateful.

Everything was prepared, so I sealed everything in an envelope and ran through the heavy rain and thunder storm to the post office, which was shut because of a national fucking holiday. Resisting the voice in my head telling me to punch the window in, I returned the next day to send it via the fastest possible service.

All I could do now was hope.

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