Tag Archives: couchsurfing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to find a job. Can you help?”

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

“Well, I am an aspiring Travel Writer…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2017

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

Source: Thinkstock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– People are much nicer on the road.

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

– No competitiveness between me and my partner.

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

– Listen to music whenever I want.

– I can go at my own speed.

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

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

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

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

‘Are you a tourist?’

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

I didn’t say that, obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2017

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

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

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

Why not? I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where are you going?’ he asked.

‘Kazakhstan’ I replied.

‘Come with me, then!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2017

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

‘No, I can’t pay you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2017

From my train-track-side camping spot, I rose with the sun and jumped over the fence back to the road into the city.

I had slept there because I couldn’t find an open Wi-Fi signal to find a hostel, as I do whenever I enter a new city. But I had finally found one outside a hotel, so I sat there looking homeless (again) and arranged to meet my next host, Igor, in the evening.

Tashkent seemed like a clean, recently modernized city. On the center anyway. It was terribly hot, and so dry that my sweat dried instantly. I was very quickly out of water and had no local currency.

Economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that banks and ATMs had no money. It is not possible to leave the country with more money than you entered it with. The only way to get local currency was to exchange US Dollars. Luckily, I had $100 with me, as I do everywhere I go. 800,000 somoni were handed to me, I was almost a millionaire.

I met Igor outside his local supermarket. He was Russian-born, but living here. He had the typical cold demeaner, but of course the warm heart too. He let me stay in his room while he slept on the sofa for two nights.

He showed me two of his favorite cafes, which produced excellent variations on plov – the rice, beef and carrot national food. The bill came to $1.50 for the both of us, so I paid for everything, feeling even more like a rich man; I was one in Uzbekistan.

The hot weather had got to me and I was suffering from mild heat exhaustion, so I decided to make the 14km walk out of the city after dark.

I found out four nights too late that I was supposed to register with a hotel every third night of my stay. I came to the police checkpoint at the outskirts of the city and didn’t want to risk going any further. Igor told me I could have problems when I leave the border. Best case, I get a week in prison.

I found some half-built houses, which I thought looked fine, but as I walked in with my headtorch, a man called out to me in a groggy voice. I turned around almost out of reflex and walked away. His voice grew angrier and my legs moved faster.

Across the road, I found a field with trash scattered and some concrete pillars that had been dumped there. I didn’t bother getting any camping equipment out, I just put all of my warm layers on and curled into a ball. I slept surprisingly well, and the starry night was one of the clearest I’d ever seen.

The next day I woke naturally with the sunrise and as I emerged from the scattered blocks, I saw a man doing some kind of work in the field. I was lucky I didn’t get everything out of my backpack! I shoved my layers in as tidily as I could and waited until his back was turned for me to escape. I made it about 100 meters before he began calling to me, but I ignored him and sped up. He could well have just been curious, maybe he wanted to invite me for tea, but I didn’t want to take the risk because I probably wasn’t allowed in this space.

The first ride I caught on the way to Samarkand was from a man delivering some wooden panels to a house. While he was unloading I met the family’s children.

‘Have you ever seen an English person?’ asked the driver, interrogating the children who were staring at me as if I had two heads.

One of them shook his head while the other remained in a confused trance. After a while they regained their normal expressions again and could look at something other than me. I taught them the ‘fist bump’ and ‘high-five’ and gave them some London Underground tickets (I had no sweets or anything better to give them).

The truck driver took me most of the way, but there was still another 80km to go. I stood for about 20 minutes with my thumb out when the two men pulled in and said they could take me all the way there.

They invited me to stay the night at their house in the small village just before it. They took me for a meal and made sure I was more than full before we left the restaurant.

Back at their house I found myself running around the place with the 6-year-old son, both of us holding bits of wood we used as guns. It was great to be a kid again.

Just before bed, my hosts asked if I could help them to get a visa to visit the UK. I thought they wanted help with the form or a letter of invitation, but they asked me to send them the physical visa in the post. I don’t have that power!

The next morning, I was given some bread and jam for breakfast, which would be condoments for a grueling show. I’d never seen a chicken being slaughtered before, but I couldn’t look away. It is true that the head and body remain able to move independent of each other after separation.

They paid for a taxi to the city, refusing to let me hitchhike.

My first task on arrival was to find a place to stay. As I walked through the late-summer heat with everything stuck my back and sweat waterfalling from my forehead, I caught my first sight of the ancient buildings. I have never quite understood the phrase ‘take my breath away’, but seeing them today, I experienced this for the first time.

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure: Almaty to Tashkent

September 2017

Following the walk out of Almaty, I’d spent the night outside a shopping mall among some tall, dry and dusty weeds. My face scarf had kept me from sneezing through the night. I was on an 800km leg to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.

I had a dream that I’d given in and gone back to the UK to get visas. I felt happy because the biggest problem so far had been resolved, but I also felt bad because I’d divided the trip. I realized that this is why I don’t want to go home mid-way. I am tired, lonely and exhausted, and I want to arrive home having endured it. A marathon runner does not stop half-way at a restaurant.

I had only gotten more tired over the months since leaving England, and I took a while to even put my thumb out. I knew that if someone stopped, I would have to awkwardly explain that I couldn’t pay. They would then either drive away, or worse, stop, which would mean I have to spend an unknown amount of time speaking a language I don’t know, or better, sit in silence. I walked for a couple of hours before telling myself that if I couldn’t motivate myself to put out my thumb, then my expedition would take a very long time.

This apprehension would only worsen over the coming weeks to Georgia. My worrying heart rate had not improved since leaving Almaty and uncertainty still loomed. But this is what I asked for. This is what an adventure is. I told myself to stop being a little bitch and to get on with it.

I finally caught a lift and made it 200km. I had left it late, so I found some half-built houses to rest in. I slept for 14 hours in the chalky overgrown concrete lost cause.

I was now on a long road of small villages and the cars were only going locally. It took 45 minutes, once I managed to get my thumb up, to get a lift. The first two men wanted money to take me, but the third took me for free.

He left me on the main three-lane highway to Tashkent, which had been built with great ambitions in mind, but I only saw one vehicle every few minutes. I was now 500km from Uzbekistan’s capital and I stopped for some lunch at the truck stop. The air was hot, sticky and sandy. The sun invaded my Irish-British blue eyes and forced me to keep my squinted gaze down to the ground.

A truck driver was sitting across from me and was going to Tashkent. He spoke no English and I thought I had arranged a lift with him. I finished my food quickly, went to the toilet, but he had gone by the time I got back. Easy come, easy go, as they say.

One of the few cars to pass on this road stopped pretty quickly. I told the driver I couldn’t pay, and he initially drove off, but stopped before getting out of first gear. He and his family, who occupied the other three seats wanted to know all about my journey and what I thought of their country. I told them only good things.

I was now in Taraz, one of the many ancient cities on the Silk Road which I would be travelling through for the coming weeks to Georgia. People behaved differently here, they were friendlier. I began my walk out of the city when a man walked up to me inviting me into his home for the evening. There was nothing sinister in his demeanor, and his huge smile with one missing front tooth warmed my heart.

Men in this part of the world are so kind, but to their woman they are the opposite. He treated his wife as a slave waitress, raising his teacup in expectation, ordering her to cook, clean and not speak with me.

He took me and his youngest child of three to a swimming pool. I didn’t know what to do, I don’t enjoy swimming, but I pretended to anyway.

That evening, his wife made a kind of beef pasta dish, ‘Beshbarmak’, one of their national foods. It tasted a lot like lasagna.

The next day, he paid for a taxi to take me another 200km to Shymkent. He told me that a friend of his was taking me, otherwise I wouldn’t have let him pay. But I was already in the 8-seater and he handed the money over at a distance.

It was getting a lot warmer now, and Shymkent took a while to walk through. I was approached by countless men and children who either shook my hand and walked off or wanted to know what a strange white man with a backpack was doing in their city. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I’ve learned just to go along with things like this.

The heat was getting a bit much and I took short breaks every few minutes between shaded spots. The anxiety returned over putting my thumb out, but a man pulled in without me asking, having seen the backpack. He took me all the way to the border.

This crossing between countries was far simpler than the previous two; the only issues were that my passport photo of a well-kept version of myself no longer looked like me, and the migration card was not written in English. The border guards searched my backpack more out of curiosity than anything else, and I was free to pass. ‘Welcome to Uzbekistan’, the last guard said as his AK-47 swung round and he directed me to the green hills ahead.

I caught a ride to Tashkent where I had hoped to find an open Wi-Fi signal and book a cheap hostel, but there was nothing. Instead, I jumped over the fence to the train track and laid my bivvy bag out 3 meters away from it. A few times through the night, someone would walk nearby, or the train would shake the ground underneath me. I didn’t care anymore.

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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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.

Моscow and Another Adventure-Ending Crisis

In one sentence, Moscow was like London but in a different alphabet – the sticky, smoggy wind blowing from the underground stations, the rushing, nervous business people chattering gibberish around me and the beeping of thick traffic which never stops. And at night, street and car headlights illuminated the city which does not rest.

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But these similarities did not make Moscow a disappointment; quite the contrary. The Kremlin, Red Square and Cathedral transported me back in time to my childhood memories of Disneyland; I basked in its beauty, and this made me happy because I’d been true to myself and not missed Moscow from my route because of my rules.

I explored such places on both of my days there. I had to.

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Arrival Day – I returned from a night walk on my first evening to find a photocopy of my British passport on the front desk. Strange, I thought. Shortly after, a tall, skinny man greeted me enthusiastically.

“We don’t see many British people here in Moscow!” he said. “Come, join us!”

He was a volunteer at the hostel and I sat with him and the other staff that evening. I was knackered, and my body wanted me to go to bed. But I told myself that nobody remembers the nights they get a good night’s sleep. Well, I do, but I stayed anyway.

Day 1 and 2 – The chest-tightening loneliness I had been feeling in recent days had faded and I was excited to continue my journey. I was in Moscow, having hitchhiked all the way from Cornwall! I was still planning to only reach Singapore at this stage, but ideas of going around the world began to enter my mind. I knew I could do it, but I wasn’t sure if I could last that long away from home. Even if I decided to go for it, I would also have to find a way to fund it. I told no one of my idea because it was still young.

I walked around various tourist spots, wading through the selfie-addicted masses. I made the decision to pay for transport for the first time since leaving the UK – It was tough, but without doing it I would end up with a countless list of missed experiences. I returned to the same spot afterwards, making my new, adapted rule.

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That evening, I received a message from someone who pointed out a huge hole in my plan to hitchhike from Estonia across all of Russia to Vladivostok. I would only be able to obtain a 30-day visa for Russia. Even a double entry would be 30 days, but split over two visits.

Yet again I was hit by a potentially adventure-ending crisis but I didn’t react nearly as badly as I would have, had this happened a month ago. I was much stronger now.

I got out my phone and exhausted Google for my options. After a couple of hours, I found a small country in-between Turkey and Iran gave EU passport-holders like me a one-year stamp at the border, with no costs or forms. Georgia was my new savior, because China and Russia class a country of residence as a place of living for minimum 6-months, so I could get my visas there!

During my time exploring the city, I scouted the buses to decide if I would try to hitch one out the other side. Some had ticket checkers on board, some were full, and others were empty. But I was not brave enough to break the law in Russia again, so I walked. Doing this out of Europe’s largest city in the peak of summer proved to be a long and sticky challenge, but I made it.

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I left, by my standards, early in the morning to complete a 25km hike to a spot on the outskirts. I really struggled with it and felt awful after because I did not eat enough calories as I had expended. Doing this kind of thing back home, I would ordinarily end the day with a thick, jaw-locking, greasy cheese burger, but this day ended with a couple of packs instant noodles.

Managing a sufficient intake of calories is something I find difficult when on the road.

Reaching the spot, I put my thumb out to the slow-moving, rush-hour traffic, – a hitchhikers’ dream. A man pulled in within minutes and took me 20km. From there, another man took me 40km. A 10km hop followed, and I got concerned that these short distances would become normal. They did, and I learned that this is the case with traffic going away from the world’s major capital cities. The next few days would be tough…

 

Hitchhiking Buses – Veliky Novgorod and the Road to Moscow

Ilya’s mother dying just before I arrived to his home meant I didn’t spend very long in Veliky Novgorod; I explored the city in a day and left after the second night. Touristy, it wasn’t. Apart from experiencing a ‘real’ Russian town, I took a look at some government buildings, probably arousing further suspicion to that when I entered the country.

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The day to leave came and it was a 30-minute walk from the apartment to the main road. Today, I would head to Moscow. I was picked up towards the end of the walk and taken just 10km. From there, it was a 90-minute walk, and the frightening realization set in during this time that these long waits could be the norm here in Russia.

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The sky had now turned grey and the air was heavy. I got left at the wrong side of a small village, about 2km in length, and had to walk through. I had entered a small pocket of lesser development – around me were small, wooden shacks, with paint stripping and wood swelling – I wondered how they withstand the lethal winters. I felt vulnerable and out of place with my blue backpack with sewn-on flags. I kept my face forward and powered through.

The road led my eyes to the ominous horizon where Moscow lay. I waited for two hours and began to feel invisible before someone finally pulled in.

He didn’t want to speak, which was fine, some people don’t want to. Instead, I slept. He took me all the way to the outside of the city.

I stopped for my first meal of the day- white bread, pickles, tomato and onion helped down my the comforting cup of tea; a life-saver to any English person. My gas stove and tea bags are probably among my most important piece of kit; many times have I been saved by them.

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Initially, I had decided to miss Moscow, because I had planned to loop back round for winter and come this way again. But, on the outer ring road of Moscow, I began to feel quite somber about not ticking off Russia’s beautiful capital. I asked myself ‘what would I choose if I wasn’t hitchhiking?’ I would choose to spend a night in the city and carry on the next day. I admitted to myself that it was the thought of paying for a bus that was putting me off.

I wasn’t being true to myself. It’s my adventure, nobody elses and I have to make myself happy. It’s the same in everyday life as well.

I changed direction and headed towards the centre. I jumped on a bus but nobody asked me for a ticket. Could I hitchhike a bus to the centre of Moscow?

I got off the first one, because everyone else did, and got on another. This one had a barrier. I pretended to have no idea what I was doing, putting notes in a card slot and pushing non-existent buttons. A random man came up and swiped his travel card for me. 20 minutes later I was in central Moscow, I’d hitchhiked two buses!

I checked in to a hostel in the center and went to bed excited for the next day and glad to have made a decision for myself.

 

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

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

St. Petersburg to Veliky Novgorod

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The unsettling sense of worry which we feel when we aren’t sure if we can achieve what is ahead of us came over me again while I took a day to myself in my tent just outside St. Petersburg. It was stronger than it had been before and was exasperated by a small but significant stomach sickness, which I suspected I’d caused myself by having poor hygiene; I was rarely around a sink and therefore never really washed my hands.

Contributing to this was the physical result of grieving over my relationship with September, which I felt, as she probably did, was ending because of the distance. I missed my family a lot too, and now that I was in Russia it was too expensive to contact them away from WiFi.

I felt very lonely in that damp tent.

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Such feelings led me to quit my previous – and first ever – trip to Southeast Asia. I was like a child in a strange place away from home for the first time and I let it get the better of me. But I was a very different person then; the burden of anxiety still occupied and controlled my thoughts. And to make things worse during that trip, I never really let myself rest, I didn’t really integrate with people or places around me – instead, I talked to my parents and friends every day.

But I had become much stronger since then. I made a list of pros and cons of doing this adventure alone and began to see that the positives outweighed the negatives. I realized where I was, what I was doing and how lucky I was. I was free. As I sat there in my sleeping bag, legs semi-crossed in the tight space as I hunched forward with nothing to lean on, the same two Muse albums playing from my phone because I had nothing else downloaded, wet grass around me, I recorded my change of mood in my journal:

“I am on a real adventure! I have dreamed about this for a long time and I am happy to be here. I don’t want to give up. Bad days are inevitable. I have wet feet, damp clothes, I am smelly, but I love it.” 

I stayed for another night before preparing to hitchhike 200km to my next Russian stop – Veliky Novgorod.

Packed up, I walked back to the M-road. I found a hitchhikers’ dream spot – next to a speed bump. With the cars being forced to slow down, I only had to wait 30 minutes. 160 kilometers were covered with a lovely couple who bought me a coffee – this kindness never ceases to make me a bit emotional. But where they left me would be a hitchhikers’ nightmare.

Russia has only one main road traversing the country, so when there are roadworks it causes a very long queue. I stood there for two hours as the cars passed which had been waiting in line for around the same mount of time, not wanting to stop again. But before too long, a man did stop for me and took me right to the front door of my next host.

Unfortunately, my host’s mother had died on my way to his house and he was not able to spend time with me. He said I could stay as agreed, but I felt a strong suggestion that he wanted me out of the way. I needed to leave earlier than I’d asked for anyway, because I had underestimated the size of Russia; the total of 3000km from there to Kazakhstan was the same distance I had covered from the UK to Russia. I needed to get a move on!

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

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

 

Estonia. Hope is the Opposite of Fear – Hitchhiking Around the World Day 60 – 62

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“Hope is the opposite of fear.”

The crisp, morning air from the half-opened window welcomed me into the new day and breathed hope into my problem.

Despite what had burdened me over the last few days, I was relaxed.  I made a big breakfast for Tambet and me, which we enjoyed on his balcony while further discussing my options for reaching the end of the continent without having to fly home first. Just having him there to talk to helped a lot.

He left for work and I threw myself back on the couch. I opened my email box to check if the visa agency had been successful in their enquiry at the Chinese consulate into whether they could conduct the visa interview over Skype, or over telephone, or any logical solution for somebody who is travelling away from their own country.

The subject line gave nothing away.

This is not a piece of fiction, therefore I cannot write whatever I want. So, of course, it was unsuccessful. I either had to fly home, staining the hitchhiking element of my trip, or the visa application would be refused.

I learned a valuable lesson on how to stay positive from this trip-threatening fiasco – Hope is the opposite of fear.

We get fearful when our mind focuses on negative possibilities, and hope is the result of thinking about the equally likely positive outcomes. The happy ones among us are those who focus on the latter. In most situations, things seem to play out not terribly, nor extremely well, but somewhere half-way.

Remaining hopeful before this news had kept me much calmer than I would have been without it. I think we worry because we feel like we can change things by doing so, but the reality is that we have very little to no control over what happens to us. Once we accept this, we are free be happy.

I needed to vent, badly, so I picked up the pillow which I had slept on so peacefully the night before, folded it in half and forced all of my frustration into it. I felt the veins on my eyes pop up, as well as the ones on the side of my head. Unsatisfied, I let out another scream. Almost finished, I let out a final one, which I felt shake the walls of the old, wooden apartment.

That night, Tambet and I went to a party at his friend’s country house. It was one of the final parties of the short Estonian summer. Few of them work during this season, because most of the year it is too cold to host such events.

They were very welcoming. Some of them spoke English very well, some of the not so much; they all learn it in school, but few of them get the chance to practice speaking.

My new friends sensed there was something troubling me and were empathetic. One of them suggested a new idea – going through Afghanistan and Pakistan. I considered it, seeing as my journey is all about questioning the dangers of the world presented by mainstream news, but after quite a lot of research I deemed it to dangerous.

We sat outside together around the campfire next to the woods and the mist-shrouded fields. Tambet explained what the design of the Estonian flag was based on; the three equally-sized horizontal bars – blue on top, black in the middle, followed by white – were right in front of me as I looked into the landscape. The dark blue sky was above the silhouette of the trees, which was based on the white mist.

The night ended as the sun came up, and we all wasted the next day. As the sun clung to the final hours of the day, Tambet and some friends took me to the main road to Tallinn, the capital city, but I didn’t need or want to make any progress today so I set up my tent.

Jack called me that evening to discuss my current situation. He presented a new idea: I still had a Russian visa in my passport which hasn’t been used yet, why not just go around China? I did some quick calculations to find that if I averaged an achievable 400 kilometers per day, I could make it within my 30-day visa. Could I really traverse the largest country in the world in that tight time-frame? Could I really go for a month without resting? Where would I sleep?

I spent the rest of the evening with my map, before falling into a half-excited slumber.

 

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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 –