Tag Archives: georgia

Back to Almaty and on to Bishkek -Kyrgyzstan Part 1/2 – Hitchhiking Around the World

April 2018

With a shiny new Chinese visa in my passport, I put the last 10 months of crippling stress behind me and looked to the road ahead.

I thought I would be ecstatic, but I was not even half way around the world yet. Instead, I felt a sense of pride and modesty, realising my small victory but not celebrating prematurely.

Having already reached Almaty before turning West to Georgia back in September 2017, I took a flight back there.

I picked up a new tent, being told by two travellers that my tarp and walking pole construction was very dangerous.

My plan was to travel through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan before heading East into China. Almaty was right next to the Chinese border, but I would never be in this part of the world again and I wanted to see these two countries.

I had gotten comfortable over the winter. I no longer wanted to eat plain bread for breakfast, or go days without a shower and Wi-Fi. I put off leaving the hostel in Almaty for a couple of days. But my apprehension to leave was nowhere near as severe as it was before I had the Chinese visa. Now, the road ahead was open and with that I could feel excited again.

At 3pm, I walked out of Almaty. I bought some cigarettes to offer to drivers, which was an idea that didn’t last very long. One man approached me asking for a cigarette. I could give one to him, but I had forgotten to buy a lighter. Well done, me.

I had stopped in the park because I was nervous again about hitchhiking. But now, with no uncertainty about visas, I didn’t need to be. I walked to the road and put my thumb out. Two cars stopped, both asking for money, then a van pulled in without me asking and offered to take me all the way to the Kyrgyz border. They even bought me dinner!

I crossed the border, walked past the taxi drivers and camped in a farmer’s field. The next morning, while I was in a sleepy daze, I think someone was trying to talk to me from the outside, but I might have dreamed it.

I felt much safer in my new tent from bugs, animals etc. the coming weeks I would be extremely thankful for it.

I caught a ride to the outside of Bishkek and looked at the map for the route to the hostel. 12km. 3 hours’ walking. I’ve had longer walks into cities.

I found a doner kebab stand, one of the many in this country. For just $1.20, I could fill myself with energy for most of the day. I ate one a day for a week, until the last three made me quite ill. The first made me rush to the toilet at 2am, the second made me throw up violently one evening, and the third did the same as the first. After the third, I knew it was time to stop.

Kyrgyzstan was a lot warmer than Georgia, and the sudden change caught me by surprise; sunburn and mild heat exhaustion came about from me power walking into the city. And because I walked so fast, I missed a turning and added 8km on to my walk.

It was great to see Yusuf though, my top-knotted Turkish friend. We hugged eachother like brothers and the amount of beer we drank that night did no favours for me with my reaction to the heat.

Bishkek felt a lot more Asian than Almaty. With stalls instead of skyscrapers, it was a capital village. I took three days there to give my now lobster-red skin a chance to go brown.

The heat was such a sudden change for me, that I struggled to go out in the daytime. I was gifted with a rainy day and I utilised it to walk out of the city.

My socks became sodden and my clothing heavy, over the 4 hour drudge to the outskirts. I put the tent up, changed out of my wet clothes and settled into my sleeping bag. with some Peep Show, which made everything okay again.

The next morning, I would realise one of the flaws of my cheap tent – When it rains, the single-layer construction acts poorly. My damp sleeping bag raised concerns over the coming weeks through the mountain roads.

How to Obtain the Residency Permit in Georgia

Whether you want to set a business up in one of the best countries to do so, get visas to countries such as China and Russia, or just settle down, Georgia is the place where many foreigners end up at some time or another.

If, like I did, you need to get the residency permit, this article will take you everything you need to know and guide you past the mistranslations and outdated information on the official website.

Below are the documents you will need to apply, followed by the process.

Source: transparency.ge

What you need to apply

1- Statement of employment or bank statement

You can get this either by getting a job or by volunteering at almost any hostel in Tbilisi. The statement is not a contract, but a document stating your full name, date of birth, passport number and length of time working there. You can ask for any length of time from 6 months to 5 years.

It needs to be written in

either Georgian, or English or Russian with a notarized translation.

On it, you need to have their 9-digit business number included somewhere and it also needs to be stamped and signed by the person writing it.

This is one route, but the other option is to present a Georgian bank statement with 4000GEL or more in it. Some nationalities are not allowed to set a Georgian account up, like UK citizens. For most people, a bank account is quick and easy to create; just go to one, most easy is TBC, with your passport and the 10GEL fee.

2- Copy of passport data page

A simple photocopy is all you will need.

They will most likely ask you to get a “notarized translation” of your passport data page, but you do not need to do this if it is in Latin or Cyrillic alphabet. They just do not want the extra work, but it is written on this page of their website.

3- A passport photo

You don’t need to spend money on this. Just one taken with your phone or webcam will do. Make sure it is high resolution (minimum 2MP) or they will ask you to retake it.

4- Proof of legal stay

This is just your entry stamp or visa. Photocopy that page of your passport.

Once you have all of these, go to this site and open a new application. Fill the details in and upload the documents and a link will appear to video call an agent. They will make sure everything is to the required level before asking you to pay online.

Depending on how quickly you need to permit, there are three different prices.

30 days – 210 GEL (70EUR)

20 days – 330 GEL (110EUR)

10 days – 410 GEL (135EUR)

Expect it to take as long as is stated.

You will be given a code to check the status online, but if you provide a Georgian telephone number they will call it when it is ready.

You will be asked to come to the Public Service Hall in Tbilisi (The light grey building which looks like a load of orange peel piled up. Address is 2 Zviad Gamsakhurdia Named Right Bank, Tbilisi 0106, Georgia) in person to submit a hard copy of your statement of employment or bank statement.

Once you know it is ready, go back to the Public Service Hall and pick up a printed letter of approval, which is] sufficient for visa applications while waiting up to 10 days for your shiny residence card – a nice souvenir!

Did this guide work for you? Maybe you know someone it would be useful for? Feel free to add your own experience in the comments section!

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.

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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.

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…