Tag Archives: linguistics

…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 Road to Astana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into Kazakhstan

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

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

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

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

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

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

He paused and took my passport to the office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 –

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 –

Hitchhiking Around the World: Days 41 and 42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About $5500 left my account that day.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Chinese Visa Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I could do now was hope.

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