In June 2016, I decided to quit my job as a physical therapist in Switzerland. Partly thinking that making all that money makes no sense and I should be somehow spending my life differently. My girlfriend, now almost-wife, got a job offer as an English teacher in South Korea. The decision to travel across 2 continents was born. ‘Well, flying is kinda boring, so why not just hitchhike. It’s (roughly) 16.000 km.’ (actually it came down to 15 692 km after my calculation). So I took off overland, through Europe, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China and finally arriving in South Korea. If you want to see more of the entire trip click here.
On a nice summer morning, I asked my dad to drive me to the gas station that I had already known so well from my university time. I used to hitchhike from here to the Netherlands where I went to university. This time, however, I would go South-bound. Not even 5 minutes there, I met a French Canadian guy and we ended up thumbing together all the way until almost Istanbul. We were both in a rush to get out of Europe, but the reasons were different. He had to leave for visa reason, I wanted to leave to get faster to my girl and enjoy parts of the world I had not seen yet. I needed five days from home (near Karlsruhe in Germany) until Istanbul and another five days until the Georgian border was fast but that’s what I wanted. Now the fun part could begin.
Georgia was one of my favorite countries in this journey, cheap and beautiful. As always, I had no idea where I was going, so I just wandered around. Some people told me to go up north towards the Russian border where the Caucasus mountains are. This region is very touristic as Ushguli is famous for being the highest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe and recognized by the UNESCO as such. I wandered around this area for roughly a week. The best moment was when I intended a hike with a dying cell phone battery and a paper map. It was a beautiful area and a clear path so I wasn’t very worried about my safety. But when the first truck came, I pointed my thumb out as I was used to, the driver stopped. Little did I know that this day will turn into an adventure, I would be thriving from for a long time. One hour bumpy ride through the forest later, I was told with hands and Russian language, that before they started to work we would eat.
At this point, I already knew about the alcoholic preference Georgians have, at least the ones I met. So of course, a lunch for a group of road workers must include at least 1 liter of Chacha. This homemade brandy is nothing to joke about, strong and nobody really knows how much alcohol it should have or has. Apart from Hot Dogs, Ketchup and bread, the lunch also was accompanied by a joint that made it’s round, and of course, the foreigner who does not understand a word must have some too. Ready to go to work, right? Finally, I was told what these guys actually do for a living. They build a road through this forest. Today, it was, however, the German hitchhiker who would build the part of this road. So they taught me how it all works and there we go. I was not sure about the safety of operating heavy machinery but that was part of the game. I continued on until the group decided again, it was time to have a second lunch break, with another bottle of Chacha. Though remember, I was already pretty drunk at this point, but it is not polite to refuse, so I did not. The boss now had a great idea, at least it was for my entertainment. He thought that the tree located roughly 30 meters off the road was perfectly sized for his project, I, of course, did not understand its purpose. So they started to hook up the truck to the big tree. BOOOM! That was the sound of the entire front axil that broke, maybe this tree was a bit too big? Though, I was somehow the only one sitting in the corner almost not able to hold his breath because of laughter. They called their friends, and by now you might already figure, another bottle of Chacha was brought and opened upon the arrival of the savior. In the end, they let me out pointing down the hill and said ‘walk down there’ (in Russian, that much I understood). That was the summary of a working day of the road workers I met in Georgia. Efficacy fairly low but enjoyment is definitely a part.
Continuing the travels through Georgia with much more Chacha, I even ended up with 1.5 L in my backpack at some point, I was eager to continue to Azerbaijan. At this point, I really started to miss even more my girlfriend as I had already during the last month of travels or so. It’s these moments that make you realize what you have and what you definitely do not want to lose ever in your life. If you ever arrive in Azerbaijan don’t do it like I did. Do your research. I had thought, the visa is enough that I had obtained online. But no, you have to leave within 10 days or else register with local police confirming your stay. So that’s how I ended up being deported. I wanted to fly to Kazakhstan on a late evening flight and I thought it’s walkable to the airport from the bus station. This already left me being late for my flight. It was further than I thought. At the border checkpoint, I only heard ‘you cannot leave, you have to pay a $300 fine’. I can’t leave? How? Well, the only option is to pull out cash and deposit it into a mysterious machine. But the machine will not accept credit cards itself. The border official and I started running from one end of the airport to the other. We realized that there was no way that I could get the money. All the available machines refused my credit card, lucky me in retrospect. ‘Well you can get deported if you want to, it’s free’ – So I did. Luckily, I didn’t intend to go back there anytime soon anyway.
I arrived in Aktau after midnight and a friendly Couchsurfer picked me up. We went to get a beer to relief at least some of my stress. The next day, I was able to enjoy fresh camel milk and their special kind of fermented milk types (a mix of horse and camel milk) was a must with my companion. I was to learn in the following months that these drinks will follow me throughout the country. A somewhat acquired taste but should definitely not be missing your list of things to try.
I had planned to spend only some days here but wounded up staying almost two weeks. Believe me, you will not regret it either, though be warned, this is area is not touristy so either be prepared or courageous or best both. If you hike, always bring water and a charged Phone with GPS. If you opt for the Taxi service or tour companies, you will be able to see more but might be more rushed. I personally was already hitchhiking so I had no intent to change this. I randomly picked some touristy things from the billboards in Aktau and I do not regret even one of them. You can read more about Mangystau region here.
Saturday 16 Sep 2017 15:33
Very bumpy ride…thanks to my GPS I took this road that actually isn’t a road for most of the time
The road I took was the ‘short-cut’ between Atyrau and Aktobe and it is certainly not the faster way. The road that my GPS suggested turned from asphalt to gravel to literally sand within less than 20km. For your reference, the road that goes along the Russian border is supposedly well paved, this is the one that most people take. It was one of these hitchhikers moments when you should have listened to the locals. The night before, I had talked to some guys on the street asking them for a ride to Aktobe with this route and they said the road did not exist, of course, all this with google translate. I had my doubts. The region was still nice but desert. There is not much else but desert for a long long time. Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth-biggest country whereas 85% of its land is covert by steppe, plains, semi-desert, and desert. The repetitiveness is the beauty of it, though personally, I would recommend the cheap trains as a low-budget option. I paid something close to 3€ for a 350km through the desert and it was certainly worth the experience. Interestingly enough, I met two German craftsmen who were on their way to Vladivostok. If you haven’t heard about the journeyman years in German-speaking countries you should definitely look it up. In short, after finishing your basic education as a craftsman, you leave for a certain amount of time and travel around the world. You are not supposed to have nor make money, additionally, they travel in their traditional outfit and without any electronic devices. The drunk Russians started fighting over us, the German travelers as the vodka kept flowing. Everyone wanted to talk to us even though nobody hardly could do so because of language issues.
Finally no more plain desert and a bit more excitement! Turkestan should be my stop after a long drive with an interesting truck driver. Here his stats: 14,5 h of driving, 1h lunch break, 2.5 packs of cigarettes = 1000km of distances. I spoke very little to nothing to him but somehow felt we had a good moment together. Turkestan is what most people described to me as a peek into Uzbekistan with a nice Mausoleum and other tourist attractions. It was also one of the major junctions back during the thrive of the Silk Road from China to Europe. In fact, the highway that was built from China through Kazakhstan until Europe is called the New Silk Highway, a somewhat controversial road in its existence.
Two months in the travel and I am really starting to miss my girlfriend, even more, I had started a podcast for her, somewhat of a spoken diary where I would fight boredom and loneliness. Soon I would see her again. She came for 10 days during her fall break. Seeing her, gave me the energy to continue the trip and it once I entered China, I only had one month left before taking the ferry to South Korea.
Isn’t it interesting, how you can travel so far, but then, within 200m everything goes from somewhat different to totally strange? That’s the feeling I had entering China overland, and many people shared the same thought. People are certainly different here, that’s for sure. One thing can be said, traveling alone in China is at least as strange for them as it is for you. I probably should have charged money for taking pictures with me, a white, tall, blond guy, traveling all by himself. For already months, I had told people that I am walking from Germany to South Korea, it makes things a lot easier as most people do not understand the travel concept of hitchhiking. I took a few overnight trains for less than 3€ as I realized I will spend all day in the car.
After all, the visa cost me almost 150€ if I spend it all in the cars it won’t be worth it. But let’s say this, for now, China is certainly worth another story just by itself.