Tag Archives: Hitch Hiking

The Big Hitch (Part 2)

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Steve

Steve had been expecting us in Townsville for a couple of weeks, although he was a bit unsure of the exact date we would show up. Nina contacted him through Couchsurfing whilst we were in Indonesia and we somehow managed to arrive on the proposed date.

Steve worked in the mining industry as did so many of the people we met “along the track”. He also seemed to be a professional couchsurf host having welcomed over 200 people into his apartment in the last 12 months. Nina and I had a well earned shower and joined Steve and two other couchsurfers, Anna and Pauline, for our first square meal in days.

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The following day Steve went off to work and Nina and I explored Townsville’s Botanical Gardens, traditional brewery and seafront walks before we cooked for the crew, this time joined by Steve’s brother Kevin. It was a great introduction to the east coast and after a couple of drinks we even had the brothers reciting patriotic poems and songs of Australia!

The next morning Steve gave us a little tour of Townsville and a view over the city from Castle Hill before dropping us at a suitable hitching point just out of town. We totally love couchsurfing and can’t wait to host travellers ourselves!

Thomas & Jonno

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I’m still surprised at just how little time we had to wait in Australia before people pulled over to offer us a ride. It was no different leaving Townsville. I think 15 minutes, just enough time to eat a banana and take a quick leak, before Thomas pulled in.

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Thomas was a nice enough lad. An Irishman looking for work. As we chatted about the type of work he was looking for it became apparent that a) he’d lost his wallet the previous day containing $3400 and b) he had no driving license and so was looking for cash-in-hand work. I felt Nina squeeze my left shoulder from the back seat and we implied that we weren’t going far…

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It was only 204km to Bowen where we were meeting our next couchsurf host, Jonno. Jonno had originally agreed to host us in Rockhampton but as he was in Bowen that evening he invited us to join him and a group of fruit picking hippies at a campsite for a gathering. Thomas decided to take us all the way there and join in the fun that evening, although I’m pretty sure he was more hopeful of scoring weed that meeting people!

So we ended up sleeping with Jonno in Ginola’s tent after a communal meal, card games and a few late night drinks with mostly French and Italian fruit pickers.

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Kevin (Steve’s brother)

This is where the journey gets quite funny. Whilst at Steve’s in Townsville we met Kevin who is Steve’s brother. Kevin offered to give us a ride the 717km south to Rockhampton when he returned home a couple of days later but we had already agreed to meet Jonno in Bowen. Jonno was returning to Rokhampton the following day so we would travel with him. Whilst with Jonno he changed his plans as an old girlfriend was in town and decided not to head back to Rocky.

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Nina and I called Kevin, knowing that he was coming our way in the morning and no sooner had we awoken, brushed our teeth and packed up our bedding, Kevin had arrived at the campsite fresh from a 5am departure from Townsville. We were really glad to see kevin and his granddaughter. A couple of nights previous we had got to know each other whilst putting the world to rights and we were soon at it again chatting away in the car, only stopping for ice-cream on route, before being shown around the family home in Rockhampton!

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vince (Kevin & Steve’s brother)

Who could belief that within three days we had stayed with and travelled with three brothers! Yes that’s what happened next. As we were coming into Rockhampton, Kevin’s brother Vince called to say he was in Rockhampton and would soon be heading down to Hervey Bay to meet “a friend with benefits”. Kevin immediately asked if he minded taking a couple of friends (which we were by now) the 400km south and Vince was happy to oblige, collecting us from Kevin’s house half an hour later.

Vince liked to talk. And I must say we were very interested. He was nothing like Kevin, who was nothing like Steve, but he was interesting in his own way. We got to hear about his time as a prison warden, his motivational speeches as a soccer coast, his opinions on health cures such as hydro peroxide and mega doses of vitamin C before he embarrassingly disclosed his new “before bed habit” which had recently replaced reading. He made us try to guess and then told us he was addicted to a computer game on his phone where he had to build up a farm!

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We arrived at the turn off to Hervey bay, now in Childers. Nina and I decided to jump out and try the campgrounds advertised for backpackers as it was now dark and starting to spit with rain a little, plus it was better for the next days chances of hitching, hoping that we would make it all the way to Dulong the following morning.

Jamie & Scott

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We drudged into the campgrounds at Childers to find row upon row of dorm style accommodation full of “twenty something” fruit pickers eager to do their time in the country for an additional year on their visa. It was a sorry site, looking more like the campsite on the last day of Glastonbury Festival. We snuck into the communal kitchen to make a sandwich but there was nowhere clean to prepare it, just an Italian skinning up on the bench.

We introduced ourselves to Alex and asked if people rent a bed or a dorm or what? He shot off to the next block and returned a couple of minutes later to say he had found us a bed even though the other boys in the room weren’t too happy about it. That’s when we met the boys from England, Jamie and Scott. They were paying $173 a week for a dingy dorm bed and were wary of us kipping on their spare mattress for the night. We got chatting and were sharing stories of our trip, their fruit picking adventures and a meal before the night was over. We were up with them at 5am the next morning and as they left for work we made our way to the edge of town.

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warwick, harry & the Nun

From Childers we only had 218km to Nina’s family home in Dulong. It was ironic that we would stand waiting for the longest time in all our hitching days from England to Australia on the last leg of our journey. It was a fresh morning and we welcomed the sun on our backs as we stood for an hour grumbling at the locals who wouldn’t give us a second glance.

Warwick to the rescue! As always – it’s only a matter of time. Warwick pulled over in his big 4×4, towing a boat on route to a fishing trip on Rainbow Island with friends. They’d been planning it for months and as we drove he received calls on his mobile from friends trying to think of excuses for the girlfriends to allow them fishing. We heard all the stories about how he had a reoccurring illness and time with his mates was the best cure. Warren treated us to a coffee and homemade peanut cake then dropped us at a petrol station in Gympie.

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We stepped out of the car and Nina popped in to use the ladies. As she did a man with a nepalese style hippy hoody emerged from the gents. I ran over to Warwick’s 4×4 as I thought I’d left the camera and as I walked back across the garage forecourt the hippy guy was chatting to a Nun in Tibetan buddhist attire. I only know one monastery in the area and it’s not too far from where Nina lives. They disappeared around the corner before Nina reappeared and when she did I said “quick there’s a Nun around the corner, maybe ask them if they’re going our way” and Nina shot off to catch them.

Nina asked if we could grab a ride with them and if they were going to Chenrezig Monastery. They asked Nina how she knew where they were going. Nina looked at the Nun. They told us to hop in and off we went.

The route to the Monastery took us to a turn off 8km from Nina’s family home and by this time Nina had been in touch with her Mum Christina who was super excited to see us and eager to collect us from somewhere. The Nun made us promise never to become a conservative and Harry dropped us at Palmwoods where we waited for Christina.

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christina

As we hopped out of Harry’s people carrier Nina was starting to well up. We had been dropped off at the National Express bus stop by my parents 17 months ago in Thetford and it was quite fitting that Nina’s Mum would be there to collect us for the last leg of our trip.

We felt so surreal. All those months of travel, all the memories, the people, the places and adventures and now we had arrived, stopped. We waited for a while and Christina arrived for our final hitch to Dulong. It was an emotional reunion.

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Thank you too all the folk who picked us up. Hitch hiking across Australia ended up being one of the highlights of our whole trip. It’s a great way to meet real people going about their normal life. We didn’t have a bad experience and actually only had good ones. Yes hitching is about saving money. It’s also about saving carbon. Most importantly though it’s about connecting with people. Maybe it’s easier as a couple as people feel less threatened but I believe it’s easy if you are open.

Every person that picked us up said that they do not usually pick up hitch hikers or that it’s the first time they picked up a hitch hiker and we feel hopeful that it won’t be the last. Since being home we have already collected hitchers and will continue to do so.

From a travel design perspective, hitchhiking, couchsurfing and the occasional bush sleep helped us to journey from Lombok in Indonesia, more than 5000km, over the course of 5 weeks, to Dulong in Queensland, for a total combined cost for accommodation and transport of $74. Who says budget travel is not possible in Australia?

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The Big Hitch (Part 1)

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“You can’t hitchhike across the outback” the scaremongers said. “Do you know how many backpackers go missing out there?” questioned the naysayers. “Why don’t you just fly”? we were asked my the conformists!

Well i’m sorry folks but we obviously didn’t take any notice of the warnings and just happened to have had one of the most memorable and enriching stints of our whole journey from Caston, Norfolk, England to Dulong, Queensland, Australia.

Joe

We rocked up at the BP petrol station in Darwin (A) about 11am last Monday. Nina had a quick pee while I guarded the bags. I noticed a chap walking towards the door and as I nipped in for the loo I said to Nina “just ask that guy if he’s heading south babe”.

As I emerged a few minutes later I saw Nina through the window gesturing me to hurry – isn’t it great when a stranger offers to give you a ride without having to stick out your thumb at the road!

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Joe lived in an Aboriginal community. We spent five hours or so with him hearing about his early life at a prisoner of war camp in Yugoslavia, his views on the current political situation in the Northern Territory and the “holes” in Australia. The holes he’s referring to are the mines. “Dotted everywhere” he said. He even pulled in to Pine Creek, famous from the gold rush to give us a glimpse of an old mining town. We stood up at the lookout and peered down into a lake 135m deep where a mountain of the same height used to sit.

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Joe dropped us in Mataranka (B), 422km south of Darwin. With only an hour or so of daylight left we decided to stay the night and walked into a camp ground. We’d sent our tent and sleeping bags home from Cambodia thinking we wouldn’t need them and so asked the staff if they had any spares but in the end laid out our ponchos for some kind of damp-proofing and squeezed ourselves into the one replacement bag we’d bought in Darwin. It was a cold cold night. We got a little sleep and were up with the sun to try for the hitch south.

Aaron

As we walked from the caravan park to the centre of the village we spotted a road train parked up for the night. Nina joked that it would be cool to ride in one as they look so invincible. This one was facing Darwin though and so we stuck out a thumb as the sun came up.

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A couple of minutes later a guy appeared from the truck eating a bowl of multicoloured cereal. I wandered over for a chat.

“Morning mate. Heading up to Darwin are ya?”

“Nah mate. Turnin’ round, heading down to Adelaide”

“Ah yeah. Don’t spose you can take a couple hitch hikers can ya?”

“Yeah no worries. I can drop you off at Alice anyways. Just gotta wait for fuel and check me tyres. Chill out for a bit.”

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Aaron’s road train was 52 meters long and had a weight limit of 122 tonnes. The road trains travel a fairly constant 100 kmph and usually don’t break for kangaroo’s. Aaron had a fridge, freezer, microwave, fishing rod and a DVD player amongst other things but there was only one spare seat which meant Nina got to ride on the bed.

Aaron was an Adelaide boy. A picture of his wife and daughter faced him from the sun visor. He sees them once a week if he is not away for longer. He was a nice guy working hard for his family.

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We travelled for 6 or 7 hours with Aaron, 542km south to the Three Ways Roadhouse (C), the turning point east for Queensland. I was amazed by the beauty of the scenery, the red soil, the termite cathedrals, the subtle changing flora. It was so alien to me and so interesting. The odd ute, truck or caravan passed us by but otherwise it was a very peaceful place.

We arrived at Three Ways Roadhouse at about 15.30, keen to keep moving. We met Charles there on his way to Brisbane but he was jammed full. We walked around the corner onto the Barkley highway and out went the thumb in hope of a few more km before the day was out.

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Norman

Meeting Norman was a funny encounter. We were standing out at the Queensland junction having been picked up there once already only to tell the Singapore family who collected us that they were going the wrong way. They turned around and dropped us back where we came from. The next vehicle that came along was Norman. He was doing a u-turn right in front of us when I somehow managed to engage in a conversation through his window.

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“Which way to Queensland guys” he asked, looking fairly bemused.

“This way, the way we’re going” I answered. “Do you have a bit of space?”

“Errrr, yeah hop it. You’ll have to move that junk and sit on the esky mate.”

Norman had been driving since 4am straight off the back of a flight from Vietnam. He’s a bus driver and was relocating from Darwin to Cairns. He told us how shattered he was and he’d be pulling in for the night at the next place. That happened to be Barkley homestead, the place we’d heard of and were hoping to get to…

20 minutes along the track he realised that he was doing a u-turn for a reason and   whilst chatting with us along with his tiredness he had forgot to get fuel. So back we went to Three Ways for our third visit and a refuel, before turning east to Barkley Homestead as dusk drifted in.

It was dark by the time we arrived at Barkley. Easy to sneak in, lay down some cardboard and pull over the sleeping bag, helped greatly by the friendly irish trio who leant us a tarp for damp-proofing.

We were up again before the sun and waiting out front for the early hitch, hoping to catch those people trying for the longest daily distance with the brightest start to the day. We chatting with another road train guy who was not keen on taking us. There was also the cycle crew doing a 15000km tour of Oz. Obviously no room there.

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Just as the sun appeared on the horizon, Norman appeared from the camp grounds. He drove straight over to where Nina and I were standing and said “just gotta get some fuel guys and I’ll pick you up.” He did his famous u-turn and returned a few minutes later looking somewhat perkier than the previous evening.

As we set off towards Queensland we felt like old friends, safe in the knowledge that we would push a long way east with Norm that day.

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After another night under the stars, this time in Hughenden (E), a flat tyre and a couple of stops in old outback towns, Norman dropped us in Townsville before he headed up to Cairns. We had spent three great days together, chatted our way across 1540km of Australia, exchanged books and emails and finally arrived on the east coast of Queensland!

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Georgia to Kazakhstan

I write from our carriage of the number 47 train heading north east from Atyrau to Astana, Kazakhstan. It’s our forth night on the rails and I might just have enough battery in the laptop to recount the weird but wonderful experience we have encountered since leaving Tbilisi, Georgia with our Russian and Kazakh visa’s in hand.

Nina, Sam and I woke in no hurry last Thursday, grabbed the Metro to the Didube station where we picked up a minibus for the 2 hour ride to Kazbegi, home of 5047m mount Kazbek and the last town in Georgia along the military highway into Russia. We had a night there in a home-stay, attempted to climb up to the church at 2200 metres but turned back when drizzled out. Sam made it to the top in his waterproof jacket. Nina and I wished we hadn’t given away our warm clothes 5 months ago and wondered how cold it will be in Russia.

On Friday Morning we rose early, a few Georgian Lari left in hand but determined to spend it on a coffee if we could only hitch the 8km to the Russian border. We gave it 40 minutes or so in the light rain before giving up and presenting our last “pennies” to a 4×4 Lada taxi driver, conscious that if we didn’t make it to Vladikavkaz in Russia by 16:33 we would miss our onward train. We’d heard the Russian border can take a while as it’s still a delicate area, only opened to foreigners since July 2012 and brushing past sensitive regions like Chechnya and Dagestan. It was now 10:30.

Lada man took us through yet more staggering scenery lined with snow-capped mountains and dropped us right at Border Control. Excited that we were finally at the frontier with our Russian visa’s, we would hitch from the other side once we were cleared. Little did we know that there is 5km of no man’s land between the Georgian exit and Russian entry. The guard stopped us and politely told us that we were not allowed to cross by foot, we needed to be in a vehicle. He pointed to an area where we should stand to try and communicate with passing vehicles, explaining that we were forbidden to loiter in the vehicle waiting zone.

Hitching already seemed hard enough with the three of us, now we were at a border crossing and presumed any passing traffic would think we were a hassle to take – extra time to process them foreign visas. We were feeling a touch unlucky when a Ukrainian couple showed up with the same problem. Now we were five, surely nobody will stop. I hailed an Armenian truck who seemed to give us an “ok” signal. As I followed the truck down to the no-go zone the same guard stopped me and a passing car simultaneously, somehow agreeing one space with the stranger. We shouted for Sam and we agreed to split, meeting at the train station in Vladikavkaz. With no local currency left between us we gave Sam 20 dollars in case of an emergency and he disappeared into the family estate. Nina and I looked at each other worryingly, hoping he’ll be ok but knowing we had little other choice.

Next we got lucky. The Ukrainian couple stopped an old guy in a Lada. He was alone. Before Nina and I could grumble at them for stealing our ride, they signalled us over, shoved us in the back and off we went. Our driver had a military hat on and flashed an army ID card at passport control, we were safe and on our way. We bounced through no-mans land admiring more mountains, trying to take pictures from the broken Lada window, feeling like we would make our train on time. The tunes were blazing – an english 90’s CD – Gangsters Paradise, 2unlimited, Barbie Girl, Ace of Base and Short Dick Man – quality! We arrived at the Russian Border entry only to spot Sam a few vehicles ahead explaining why the biometric chip on his passport was smashed – dodgy!

Lada man number two kindly dropped us right outside the Vladikavkaz train station. It was 14:00 and we had plenty of time to grab some lunch, get the tickets and board our 16.33 train – but no sign of Sam. I used the time to explore how much a Russian Rouble was worth before extracting too many thousands from the Bankomat machine. Nina waited with the bags. By 15.30 we were getting a bit worried. At 15.45 Sam marched in with a new friend. He’d been dumped out of town with no Russian money and whilst asking for directions Dimitri offered to pay for his tram, escorted him to the station and then generously interpreted our needs to the ticket officer in the station. He managed to get hold of our 3rd class, 5 hour journey ticket to Mineralnie Wodi and our onward ticket, where we would quickly swap to the 22:00 overnighter to Volgograd, arriving at 14:53 on Saturday.

3rd class train travel in Russia is cheap, it’s comfortable and it’s interesting. A 24 hour train ride is less than 20 quid. You receive blankets and pillows for the bed and a towel for a morning scrub up. There’s a conductor in each carriage who will wake you if your stop is in the early hours. There’s electricity sockets to charge ipods or laptops (essential if you want to watch a late night movie). There’s a hot water tank for endless cups of tea or instant noodles and you are sure to meet Russians eager to share their home made vodka, wine or smoked fish. We were even handed a strangely shaped citrus fruit by Vadim to wash with – maybe a hint? The scenery was bleak to say the least. The occasional 1965 soviet style cement factory dotted the otherwise flat and desolate landscape. We’d left the Caucasus mountains behind and were heading into the plains, north of the Caspian Sea.

We arrived in Volgograd, famous for the battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest and most fatal massacre site of WWII, bang on time. The Russian trains leave plenty of time for arrival and if they’re early they rest a few kilometres from the station in order to slink in on the dot. It was cold. We had five hours to fix our next nights sleeper train. Previous research pointed towards making it over the border to Makat in Kazakhstan but every ticket saleswoman screeched “Nyet” at the slightest glimpse of the word Makat. It seemed obvious after trying for a while that there were either no trains to Makat or that they were full. I’d previously found an alternative itinerary on the bahn.de website that gave a border town train change at Aksaraiskaia. We tried for a ticket by writing down the train number and were duly rewarded with three “platskartny” (3rd class) tickets. Leaving at 19.19, it gave us a few hours to explore the city, collect some rations and eat a late lunch. We boarded the train, had a beer and tucked ourselves in ready for our second night on the trains and a 4am rise at the border.

We were woken and unceremoniously hurried off the train at 04:32. It was dark. It was cold. There seemed no obvious place to collect an onward train ticket – no sign of life whatsoever. We were on the cusp of Kazakhstan but it still seemed so far away. There was one security officer and on the other side of the gates a few taxi’s waiting to take people to god knows where. One of the taxi drivers pointed us to a building, a dim light shone from the inside and there were certainly people there. We entered and a stroppy looking lady sat behind a 12 by 4 inch hatch.

“Makat?” I asked.

“Nyet” blah blah blah. “Nyet” something something.

“I don’t think we can get a ticket for Makat guys”.

“Kazakhstan?”

“Nyet” blah blah blah, something something.

We looked around to the half dozen or so Asian looking guys in the small building.

“Kazakhstan?”

One man shouted “Aytrau”. We took some paper and deciphered a map.

It soon became apparent that we could take a train to Atyrau and then change to the Almaty train, our destination in Kazakhstan. The guy came to the ticket hatch, chatted in Russian for a bit, asked for our passports, got refused something, marched us to an office, presented our passports, looked disappointed at the guard shaking his head, noticed our Kazakhstan visa’s, marched us back to the ticket office, discussed more info with the lady and then gave us the thumbs up. We were heading to Kazakhstan! By this time we had some intrigued onlookers, the same train would head on to Uzbekistan, which seemed to make up the remaining passengers.

Our fixer disappeared, the lady began typing and a few minutes later had our tickets in hand. She gestured for some money. We knew we had none. Same as at the last border. We didn’t want to leave the country with useless local currency and so were waiting to find out the cost of the tickets before extracting the exact money from the ATM. There was no ATM. It was a border train junction and nothing else. I gave her a visa card. She shook her head. I asked for money exchange. She shouted “Nyet” at me. I went in search of some kind of solution. We had dollars. I opened the door and Mr Fixer appeared. Using a pen and paper as communication, drawing numbers, crossing out things that weren’t possible to show what was, he took our dollars. We had 90, our tickets were the equivalent of 80. Another saviour, this time an Uzbek guy agreed to take our dollars in exchange for the Roubles we needed to purchase the ticket – a total relief (and now the opportunity to get some sleep). Our train would leave at 16.57. We had 9 hours to wait in the clinical ticket room. Luckily we made lots of Uzbek friends and the day flew by exchanging family photos and friendly smiles. Russian officials seemed hard but the folk friendly and we all agreed that we would like to visit Uzbekistan.

We walked to the platform an hour or so before departure. The friendly Russian Border control would release us there ready for our trip through another no-mans land and up to the Kazakhstan frontier. It was to be our third consecutive night on board the trains, this time in a Kazakh wagon. As we bumbled down the steps onto the platform the crowd immediately took to us, we chucked our bags down, sat on them to wait and Sam began to make a cigarette. The Uzbek crowd honed in on us in what Sam called the “circle of bewilderment” (see photo). I am still surprised by how many people I see smoking and for all the smokers in the circle it was clear that none of them had seen Golden Virginia being hand rolled before. Sam made a couple extra and handed them out, hesitant Uzbek’s asking “Narcotic?” We waited to be called through the passport control, plenty of new friends waved us ahead of them. The Russian guard was nice and said it was very strange to see English or Australian people on the train platform. It left exactly on time. Next stop Atyrau, Kazakhstan.

The evening was a pleasant one, more family photo sharing by Nina with her new Kazakh lady friends and a few language lessons here and there. We were stamped into Kazakhstan by an official who boarded the train with a “welcome to Kazakhstan”. We passed some desert and tucked ourselves in for the night. As morning broke we woke to desert. More desert, some flat dry grassland, a bit more desert and then Atyrau. There was no train to Almaty. Some misinformation, so we decided to head to the capital. We had heard the illusive China visa could be obtained there and another 30 hour overnight train left 2 hours later. We took the plunge, collected some Kazakh Tenge from the Bankomat and booked our onward journey.

On route to Astana, the world’s coldest capital city, only 300km from the Siberian border, we’ve passed desert, grassland, a few villages and more desert. As I write this blog we are day 5 of train transit after 4 consecutive nights on the rails and I’m beginning to feel at home in the carriages. The world feels very big today. Since our first train in Vladikavkaz we will have made 3815km when we arrive in Astana this afternoon, it will be double that distance to Yunnan in China and more than triple the whole lot to reach Australia. We will rest in China – let’s just hope we get that visa tomorrow!

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Surfing the Crisis

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Nina and I have been in Greece for six weeks now, certainly longer than we expected. True to our travel design we are keeping spending to an absolute minimum – the only way to prolong the trip. People have been asking how we afford to travel for so long, it will soon be six months since we left England, and how can we afford to travel in Europe especially. Greece has been the perfect example of how.

We paid for our first 3 nights in Greece when we arrived in Corfu from Italy. It was €64 in total, about £50. Since then we have not parted with a penny for a bed. Maybe we are bad tourists, given Greece’s current financial situation, spending on average £1.20 a night for accommodation during our 42 days here. We had the good fortune of friends with an empty house for two weeks, we camped between trekking days, we were offered a free room in a hotel and we slept under the stars in our sleeping bags when we missed the last bus out of the city. But how did we have four days seeing the sites of Athens, four days in Greece’s second largest city and the same amount of time in the student hub of Ioannina without parting with a single euro cent? Enter our remarkably kind and trusting new friends that we met through Couch-Surfing.

Greece has been the first place that Nina and I have bounced from couch to couch. It took a bit of forward planning, mostly by Nina, but the experience has been totally humbling. If you are new to the Couch-Surfing concept then I will explain quickly – firstly sign up on their website then once you know which places, cities or towns you are visiting search the database for like-minded (or non like-minded, if you are interested in a more eye opening experience) people and contact them to ask if their couch is free. Their profile states the type of couch. sometimes you get your own room or it could just be a space on the floor. The point really is not about the standard of accommodation but the fact that complete strangers are willing to take you into their homes. It’s an exchange network with the purpose of helping out budget travellers and making connections and friendships whilst learning about local culture.

Nina and I have had nothing but warm, kind, trusting welcomes into to each of the homes that we have stayed in here in Greece. We have been hosted by some very interesting people and learnt a great deal about Greece, the current “crisis” and home traditions, mostly involving food.

Xenofan and Maria were our first Couchsurf hosts in Greece. Both psychology students in the cosy and vibrant lake-side city of Ioannina. They were busy with studies but made time to show us around with a visit to the local produce market and a fundraising event for the immigration support team that Xenofan works with. We cooked together and planted their balcony garden with our expanding collection of seeds taken from various wwoof hosts and seed swappers. Self catering is also high on our priorities. It makes our cash go further and all the Couchsurf hosts we’ve stayed with so far have let us use the kitchen, it’s been a real place to connect and share.

We hitch-hiked (free transport) from Ioannina to Thessaloniki where we were welcomed by Spyros, a professor of political science at the university, active politician with Greece’s far left anti-euro party, writer of books on eco-feminism and public speaker on anti-facism. Spryros’ apartment was a haven for anyone interested in ism’s. Floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with English written books on everything from anarchic primitivism to eurocentrism. We spent the first evening talking about the financial situation and trying to understand what it actually meant to people on a street level. We were joined by a friend, an independent journalist and felt very removed from their struggle yet very welcome in their home. We would have liked to have spent more time with our host but he was tied up with public presentations and lectures most of the time. He very trustingly gave us a set of keys, apologised for his absence and wished us a nice time exploring the city. I’m glad we got to exchange pdf books and documentaries over lunch before we made way to Athens. You can read Spyros’ latest article for the Guardian here.

We arrived in Athens after a sleepless night train and were kindly met at the station by our host Mitsos. He had offered to come and collect us at the crack of dawn on his day off and drove us to his apartment where we met his partner Emily. This was our third back-to-back Couchsurf and we were becoming overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Greek people. We rested for a while before setting off to a beach a little drive from the city. That evening Mitsos and Emily had a family bbq and we met friends, drank home-made red wine, sat up late and put the world to rights. It felt like we had known them for years. If it wasn’t for our hosts we would have never found cafe bars in the city, making use of abandoned buildings in a sort of pop-up cafe, festival way. Emily worked in the tourist area and on our second day she whisked us round the famous landmarks and helped us get a sense of the huge city, 5m in total, half of the Greek population. Emily also worked for a theatre group who happened to be presenting a one man show of Socrates Now on our last evening. It followed a debate and brainstorm about what to do in Greece’s current “crisis”. I thought about what Cuba did when their imports were severed. Made me wanna stand up and quote Geoff Lawton – “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden”.

2 Squats, a Truck and a Hostel

Whilst in Barcelona Nina and I decided that we would meet my parents on their holiday in Venice for one day. I knew at that point that it was a crazy idea but they would appreciate a day together and it was the perfect excuse to get further east. The only obstacle was 1200km and the expense of the train, boat and bus ride. On leaving our wwoof in the Spanish Pyrenees we would have to cross two borders, through France and west to east of Italy. It seemed that the most economical way would be a four day hitch hike. We’d bought a tent in Spain and had a new sense of freedom.

Amanda and Deno dropped us at a large petrol station near to Figueres, there were a lot of trucks, we were close to the start of the toll road into France. We checked out the number plates and soon realised that every other truck was either French, Italian, Bulgarian, Czech… We were in a good place to get east and so wrote out our “ITALY” sign and began to wait. We swapped sign holding every 10 minutes and after half an hour decided that talking to truckies in the petrol station might work better.

Scouring the number plates and asking the easterly nationals “Italy? France?” we were soon greeted with an “OK”. The plate was Bulgarian and we were not too sure how far in that direction he was going but we hopped in and figured that part out on route. We’d hitched in Spain before but only an hour up the road each time. Now we were up high in a truck cab and probably for quite some time. We introduced ourselves and settled in to a journey with Jorge. He spoke no English, we spoke no Bulgarian but we soon worked out that he could take us as far as Nimes in France, an hour or so from Marseille.

We were dropped at his turning off point, now starting to rain and not in an easy place to pick up another ride. We were on the highway and so started walking in search of another good spot to hitch from. We felt glad that we’d got 200km or so in the right direction but we were now a little stranded. Nobody flying past us could or would stop and maybe it was a little dangerous too. Within 15 minutes or so a highway repair truck pulled over and kindly offered to take us to a good hitching place. He dropped us at a toll. It seemed a little cheeky asking for a free ride in a place where people were paying for the road but we had no choice and so held up our “ITALY” sign once again.

It seemed like nobody would stop here, not many trucks, no number plates for other countries and not that much eye contact either. Enter Ben! A french lad who lived up in the mountains. He pulled over, told us he was heading to Marseille and helped to put our packs in the back of his van. We were soon chatting about anaerobic digesters and composting techniques. He was a really nice guy and within an hour he was on the phone trying to fix us up a bed for the night at his friends in Marseille. He made several phone calls and while we waited for a reply we weighed up the possibility of camping on the outskirts of the city – not such a nice place to stay.

We were beginning to realise that when hitch hiking we are at the mercy of our drivers.  A little faith and a lot of luck later we were dropped at the door of Ben’s friend in the center of Marseille. They welcomed us in, explained that it was a squat, apologised for the lack of electricity, showed us a room we could sleep in and then invited us to eat with them. We felt very fortunate that on such a rainy night we wouldn’t be erecting our tent in the dark!

Day two of our voyage to Venice started with a little shopping trip in Marseille ready for the unknown road ahead. We had a coffee, grabbed bread, cheese and fruit and followed the advice from the squatters to hitch from the toll road again heading east out of town. The toll looked uninviting and there was no real place to stand for foot passengers. We were asked to move to a different area on the opposite pavement by security and it seemed unlikely that we could get picked up in our new invisible spot!

To our surprise in a matter of minutes a mechanic from the airport pulled over in a minibus. He was heading to Toulon, an hour or so up the road. It was our first glimpse of the southern coast of France and we were relieved to be on the road again, this time heading towards Cannes. He dropped us a kilometre from a petrol station where we would find our next ride. On route to the petrol station, and now on foot, we spotted the fat sign of IKEA. Remembering that they had free internet we thought it was the perfect place to check our couchsurf requests for Venice.

Next to IKEA was the next petrol station we would try our luck from and we didn’t wait more than 3 minutes before our next ride. A male couple leaving IKEA with their new kitchenware. They had just found a new apartment in Cannes and were moving there from Switzeland in a couple of months. We squeezed in the back and they took us as far as Cannes to yet another petrol station. This one had plenty of trucks and we were hoping that our next ride would be from up high in another cab.

Enter Dimitri. We were sure when he rocked up in his monster truck that he was Italian. Our sign said “ITALY”, he looked Italian and he was going to Italy. We introduced ourselves, jumped in and asked where he was going. We would’ve been happy just to cross the border but it turns out he was going via Milano to Bologna, not all that far from Venice. Jackpot with a day to spare!

Dimitri was a really nice guy, he was only 23 but had been driving his truck for a few years, he had a young family back on the west coast of France and thankfully his taste in music was pretty cool too. Crossing into Italy and for the rest of the evening we cruised along listening to reggae and asking questions about one another’s lives in broken english and french.

By eight or nine that evening we realised that Dimitri’s trip via Milano was for a delivery and an overnight stop. We were a bit worried about staying on the outskirts of the dodgy misty metropolis of the Italian north but our kind lift giver soon offered one of his bunks when he realised we would be camping. We arrived in Milano, parked up and disappeared into the mist for a pint of Leffe happy that we had come so far.

The next morning we continued with Dimitri as far as Brescia where we said our goodbyes and started a new day and a new hitch. Well, so we thought. It turns out that the north of Italy is not used to hitch hikers and the lady at the petrol station had great determination in telling us not to hitch from her slip road or she would call the police.

After some shoulder shrugging and nonchalance from me we decided to give her her way and moved on. We walked for some time towards the centre of Brescia where we saw the bold blue and yellow bricks of IKEA once again. We thought it to be a lucky charm and so crossed the motorway and entered the store. There is no free internet in Italy though and after a 1.99 pasta dish we stepped outside to try our luck at the leaving customers with no room in there cars. Yep. Silly idea at Ikea. A friendly member of staff soon picked us up though and we decided to get a train closer to Venice. Hitch hiking in Italy is hard and the trains are cheap.

Next came our Youth Hostel in the charming city of Padua. It was our only option after our AirBNB and couch surf hosts fell through. We took full advantage though and spent the next day exploring the city on foot in the rain with a broken brolly we found. We called ahead to a couch surf host in Venice who said he was full but if we got desperate to call him. My parents were arriving in two days and if we were to be there to greet them at the port we had to go to Venice that evening.

Slightly put off by the description on his profile, we were not quite sure what we were getting ourselves into by volunteering to stay with “Autonomass”. His name was Massimo and he lived in autonomy. He greeted us at the station and was immediately keen to take us to a university building he and friends were squatting to be saved from sale by the skint Venetian municipality. That evening we heard the horror stories of Venice and the huge destructive problems of mass tourism. Apart from the palaces that are being sold off to make way for hotels, the second most visited city in the world is suffering from the 3 million or so tourists that flock in every month. Yes it’s true that Venice is sinking, we saw it for ourselves.

So Massimo’s main objective is to protest against the tourism industry. All the facts were undeniable. They were having a catastrophic effect on the city. It’s becoming a museum, and as the prices rise the locals leave. He was here to stay and with the help of the rest of the activist army they would be staging a protest on the water the following day. They will be in boats, about 100 of them with a sound system, tekno and fireworks. The main target – the Queen Victoria cruise ship. Yes, the one my mum and dad will be arriving on for our day together in Venice.

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Some protest pictures here

Big Mountains, Small Money

It’s nearly the end of March and the last four weeks have been all about the Mountains and less about the money.  We are in Granada at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They are still covered in snow although the temperature here is averaging about 26 degrees in the height of the day.

Since leaving our village building experience in Morocco we’ve not managed to get far away from the beautiful jagged edges of the landscape. We travelled by local bus through the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco up to Fez where we spent three memorable days exploring the winding medina streets of what is said to be the oldest surviving medieval and the largest non motorised city in the world.

Our next leg took us again by local bus up to Tangier for our ferry. We skimmed the Rif mountains of Northern Morocco of which we had visited on the way into the country 8 weeks ago. It was a whole lot warmer than when we arrived.

The ferry took us across the water into Spain with the giant rock of Gibralter to our east. Arriving in Spain only 3 hours later made Morocco feel a world away. We’d had a truly rich experience there and felt sad to leave.

Part of our journey design and the reason we are able to spend quite a bit of time in europe will be our careful use of money and here in Spain it was to begin. Areas we highlighted for scrimping were travel and accommodation mostly and so this was to be our first hitch hike of this travel adventure.

We wrote out our Malaga sign whilst on the boat and after a couple of badly chosen spots we found a good area and stuck out those thumbs! It was only 20 minutes later that we were scooped up by a local and taken 40 minutes or so towards our destination. He plonked us in a good spot to find another ride and it was only 15 minutes more waiting until a big old motor home pulled in to take us on to Malaga.

In Malaga we had arranged to couch surf with a couple who seemed to be professional couch surf hosts. Ana and Israel had hosted many other people and enjoyed the company and practicing their language skills. They were very kind and trusting and gave us a key and disappeared off to a family gathering leaving Nina and I their home.

Our next stop and another great money saving arrangement was our first Wwoof of the journey. We arrived in Orgiva by local bus but hiked the remaining 5km or so up a dry river bed to find the olive finca we were to be working on for the following week. Wwoofing is a great example of stacking functions as it has so many positives – we live for free with accommodation and food covered, the host receives two hard workers for 5.5 hours a day, we can to learn about local processes and cultures whilst exploring the area and we meet other like minded people who share the same passions about organic techniques.

Kate’s Finca was stunning, set in a valley of more snowy topped mountains with no road access. Her main output is olives but she also has tonnes of veg and other fruit trees and chickens etc. Wwwofers stay in little self contained Casitas with cooking facilities and fire places. It was a beautiful place to work for a week and we would have liked to stay longer.

My fourth Diploma project should now be in full swing but I am yet to find it and so moving on was unavoidable. We saved another bus fare by hitching and trekking to Granada to meet with our next Couch surf host. Andrea, who is studying environmental science here. We explored the city yesterday and cooked for her last night. Travelling on a budget feels very rewarding so far and it means we have a few extra euros for the all important ice cream and beer.

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