Hitchhiking Honshu, Japan

Hitchhiking, Japan

Tokyo is surely the most capitalist, consumerist city in the world, and is not a good introduction to beautiful Japan. Billboards and lights scream at people to buy stuff. Trains are crammed with adverts whilst people are transfixed with smartphones. Everywhere I turn, there are women who  look like film stars. Looking perfect is seemingly important in Tokyo.

The gaudy lights of central Tokyo make no sense to me. They seem out of place in a culture with such beautiful ornate art, shrines and intricate wooden buildings.

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Tokyo

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One advert says “life is beautiful.” Not in central Tokyo.

Travels in Kurdistan (part 2) – The evil eye of Turkey’s military

Hitchhiking, Kurdistan

Read Travels in Kurdistan (part 1) here

Children of Roboski at the graves of their relatives, killed by Turkey's military on 28th December 2011

Children of Roboski at the graves of their relatives, who were killed by Turkey’s military on 28th December 2011

It’s late June, and we arrive in Midyat as it’s getting dark. Unfortunately for us, President Tayyip Erdoğan has also decided to visit Midyat on the same evening, after a farcical PR stunt, giving Angelina Jolie a tour of the nearby Syrian refugee camp. Police are everywhere, roads are blocked, paparazzi wait, and a deafening helicopter hovers over our heads.

We move onto Roboski, close to the border with South (Iraqi) Kurdistan. Four years ago, me and my friends, Robert and Mats, crossed the border here, and learned about the Roboski massacre, which took place a few days before we arrived. Turkey’s military bombed and killed 34 local people who were on mules, carrying out cross-border trade between North and South Kurdistan.

“You’re a vegan? What CAN you eat?!” – More hiking & hitching in western Europe

France, Germany, Hitchhiking, Walking
"Where the hell are we?!" I say, as I look at the map

“Where the hell are we?!” I say, as I look at the map

I like to think I’m a good map reader. But sometimes – fairly often, actually – I look at a map and my mind goes completely blank. I can’t work out where the hell I am.

Chris and I are in the Pyrénées. We need to stay low: there’s thick snow once we get above 1400 metres. So it’s also important not to get lost, or we might find ourselves camping up on a mountain ridge in a snowy blizzard, completely unprepared.

But, of course, we get lost. There’s five different trails, some bigger than others, all branching off in different directions.

friendliness versus hostility: a visit to Italy

Hitchhiking, Italy
"Today is a terrible day," moans Nicol as we cross the border to Italy

“Today is a terrible day,” moans Nicol as we cross the border to Italy

“WHORE!” a man yells out of his car window at Nicol, as she stands at the side of the road with a sign for the next town. She screams something back at him in Italian. “Welcome to Italy,” I think to myself. Chris has joined us on our roadtrip. Unfortunately for him, both Nicol and I are in foul moods. Nicol’s got mixed feelings about returning to her home country, and I’m sulking because we have left friendly France, where people are softly spoken and rational (women are not conditioned to be scared of hitchhikers) and we have entered paranoid Italy, where we are only taken by male drivers who talk non-stop and tell us that the world is full of dangerous people.

But maybe I’m being too harsh on Italy. After all, I’ve been hosted in drivers’ houses four times on my previous visits, more than the France that I’m pining for. And hitchhiking as a three is proving to be surprisingly easy here.

Sure enough, a driver called Carmine takes the three of us all the way from southern France to northern Italy. He then checks us into a hotel room, which he pays for, and then takes us all out to his favourite pizza restaurant (and doesn’t get offended when we order cheeseless pizzas!) He’s a friendly man with a huge smile, and really talkative. He tells us about his job as a lawyer and his dreams of retiring and travelling the world.

Nicol and Carmine in the pizzeria

Nicol and Carmine in the pizzeria

VEGAN HITCHHIKERS!

VEGAN HITCHHIKERS!

We’re in Italy because we are going to visit Nicol’s family in a village in the northern Italian mountains. As we drive up, up, up the twisting, turning mountain road, me and Chris feel nauseous as we are suddenly transported to over 1000m high.

The visit is difficult for Nicol. She’s excited to see her family, but now that she’s returned home, they want her to stay there permanently with them, and they find it difficult to understand her lifestyle choices. Italian village life comes as a shock to me. Everyone knows each other’s business, and people gossip about the clothes Nicol wears and the fact that she has hitchhiked here. Still, it’s beautiful to see the place where one of my close friends grew up.

Chris and Nicol in the snowy, snowy mountains

Chris and Nicol in the snowy, snowy mountains

The snow is taller than Tommy the dog, but he insists on walking himself!

The snow is taller than Tommy the dog, but he insists on walking himself!

Chris has never been to Venice. “You have to see Venice!” I say. So off we go to Venice, hugging Nicol goodbye with the intention of meeting each other again in a few days for the hitchhike home to England. But, of course, life never goes according to plan, and when we say goodbye to Nicol, little do we know that she won’t be joining us for the hitchhike home…

Chris loves Venice. We wander the narrow alleys and he is pleasantly shocked by the crumbling buildings and the activist graffiti all over the city.

Mmmmm, vegan pizza from l'Angelo pizzeria, complete with vegan cheese :)

Mmmmm, vegan pizza from l’Angelo pizzeria, complete with vegan cheese 🙂

Beautiful Venezia

Beautiful Venezia

Activist graffiti, raising awareness about the No Tav campaign, against the building of a high speed train link that's set to desecrate the Italian/French mountains

Activist graffiti, raising awareness about the No Tav campaign, against the building of a high speed train link that’s set to desecrate the Italian/French mountains

We move eastwards towards the Alps, and to save time, we decide to hitch the motorways, rather than the country roads. I have been hitchhiking for many years now, and I have grown sick of hitching on motorways. I try to take the slower, scenic route whenever I have the time. Almost everyone driving on the motorway, in every country, is miserable. And it’s no surprise why: after all, the whole experience of driving in a metal box at about 150km per hour for hours on end, completely disconnected from nature, is really miserable! And the only break from the monotony of it all is a shitty service station with sugary, crappy fast food, which will only make you more miserable if you put it in your body!

Autogrill shitness at the Italian service station

Autogrill shitness at the Italian service station

Italy’s got to be one of the worst countries for hitchhiking on the motorways. We stand at the Autogrill (Italy’s brand of service station) and Chris tries to politely explain to drivers in Italian that we are hitchhiking. But whenever he says hello, people deliberately blank him, or give him a hostile response. This is poor Chris’s first experience of people being so rude to him whilst hitchhiking, and instead of getting upset, he laughs lightheartedly at the absurdity of this paranoid, fearful society. Chris is a breath of fresh air when I need it most, and I am thankful that he’s on this journey with me.

We laugh at how all of the men in Italy aspire to look like the below picture. Absolutely everyone is wearing the same jacket, along with aviator sunglasses.

Italian vanity.

Italian vanity.

Eventually, we get a lift with two friendly men, and the Into The Wild soundtrack plays on their car stereo. My god, we couldn’t be further from the Alaskan wilderness that Chris McCandless explored, I laugh to myself.

And then it’s another shitty service station, and more hostility awaits us. But then Chris gets us a lift with a 6’4″ man with huge muscles from the USA.

“Shit! He’s military!” I whisper to Chris as the man puts our luggage in his car. “Don’t say anything!” I warn Chris cautiously.

We’re anti-militarist activists, and I worry about how this journey is going to go. Inside the car is the soldier’s beautiful young wife and their baby. The soldier tells us about his life in Italy, and I find it tragic when he explains that he gets discount petrol in Italy when he shows his NATO pass to petrol station staff. Oh, can’t he see the irony? I wonder to myself. A military force, murdering for oil, getting cheap petrol. As I sit there in silence, I wonder why I have accepted a lift with this man. After all, if a truck driver transporting animals to be killed offered me a lift, I would refuse it. Surely there’s not too much difference. This man, if not directly a killer, is contributing to the killing of our brother and sister humans.

“Stay safe,” the soldier says in a cliché, macho way, as we get out of his car. Can’t he see the irony of that comment? I wonder yet again.

Chris would have liked to have talked to him about his job – after all, it’s possibly the only time he’ll be in the car of a NATO soldier. I am annoyed with myself: I sat in silence so that I could selfishly get a lift 100km further. I should have either refused the lift or engaged in a conversation about this guy’s ‘job’.

Of course, hitchhiking the Italian motorways isn’t completely doom and gloom, and we do meet a few friendly people and get lifts with lovely drivers, including a car full of actors who are touring the country, performing a play.

Our last stop in Italy is the Susa valley, close to the French border in the Alps. We’re here because we want to visit the area where the high-speed train track (Treno Alta Velocità, TAV) is going to be built – mostly for freight trains – with tunnels being bored through the Alps to neighbouring France. The No Tav activist campaign against the destruction of the valley has been going for two whole decades.

Chris and I are only about 15km from France. We decide that the border really can’t be far away, and that we’re going to walk it. Of course, we’re ill-prepared, without a hiking map. All we know is that France is somewhere west, over the insanely snowy Alps. I take my compass out of my pocket, and we start walking in a westward direction. Surely it’ll be easy…

France is somewhere over the Alps...

France is somewhere over the Alps…

A lunch break in the Susa valley with Chris

A lunch break in the Susa valley with Chris

After about six kilometres of hiking, we run into a group of activists.
“You can’t go this way!” they say. “It’s too dangerous!”
They explain to us that we’re about 1km away from the site where the tunnel is being bored through the mountain. There’s army protecting it absolutely everywhere, and apparently they’re quite pissed off with activists today.

The No Tav activists are friendly, welcoming people, and they invite us to their resistance house, give us dinner, and let us stay for the night. They tell us about two decades of struggle, and they talk about the environmental hazards of the TAV project. The mountains contain uranium and asbestos, which will be released as the tunnel is dug. Spending time with these inspirational, courageous activists is the perfect way to end our time in Italy.

The site of the building of the high speed railway. NO TAV!

The site of the building of the high speed railway. NO TAV!

Resistance flags and activist structures at the site of the destruction

Resistance flags and activist structures at the site of the destruction

The nature at the location of the railway site, set to be disfigured and killed

The nature at the location of the railway site, set to be disfigured and killed

On the road with Nicol and Albin

France, Hitchhiking, Walking
Hitching the Atlantic coast

Hitching the Atlantic coast

La Rochelle! The city that I have always wanted to visit since my school French class, when every character in the text book either lived in La Rochelle, worked in La Rochelle, or went on holiday in La Rochelle. A bright blue kingfisher darts through the park and the streets are calm and quiet.

We set up camp, perched on a sand dune next to the Atlantic ocean on a freezing, icy night.

Camping in the frost on the freezing coast in Châtelaillon near La Rochelle

Camping in the frost on the freezing coast in Châtelaillon near La Rochelle

HITCHHIKING OUR FIRST TRACTOR!

HITCHHIKING OUR FIRST TRACTOR!

Nicol et moi, happy on the road

Nicol et moi, happy on the road

Hitchhiking in France is, of course, easy, and once again, female drivers stop regularly for us. I think it’s the only country I have been to where the drivers don’t say, “You’re hitchhiking? It’s dangerous!” Each driver has a different life and a different story. One woman is pregnant and moving house; one driver, Abdel, offers us a job in his vineyard; Brenda has a brain tumour and is on her way to the hospital for a scan.

So far, Nicol’s been a perfect travel companion, but now she faces the ultimate test: a few days of walking in the French nature in the pouring rain with a heavy rucksack on her back, sleeping in a leaky tent in the middle of winter! We walk the GR64 hiking route to the Dordogne river and the rain lashes down on us. Nothing phases Nicol, and we laugh hysterically as we walk through a farm and sink into a mixture of cow shit and mud and the poo seeps into our socks.

Shitty shoes!

Shitty shoes!

Nicol, looking surprisingly   awake after a cold night in the tent

Nicol, looking surprisingly awake after a cold night in the tent

Aaaah! France!

Aaaah! France!

Castelnaud on the Dordogne

Castelnaud on the Dordogne

Nicol having a break

Nicol having a break

La Roque Gageac on the Dordogne

La Roque Gageac on the Dordogne

After a couple of days of being cold to the bone, we arrive in Cahors, literally covered in shit. A woman asks me if I’m ok and offers to buy me a sandwich from the bakery.

We have persuaded my friend Albin that he really wants to take us on a roadtrip in his van named Coco, and he picks us up in Cahors. We travel just 15km and Coco breaks down.

After a few hours, the van is fixed and we travel along the river Lot in the Causses du Quercy region. Albin looks out of the window as he drives and constantly waves his arm in the air, gesturing for us to look at the view. “My garden!” he says with a big grin, proud of the country that he’s from.

We follow the vallée du Célé and travel through the gorges de la Cère and gorges de la Luzège. The scenery is magical – sometimes it feels like we’re in a fairytale.

"Today is a terrible day," Albin moans as we break down.

“Today is a terrible day,” Albin moans as we break down.

Nicol and Albin with Coco the van, in the perfect sleeping place  on the river Lot

Nicol and Albin with Coco the van, in the perfect sleeping place on the river Lot

Nicol, Albin et moi

Nicol, Albin et moi

This place actually exists! The Tour de Merle

This place actually exists! The Tour de Merle

Nicol et moi, on the top of the world at Saint Pantaléon de Lapleau on the  Gorges de la Luzège

Nicol et moi, on the top of the world at Saint Pantaléon de Lapleau on the Gorges de la Luzège

Collecting spring water!

Collecting spring water!

Nicol and me at the Viaduc des Rochers Noir

Nicol and me at the Viaduc des Rochers Noir

Our few days on the road together are spent with a lot of laughter and also a lot of (mostly lighthearted) bickering, as the three of us learn to share Albin’s tiny house on wheels. “ORGANISATION!” Albin exclaims to us at every opportunity. For Albin, organisation means switching his bags of belongings to the driver’s seat when he wants to sleep, and back to the main part of the van when he wants to drive.

“I want to teach you the life in a van,” Albin says to us. Life in the van proves to be complicated, and the simple act of opening the van’s door is problematic, as it involves a special technique. “You pull, you pull, and you push!” Albin demonstrates again and again. I finally get the hang of it on our last day together.

Despite some bickering, our days are mostly filled with giggling and singing, and we laze in the sunshine in the daytime and explore the incredible nature. Albin teaches me the guitar and Nicol the diablo, and as he’s a juggler, we spend many hours juggling. I discover that I have a natural talent for balancing a ball on my head!

On our final evening, we stop in a tiny village in the darkness, and Albin knocks on the door of a house to ask for water. A man called Dominique answers the door and invites us in for dinner. We are humbled by his kindness and we spend an interesting couple of hours cooking dinner and talking about each other’s lives, and Dominique tells me how he used to hitchhike many years ago. We chat about Jack Kerouac and both agree that the book On The Road is actually a bit shit.

This talent is going to make me millions!

This talent is going to make me millions!

The juggler

The juggler

Beautiful forest

Beautiful forest

France!

France!

In the fairytale nature

In the fairytale nature

Albin and Nicol with our host, Dominique

Albin and Nicol with our host, Dominique

Finally, it’s time to say goodbye to Albin and his van, Coco, and I have tears in my eyes when they drive out of sight. I feel so lucky to be alive, and to have been travelling with both Nicol and Albin – both very beautiful souls. Nicol and I continue onwards alone, hitchhiking towards Ardèche, through mountains of snow. We arrive at Françoise and Denis’s house in the mountains. As Françoise and Denis tell Nicol about their travels, I marvel at how inspirational my friends are: Françoise, who walked from France to China, Denis who studied Mandarin in China; and Albin, who gave up a conventional engineering job to become a juggler.

Like Albin, Françoise thinks that France is the most beautiful country ever, and we laugh as she plays us Jean Ferrat’s Ma France (My France). And after these last couple of weeks on the road, I’m inclined to agree with them that France is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

On the road!

On the road!

In the snowy mountains of Ardèche

In the snowy mountains of Ardèche

Homeward Bound! Siem Reap and Bangkok to London

Cambodia, Hitchhiking, Thailand
A monk takes a photo of the Buddha in Bangkok

A monk takes a photo of the Buddha in Bangkok

A strange thing has happened to me! Whilst travelling through South East Asia, I’ve had a niggling feeling that I actually miss home. So because of this, I’ve controversially made the decision to book a flight from Bangkok to London. I don’t like to fly when I could go by land. But I don’t have a Russian visa to return the way I came, and the thought of doing the Trans-Siberian again alone fills me with dread! As I get closer to Bangkok, though, I guiltily wish I had tried to get that Russian visa and travelled the long way home.

Hitchhiking South East Asia: some tips!

Cambodia, Hitchhiking, Laos, Thailand
A view from a pickup truck, somewhere close to Phonsavan in Laos

A view from a pickup truck, somewhere close to Phonsavan in Laos, just before the monsoon rain soaks me!

During my last couple of months in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, I didn’t hitchhike as much as I usually would. I completely lost the enthusiasm for it – maybe I had hitchhiker’s burnout, so to speak. However, I did do some hitchhiking whilst I was here! These are my tips, or observations, of what worked for me, mostly as a solo traveller:

The devastation of Laos’ rivers

Hitchhiking, Laos
The peaceful, perfect Nam Ou river in northern Laos

The peaceful, perfect Nam Ou river in northern Laos

I meet Sydney for the first time in the night market in Luang Namtha. I tell her about my Grand Plan to travel by boat down the Nam Ou river to Luang Prabang and retrace a journey I took seven years ago. There’s a catch, though: public boats no longer run down the river because a huge dam has been built by an evil corporation. I want to hire a boat to the dam and witness the destruction of what was once the most beautiful area in the whole of Laos. Then I want to hitchhike in the areas where it’s not possible to sail. Sydney’s never hitchhiked before, but within half an hour of meeting, she says, “it sounds fun. Let’s do it!”

Waiting for a truck or car in Pakmong...

Waiting for a truck or car in Pakmong…

The beauty and the beastliness of Yunnan province, China

China, Hitchhiking, Walking
Rooftops in Nuodeng, Yunnan province

Rooftops in Nuodeng, Yunnan province

I’m ill. I lay in bed with a fever, shivering but sweating. I ache. I groan. Chris showers me with sympathy. In my sick delirium, I search the internet to diagnose myself. I read about all of the possible diseases I could have, and all of them fit my symptoms. Why oh why didn’t I look into getting some vaccinations before coming here? Is my disdain for pharmaceutical companies really worth getting sick for? I decide that I definitely have dengue fever. Then I look up malaria risks in China. Every province has a low-to-zero risk, except for Yunnan province, where I am laying ill. It has a high risk. That’s it. I have malaria. I instruct Chris to go to the chemist, buy me some rehydration salts (my answer to every single illness, no matter what the symptoms, whilst on the road) and to find out if there’s a doctor or hospital nearby. He comes back with the news that there’s only a doctor specialising in Chinese medicine in the town. Aaaaaagggghhh, I’m going to die here, I think.

Brighton to Beijing overland part 4: The green grass of smiley Mongolia

Hitchhiking, Mongolia
The first person we meet as we cross the border into Mongolia :)

The first person we meet as we cross the border into Mongolia 🙂

“We are hitchhiking. We have a vague destination but it’s not very important to us when we get there. We have a tent, lots of food and water, and we don’t want to get a mini-bus or taxi. We don’t want to stay in a hotel. Please don’t worry about us!”

This is what I would say to everyone, if only I could speak Mongolian. But the problem with hitchhiking in Mongolia is that we can’t communicate. We have a phrase book, which proves invaluable. Every car stops for us, more out of concern or curiosity than knowing what we’re doing. It’s unsurprising that people are confused: we are not booking an expensive tour of the country and we are not hiring a jeep and a driver. In Mongolia, this is a Tourist Rarity. We meet various Europeans who are paying $700 for 8 days in the Gobi. (I blame this reliance on tours on a certain famous guidebook).