Hitching the world.
Hitching the world.
By: Edward Chan
Photos: Edward Chan
It was the summer of 2011, and I was a typical 18-year-old kid freshly graduated from high school, constantly glued to the computer screen and rarely seen outside my Hong Kong flat. I took a gap year before university and managed to find work in a bar to earn some pocket money. But after several months, the work became tedious. I began to think that life had little to offer, slowly settling into an unhealthy lifestyle. It was a vicious cycle; I was so socially anxious that a 15-minute conversation with a stranger made me feel uncomfortable—so uncomfortable that I wanted to live a sheltered life. But instead, and without a driver’s license, I stuck out my thumb to travel the world’s roads where they would lead me.
Despite my anxieties, I always had a desire to travel; I was curious, had a thirst for adventure and was jealous of friends who did travel. So when I received the invitation to travel with some friends in China, I accepted despite my fears. During my first trip I was forced to leave my comfort zone on many occasions. I was always meeting new people, navigating my way through a country where I spoke little of the native language, and experiencing a plethora of lifestyle and cultural differences.
I learned so much about myself and gained self-confidence in the process, but most importantly I felt much happier and relished the liberating feeling which came with travel. Personally, I see the road as life in its purest form. You meet people, forge new friendships, gain valuable experiences, develop new skills, try new things, learn different perspectives and even appreciate home more. In a day and age where so much of our lives are focused on social media, I feel that it is important to detach from the Internet to make the most out of the “moment.” Perhaps the best thing of all is that the skills learned, the experiences and the memories last for life, and for me that’s where real happiness lies. Although seeking out all these new experiences could be considered an addiction, it is a good one and in my opinion should be sought whenever possible. I often travel solo, and many wonder how I am able to afford all this travel. The answer is simple: meeting locals. Not only does it mean that I am rarely alone, but it also gives me full exposure to the culture. My first few trips, I stayed in hostels and took public transport; now I only hitchhike and stay in the homes of generous and welcoming locals (or my tent in emergency situations).
At first I was nervous, as one might expect. However, good experiences were followed by better ones, and soon hitchhiking and couch surfing, via formal and informal means, became my preferred method of travel. I have visited more than 100 homes and hitched over 1,000 rides abroad, and I am extremely fortunate to have never met any bad people. Perhaps it was luck, but I also think that the ability to read people comes with experience and it is not difficult to differentiate between good and bad people. Hitchhiking and couch surfing generally covers the costs for transport and accommodation, leaving food and drink as my main expenditures.
Hitchhiking has led to many unexpected events, each of them unique. Every time a car stops, I feel a great rush of adrenaline as I prepare to encounter something new. From 5-minute-long tractor rides in Turkey to day-long treks across the Sahara desert, it still amazes me that I have been able to cross not only countries but continents as well, just by raising my thumb.
My most epic journey to date was undoubtedly my hitchhike from London to Hong Kong. This is a route I fly once every couple of years, so to have seen this from a different perspective was an eye-opener. Although it is more time-consuming, it enables the traveler to have a smoother transition between landscapes and, of course, cultures. For example, I entered Iran through Turkey; this meant that I went from Istanbul, a secular western city, towards the East, where practices such as drinking on streets are highly frowned upon. By the time I reached Iran, a country with strict Islamic laws, I had already adapted to much of the Islamic culture and thus had less problems adjusting. In addition, traveling feels much more genuine when customs, physical appearances, cuisine, driving culture and other small details change subtly. Overlanding also brings you to remote parts of countries where locals are not used to seeing foreigners and are therefore more curious and inviting, giving a richer cultural experience.
Often they do not speak English and communication can be a problem, but generally a basic vocabulary can take you a surprisingly long way. I have a passion for languages; I am fluent in English, Cantonese, intermediate in French and Mandarin, and I can converse at some level in Turkish, Russian and Spanish. I am also equipped with a phrasebook or Google Translate™ translation service on my smartphone, which is usually sufficient.
Memorable hitchhikes include a time with the Kurdish army in Iraq. Hitching aboard a cargo ship across the Caspian Sea, finding some nomads to take me across the Sahara, being invited to a wedding in Azerbaijan and being invited to a ten-year reunion party for players of a video-game team in China, where we drank, sang karaoke and used cake for a fight rather than eating it... these are some other incredible experiences I never would have had if I’d never hitchhiked. In fact, I have never had any negative experiences other than with bureaucracy, such as being arrested in Azerbaijan on suspicion of being an Armenian spy. (The two countries are at war, and I was camping close to the border). Fortunately, I was only detained for several hours and was released the next day after a filling breakfast.
Upon returning home from each trip, people are always excited for new stories and jokingly question how I am still alive. The honest truth is that more often than not, I put my life in locals’ hands, and the majority of them make it their priority to paint a good picture of their country. Pakistan, a country often associated with terrorism, had some of the warmest people. I was adamant on hitching my way through the country, but when I mentioned this to a family, they insisted on paying for a flight from Islamabad to Karachi—which I reluctantly accepted. A Kurdish family in northern Iraq invited me to spend Eid with them, an important festival on the Muslim calendar, despite the violence happening less than 50 kilometers away.
In addition to people, the road itself has created some incredible memories. One of my favorite border crossings is without doubt the Khunjerab Pass. Located between Pakistan and China and at an altitude of 4693 meters (15,397 feet), it is the highest paved international border crossing in the world. Part of the Karakoram Highway which forms the Silk Road, the road passes some impressive scenery through one of the world’s highest mountain ranges, with some reaching 8000+ meters (26,247 feet). In addition, the local languages and customs change dramatically in distances less than 100 kilometers (62 miles), and this diversity of culture along one historical road must be experienced before the steady march of globalization erodes it further. The road is also a symbol of friendship between the two nations; it passes through some virtually impassable terrain and requires constant maintenance, so it is no surprise that it is nicknamed “the China-Pakistan Friendship Road.” In 2010, a landslide formed a lake that submerged part of the road, but by mid-2015, a Chinese team had built a series of tunnels costing $275 million around the lake, proving their dedication to this friendship.
Although I have already seen much more than other people my age, I think my travel career is still at its infant stages. The fjords of Norway, the hospitality of the Turks, Indian weddings, downing vodka with Russian soldiers, hitching in the height of the Canadian winter; it seems like I have experienced it all, but the truth is that I have only visited four of the seven continents in the world, partly due to my aversion to flying.
I am currently focused on my master’s degree in Earth Science in London, but I do have ambitious plans for the future. I hope to work in Australia and later begin what will hopefully be my final big trip: hitching from Australia to Antarctica the long way round. This would involve making my way through Asia, Europe and Africa before finally hitching a boat across the Atlantic to the Americas. Rather than rushing my journey, there will be no time frame, no plan and no time stress. I will live and work in countries on the road to gain a better cultural understanding as well as funding for my trip.
The world is a stunning place, and I am extremely grateful to have seen so much of it. It is much more exciting to view life as an adventure; there can be no regret investing time to gain culture, compassion and knowledge. So if you have no routine in life, travel while you can. Even if you have a routine, try to make the time to take things slow, get out of your comfort zone and see things outside your bubble. It may seem daunting at first, but as I have learned, the most difficult thing is the first step.