“This man is very old”

China, October 2016

The Karakorum Highway (KKH for short) is said to be one of the highest and most beautiful roads in the world. It connects Kashgar in the far west of Xinjiang China, with Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, boasting one of the highest border crossings in the world over the Kunjerab Pass at a whopping 4700 meter altitude. We decided to try and hitchhike it.

We had a good start in Kashgar, walking off in the wrong direction, but at least it gave us a last glimpse of the cities’ >20-meter high Mao statue. We didn’t check, but it must be one of the tallest still standing statues of a former dictator to ever be erected. We couldn’t help but think the Uyghur might rather see a statue of Hitler in its place (see our previous blog entry), but they wouldn’t have any possibility to tear Mao down to begin with, as there was a small army of heavily armored police stationed right across.

We had our own mission on our minds though and turned around to head back into the right direction to the KKH. We didn’t have to wait long to catch our first rides, but there was a strong wind coming up and as we got further out into the countryside, it turned into a full-blown sand storm. At one point it was so extreme, that we couldn’t see more than 20 meters in front of us. We figured it would be impossible to get a ride in the midst of this storm, but when the first car doomed up, we were happily surprised to see it stop. We must have looked like bandits, with our faces covered up in our hoodies, scarves and sunglasses. It hadn’t scared the driver through, who had already picked up a couple before us: the first hitchhikers we had seen in China! With the four of us squeezed together in the back, we were relieved to escape the horizontally flying sand blasting across our face. Andrea and Aaron (their English names) were two friends on a trip through Xinjiang and were planning to go to Tashkurgan.

When we told them about our goal to visit Karakul Lake, Andrea and Aaron got excited to join us. We had fun ánd a surprising amount of success, hitchhiking in our group of four. First in the back of a water melon truck and then with the friendliest guy, who happened to have some friends who lived in the small village of Subaxcun next to the Karakul Lake: Tusunjan (Uyghur) and Kaule (Kyrgyz). They were working on a nearby project as electricians, but they had to work only one day per week. So most of the time the both of them were either sleeping or watching tv, which left them with little time to clean their house. They acted seemingly unimpressed by our surprise group visit and indifferently agreed to host us for the night. Tusunjan did seem rather impressed with Jeroen’s height though and when Jeroen answered he is almost 2 meters tall, Tusunjan turned to Linda with a big smile, raising his thumb, with Kaule nodding to Linda in approval.

We decided to check out the local shop to buy some food and while Andrea and Aaron were eying the instant noodle selection, we carefully put forward the suggestion to make a little stir-fry. When we grabbed some garlic, Andrea asked at us with big eyes: “you know how to prepare that?”, which we took as our cue to propose to do the cooking. We found Tusunjan and Kaule the way we left them, lying in their beds, snacking on some peanuts, with the tv blasting in the background. We took the loud slurping and smacking sounds that Andrea and Aaron were producing as a compliment for our Chinese style food (check out our film section for an impression).

With the coal oven burning hot and no real proper air ventilation, it felt a bit cramped with the six of us squeezed into the small single room. Half dazed by the warmth and the low oxygen, we tiredly positioned ourselves on the floor in the corner, next to the coal oven, half underneath the side table with the tv set. Unfortunately, Tusunjan and Kaule had a friend stop by who initiated a late night drinking session. With the tv ringing above our heads, the drunken cries from the vodka pounding men at our feet and our throats aching from the coal fumes on our left, we briefly considered to break out our tent and sleep in the cold, but with the temperature outside below zero we decided to grab some earplugs and stick it out.

We had fun exploring the lake the next morning, observing the peculiarities of the many yaks that populated the area (you can find a short clip in our film section). The lake provides a stunning view of the glaciated Muztagh Alta summit (7509 meters). Apparently, a Swedish explorer was the first to try and climb the mountain at the end of the 19th century on the back of a yak! Unfortunately, the yak died and with it the expedition. Those yaks can climb though, so we couldn’t help but wonder whether the yak would have made it without the fat Swede on his back…

Either way, we had to get a move on if we wanted to make it to Tashkurgan in time. So after a local breakfast of yak milk tea and bread at a neighboring family’s house we made our way back to the KKH. This time around, the four of us had to split as the first car that stopped had only space for two. After a quick round of “you first”, “no you first”, we hopped into the car and could once again gaze in amazement at the beautiful scenery unfold as we continued our journey further south. We shared our ride with two girls who had taken a private taxi from Kashgar to explore the area at the Tajik border. They were incredibly helpful to us, stopping cars along the way to find us a ride to Tashkurgan. Unfortunately with no success, but we managed to find a new ride quick enough. We even picked up yet another couple of Chinese hitchhikers along the way, apparently this part of the ancient Silk Route is a favored tourist destination for the Chinese.

When we rolled up in Tashkurgan, we were a little disappointed to see the only hostel in town closed. Luckily, we were quick enough to find a hotel that accepted non-Chinese citizens (not many do) and managed to negotiate a good price. Andrea and Aaron would join us there about two hours later. Tashkurgan functions as a border city with Pakistan, where you have to be cleared through customs before you can continue your journey. The city is mostly populated by Tajiks who are an Iranian people and don’t resemble the Uyghur or Han in their appearance. Their traditional clothing differs as well, with (some of) the women wearing beautifully long colored dresses and embroidered round hats with a scarf across and (some of) the men wearing traditional round black sheep skin hats. The men also greet each other in the most peculiar way: they kiss each other on the inside of the palms of the hand.

From Tashkurgan, it’s still more than 100km to the actual border, but hitchhiking is not allowed, so we had to take a bus to Sost, the next nearest town in Pakistan. When we left our hotel in the morning, we asked the manager for directions to the bus station. Outside, he spotted two Pakistani men, who immediately offered to escort us there. First, they wanted to have some breakfast though, assuring us that we would have plenty of time to get to the bus station. We were a little on edge, because we were leaving on a Friday, the border is closed during the weekend and our visa would expire on Sunday. So if we would miss the bus or if the bus would be fully booked, we wouldn’t be able to leave until Monday, at which point our visa would be expired. The younger of the two men reassured us though. While pointing at his friend, he told us in a very self-explanatory way: “this man is very old”. We waited for him to finish the rest of his sentence, but he already had. We guess “old” means wise in Pakistan, although his friend didn’t look any older than mid fifty, so we weren’t thát reassured. It turned out we had nothing to worry about though. The “old man” had clearly done this many times before, as he managed to always lead us to exactly the right spot in exactly the right moment. We moved completely stress-free through customs, with our guide securing us the best possible seats in the bus in the midst of stressed out Pakistani businessmen dragging and tossing around the Chinese merchandise they were transporting back to their home country.

From there, we could sit back and relax, while watching the undulating meadows and white mountain peaks glide past, as we climbed higher and higher to an ever more rugged and snow covered terrain. When we finally made it to the top of the Kunjerab Pass, the bus erupted in loud jubilations, with the businessmen scanting “Pakistan, Pakistan!”. The joyfulness didn’t last long though, as right in front of us, a minibus had slipped off the snow-covered tracks and had tumbled onto its side on a small plateau about two meters below. The businessmen quickly ran towards the vehicle. Some to assist the obviously shaken but unharmed women in getting out of their predicament, most to take a selfie with the flipped bus in the background. When everybody had calmed down from this sudden excitement, we resumed our trip down the same snowy road, which made our heart beat a little faster. Fortunately, the roads cleared up soon enough, so that we could enjoy the spectacular views of the Karakorum Range once more, boasting some of the highest mountains in the world.

In Sost, we were not able to get cash from any of the ATMs, but a local shopkeeper was willing to exchange our last Chinese Yuan for Pakistan Rupees. From here, we went further down the KKH to the nearby village Pasu, looking out through the window with a peaceful bliss from the warm afternoon sunlight caressing the long dry gently waving grass in the running hills, turning it into glistering sterns of fluid gold. The area carried a mystic beauty that instantly took away any worries we might have about our trip through Pakistan…

Hitchhiking in a sandstorm on the KKH
Bulungkol lake
Andrea (right) and Aaron (left) in Subaxcun
Baby Yak at Karakul Lake
Hitching from Subaxcun to Tashkurgan
In the bus from Tashkurgan to Sost
KKH towards the Kunjerab Pass
Autumn in Pasu in Pakistan

Hovering babies and the gunless police

China, October 2016

After we said our goodbyes to Sisi and Huiwen, thanking them for their incredible hospitality and their help in getting our visa for Pakistan, we were waving down cars outside of Jiaozhou on a highway exit towards Rizhao. It didn’t take long for a tow truck to stop just far enough behind us in the bend, smack down in the middle of the road in a blind spot to any cars racing up from behind. As we were anxiously running towards the truck, as fast as our backpacks would allow us, we found the Chinese driver staring at us with a dumbfounded look on his face, oblivious of his impossible parking spot, curiously but ever so friendly looking us up and down. While we were frantically gesticulating our intentions, hoping to put a quick end to our rather dangerous collective predicament, the driver leisurely asked us in the most polite and care free way what it was he could help us with. At least so we thought, as our Mandarin was still ever as non-existent as his English. All we could think was: “yep, we’re still definitely in China”.

By now, the first cars had been stacking up behind the truck. Luckily the drivers had been quick enough to find their brakes in time. To our astonishment, they were all waiting patiently while the three of us were chatting away on the national highway. It felt like ages before the driver waved us in, but the whole thing lasted probably less than a minute. By now, we had gotten pretty good at explaining where we wanted to go. We’d start with: “wǒmen” (we), while pointing at us, followed by the name of the next biggest city we would be traveling towards, while pointing at our map. We would often repeat it a few times, because our intonations are always way off (vowels have four different intonations in Mandarin, potentially giving the same word four very different meanings). Then we would ask: “nǐ” (you), while pointing at the driver. Our driver nicked and smiled, indicating he understood we wanted to go south and that he could take us there. Ten minutes later, we exited the highway going northwest…

Our driver was quick enough to reassure us though, waving his arm in a circular way to let us know he would be coming back to the same point. It turned out he needed to tow a small truck that stalled on the highway, unfortunately not quite small enough to fit onto his tow truck. So after a lot of hemming, hawing and hammering, but not a lot of lifting or driving, darkness set in. Tired from a day’s worth of passport chasing in Jiaozhou, we decided to take our chances and wait it out. Eventually our driver threw in the towel, left the broken-down truck behind, and drove us back to the highway going south. The driver let us out in an equally dangerous spot as where he let us in, only this time in the pitch dark night.

We thanked our Chinese friend and quickly jumped the guardrail. Plowing our way through the bushes up a steepish small climb, we slipped through what (as we learned the next morning) was the only hole in a long metal fence, to pitch our tent on top of the hill.

We hadn’t gotten very far that day, but we were up nice and early the next morning with a full new day of hitchhiking ahead of us. We made our way back down to the highway and did our best to find the safest possible spot to stop cars, which is of course an impossible thing to do on a highway. We decided that this kind of hitchhiking is too dangerous and that from hereon we would stop entering or exiting cars on the actual highway. Luckily for us, we safely found our way into the car of a middle aged couple and as we did our “wǒmen Rizhao”…”nǐ?” thing, followed by their nick and a smile, we figured we were off to a good start. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for us to exit the highway and make our way back to Qingdao, the place we started two days before. As we kept repeating “Rizhao” and pointing at our map, they kept nicking and smiling, but they also kept driving in the wrong direction. The woman then handed us her phone, with a friend or relative on the line who spoke some English. It turned out the couple wanted to drive us to the bus station, to find a bus to Rizhao. A wonderful gesture, but not what we were after. At this point we wholeheartedly thanked our escorts, yet convinced them to let us out nonetheless. By now we were in an outer suburb of Qingdao, too far from the highway to walk back. So we simply hopped in the first bus that went in the right direction and somehow managed to explain ourselves. From where we left the bus, we started walking and waving down cars, to which the most extraordinary couple stopped. They were about our age, she looked and played the part a real-life mannequin, while he was a flamboyant character with a knack for dramatic facial expressions. They drove us to their barbershop, where we yet again got lost in translation, though eventually they dropped us off at the entrance of the highway to Rizhao.

From here we decided to stick to our plan to stay safe. It required some more walking on our part, but as soon as we made it around the bend at Rizhao, west to Qufu, we managed to stick with highway service areas. We had some amazing drivers who went to great lengths to find us a new ride, driving into different service areas and asking around for us whether anyone could take us further west. It became obvious we had left the tourist hotspots, because at these service areas we were continuously being stared at. We were even offered a free lunch in one of these places, just for being foreign. So when it got dark, we figured it would be best to pitch our tent far enough out of sight to not be noticed. We realized a little too late that we had pitched our tent down-wind from a rather fragrant outside toilet building, but were too tired to crawl back out of our sleeping bags to move our tent.

We slept great regardless and were in luck the following morning, because we met the two friendliest guys, Leiluo and Shandong, who took us all the way out of Qufa into Zhengzhou where they even took us out to lunch for some of the most amazing Chinese food. They proceeded to tour us around this mega city, which looked like it had only recently been stamped out of the ground. There were new high rises everywhere, with half-empty eight to ten lane streets cutting across. Then Leiluo took us all the way out of the city, back on the highway to Xi’an, to drop us at a service area from where we hitched our way to Sanmenxia. As it had gotten already dark again, we started exploring the area around the highway exit for a good camping spot and found our way to a dark road under a flyover, where we heard loud music coming towards us. Half-worried about local youngsters (gangsters?) hanging around in the shadows we moved forward, into a brightly lit schoolyard where the only “youngsters” we could see were the middle-aged women of the village dancing to the loud music we had heard before. Relieved, we continued to look for a place to camp, when al of a sudden a little girl came up to us, asking us where we were from. She had learnt a few phrases of English in school and followed us along our way. When we asked her for her help, she quickly ran off to get her mother who pointed us at a vacant garage next to their house. They brought us a small candle so we would have some light and tried to communicate with us with a translator app on their phone, which unfortunately didn’t work that well. The only thing we could understand was that this place was called “town under the bridge”, which made sense, as the half-built village they had probably stopped building at least 5 years before, considering the overgrown skeletons of cement and steel, was mostly located underneath a rather noisy railroad-bridge. The next morning our other side neighbor kept popping up. Curious and friendly as he was, he first brought us some hot water (the health-staple of every Chinese diet), then some kakis, some moon cakes, then he came back with some bread rolls, after which he showed up with a pomegranate. Always smiling, always looking at us curiously in the most friendly way. More people came by to have a look, an attempt at a chat or to bring us food. We figured we were probably the first foreigners they had ever laid their eyes on.

From here we could easily manage it to Xi’an in a few hours. Some of our funniest moments were at yet another service area where we sat down to eat the last of our provisions. Everyone was staring at us again, but we had plenty to look at ourselves as well. On our right, we spotted a Chinese girl in a bus intently looking at us, while grabbing her phone. As soon as she noticed us looking back, she quickly hid behind her window curtain, after which, very slowly, her phone appeared in the window from behind the curtain. We couldn’t help but laugh and friendly waved at her, to accommodate her in snapping our picture. Soon after, on our left, we witnessed a typical custom we have only seen in China so far. It was a father toilet training his kid over a garbage can, peeing down through a hole in his pants. In China, small kids don’t wear diapers. They have regular pants with a hole in the back and when they need to go, they squat down and go, no matter whether they are on the street, inside a supermarket, or in this case, hovering in mid-air over a garbage can.

Two rides later, we made it to Xi’an, the former capital of many ancient dynasties and one of the oldest cities in China. Here we met up with policeman and communist party member Kai through Couchsurfing. Kai showed us around and shared some great stories about the police in China. One of which was that the police in China carry nothing but their nightstick. When in need of a gun, “they would first have to find the keys to the cabinet where the guns are locked up, after which they would have to find the keys to open up the cabinet where the bullets are stored”. Perhaps they don’t need guns due to the high morale of their law-abiding citizens, it might also have something to do with the potential terror you face form the communist party when you get arrested. As it happened, Kai was a party member and was adamant in defending his party and all of Marx’ ideologies present in it. We forgave him for not being able to name any one of them.

Xi’an provided us with a deep-dive in its crazily chaotic street food courts (see our Chinese Food video) and gave us our first real taste of the infamous Chinese air pollution. It also formed our starting point on the ancient Silk Road we were to follow in our journey going further west. A road we decided to take by train…

Linda with Leiluo and Shandong in Zhengzhou
Jeroen with Leiluo and Shandong in Zhengzhou
Jeroen sitting in the typical Chinese squatting position in the “village under the bridge” near Sanmenxia
Park in Xi’an
Our first taste of the infamous Chinese smog in Xi’an
Xi’an streetfood
Xi’an by night

The other Great Wall of China

Qingdao, September 2016

You can’t escape either on a visit to China: the Great Wall in all its ancient glory and its more contemporary and less inspiring modern-day brother: the Great Firewall. Even with a VPN (virtual private network, to access websites blocked by the government) it’s a struggle to do anything online. Streaming low quality videos is close to impossible, let alone uploading our own videos, and opening a simple web page feels like watching a snail crossing a road. Apparently the connection is a lot better in the workplace, at least that’s what we heard from some of the Couchsurfing hosts we stayed with, who conveniently spent most of their lol-cat-video-watching-time at work.

Unfortunately, we still had to rely on a solid internet connection to be able to make calls to the Pakistan embassy in Berlin to sort our visa. We had sent our passports away from Beijing and now had to rely on the incomprehensibly hostile service of the people who were obviously only pretending to be ambassadors to a country with arguably the most hospitable people in the world: Pakistan. Linda did most of the talking and always looked a little frightened while trying to satisfy questions like “who in their right mind would want to get visa for Pakistan” and “what the hell are you doing in China when you want to go to Pakistan”, all the while apologizing for our bad internet connection. When Linda hesitantly asked about the emails we had sent, she immediately yelled out: “well that won’t work, I don’t have a computer!”. The image of a heavily frustrated receptionist, sitting at a desk with nothing but an old dialup phone, barking away at frightened tourists never to return, will probably stay with us forever.

Luckily, we had plenty of time in between these calls to enjoy the sights in Beijing. We spent a lot of time walking around with Mike (our Couchsurfing host), who explained us the difference in street music between China and other places. In Europe for example, you’ll find people performing on the streets for money. Not in China, here people come together to play music for fun. According to Mike, they wouldn’t even take your money if you tried. We didn’t verify that last bit, but it’s true that no one was collecting or donating any. With Dan (our BeWelcome host) we did some cycling. We hadn’t been on a bike since we left Astana in Kazakhstan, so it was exciting to try it again. Although not without danger, due to the many many cars. The Chinese seem to ride their cars the way they used to ride their bikes: with no regard for traffic rules whatsoever. Not in a Russian dangerous way of driving, more in a naive chaotic way. So while they don’t speed, they will overtake left, right and center while friendly beeping their horn in a way of communicating to others that they are “there”. Zebra crossings hold no significance either, so as a pedestrian or a cyclist, you either need to have a lot of patience (if you want to be safe), a lot of courage (if you want to be fast) or one hell of a health insurance. Dan and Mike also told us about the Chinese phenomenon of (mostly) older people gathering in the streets to socialize, play games like Chinese chess or Mahjong, to dance or to do Tai Chi. It’s a wonderful thing to see so many people coming together. We made an impression of a zebra crossing and some street music in a short video you can find in our film section.

From Beijing we headed south. We figured it would take the Pakistan embassy in Berlin a while to process our visa application, which is why we had asked them to send our passports to Qingdao. We had spoken on the phone to the sister of Fan, the Porsche driver we hitchhiked with to Beijing, and knew she lived in Qingdao. She sounded friendly and was also the only contact we had south of Beijing, so we thought: “why not”? We could use our time to hitch our way there and explore the city, while waiting for our passports to arrive.

Hitchhiking to Qingdao was a lot of fun, although at times a little dangerous. When the Chinese stop, they don’t stop on the side of the road. They just halt their car in the middle of it, which can get dangerous if you’re on a highway. And if they take a wrong turn on the highway, they simply stop their car, turn around and drive back into traffic. We couldn’t communicate much with our drivers, but they were all incredibly friendly, as well as curious, and most insisted on taking at least one selfie with us. Our last driver, Chenchan, even went so far as to drive us two hours out of his way through traffic to our hotel, which left him with two more hours back to his home. We tried everything we could to persuade him to drop us off at a bus or metro station, but he just kept on smiling his incredible smile and wouldn’t budge.

Qingdao was great, although mostly in an unexpected way. There’s great food, clean air and lots to see (including some real ánd fake German architecture due to the German sphere of influence in the early 20th century), but we enjoyed spending most of our time in a different way: by watching brides. We stumbled across a large square with a big church that had a horribly fake front, where bride couples literally lined up to have their pictures taken. You’d see 4 or 5 couples in a row, each with a professional photographer laying on the ground, taking photos with this absurdly object of non-architecture in the background. By now we had found the only affordable and drinkable coffee in town, at the 7-Eleven, which we slowly sipped away at while taking in the wonderful spectacle that was unfolding in front of our eyes. The Chinese take their photos seriously, their wedding pictures even more so. They dress up in different outfits for different occasions at various locations, well before their actual wedding day. We would count up to 15 different wedding couples on any given day, with couples moving in and out continuously. Some brides would go as far to climb with their white wedding dress into a tree, with the “ancient” church in the background. There was even a guy whose full-time job it was to shake the branch of a tree, for some (to us unknown) photo-effect. But all the couples were posing in this same spot, with the guy behind shaking this branch with leaves up and down. Needless to say, we had a blast. Another favorite was an indoor hall with Hollywood style fake-front German type architecture underneath a painted ceiling of blue sky turning into a black night with stars. We felt we would be able to earn a killing if we would dress up in a dirndle and some lederhosen and charge a few Yuan for a photo, but decided to pass.

Instead, we made our way to Liuqinghe to chill on the beach for a few days and enjoy the most furthest point east we would reach during our trip. To our delightful surprise, the beach was scattered with more wedding couples. Them wacky Chinese even created a whole photo-park with different European style houses, American cars and a Dutch windmill… We couldn’t help but laugh to see a Dutch windmill after traversing two continents, but at least we got a good photo out of it!

While Linda was plucking away at her ukulele on the beach and yet another Chinese guy was taking photos and videos of her, she came up with a good theme for a song: the uncontrollable urge of the Chinese to take selfies. We got the lyrics together pretty quickly and thus our first song was born: Chinese Friends, or as we called it: the WeChat song. WeChat is a Chinese messenger app that everyone in China uses. We made many WeChat “friends” due to people coming up to us and asking for a photo and our WeChat contact.

Upon returning to Qingdao, we were already having lots of fun discussing ideas with our Couchsurfing host Mia to shoot a video for our song. Eventually we decided that it would be most fun to take actual scenes by simply playing the song in the streets and improvising the rest. You can see the result in our film section.

We had an amazing time with Mia, from our improvised beach party to a night of “Berlin Calling” clubbing in an underground Qingdao parking garage with a German DJ. Between the Berlin techno, the Dutch windmill and the Dutch “stamppot” food we ate with chopsticks (which works surprisingly well) with our other Couchsurfing host Dai, we felt like we had experienced enough “foreign culture” in a far away land and decided it was the right time to turn west and make our way back home.

But first we had to get hold of our passports. We didn’t dare calling the Pakistan embassy again, but we finally got word from the shipping company that our passports would arrive, so we made our way to Sisi in Jiaozhou. She was already waiting for us with her friend Huiwen and insisted on taking us out for lunch. While our table got filled with the most delicious foods, exactly as it did a few weeks before with Sisi’s brother Fan (Sisi hinted that her brother had slipped her some money to take us out for a fancy meal) the courier called: he was outside. Sisi ran out to meet him and brought us the package. With some slight anxiousness we opened the envelope to find our passports ánd our Pakistan visa inside! It made our food taste even better and after we couldn’t stuff any more into our stomachs, it was time to head out. But not before we did some grocery shopping, as it would be a long journey hitchhiking to Xi’an. Sisi and her friend took control of our shopping cart and even went so far to insist on paying for our groceries. We had seen it coming and quickly handed the cashier our cash, but Sisi threatened the cashier in Chinese to not take it and handed her credit card instead. We jumped high and low, but couldn’t do anything but accept the kind offer. The Chinese take their hospitality serious! They hopped in the bus with us to make sure we would find our way to the right stop near the highway, which is where we said our goodbyes. Now we were finally back on our way back home…

Playing time crisis 5 with Dan
Playing time crisis 5 with Dan
Sunset over Beijing from Dan's balcony
Sunset over Beijing from Dan’s balcony
Graveyard on the way to Qingdao
On the way to Qingdao: only the next morning did we realise we had pitched our tent near a graveyard
Arrived in Qingdao with Chenchan
Arrived in Qingdao with Chenchan
Picture of someone taking the picture
Picture of someone taking the picture in Laoshan: Moment of inspiration for the WeChat song
From Atlantic to Pacific: our furthest point away from home
From Atlantic to Pacific: our furthest point away from home
Eating chopstick stamppot with Dai
Eating chopstick Stampot with Dai
Wedding photography Qingdao church
Wedding photography Qingdao church
Jeroen under the sky in the wedding photo mall
Jeroen under the sky in the wedding photo mall
People collecting something from the stones in Qingdao
People collecting something from the stones in Qingdao
Man floating Qingdao
Man floating Qingdao
Trying Mia's beauty masks
Trying Mia’s beauty masks
Lunch with Sisi and Huiwen
Lunch with Sisi and Huiwen

Chinese saying goes, eat will not homesick

Beijing, August 2016

China took us by surprise in many ways. Perhaps we were simply living under a rock, but we were amazed about the development of the infrastructure, the modernity of the cities and the apparent wealth of the middle class. The first city we visited was Ehrengot, just across the Mongolian border and we literally couldn’t believe our eyes. The city looked so much cleaner and greener (there were watering systems everywhere) than anything we had seen in Mongolia (or Russia for that matter), with new and shiny buildings, broad roads, new asphalt and nothing but new cars or funny looking electro-scooters. It felt like a fake front, a polished city to impress foreigners crossing in- and out of Mongolia, the contrast with Zamiin-Uud was simply thát big. As it turned out, every city we visited in China was pretty much the same.

We were also amazed at how amazed the Chinese were to see us. In China, wé are the tourist attraction. Most are a little shy about it, and don’t dare to ask, but some will immediately pull out their smartphone to take a picture with us. The ones that don’t dare to ask will simply wait their chance until we’re looking away and then quickly snap a picture. It only took about 10 minutes in Ehrengot before the first Chinese came up to us, and then the second, and then we made a quick run for it to prevent a line from forming.

Though Ehrengot was just a place in between for us. We bought a sim card and a road map for China and then we were off again. The next city on our list was a big one, with a population of close to 22 million, more than the entire country of the Netherlands: Beijing. We were a little uncertain whether the Chinese are familiar with the concept of hitchhiking. From what we had heard and read, most aren’t. And it makes sense, China’s rapid economic development is still so recent, that there has only recently been a sharp rise in the middle class and their massive use of cars. It’s probably one of the reasons why you hardly see any old cars driving around. Before China changed course to more of a state controlled market economy, after the death of Mao in ’78, there weren’t even any highways. Today you’ll find 2×2 to 2×5 driving lanes in each city and perfect highways in between. We changed our strategy a bit though: instead of the thumb we are waving our arm up and down to suggest a stopping motion. And it works rather well. We managed to get our first ride out of Ehrengot within 10 minutes. After camping out in the steppe for the night, located in the “Inner Mongolia” province of China (which looks an awful lot like Mongolia), it didn’t take long for the first car to stop the following morning. We guess the mother and daughter in the car weren’t exactly sure how to interpret our waving and stopping gestures, as they only stopped about a 100 meter behind us. We hadn’t even noticed them at first, as they were already trying to back up. We explicitly use the word “trying” here. They were swirling their shiny Mercedes coupe left and right, stopping, then moving backwards again, breaking and turning, until they simply gave up, with their car parked diagonally on the right hand side of the road. We couldn’t help but laugh as we ran towards them with our backpacks. After a short and seemingly unsuccessful round of sharades we showed them a little note which explains our intentions. A friendly Chinese guy whom we met in Ulaanbaatar wrote it for us. That did the trick and after a short ride to the next biggest city, they went out of their way to drop us off at a good spot to continue our journey. We jumped a fence to climb up to the highway where Jeroen started to write his first Chinese: 北京, which translates into Beijing. Before we even had our sign ready, a Porsche Cayenne stopped. Again around 100 meter behind us and again in a situation where we weren’t sure whether our driver knew exactly what we were up to. Our little note proved to be worth its weight in gold and when our driver “Fan” explained he was heading to Beijing, we knew we had just hit our jackpot. As we were comfortably cruising the 600km to China’s capital city, we used a translator app on Fan’s phone to communicate. With mixed success. Sometimes we would burst out in laughter due to an obvious translation error, but it worked well enough to understand the gist of it. As soon as we tried to move the conversation to more political themes, Fan implied he’d rather not talk about it. Maybe because of the language barrier, maybe because of the big brother barrier, probably a bit of both. So Fan steered the conversation to a less sensitive topic: whether we would want to join him for lunch and what type of food we would like to eat. We of course excitingly replied we would love to have Chinese food, which presented us with our first little Shakespearean dilemma: “to slurp or not to slurp”. We solved it by giving a lot of compliments about the food, which really wasn’t that difficult. It would be yet another surprising thing we discovered about China: the food. For Jeroen, who only knew the fast-food-Holland-adapted-Chinese-cuisine, it was mostly a matter of incomprehensible, yet pleasant, disbelief. How could the Chinese possibly botch such delicious dishes to try and please their customers in the Netherlands…? Though maybe it says more about the palette of the Dutch as they’re not exactly known for their haute cuisine themselves. The variety of noodles, spices, sauces and vegetables, as well as the relative cost of the food, made us feel like a kid in a candy store whenever it would get close to dinner time.

But as soon as we had solved one dilemma, the next presented itself: what to do with a sniffy nose? The Chinese seemed to prefer to get rid of any excessive slime by taking a deep breath, followed by a preferably loud bear-like rumble of the throat (which served as a fair warning on the street to anyone coming from behind) to scrape clean the deepest inner workings of their body, which would then be forcefully flung with a no-look-spat to their either left or right hand side. Tissues, on the other hand, seemed to be only used to wipe off any leftover pieces of food, that got displaced across the face from their slurping and loud open mouth chewing. And the Chinese like to spice their foods, which doesn’t exactly help with a runny nose. In the end we just pretended to wipe our mouthes, when we were really wiping our noses.

As we continued our journey to Beijing, we continued to chat away on Fan’s translator app, which produced the following little golden nugget: “Dumplings are Chinese people will eat and eat dumplings is not this season then in the evening I take you to eat it leek dumplings you eat it”. Fan was taking the concept of hospitality to another level and invited us to dinner in Beijing. He might have ordered every vegetarian item on the menu, as the table was covered with the most delicious varieties of Chinese food. Fan probably noticed the smiles on our faces and as we tried to express our gratitude, he replied on his phone with: “Chinese saying goes, eat will not homesick”. For our time in China, it turned out to be definitely true.

Chinese saying
Chinese saying
First impression China - Ehrengot
First impression China – Ehrengot
Hitchhiking in CHina's Inner Mongolia
Hitchhiking in China’s Inner Mongolia
Camping in the steppes of China
Camping in the steppes of China
Sunset Inner Mongolia
Sunset Inner Mongolia
Fan and his Porsche
Fan and his Porsche

How we left Russia and started drinking Vodka

Zamiin-Uud Mongolia, August 2016

To our delight, we dodged all vodka bullets in the 2 months we traveled through Russia. Our superpowers weren’t as strong in its surrounding countries though, and just before we left Mongolia our vodka shield got shot to pieces…

It happened on our way south, from Ulaanbaator to a Buddhist temple near Sainshand in the eastern part of the Gobi desert, close to the Chinese border. It didn’t take long for the first car to stop in Ulaanbaator…. and then the second…. and then a third. All taxis, all not what we were after. We failed miserably in explaining our intentions to the three taxi drivers and when we finally gave up and walked off to find a bus to take us out of town, taxi driver no. 1 didn’t take no for an answer. He went in slow-speed pursuit. Shaking him off on a straight road into the desert with our backpacks stuffed with food and water turned out to be about as difficult as expected. The taxi driver kept tailing us and instructing us to wait. He got a friend on the phone, to whom we could finally explain we really weren’t looking for a taxi. To our surprise the friend told us that we could simply hop in, at no charge… We did not see that one coming and after scratching our heads for a second and assuring ourselves we heard it right, we happily obliged.

Our driver proceeded to call all of his English speaking friends, including the ones that didn’t speak any English, while handing us the phone. Most of the time his friends had no idea who we were or what was going on, which made for interesting conversations. Our driver kept pulling up at various places, to get gas, to buy cigarettes, to get gum, to drop off something, and even there, a random person would turn up with a phone and an English speaking friend. It was all a little surreal, but with good intentions and before letting us go, our driver even wrote us a note in Mongolian that explained our way of traveling. We could immediately put it to use when an older Mongolian man friendly nodded us in after reading the note, he took us further south to where he left the road to his ger. At this point we decided to take a small lunch break, which was abruptly ended by Kurdle who brought his truck to our screeching halt: whether we might be in need of a ride? We looked rather dumbfounded at each other, hitchhiking in Mongolia started to feel like cheating. Shouldn’t there be some waiting and waving involved?

We laughingly packed our stuff and climbed into the cabin of the truck and while Linda got comfortable on the bed in the back (taking a rest from the strenuous waiting and waving), Kurdle happily chatted away in a mix of Russian, Mongolian, English and sign language. Kurdle was an apt communicator and pointed out an awful lot of Russian aerial bases, which we suspect to be an old defense line against China. When we stopped at a ger along the way with a big “airag” sign outside, we knew we would be in for another treat. With the lingering aftertaste of the fermented horse milk carved in our membrane we kindly refused. To our pleasant surprise it hat its desired effect, we got off with only a single small courtesy sip. Kurdle did insist on having a parting meal together in his truck, which we happily accepted. We shared all kinds of bread rolls, snacks and sweets before Kurdle broke out the vodka, 5 liters of it. Linda poured a hefty glass to Kurdles instructions and after we both took a compulsory sip, Kurdle threw back the entire thing. We took comfort in the fact that Kurdle was only a short dirt road ride away from home and after a small photo shoot with the three of us inside the truck, next to the truck and in front of the truck, we said our goodbyes. Kurdle let us know he would check our blog as soon as it was winter. Then he would be in Ulaanbaator, where he would have internet.

Halfway to Sainshand we camped out in the steppe with an amazing view of a full-moon-rise and woke up with a herd of horses on our way back to the road. We didn’t have to wait long for the friendliest Mongolian couple to pick us up. The car seemed completely packed, but the back seats were quickly cleared to make room for us and our backpacks. We were brought straight to the city centre of Sainshand and stopped only once: to walk three circles around a stone Buddhist structure. Apparently to guarantee the safety of our journey. We walked along, yet “naively” buckled up later anyway.

From Sainshand we got picked up by another friendly older Mongolian, who drove us out to his family in the desert to collect what we can only guess was horse milk. He floored his transporter van across the not so even desert plains, and as we were sent flying up and down in our seats, Linda laughingly referred to our driver as “Schumacher”, which he took with a smile and an encouragement to drop us off with lightning speed at the Buddhist temple Khamaryn Khiid in the Gobi desert. Here we decided to take a breather and a peanut butter sandwich, while staring in awe at the near by camels, face to face “in the wild” for the first time. A few Mongolian kids were staring at us in a similar way, when all of a sudden a joyful Spaniard came racing by on his bike. Javi had been lovingly taken in by the Mongolian family that was running a tourist ger camp next to the temple and shared much of his time and energy with us, as well as some of the breathtaking views of the desert sunset. Javi had biked through the Gobi desert and strongly advised us not to try and hitchhike the same route. There are almost no cars and the cars that do go there would be heading out to a far away ger, not to the next nearest village. We couldn’t boast too much survival experience, so it sounded like solid advice. Although we weren’t fully convinced until that one evening where we couldn’t find our way back to our tent. It was cloudy and raining, and in the pitch dark night we only had the far away lights of the ger camp and our memory to go on. We would hope to catch a glimpse of the hillside when a car in the camp would turn around and its headlights might reveal a hint to the location of our tent. We even tried listening, to maybe hear the rain dropping on the cover of our tent, but of course we only heard the rain coming down on our ponchos. After a good 30 minutes (it felt like an hour and a half) of aimlessly walking around, we started wondering what we would do when the lights in the camp would finally go out. But before we started spooking ourselves too much with possible horror scenarios, Linda miraculously discovered our tent, we were saved!

In the temple we met a young monk who not only answered our many questions about Buddhism, but also explained how even animals would be able to reach nirvana: “when a horse is standing in a meadow with its eyes closed, you don’t know whether its sleeping or meditating”. Hard to argue with that 🙂 The monk that started the temple in the early 19th century was a free spirit as well. His only fault was that he enjoyed his vodka a bit too much, so to this day visitors will grace the temple in his spirit by emptying bottles of vodka on its holy grounds. That they just as easily leave the bottles and any other rubbish behind is one of the weird dual things we experienced in Mongolia, similar to the Jeckel and Hyde style of their driving. You would find them stretched out on a supposedly energizing piece of rock on the grounds of the temple, meditating with some relaxing chanting in the background, while at the same time blasting horribly loud music through their smartphone speakers. We experienced some duality as well. Linda totally felt the vibrating spiritual energy while lying stretched out on the holy rock, while Jeroen wasn’t in touch with his inner chakras as much, as he only sensed the little stones piercing in his back…

On one of our last nights we met a small group of friendly Mongolians who were celebrating that Elka and Jackies daughter had passed her drivers license that day. Their way of celebrating was drinking large amounts of vodka, while kindly pouring us equal amounts. We did our best to decline, but happily accepted their offer to come visit them later in Zamiin-Uud, a Mongolian-Chinese border town. Hitchhiking down there was another journey in itself, with a memorable ride in the backseat of a car that screamed in agony on every small road bump (there were many), due to the weight of 3 people and 2 big backpacks coming down on the completely worn out shock suspensions of the car. We offered to get out and find another car, it really was that bad, but they nonchalantly waved our concerns away. A police officer that stopped us along the way didn’t seem too bothered by the three of us cramped in the back with no seat belts, but did want to check our papers and our bags. We took out the contents of our backpacks while the officer was meticulously studying our passports. He had a rather serious look on his face and we thought there might be some kind of problem. When he discovered our bread knife, he started making stabbing motions with it while looking sternly at us, before bursting out in laughter. The guy was bored and decided to have some fun with the foreigners… we were relieved enough to laugh along 🙂

In Zamiin-Uud we were picked up by Bayra and his cousin Mega. They invited us to a Chinese hotspot restaurant, where we enjoyed some of the best food we had in a long time. We did our best to express our gratitude while navigating the minefield of alcohol on the table. None of the usual tricks seemed to help, not even turning our glass upside down. Linda was let off the hook after three shots, but Jeroen was getting progressively drunk. He decided to pull out the method of last resort: shotting the vodka and spitting it out into an empty soda can. The other guys were drunk enough to not notice and when the third bottle of vodka was empty, our hosts looked drunkingly satisfied. We tried to convince them to allow us to sleep in our tent, but they didn’t want to hear any of it and arranged us a hotel room. We picked up the bill the next morning, to which our hosts angrily demanded our money back from the unsuspecting hotel staff, as the room was an arranged deal with the befriended owner of the place. After our hosts took their morning-after recovery-hit of vodka (we kindly declined) they escorted us across the border in record pace. We felt like secret agents, jumping from one car into the other, hastily saying our goodbyes to Bayra and Elka, being guided through different security checks by an alien woman that kept appearing and disappearing, but was somehow always in complete control and kept popping up every time we thought we got lost. And then, suddenly, we were there, we were in China…

Buddhist road ritual
Bird in Gobi desert near Khamryn Khiid
Camels Gobi desert
Gecko Gobi desert
Jeroen in cave near temple Khamaryn Khiid
Linda on magic rock near temple Khamaryn Khiid
Buddha in Khamaryn Khiid
Camel Gobi desert
Jeroen sunrise Gobi desert
Javi and Jeroen sunset Gobi desert
With Mega, Bayra and his wife in Zami Uud

Dan’s podcast

Beijing, September 10 2016

While staying at Dan en Katie’s place in Beijing, Dan recorded a podcast about our travels which you can find here: http://1000daysbetween.com/2016/09/atw-podcast-episode-17-jeroen-and-linda/

Dan is working as an English teacher in Beijing and writes about his travel adventures on his own blog, he even authored his own book about his travels in latin America “1000 Days Between”!

Yes we Khan

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 15 August 2016

That’s what the people in Mongolia think, when they have a car full of people and stop anyway to squeeze us in. A true hitchhiker’s paradise! Before we hitched our way in from Russia we only knew about the horses, the steppe and Ghengis Khan. Ghengis hasn’t been around for the last 700 years, but he is as present in current-day Mongolia (his face is printed on every bank note) as the horses and steppe… as well as the yurts, the traditional tent-like homes they call “gers”. A third of the country still lives a nomadic lifestyle! As verocious as Ghengis Khan was, so friendly are his descendants (apparently Ghengis was a bit of a ladies man and now 10% of all Asian men linside the former empire are directly related to the 13th century crusader). Maybe that’s why all Asians look al.. ah bad joke. But in many ways Mongolia was the first kinda-culture shock of our trip. Not only because of the many gers and the vast and void landscape, but even more so because of the incredibly friendly nature of the people!
Not to say anything negative about the wonderful people in Siberia, which is where we left off our last blog entry with Jeroen feeling all better again after our Baikal retreat, it was the first time we felt like stepping in a different world. After hitching our way back to Irkutsk – first in one of those Russian Uaz vans, blasting across the bumpy roads of Olkhon island as if it were the German Autobahn, then with a group of Chinese tourists (Jeroen made their acquaintance when they came running after him for a picture after leaving the bushes for quick wee) and finally with a friendly mini-bus driver (one car of the Chinese tourist group broke down and it didn’t feel appropriate to yell “first in, first out”, so we voluntarily gave up our seats) – we decided to ridden our backs with the heavy load of the not so essential items we at first thought we wouldn’t be able to live without. The only pants we are now carrying are the ones we are wearing, which makes it all the more easy to decide what to wear each day. What wasn’t so easy was shipping all of it back home. The Russian post office was a Soviet-style reminisce of a bureaucratic nightmare. The only way we were able to understand what we were required to do in the first place, was a direct result of our lingering highschool French, as for some strange reason all the necessary paperwork we had to fill out was written in Russian ánd in French. We then had to individually weigh and write up a description for every single item, in three-fold, which was double checked by the rather unsmiling, yet thorough postal clerk. But it was well worth the effort, because the 5.4 kg that was on its way back to the Netherlands was now no longer on our backs. We hit a second language barrier in an Irkutsk restaurant for Jeroen’s birthday dinner. No French on the menu, but the waitress was more willing than her Soviet-style postal office counterpart, and translated every vegetarian item on the menu for us on her phone. We decided to order the lot, much to the surprise of our waitress, but she and her colleagues got a good laugh out of it, while we feasted on great Georgian food and wine.
In Mongolia, on the other hand, we didn’t experience much of any language, nor any bureaucratic, barriers. The Mongolian visa was a breeze, you go in in the morning and pick it up in the afternoon, and at the border everything went a lot smoother as well. On top of that, a surprisingly large number of Mongolians speak at least a few words of English. On our way to Mongolia we were lucky enough to meet a wonderful guy from Kyrgyzstan with his nephew, who was driving a load in his van to eastern Siberia. While the little guy was chatting away and giving helpful advice on when and where to overtake the cars in front of us, Linda got comfortable on the bed in the back. With amazing views from the road on the Baikal lake, the 500km journey to Ulan-Ude flew by. We pitched our tent out in the field somewhere and the next morning we caught a couple of shorter rides further south, from a guy who was on his way to a Budhist temple, maybe brushing up on his karma, a guy who may or may not have been employed by the kgb and a couple who threw money out of the window of their car on the top of a hill, probably in an attempt to buy off possible car crashes. Fastening ones seatbelt might be the safer bet, but who are we to judge? They did drop us off safely on the last stretch towards the Mongolian border, so who knows, it may have well paid off.
After a bit of a wait a car finally stopped. Unfortunately to head out in the wrong direction, but not before 4 drunken Russian men and 1 woman got out, who joined us hitchhiking further south. They enjoyed our company more than we did theirs, but they managed to get us on a mini bus at no charge (at this point we didn’t have a single Ruble left), which brought us all the way to the forelast Russian police patrol station. We were instructed to wait on the side of the road, which gave us the opportunity to observe the everyday life of a Russian patrol agent. The older, somewhat heavier guy was majestically waving cars to a halt with his patrol stick, while the younger, much thinner guy was instructed to sweep the side of the road. The senior patrol officer took the job of the junior officer rather serious and we could feel that the junior guy would someday do exactly as his superior, if only out of spite for having to sweep every inch of what wasn’t more than a strip of asphalt along the road. But they got us a ride for the last bit and as we got out and walked up to the border, we were told we weren’t allowed to cross on foot. Here the helpful nature of the Mongolian people came shining through, as we were immediately invited into the first car in line to cross. It might not have been a completely altruistic gesture, as the guys tried to convince us we would have to pay a fee to cross the border (through them). We weren’t buying it and “naively” proposed to simply walk up and ask one of the Mongolian border control agents, their English was perfect by the way, which was enough in itself to drop the money question.
We got through without any hassle, but we were also tired after a long day of traveling and as we were walking along the road to find a place to camp, we half-seriously raised our thumb. To our amazement, the first car immediately stopped. The driver let us out at a nice spot near a small lake, where we played a game of poker with the thick wad of Mongolian Tukruk we got from the ATM (1 euro is around 2300 Tukruk) and woke up the next morning amidst the goats and horses that came down to the lake to drink.
From there we felt like everyone in Mongolia was rushing to our halt, practically every car stopped, no matter how many people were in the car. Our ride into the capital city Ulaanbaatar was no different, the two kids in the back slid to the side and with the 4 of us in the back we were happily cruising through the countryside. Our driver invited us midway into a ger for a traditional deep fried goat meat bread roll and some lovely fermented horse milk. We already had some “kumis” in Kazakhstan, which they call “airag” around here, which had carved a deep lasting memory that made it hard for us to keep up our not so genuine smiles. The taste of airag is rather… intense. Think of a more sour version of butter milk or kefir, add the tingling mouthfeel of a sparkling wine gone bad, throw in the flavors of the goat hide in which it is churned and some of the other delicate aromas you get from having it sit in a ger for a few days at room temperature. Bottom’s up! We just pretended the milk was meant to be shared and passed the cup to our host after we each took a small sip. He probably read the insuppressible discomfort in our faces, because when he passed the cup to his son, he downed the cup in one single go.
It is the staple food in the Mongolian diet and the Mongolians love it, all animal products, although in Ulaanbaatar you can find any food you can think of. One thing you can’t find in the capital city is the right of way of the pedestrian. You could be on a zebra crossing, with a green light, having a car coming from behind, overtaking you and cutting you off in your footsteps, which would be a very normal thing. The more modest drivers would give you a friendly honking of the horn, if they would approach at high speed, to push you back onto the pavement, midway on a zebra crossing. But when you put your thumb up, they turn into the most loving creatures, some kind of a weird Dr. Jykkel and Mr. Khan type thing we suppose.
Close to Ulaanbaatar, next to the Kustai national park, we did some slave work volunteering in a guesthouse, which was a rather depressing experience. When we were expected to work more than the max 4-5 hours per day (more like twice as much), we thought “eerhhm.. yes… we can”. We were working on a nice project and enjoyed doing it. When Jeroen couldn’t work on his supposedly free 6th day due to a fever, he was asked to pay for the night. At this point we were more like: “ehm…no… we can’t”. It took the fun out of volunteering while traveling for us, at least through websites like workaway. But we did have a great time with the other volunteers, ánd we built one hell of a trash can!
Separating trash like a boss!
Separating trash like a boss!
Together with the other volunteers
Who said hitchhiking is supposed to be uncomfortable?
Who said hitchhiking is supposed to be uncomfortable?
Mongolian steppe
Mongolian steppe
Stumbling across a giant Buddha
Stumbling across a giant Buddha
Khustai national park
Khustai national park
Buddhist temple in Ulaanbaatar
Buddhist temple in Ulaanbaatar
Our rooftop ger in Ulaanbaatar
Our rooftop ger in Ulaanbaatar

Towards Romania

29 April 2016 Cluj, Romania

The ice bear calf seemed to be more attached to us than the other way around. On the day we left from the end of the world, the white colossus was galloping happily in front of us. With the three of us, it would be hard to catch a ride, even in Poland. Luckily we were saved by a whistle from Koniec Świata, which caused our third wheel to storm back home. Shortly after, we were already rocking back and forth comfortably again in the cabin of a Polish truck driver.

The driver of our next ride explained a bit gloomy that from the 5 languages he spoke, we could not understand a single one. However, with a smile and a few hand gestures, it wasn’t hard to figure out what just had happened at the Slovakian border. Our driver had left his papers at home, but as soon as he whipped out his black and white collar (it turned out our driver was a priest), we immediately got a green light and were happily cruising down into Slovakia.

Where hitchhiking in Poland seemed like a breeze, in Slovakia we had to put in a little more effort. We did net some smiles after taking out our secret weapon, the ukulele, but even that didn’t make up for what was probably just a bad location on our part. Because just one village further down the road we caught a ride almost immediately and were even invited to sleep over.

That is how, after four days of wilderness, we ended up under a warm shower and with some pizza and Palinka. Lots of Palinka. An uncle across the road had his own distillery and showed us, while consuming lots of Palinka, the fine art of distilling alcohol from fermented fruit. During breakfast, we struggled to get down our yoghurt and tea and realized that we were still in need of much training before we would get to Russia. Equipped with a liter of Palinka and some homemade blueberry jam stored in our backpack, we even got a ride to the nearby Prešov. The only favor we were asked in turn, was to come back after our journey to tell about our stories.

Prešov was a jump away from Košice, where we decided to recover from the night before. Two nights in a hostel gave us the opportunity to work on our blog and led us to discover the surprisingly nice city of Košice. A member of staff from the hostel gave us a tip about an underground bar, the Collosseum, a superbly well-hidden punk-metal bar, with a confusing amount of stairs, doorways and backrooms. A beer for one euro per pint was a welcome change to the Palinka the night before.

We continued towards Romania with a longer stopover at the Hungarian-Slovakian border. After a slight hesitation, the friendly Roman backed up for us and then even drove an hour in the wrong direction to drop us at a good petrol station to hitchhike further to Romania. There we could make good use of our cardboard sign with the letters “RO” which we laughingly held up high, while smiling at Adi and pointing at his Romanian number plates with the same letters. Adi, seemingly amused, agreed to take us in, which made cross Hungary within a day.

Before we even got to our senses in Oradea in Romania or could point our thumbs in the air, Nelu approached us and asked whether he could take us to Cluj, our final destination for that day. Slightly swaying from left to right, with his thumb on his smart phone to proudly show us pictures of his rooster, we drove towards Cluj in record time. We couldn’t help but notice the gypsy palaces with the beautifully and fragile metal decorated roofs in the nearby Huedin. A statement of an excluded community with the necessary social problems, because despite all the outside glamour, the houses were neither finished from the inside nor inhabited. After a final coffee, instead of a Palinka (Nelu still had to drive), we headed towards what was to become our most special stay, in Cluj.

Linda hinter Gittern
Linda behind bars
Trampen mit Ukulele
Hitchhiking with ukulele
Jeroen & Linda im Regen
Jeroen & Linda in the rain
Club Colloseum
Club Colloseum