Day 65: “Let’s just get the hell out of here”

I awoke the next morning with a grim, somewhat world-weary expression on my face. I trudged outside to the shed, like a convict walking the mile, and I opened the door, slowly, with my eyes closed, too scared to look.

If anyone knows of a more depressing and pathetic sight than 15 newborn puppies, huddled together, shivering in the cold, with frozen streaks of vodka piss matted into their furry little faces, I’d please like to hear about it. Maybe then I can efface this horrendous image from my conscience…

I signed heavily and the dog that yapped at me the night before came over to the door. It didn’t yap at me this time though. It just squinted at me, in hatred, and I swear, on my life, I saw that bitch shaking her head in disgust at me. I dragged my feet back into the kitchen where Michael was reading a Kazakhstan newspaper.

“Something wrong mate?” he said, without looking up.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I sniffed.
“You pissed on the puppies as well, didn’t you?”

My eye started twitching. I took a deep breath in, a long breath out and I poured myself a large glass of vodka.

“Let’s just get the hell out of here”

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Day 64: “Orgies and puppies…” – Korday

As we trudged through the sloppy snow towards the highway, in the eyeball freezing rain and the lip burning wind, Ainur turned to us:

“Hey, you can sleep at my house tonight, if you want? I can cook home meal. You can meet my girls! I stay with six Kazakh girls, students, they will looove you!”

It was at this point I had that eerie feeling again: for some strange reason, all of a sudden, every fibre of my being told me to put off hitching, in the bitter cold, to Terrorist-ville Taraz, and instead stay at Ainur’s for the night in Korday, on the Kazak border with Kyrgyzstan.

“Did you hear that Michael? Six girls!”

But he wasn’t listening. He was busy doing the maths on his fingers. After a couple of minutes of earnest arithmetic he turned to me, hesitated, rechecked his figures and then said, “Two girls each?”

“Exactly mate”

We went into a shop whilst Ainur went into her house to prepare it for our stay. Our company in the shop, which evidently also served as a bar, was Alexander and Halim, who were celebrating the latter’s 30th birthday. Alexander was of Russian descent and Halim was Kazak.

With these two we drank a considerable amount of vodka. When posing for a photo I thought it would look good if the birthday boy, Halim, wore my England scarf around his neck.

“Present!” he yelped in excitement.

“Eeerrrm… yeah sure, present,” I replied, already feeling the icy fingers of the Kazakhstan winter caressing my naked neck.

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After we’d shared a bottle or two of vodka with the bibulous pair, Alexander, evidently one of the many  town drunks, was having a teary breakdown on Michael’s shoulder.

“We’d better get going!” I announced.

“Cheers mate”, Mike said to me as we made a hasty exit, “his wet moustache was tickling my ear”

The six girls all lived together in a three room house. It was comprised of a kitchen, a dressing room and a bedroom which also served as the living room. All six girls slept in the one bedroom, some on the sofas, some on the floor.

“Play it cool, Michael, my orgy sense is tingling”

“You have an orgy sense?”

“I don’t know. Something’s definitely tingling though”

“Is it your neck? We could go and ask for your scarf back if you want?”

“No, it’s not my neck! It’s my orgy sense I tells you. Just play it cool”

While Michael and I waited in the kitchen, playing it cool, I suddenly remembered that the last time I’d had a hot shower was a good few days ago. I also regrettably remembered that the last time we’d properly washed our clothes was the day after my birthday, on the 27th of October, three weeks ago,

I attempted a couple of covert sniffs of my armpit, to assess the damage. A pungent aroma assaulted my nostrils. Feeling woozy, I had to physically shake myself back to my senses. Remembering where I was, I looked up and my vision blurred back into focus. To my horror, I realised that at least four of the six girls had been intently watching me through the curtains from the other room.

“Bollocks,” I mumbled, as we were invited inside to meet the girls. Note to self: when you write the book, blame Michael for sabotaging the orgy.

“What did you say?” asked Michael, suspiciously.

“I said ‘after you friend’,” I replied, as I tried to trip him up on our way in.

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We tried to chat to the girls, whose ages ranged from 18 to 23. It was difficult to get any sense out of them though. They were very giggly, very shy and couldn’t speak any English. Whilst we’d been “charming” the girls, Ainur had been outside, where Halim had followed us back. He was apparently desperate for us all to join him at the local billiards room to celebrate his birthday.

When we returned to the flat, slightly tipsy from the vodka, I asked Ainur where the toilet was..

“Follow the path to the outhouse,” she replied.

I stumbled outside into the snow and followed the path in the dark; it must have been minus 10.

My neck was bloody freezing.

I opened the door of what looked more like a shed than an outhouse and, trying to ignore the sound of rats scurrying and squeaking around me, I stepped inside. I peered into the dark, trying to force my eyes to penetrate the blackness, but to no avail. I tentatively sniffed the abyss; it certainly smelled rather peculiar, so I did what any other self respecting bloke, with a skin full of vodka and a freezing cold neck, would have done in my situation: I pissed into the darkness, with my hand cupped over my ear, listening for water.

My endeavour for aural confirmation, however, was interrupted by a rather frantic dog, outside by the open door, yapping at my heels.

“Back off pouch. I have no beef with you”

As I walked back into the house, shivering from the cold, Ainur asked me:

“Did you see the puppies?”

“Puppies?”

“Yes. My dog’s just had 15 puppies. They are in the shed before the outhouse. She always barks like that when people go near them.”

My eye started twitching. I took a deep breath in, a long breath out and I poured myself a large glass of vodka.

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I awoke the next morning with a grim, somewhat world-weary expression on my face. I trudged outside to the shed, like a convict walking the mile, and I opened the door, slowly, with my eyes closed, too scared to look.

If anyone knows of a more depressing and pathetic sight than 15 newborn puppies, huddled together, shivering in the cold, with frozen streaks of vodka piss matted into their furry little faces, I’d please like to hear about it. Maybe then I can efface this horrendous image from my conscience…

I signed heavily and the dog that yapped at me the night before came over to the door. It didn’t yap at me this time though. It just squinted at me, in hatred, and I swear, on my life, I saw that bitch shaking her head in disgust at me. I dragged my feet back into the kitchen where Michael was reading a Kazakhstan newspaper.

“Something wrong mate?” he said, without looking up.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I sniffed.
“You pissed on the puppies as well, didn’t you?”

My eye started twitching. I took a deep breath in, a long breath out and I poured myself a large glass of vodka.

“Let’s just get the hell out of here”

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Day 60: “Kazakhstange…” – Almaty

We woke up at around midday and switched on BBC news –the only English language channel generally available. We realised that something strange had been going on. One week after Michael and I had left Bali, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake shook the island; a day after we left Bangkok the rivers burst their banks and flooded the city; and, recently, there had been a couple of earthquakes in eastern Turkey, exactly where we were scheduled to be in a week or so.

The nearest miss, though, was just around the corner. We wandered around the frozen streets of Almaty, a picturesque soviet-style city. We walked past the monuments and statues, dotted around the city’s numerous parks that proudly commemorate Kazakhstan’s independence. When they’re covered with a clean blanket of snow, like they were when we were there, the place is given a magical sense of calm, especially when the vast snow-capped mountain range to the south comes brooding into view.

We decided that we deserved to celebrate the fact that, having entered Kazakhstan, we’d successfully hitchhiked over 11’000 km, which is more than 50% of our total journey home. We saw a large bar called the Soho Almaty Club and went inside. There was only one other person in there, sat next to us at the bar, and I could tell he wanted to talk to us. He turned out to be the owner of the place, Mukhtar, a jolly old chap with a roaring laugh and an endearing air of pomposity about him.

“Hungry?!” he roared, and before we could reply he snapped his fingers at the barman to bring us something to eat. A few moments later a platter of cold meats was placed in front of us with a white yogurt dip in the centre. We tried a dark, more familiar looking meat first.

“Smoked horse!” our host announced “Very traditional in Kazakhstan”

“Tasty,” we replied, still chewing. And we weren’t lying. We continued through the 6 or 7 types of meat until only one remained; one that we’d both been consciously avoiding. It was flat and circular in shape, pasty white in colour. We both cut a bit off and gave it try.

“Good?” Mukhtar, asked with big eyes.

“Mmmm,” said Michael, while I stayed quiet. It tasted just how it looked –animal fat, not too dissimilar from the leftovers of a rare steak, though without the flavour.

“Horse intestines,” he announced, still beaming.

Glad to move on, Michael picked up a round, white ball, from the edge of the plate and popped it into his mouth.

 “So which part of the horse do you reckon these come from?” Michael asked me, holding another one of them between his thumb and forefinger.

“What do they taste like?”

“Like salted milk”

“Probably just the excess from the artificial insemination process I should imagine”

“What?” he replied, chewing.

“Just swallow those down and we’ll talk about it later”

So we’d just eaten, like, a horse, after finishing our selection of equine delicacies and were discussing the necessity of leaving Almaty for Taraz the next day, in an attempt to make a dent in the 1’000 km that we were behind schedule. It was then that Mukhtar informed us that our tab for the day was compliments of the house.

“Are you staying for the evening?” he asked us. “I looked at my watch, it was only 3.30pm”.

“We’ll stay for a couple”

As the place started to fill up, we met a friendly young Russian man called Alexander, in town on business, who insisted on supplying us with a steady supply of whiskey and cokes. He also translated our hitchhiking mission statement into Russian.

Once word spread around that there were a couple of English guys at the bar, one that bared a passing resemblance to David Beckham, and one that bared a passing resemblance to Frodo Baggins, an eager queue of beautiful women, some Russian, some Kazakh, keen to practice their English, soon formed around us. It was at this point that a strange sensation came over me. I looked at the free drinks flowing from Alexander, and then ahead of me, at the bar, where our considerable tab was complements of the house. I then looked at the crowd of gorgeous women, looking like a chorus of angels, eager to talk to us. I heard an eerie, almost creepy, Gollum-like voice, rasping into my ear:

“Staaaay in Almaty. Don’t go to Taraaaaz, staaaaaay in Almaty”

“Must be some kind of sign from God,” I said aloud, “Surely I can’t disobey such a direct order from above?”

“No, Rich, that was me,” said Michael, “I think we should st-“

“A sign from God,” I confirmed to myself, nodding my head.

Before we knew it, it was 5 am, we’d been speaking to some of the most beautiful woman we’d ever seen in our lives. Even though the sun was up, I still had to drag Michael out the place.

“We’ve to hitchhike in 3 hours time” I told him. “My alarm is set”

“Noooo,” he called. “I’m in love! She’s the one…”

Day 59: The toilet toll troll – to Almaty, Kazakhstan

After driving through the night, just before we crossed the border, at around 6 am, we stopped at a service station. I got out of the minibus, stretched my legs and scratched my stomach. As I looked around drearily for the toilets, I had to brace myself against the cold and I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck. It was difficult to remember how we could have struggled in the heat of South East Asia.

“Ah ha,” I said, spying the door.

Tenge,” I heard someone burp besides me. I looked down to see an abominable old troll-woman with her paw out.

“Huh?”

Tenge,” she repeated, apparently annoyed at my hesitation.

“I haven’t got any tenge, I’ve just bloody got here. Be gone toilet toll troll!”

Tenge

“Will you accept yuan?” I pleaded, getting out some Chinese notes.

Tenge!

Defeated, I moped back to the bus to see if I could swap some money with someone when, just next to me, a couple of Kazakh men, both over 6ft tall and with the physiques of wrestlers, started shouting at each other.

Is that a headache brewing? I thought, as I rubbed my eye with the palm of my hand.

As the argument grew more heated, one of the men suddenly launched himself into an audacious flying head-butt from 3 metres away! It was phenomenal. They then started scuffling right next to me. I looked around. I was the only one near them. I looked up at a bus to see that everyone was watching. It’s up to you, Rich.

“Stop [cough] now,” I said, wagging a finger, sounding less than convincing. It didn’t work. Conscious that more people had gathered to view the spectacle I decided to change tact.

“Come on lads, pack it in,” I said, tugging on one of the guys’ sleeves. I must have looked like a daughter asking for some sweeties. I felt a man come up from behind me, grab both my arms and drag me away. Somewhat inexplicably, I started kicking my legs as if I was in some kind of rage at being dragged away from the action. Once out of main sight, I stopped kicking immediately.

“My work here is done,” I said, dusting my hands.

A few other men joined in and soon it became a four-on-one fight against the head-butt guy. The head-butter tried to pick up a spade next to the toilet toll troll who was forced to scuttle away from her post. I saw my chance and darted into the unguarded toilet with all the stealth of a ninja.

Welcome to Kazakhstan, I thought to myself, as I heard the bang of someone’s body against the door.

I just couldn’t resist giving the toilet toll troll a little wink and a smile as I got back into the minibus. I think I even may have thrown in a tap of my empty bladder and an audible gasp of satisfaction for good measure. She scowled back at me, no doubt cursing my toilet-toll dodging bones.

Later that day, sometime in the afternoon, we realised that that the last meal we’d had was in the Fubar, 30 hours ago, in Urumqi. Except for a packet of biscuits, we’d had nothing. The problem was that we didn’t have any of the national currency, Tenge. We planned to get some at a service station or at the border, just like we had done at the other border crossings, but so far there’d been none.

We pulled into a service station and our surly hosts stomped off to get some dinner. The smell of the food in the cafe was torturous. We shivered miserably, watching everyone else scoff done their hot meals. Even worse, perhaps, was the knowledge that we still had seven or eight hours to go, at least, until we arrived in Almaty, which would be the middle of the night.

To take our mind off things, we mustered up the energy to talk to a man called Mika.

“Are you eating,” asked Mika, who could speak good English having spent some time in Ireland.

“No,” we said, forlornly, dribbling and shivering with hunger. Just as we were about to get back onto the bus, Mika came out.

“Michael, Richard, come, I have food for you!”

“Oh thank you Mika, but we have no money,” I said, through chattering teeth.

“There is no ATM and they don’t accept card here,” said Michael, with his lower lip quivering like a finger on a Morse code dial.

“No problem! It’s a gift from me and Kazakhstan!”

It was only a simple meal of rice and lamb stew, but it has to go down as one of the best meals I have had in my entire life. We inhaled the food like pigs in a trough.  It was like a metaphor for hitchhiking: the adversity that you have to endure, in the bad times, makes the good times, all the more satisfying.

With hot food inside us, the remaining time on the bus was infinitely more enjoyable. The spell, however, was broken when we arrived in Almaty, at around 2 am, when we were unceremoniously dropped off at the bus station. The cold instantly penetrated our clothes, which were woefully unsuited to our new environment. The only extra clothing either of us had bought since the tropical climes of South East Asia was a pair of gloves and a soviet style hat. I’d also found a pair of trousers in a hotel room, in north-west China, which gave my legs a vital extra layer of protection. So, two trousers, four T-shirts, a jumper, my beloved England hat and scarf from World Cup 2010 and my soviet style hat. Michael was similarly attired.

We wandered down a road towards the train station and two different cars pulled over to ask if we wanted a lift anywhere.

“I know my Traveller’s Highway Code,” I thought to myself, “No unlicensed taxis for us tonight thank you Mr Mugger, and don’t think I don’t know your game either, Mr Rapist, you crafty little scamp”

By the time the third car pulled over, however, the cold had penetrated a little deeper. We hopped in and asked to be taken to the train station.

“500 Tenge ($3),” he said.

“200,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

Having visited America, the young lad was able to hold a basic conversation in English. We told him about our adventures and that we were planning to hitchhike across Kazakhstan.

“It is too cold here, there are no roads. You will die”

Day 59: When we nearly died – Kazakhstan border

The minibus journey that Alexei the Giant had arranged for us from Urumqi was the 61st hitchhike so far. It was long and difficult, through the dark and icy cold, over bumpy roads. Our hosts didn’t seem keen on talking to each other, let alone us, so after several attempts at communication we decided it wasn’t worth it. Michael took the opportunity to have one of the sleeping tablets that a friend had given to us in Bangkok so he was out of it for most of the time.

We were only crawling along up an steep icy hill with a bollard seperating us from the cliff to our left. The minibus was clearly strugging, judging my the screams of the engine and the swearing of the driver. Once one the crest of the hill we were on flatter ground.

There was a clunk from the bowls of our vehicle and I could hear the driver frantically pushing pedals, but nothing was happening. Whilst Michael was sound asleep, the rest of us held our breath as the mini bus started sliding, quite slowly, but totally out of control. We slid towards the bollard separating us from the cliff, and I as I contemplated how strong the barrier was I also wondered if I should have woken Michael, just in case.

As we approached the barrier, no faster than 7 km p/h, the two woman started shrieking and screaming, difficult sounds to take in such a confined space. We bounced off the bollard, and started sliding back towards the otherside, like a bowling ball. We bounced twice more between the barriers until the mini bus lost momentum and we stopped. The women had stopped screaming, and the men got out to inspect the problem.

I thought about getting out as well but seeing as my knowledge of cars amounts to a snake’s of stilts, I stayed put. Besides, it was well below freezing outside and snow looked sharp on the eyes.

Michael awoke for a few moments, lifted his head, chewing, and mumbled something like, “dam seal… thinks he’s so smart”

Day 57 – 58: “Alexei the Giant…” – Urumqi

When we first planned our journey we had decided to try and get a bus from Urumqi into Kazakhstan. We told ourselves, it would be the only time we paid for transport. Now that we’d arrived in Urumqi, having hitchhiked 9’163 km, it felt strange contemplating a bus journey. I won’t lie, the idea of relaxing for 12 hours and eating up 1000 km felt pretty good compared to hitting the road and braving the elements but there was something about it that just didn’t sit well in the stomach.

We went for a few drinks at the excellent Fubar, a buzzing expat bar, next to People’s Park, and discussed the matter. As we were drinking and talking I spotted a heavy set bloke out of the corner of my eye with ‘Kazakhstan’ emblazoned across the back of his top. I got a glimpse of his face as he turned around slightly: he had a prominent, stubbled chin and a pair of blue eyes, deeply set in his large skull. A huge silver chain was hung around his neck and dangled over his jumper.

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We flipped a coin to decide who would go over to speak to him and, as I lost, I downed the remainder of my beer, took a deep breath and went on over. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he spoke English. He shook his head. Through a sheer stroke of luck, the waiter we’d been talking to earlier, Azi, from Tajikistan, who spoke flawless English, just happened to be clearing away the drinks from his table. I asked Azi to translate our story to him. As he told our tale, the Kazakhstani listened, giving nothing away. If anything he just looked like his was bored and wanted to get back to his drink. Once the story was finished he stood up, pressed his lips into his mouth and then crushed my hand like a bear. As I’d been so used to Chinese handshakes, it was a shock to get such an iron grip.

“Alexei,” he rumbled, with his thumb, as thick as one of my legs, pressed into his chest.

“Richard,” I murmured, with my thumb, as thick as one of his chin hairs, pressed into my chest. The giant bought me a drink and, with the help of Azi, I asked him if he was going back to Kazakhstan anytime soon.

“No, he is sorry to say that he is not,” replied Azi. I was gutted! I invited Alexei back to our table for a drink nonetheless, but he declined because he was waiting for some friends. I walked back to our table to see Michael’s eager face trying to judge what had transpired.

“I thought we were on there, mate” I said. “Bloody good bloke he was. Look at the state of my hand!”

We drank a few Boddingtons for a massive £4.50 each and forgot about Alexei as we chatted away to a Chinese pair called Sonic and Chun Lee. They spoke great English and told us about the racial tensions between the Chinese Han and the Uigher populations that escalated into the riots a couple of years ago.

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“Everyone was using bricks, sticks, knives and anything as weapons. They would ask ‘are you a Uighur?’ If they kept silent or couldn’t answer in the Uighur language, they would get beaten or killed”

Late on in the night I got a tap on shoulder from Azi.

“The Kazak has found you a ride if you want it. He’s been trying all night calling everyone he knows. A friend’s sister’s friend is going to Almaty in two days time”

Michael and I looked at each other. It had been a while since I’d experienced it, but the impact was the same. A euphoric sense of exhilaration, relief and excitement surged through my veins.

“We’re going to Kazakhstan”, we said, with a clink of our glasses.

The Rich-Mike Hitchhike Insight: Hitchhiking in China

China is such a diverse country it’s difficult to consider it as a whole. South China is a hitchhiker’s dream. It was easy to secure rides and the people were always hospitable and friendly, especially Ryan, in Huize, who took such characteristics to new heights.

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After Xian, as we followed the Silk Road west, it grew more difficult. People were less likely to stop and if they did a large sum of money was expected. This said, there was never a single day where we failed. For this reason, combined with the fact that pristine new highways have been built to connect the numerous mega-cities, we regard China as an excellent place to hitchhike in.

China Hitchhiking Rating:  af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15     (8/10)

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Day 55: “Lamb?…” – Turpan

“I think I fancy some lamb tonight,” said Michael, as we sat down to eat in celebration of the time we’d made up.

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The waitress came over and handed us each a Chinese menu and the usual game ensued where we pointed at random symbols and the waitress acted out the dominant animal in the dish. Up until this night I was very confident that Michael and I were going to clean up at charades this Christmas. Our opponents, you see, are the Campians, a drama family, so they always win. “Not this year though!” I’d been telling myself, “Not with our daily acting experience”. My confidence, however, was somewhat dented by the following debacle…

I went first and picked an option on the menu. The waitress pointed her fingers from her head, to indicate horns, and went “mooooooooo”.

“Oh Lamb?” said Michael, nodding confidently.

“No Mike, I’m pretty sure that’s beef,” I said; then, turning to the waitress, “Yes please, Zhege, xiexie, thank you”.

Michael then pointed at another option on the menu and the waitress kind of pawed her hand and made an indiscriminate noise, something like “Meeowwwww”

We looked at each other in silence.

 “Lamb?” asked Michael.

Michael’s travel tip of the week: If you’re ever in Turpan, avoid the lamb.

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Day 50: Deserted in the Gobi – to Yongdeng

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Wo jiao Michael,” said Michael, sitting in the middle of the back seat,  introducing himself to our new hosts. I rolled my eyes in anticipation of what was inevitably to follow. “Like Michael Jackson!” he said grasping a chunk of his mangy, long hair. “Ah!” our hosts yelped in excited recognition. “Mi’kel Jak’son!!”

This was the 55th car to pick us up and the 55th time I’d heard this comparison.

“Richard”, I said, leaning forward, “Wo jiao Richard. Like Richard Gere?”

The three youngsters looked at each other scratching their heads. No one ever knew Richard Gere.

Hitchhike number 55 had started like every other: the surge of elation that followed being picked up was a welcome respite from the tedium of waiting. The feeling of satisfaction that we were about to chip another tiny chuck out of the 20’000 km of road that separated us from the green pastures of Shropshire had made us eager to get to know our new hosts.

We were in the car with a trio of teenagers: a couple in the front and another boy in the back. Both the boys had a feathery adolescent moustache and the girl had her long black hair tied in a pony-tail plat. Michael and I took turns to fire questions at them from our Lonely Planet phrasebook. Every one of them was met with cries of glee from our hosts –a kind of innocent enthusiasm that never failed to affect us.

Between the questions, I took the time, as I often did, to gaze at our surroundings; consciously attempting to commit as many of the different landscapes as I could to memory. It’s perhaps a strange, circumscribed way to experience the world, speeding past you from behind a car window. It was as if a great Bayeux Tapestry was unravelling at 90 km p/h as we leapfrogged our way through the continent, from car to lorry to car.

We had been picked up in a remote town called Jiayuguan, about 628 km from the next site of discernible civilization, . If you look at the shape of China as a chicken, we were deep in the tail feathers. The lush tropics of the South Pacific were a distant memory and the further we headed north and west the colder and emptier the landscape had become.

After The Sandy Desert, in Australia, I’d say The Gobi is the second most aptly named desert in existence. Its name meanswaterless place” and, indeed, it is a notoriously greedy desert with an insatiable thirst for fertile land.  It is expanding south, year after year, devouring as much as 3,600 km2 of grassland each time. We’d also noticed that the further we’d headed north and west, the more the people seemed to absorb the characteristics of their environment. Up until Xian, the local people had been, at times, overwhelmingly generous, friendly and open. Since then, however, the inhabitants of colder, miserly more ruthless lands had become just that. It was with increasing frequency that drivers would demand exorbitant amounts of money to give us a ride.

We’d been in the car for about two hours and we seemed to be exactly smack bang in the middle of nowhere. One of the dubious joys of hitchhiking is that you’re at the mercy of the whims of your host. Usually these whims pertain to generosity, friendliness or benevolence but not always. Hitchhiking sometimes manifests the darker sides of human nature as well, as we were to soon find out.

The boy in the back had been studying the phrasebook for a while, mesmerised. Michael was similarly engaged, listening to his iPod. His hair had grown wild and unwashed, his beard like a nest of dry, ginger straw. He looks like a caveman, I thought, which in hindsight proved to be an ominous reflection.

I suddenly realised that all three of our hosts were starting at me, even the driver.  Looks of curiosity/bewilderment were ingrained into their youthful faces. We were probably the first westerners they’d ever seen in the flesh. They considered us for a few moments more, before a debate broke out between them. The couple in the front were discussing something of importance – or perhaps they were arguing – it was difficult to tell. The only thing I could count on was that the subject was us; it was obvious from the intermittent glances in the rear-view mirror.

The boy next to Michael passed him the phrasebook and Michael duly pulled out his earphones.

“Huh?” he said, as the boy pointed to a phrase. Michael read aloud the phrase, which was apparently in the shopping section of the book.

“How – much –does –it –cost?”

My attention flittered for a spit second to the other side of the highway –I thought I’d seen a car but it was merely the sun, now low in the sky ahead of us, reflecting momentarily from a sign.

“What?” said Michael, “What does what cost? My iPod?”

He’d been asked this question a few times before. The boy looked at the iPod but shook his head. He pointed to the phrase again and then gestured at the space all around us to indicate the car. I could see the driver’s face in the mirror break into a grin.

“How much is the car?” asked Michael, with a knitted brow. It dawned on me what was about to happen.

“He means the ride,” I said. “He means how much for the ride… the lift.”

We didn’t mind paying drivers for our rides sometimes. If we were in a country where it was customary to do so, the “when in Rome” motto seemed a reasonable course of action. If a fee was requested, it was usually negotiated before we got into the vehicle. We always armed ourselves with the knowledge of the price of a bus ticket between the places we were travelling and, as a general rule, if we were charged anything over that price, we rejected the offer and if it was anything below, we jumped aboard. Up until this point, 8’388 km into our journey, we’d paid for 6 out of 55 rides, from £2.50 to £5.dsc00333-fotor

This time I had an uneasy feeling creeping into my stomach. It seemed like these kids had purposely waited until we were at our most vulnerable, the furthest point between where we’d started and where were going. The boy handed Michael a notepad and gestured for him to offer a price. Michael wrote the price of a bus ticket and returned it back. The boy’s eyes widened, squinted and then his eyebrows fell low. He reported the figure to the two in front. The driver snorted in disbelief. They were clearly expecting more. The girl with the long pony tail plat looked out of her window, seemingly disinterested in the proceedings.

“The air felt cold in our lungs and loud on our breath as we walked towards the sun.”

The driver caught my attention in the rear-view mirror and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together –the one gesture we’ve found to be truly international. Michael returned the notepad again and gestured for him to write a price. The boy said a few words to the driver, who muttered a reply. The girl’s heard jerked back around and she spat a sharp word or two at the driver. Michael and I looked at each other as the girl continued to express her anger in rapid Chinese.

The boy in the back wrote a figure, crossed it out, thought for a few seconds, wrote another figure and passed it to Michael. Michael took a look at the number, sighed with a smile and cast his eyes to the heavens.

“What is it?” I dared to ask.

“You don’t want to know,” he replied earnestly. I took the notepad. The price was one hundred times what we’d initially offered to pay, the equivalent of a week of our budget in China. It looked more like an international phone number. I made eye contact with the girl; she looked again out of the window, not that there was much to see. We’d entered a shallow ravine, with some small, white chalky hills on either side of us. A few heavy moments of silence passed.

The driver was the first to break, clearing his throat. He made the familiar money gesture with the hand he wasn’t steering with and then pointed outside into the desert. As if the ultimatum wasn’t clear enough, he slowed right down then pulled over. The girl started complaining again, but the driver silenced her with an aggressive bang of his hand onto the dashboard.

I’m not sure what they expected us to do. Perhaps they were only trying to scare us into paying up. We certainly didn’t have that kind of money on us – we’d have been fools to do so. Looking back, perhaps we could have given them assurances that we’d pay up in the next town or perhaps we should have attempted to negotiate a more reasonable price. These things didn’t occur to us at the time. I watched the boy in the back’s jaw fall open in astonishment as I opened the car door and stepped outside. Michael shook each person’s hand and thanked them with more sincerity than I could have managed had I attempted it. As they drove off, with a spin of their wheels on the dusty road, I could hear the girl screeching in high irate tones at what had just occurred. The boy in the back watched us from the rear window until the car disappeared into the horizon.

“What did you thank them for?” I asked Michael.

“They drove us 328 km. That’s 128 km more than our daily target.”

I couldn’t resist smiling. Here we were, without any food or water, stranded in one of the most unforgiving environments on earth. Whilst we’d been driving, deeper and deeper into this barren wasteland of a place, we hadn’t seen a single vehicle on either side of the road. We only had a few hours of sunlight left and the temperatures were reputed to drop to as low as -40C. I couldn’t help but admire and envy Michael’s positivity.

The air felt cold in our lungs and loud on our breath as we walked towards the sun which was perhaps a couple of hours away from settling down for the night behind the horizon. We’d left the plateau and had now dropped with the road into a mini valley, with low, chalky hills on either side of us. Despite being barren and largely featureless, our surroundings, cast perfectly in the silent winter sunset, possessed a stark, extra-terrestrial kind of beauty.

A few hours later the feelings of hunger were gnawing at our stomachs, the cold was seeping into our bones and tiredness whittling away at our morale.

“Well, on the plus side,” said Michael, surveying the valley with a somewhat studious look on his face. “I’ve started to see quite a few caves around.”

We continued walking for about 30 seconds as his words hung in the air.

“Yes,” he continued, “from time to time I’ve often thought about what we should do if we ever find ourselves in a situation like this. We should sleep back-to-back, to keep our backs warm, while our arms keep our fronts warm.”

“Good thinking Michael,” I agreed, pretending that I hadn’t just had a somewhat startling vision of me killing him, eating his flesh, burning his corpse for warmth and then dancing around the cave with the charred remains of his skeleton for a laugh.

“What are you grinning at Rich?”

“Oh errr… nothing,” I chuckled. “Hey, do you hear something?”

We heard the faintest of rumblings behind us and turned around. In any other landscape on earth such a distant sound would have been absorbed into the scenery or ignored by the occupants, but here even our hearts sounded like drums in our chests. Squinting into the distance, with the sun behind us, we saw a sparkle of reflected light.

“A car! A car! A car!” we whimpered, skipping about. The excitement quickly turned to anxiety, however, at the thought that nothing was guaranteed. This was the first car we’d seen since the trio of teenagers that had picked us up – 4 hours and 300 km ago. Surely, I thought to myself, two random westerners in the desert, 328 km from civilization, would be a compelling enough sight to stop?!

Perhaps with the image of my malevolent, cannibalistic grin still fresh in his mind, Michael cast aside any feelings of inhibition and he stepped out of the hard shoulder and onto the highway. With the brazen pride of a showgirl at a boxing match, he held the sign for our next destination, “Hami”, high above his head. I joined him by his side and I summoned from within the depths of my soul the most pitiful look of pleading sorrow that I could muster – my lip quivered, my eyes bulged and swelled with water, my knees shivered and my hands were clasped together in prayer. It was no show. I wanted to leave.

The closer and closer our saviour approached, the more and more our excitement grew, and the more we shuffled out onto the highway.

“Is he slowing down?” I asked Michael.

“I think so!”

And sure enough, the car was slowing down.

There is nothing in this world that intensifies the feelings of hunger, tiredness, boredom, isolation and loneliness more than giving someone the opportunity of respite and then taking it away again. To misquote a man a lot more intelligent than me: “Hope is as good a breakfast as false hope is a bad supper.”

And true these words proved to be. The car slowed down as it passed, stared at us as if we were animals in a zoo, before speeding off again, roaring like thunder, into the horizon

“Damn!” Michael shouted, throwing the sign into the dust.

“That was it”, I said, kicking a stone, “That was our chance.”

“Well, do you want the good news or the bad news?” he asked me.

“The good news.”

“I can see a good cave.”

“The bad news?”

“It’s a cave.”

As we turned from the road, dejected and tired, the thought of the night to come sent a small chill down my spine and the first real thoughts of concern wandered into my mind.

How long will it be before we see another car? How long will it be before another car stops? How long will it be before we can eat again? How cold will it be when the sun falls behind the horizon? Will Michael notice if I steal his scarf?  

Not for the first time on our journey I was thankful not to be alone and my thoughts turned to comfort.

Which dusty rock would make a good pillow? Which dusty rock would make a good blanket? Which dusty rock could I brush my teeth with the morning?

 “I don’t believe it,” said Michael, breaking my train of thought.

“Huh?” I replied.

“Another car is coming.”

I turned around and, sure enough, he was right. No yelps of excitement or skipping around this time, however. The bitter taste of disappointment was still too fresh in our mouths. This time it was serious; now or never. We walked right out into the middle of the road and for the first time on our hitchhiking adventure, I think the driver had to stop out of necessity rather than choice. The car slowed down, manoeuvred around us, and then stopped in the hard shoulder ahead of his. We jogged up to the window and, as it opened, a thick plume of cigarette smoke oozed from within. Two pairs of masculine eyes were just about visible, peering at us through the sauna-like haze. Michael pointed at his sign. They shared a few words together then gestured for us to join them.     

I let the familiar wave of elation wash over me as I slide into the backseat alongside my friend. Whereas usually, however, the feeling was a euphoric affirmation that the highs of hitchhiking round the world outweigh the lows, this time it was more like relief.

Ni hao!” said Michael, leaning forward. “Wo jiao Michael. Like Michael Jackson!”

The driver looked at his friend and they both giggled in mutual recognition.

“Ah ha ha! Mik-el Jak-son!”

“The hair!” Michael said, grasping a chunk, and they all laughed some more.

Ni hao” I said, leaning forward. “Wo jiao Richard. Like Richard Gere”

They stopped laughing and scratched their heads. No one ever knew Richard Gere.

Day 46: “No Panda?…” – Chengdu, China

As we were eating breakfast we picked up a newspaper report of the destruction the floods had caused in Thailand. Over 500 people had died and 2.5 million people’s lives had been disrupted. It was amazing to think we’d only missed it by a day or two.

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As usual we had to walk many miles out of the city centre. A couple of teenage lads pulled up on a scooter and asked us something we didn’t understand in Chinese. We showed them the translation of our hitchhiking mission and they spluttered more Chinese before pointing in the opposite direction. They then scooted off 100 meters ahead of us and started talking to a man in a car. When we caught up with them they ushered us into the man’s car and we drove off. We pulled up outside an ATM and one of the boys got out, withdrew some cash, and then handed it to the driver.

It turned out, we realised, that the boys had paid the driver to take us to the tollgate on the highway. We were gobsmacked. Despite the boys’ benevolence, however, the driver they’d paid obviously didn’t understand what we wanted to do. He drove us around in circles before pulled up next to a police car outside the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

“Uh oh. I don’t like the looks of this,” I said to Michael. “Why is he talking to the police?”

The policemen opened our doors and ushered us to follow them. We walked through the gates, where everyone was queuing to pay, and into a tourist office.

“Ah I see. They’ve taken us to someone who can speak English”

We walked inside and were greeted by an enthusiastic tourist guide. He was quite tall, about 20 years old, with thick glasses and a wide grin. Every time he said “panda,” which was roughly every third word, he over emphasized the “pa,” as if he was a child shooting an imaginary gun.

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“Hello! You interested to see panda?!”

“Er no. Not today we just-“

“Here in Chengdu we have soooo many Panda! So many panda for you to see!”

“Yes, congratulations, it’s just that-”

“1987”

“What?”

“The Chengdu Panda Base was founded in 1987!”

“Ooookay. Well, be that as it may-“

“Six giant pandas from the jungle! Today is 83 panda! Ha ha ha ha ha”

“What?”

“Six panda to 83 panda!” he said, nodding with enthusiasm “Happy panda! Yes, ok? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

I looked at him for a couple of seconds. He smiled back at me. I took a deep breath and I tried again.

“We would like you to-“

“Sell tickets for panda? Very good! Best in China!”

“NO PANDA!”

“No Panda?”

“No! We want you to-“

“Why no panda? Why you here?”

“I’m trying to tell you!”

He nodded and looked at me, smiling. I scratched my head harder than was necessary and then went to speak but I just couldn’t…

“Michael, you’re going to have to tag in on this one, mate,” I said and I sat down.

“Hello, my name is Michael, what is your name?”

“Name is a Jason. I here for you buy two tickets for panda education”

“No pandas today”

“Oh! No panda!?” he said, sounding hurt.

“No panda”, Michael repeated

“Panda in England?”

“No panda”

“Plenty panda in Chengdu!”

“Yes, plenty panda in Chengdu”

“Yes panda?”

“Yes panda”

“Two tickets for Panda education show?”

“Ok, what are the prices?”

“MICHAEL!” I shouted.

“Oh right, yeah. No panda”, said Michael.

“No panda? Why are you here?”

 “Listen. We are trying to hitchhike. Do you know hitchhike?”

Jason nodded.

“Good. We are trying to hitchhike from Indonesia to England. 20’000 km, through 20 countries, in 100 days. For charity”

“Aaaaahhhhhh. England, yes, very good,” he said, sticking his thumbs up. “Aaaaaaahhhh Charity yes very good”

“We would like you to explain to this man that we would like him to drive us to the tollgate, on the highway, so we can hitchhike towards….where is it,” he asked, turning to me

“Guangyuan,” I said.

“Guangyuan. We want to drive to the tollgate,” Michael repeated, slowly, “so we can hitchhike to Guangyuan. Can you do that Jason? Can you explain that to our driver?”

 “Ah, yes yes yes”

Michael gave me a confident nod, as if to say ‘job done’, and Jason started talking hurriedly to our driver.

“Finally, we’re getting somewhere,” I said to Michael.

Jason stopped talking to our driver and looked back at us.

“Well?” I said, “Did you explain to him?”

“Explain what?”

“About hitchhiking”

“What is hitchhiking?”

I stood up again.

“Hitchhiking is da bianche” I said, pointing to the word in our dictionary.

“Da bianche?”

“Da bianche”

“No panda?”

“Jason! I waste enough time standing around watching a fat, sexless slob with big black bags under his eyes when I brush my teeth in the morning. Don’t make me feed you to the bears!”

“Pandas only eat bamboo”

“He’s got you there Rich” said Michael in my ear.

I couldn’t argue with that. I marched out of the tourist office, where I sat down and started rocking, with my knees hitched up to my chest, on a bench. To calm myself down, I jammed my fingers in my ears and tried to think of happy thoughts:

“Making cupcakes with Funshine Bear, making cupcakes with Funshine Bear”

About ten minutes later, Michael came outside. He’d finally managed to get Jason to understand what we wanted him to do. I went back inside and apologised for losing my temper but he didn’t seem to even notice that I had. We thanked him for his help and went on our way.

We waited for about 30 minutes at the tollgate before we were picked up. As our new driver wasn’t interested in talking, and in fact appeared unfriendly and slightly scary, I busied myself with a bit of reading. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Michael practicing a card trick we’d been shown in Chengdu: one where you flick it from the front of your hand to the back of your hand, making it look like it’s disappeared. I thought about telling him “to pack it in,” but didn’t want to sound like my Dad; so, despite the opportunity for a bad pun, I didn’t say anything.

It was at this point that Michael fired the card, like Gambit from X-Men, from the back seat into the windscreen. The driver turned around and growled.