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Day 79: “Rich Tea with Mama…” – Baku, Azerbaijan

We were greeted and led upstairs by one of those kind fat old lady types, affectionately known as “Mama” by staff and guests alike. She reminded Michael and I of the woman that owned Tom, the cat, from Tom and Jerry.

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In the morning Michael and I were dismayed to hear that the hot water wasn’t working. I was wandering around the room with my toothbrush hanging out of mouth and my towel draped around my waist, when Mama grabbed me by my arm and guided me to the outside kitchen.

We were on the second floor of a quadrangle which had multiple washing lines draped from opposing balconies. You could smell the artificial freshness of the detergent in the air.

Mama stood me in front of a small sink and pointed at the pan of water warming on the stove.

She then left me outside, so I took the pan from the stove, rested it in the small sink and I gave myself the most thorough wash I could under the circumstances, letting the residue water run off from me, back into the pan, as I leaned over it. Just as I’d put the pan, now half full of the water that had run off my body, back on the stove, Mama came back in with a wide smile and a couple of mugs.

“Oh no, no, no, Mama, I’ve just used this water for washing,” I said, realising that she’d boiled the water for tea and not for me to wash with.

“Niet! No wash,” she instructed, wagging a stern finger, “Chai”[tea]

“But Mama, you don’t understand. I thought you warmed the water so I could wash with it. The pan is half full of the filth that has run off my stinking body. I haven’t washed for a few days. Look, there’s even a few hair-”

“Niet! Chai”

“Is there anything I can say or do to stop you drinking this water?” I said placing my hand on the handle.

“Niet,” she replied, lightly rapping my hand away.

“Fair enough, Mama,” I sighed, with a shrug, “Have it your way”

Having won the argument, her kindly demeanour returned and she offered me a cup of tea.

“Chai?” she asked, pointed at a mug.

“Errrm… I’ll be ok thanks” I replied eying the film that had built up on the simmering water.
How vain would you have to be to drink your own filthy water? I thought to myself.

I turned to Mama, “On second thoughts, yes please, black, no sugar”.

“Hey Michael!” I called into the bedroom

“What?”

“Do you want a cup of tea?!”

“Yes please mate”

As Mama gently dipped the teabags into the water I allowed myself a small chuckle at the image of myself, doing something very similar a few minutes before. A slightly deranged smile stayed on my face as I sat there, supping my tea with Michael and the kindly old woman, picking the odd hair out of my mouth and laughing without a care in the world.

“Ha ha, you`ve got a milk moustache,” Michael said to me, pointed at my top lip.

“You have too mate, and so has Mama!”

“We`re like the three milk musketeers!”

We shared a nice morning chuckle.

I stopped laughing when I realised we were all drinking our tea black.

Day 72-76: “Death to Britain!” – Aktau, Kazakhstan

The next morning, our decision was made for us. We turned on BBC news to see video footage of Iranians burning the Union Jack. Apparently, the British Embassy had been attacked by protesters in response to sanctions.

“Death to Britain!” cried the protesters as they set alight to the embassy buildings.

“Georgia?” I asked Michael.

“Georgia”, he nodded.

By the time we’d read a Foreign Office report urging Britons in Iran to “stay indoors, keep a low profile and await further advice”, it was already a foregone conclusion to avoid the country.

The highlight of Aktau, for me at least, was when we stopped for a coffee in a cafeteria.

“Two coffees please,” Michael asked the waitress

“Kofe?”

“Yes, please. Two,” he said, with two fingers raised.

“Cappuccino?” asked the waitress, in a Russian accent.

“No. Two Americano please. A-mer-i-can-o. Two”

“Americanski?”

“Yes. Two Americanski,” he said, “with milk”

The looked confused.

“Cappuccino?” she asked again.

“No. Two A-mer-i-can-o with milk”

“Milk?”

“Yes, milk. You know: moooooooo,” he said, with his fingers on his head to indicate horns.

The waitress looked at him. She then grabbed a menu from another table, opened it, and said,

“Hamburger?”

“No! Niet hamburger,” he said, losing a degree of his usual calmness. “Two coffee: Americano… with… milk”

“Mike, let’s just get a couple of cappuccinos. They probably don’t have Americano’s here,” I said, conscious that our conversation was gathering an audience.

“No, I got this, hang on,” he replied, with a resolute look on his face.

He looked at the waitress, she returned his gaze.

“Okay,” he said, slowly, “Two Americanski”.

“Two Americanski,” she repeated, nodding.

“With milk,” he added.

“Milk?”

 “Yes. Milk. You know…Milk. Miiiilk,” he explained, as he got up and crouched on the floor of the café on all fours. When he started mooing, I rolled my eyes and got up as well. I then kneeled at his side and pretended to milk him –because otherwise the scene would have looked ridiculous.

The waitress blushed, suddenly aware of everyone in the café watching.

“Erm.. malakom?,” she asked, nervously.

“Yes! MILK!” shouted Michael, pointing both of his index fingers at her like a pair of guns.

He sat down again looking around the café, with a self-satisfied expression on his face, giving the other diners nods of acknowledgement as if he’d just been bestowed an academy award.

The waitress returned with our coffees.

“Two cappuccino!” she said, smiling triumphantly, as she placed the cups on the table.

Michael’s eye started twitching. He took a deep breath in and a long breath out. I passed him the vodka.

Day 69 – House arrest – “Shotgun Aslan”- Aqtobe, Kazakhstan

“What the hell is going on?” I said to Michael the tenth time.

“Not a clue”, replied Michael for the tenth time.

We had had no choice but to just sit back and passively accept whatever turn of events was to follow since we’d apparently been arrested as soon as we’d set foot in Aqtobe.

One of the police officers, Aslan, called me over and pointed to the figure I’d written on the piece of paper to indicate our hotel budget. I nodded, and I handed over the cash to the receptionist. I looked around the lobby. This hotel was clearly more expensive than either one of the previous two we’d been too. Had the police offers negotiated a cheaper room for us? We didn’t know. If they had done this, then why?

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The receptionist handed over a key to the other officer, a beefy looking brute named Bulad, and they ushered us to follow them upstairs. As we passed the second floor, Michael nudged me in the ribs and whispered, “Shotgun Aslan”

“What the hell do you mean ‘shotgun Aslan’?!” I hissed back.

“If things go down badly upstairs, you know, really badly, I shotgun Aslan”.

“Why?!”

“He looks like a more tender rapist”

“Bollocks,” I said, gauging the strength of Bulad’s powerful looking buttocks, as I followed him up the stairs.

It was a bizarre situation and neither of us knew what was going to happen. We stood outside of a room and shared a nervous glance with each other as Bulad fumbled with the key.

“Errr… Thanks?” I said to them, once in our room.

There was a few seconds of silence. I noticed Michael had started to scootch around to Aslan.

Bulad picked up a hotel pen and wrote ‘9:00’ on a piece of paper. He then pointed outside.

“Okay. Thanks?” I said again.

The two police officers left us in our room.

“What the hell just happened?!” Michael said, looking more bewildered than usual.

“Why the hell are they picking us up at 9am?!” I replied.

“I have no idea…”

Later on, the night of strangeness continued. We went down into the hotel lobby with the intention of going out to get some dinner. As we approached the door, however, the security guard stepped in front of us, blocking our way.

“Excuse me,” called the receptionist, in a Russian accent. “You’re not allowed to leave”

“What?!”

“We are under instructions from the police not to let you leave. Aqtobe is too dangerous for tourists at night”

“What?!” barked Michael.

“This is an outrage!” I fumed, feeling the natural British disinclination for arbitrarily restricted liberty. But then we looked outside at the -20 C temperature and, just like that, our indignation seemed to cool.

“Takeaway it is then?”

“Takeaway it is”

“If Aqtobe is too dangerous for tourists at night,” I said chewing my rancid, overly priced takeaway kebab, “then why do the police need to pick us up at 9am?”

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.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

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 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 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 41: “Fresh Prince of Huizé…” – Huizé, China

Thankfully the ride in the death car only lasted about 30 minutes. I’ve never been so terrified in a car before or since and at one point I genuinely prepared my body for the crash that seemed inevitable.

The maniac skidded his car to a halt at a junction off the highway and we both stepped out with ashen faces, our limbs visibly shaking. I probably would have kissed the tarmac if I’d had time, but no sooner had we retrieved our bags from the boot when another car pulled over and the 30th hitchhike of our journey thus far was secured.

“Ah hello, hello, hello! We can talk and be friends! You are my friends!” the young man said, as he helped us put our bags into his car.

“My name is Ryan. I learn a lit’ English from teacher many year ago. Sorry please!”

Ryan was undoubtedly one of the nicest, most welcoming and generous people we’d met (and that’s saying something). He was short and ever so slightly chubby. His face was a Chinese version of Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He also had a strange habit of sniffling all the time as if he had a steady stream of dust flowing into his nostrils.

“Will you come with me to my home town, Huizé?” Ryan asked us, between sniffs.

“Yeah sure,” I said, looking at the map. “Huizé is between Kunming and Zhaotong, it won’t put us too far behind schedule”, I said to Michael.

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That night Ryan took us out to his favourite restaurant with his friends. We walked upstairs and were seated in our own room at a large circular table. To picture the scene that unfolded before my eyes and ears, just imagine the board game Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Now replace the hippos with Tasmanian devils and you get the idea.

Barely had the food settled on the table, when all of a sudden there was a whirlwind of frenzied activity: chopsticks, mouthfuls of food, spit and whatever else spewing in all directions.

Whole new ballgame … Hasbro's Hungry Hungry Hippos is to be made into a film

Eventually it all got too much for me so I had to nudge Michael on the arm and whisper, “Michael, slow down mate, no one else has started eating yet”.

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Once eating had commenced for real, Ryan asked us if we would like some “white wine”.

“Yes please,” I replied enthusiastically, rubbing my hands together.

But to my surprise, instead of wine glasses, it was shot glasses that were handed out among the ten or so guests around the table and a clear liquid was poured into each.

“These don’t look like wine glasses”, said Michael.

“Cheers!” said Ryan, much to the delight of his Chinese friends.

“Gambe!” I said, and we downed the drink. I shuddered it down my gullet and washed it down with a torrent of saliva that had surged into my mouth.

“Doesn’t taste a lot like white wine does it?” Michael said to me through his clenched teeth.

What we were drinking, we later discovered, was baijiu, a 40-60% AVB Chinese liquor that is usually distilled from sorghum, a species of grass. The taste is very distinctive and is apparently highly valued in Chinese culinary culture. Tourists, however, usually compare the flavour to paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, or diesel fuel.

“That’s bad,” rasped Michael, “I don’t think I can manage another one. My throat is on fire”.

One second later someone yelled “gambe!” and our glasses were filled again.

“That’s it,” said Michael, breaking out in a light sweat, “No more, I’ll be sick.

Exactly one second passed.

“Oh screw it,” he said, before roaring “GAMBE!” and we had another.

“Was that necessary?” I spluttered, after an ominous baijiu burp.

“Sorry mate, it’s contagious. Give it go”

“No. I’m trying to enjoy my fo- oh okay, screw it, GAAAMBEEEE!”

Everyone cheered and we continued in this manner until all the food started to taste like paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, or diesel fuel.

“Stop spinning the table Richard!” slurred Michael.

“No one is spinning the table, Michael,” I replied. “And that’s a plate of egg noodles you’re talking to. I’m over here mate”

No matter how much we ate and drank, the food and drink just kept on coming. Just as I was considering a tactical chunder to make some room in my stomach, the desserts were served and the banquet ended. Ryan insisted on paying the bill, in spite of our pleas, and all rolled down the stairs, down the street and into a Karaoke bar to have a few beers.

We walked in amid yelps of excitement from the locals and the whole place started buzzing at the prospect of performing their songs in front of westerners. As soon as the bravest one of them, apparently, so Ryan told us “the toughest man in Huize”, came over to us with a couple of beers, our table was soon surrounded by everyone in there.

Beers, shots and cigarettes were offered to us from all directions and the now familiar war-cry, “GAMBE!”, rang long into the night.

I think by the early hours of the morning Ryan had grown slightly jealous that we weren’t giving him our full attention and he suggested heading back to his flat to chill out.

“Fair enough,” Michael said to me, “He picked us up. We’re his westerners”.

Just when Michael and I were settling down for a night on the couch, thinking that Ryan was the most generous man we’d ever met, he told us to get up and he ushered outside and into his car.

“Another bar?” we wondered.

Huize China

No. Ryan evidently hadn’t finished yet. He drove us to the best hotel in town and paid for our rooms for the night.

Once inside, we both collapsed onto our beds and fell into a drunken stupor. Our brains were overwhelmed by the Baijiu, our stomachs were overwhelmed by the banquet and our hearts were overwhelmed by the extent of Ryan’s hospitality. Legend.

Day 40: “The gooch scraper…” – Kunming

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As we’d managed to knock off 543 km in one go, we allowed ourselves an extra night in Kunming, a large city of 5 million people with historical origins dating back 2’400 years. For most of the day we wandered around trying to find somewhere to wash our clothes but, because everyone charged per item, the prices were extortionate. So we gave up and decided to try and find a spa to relax in instead. If we couldn’t get clean clothes, we reasoned, we may as well get clean bodies.

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We asked our receptionist where we could find a ‘clean spa’, meaning not a brothel. She gave us some vague directions to the part of town she thought it was. We followed them and eventually found a spa-like place. It was ridiculously cheap, and even though I doubted it was the one the receptionist had in mind, we went in anyway. After getting very naked, we walked in and were instructed to have a shower.

Once showered, we were ushered into a large Jacuzzi where, being the only ones in there, we started to relax. It was at this exact point that my memory was ripped out of my head and irrevocably scarred for life. Just 20 meters ahead of me, at eye level, was one of the most horrific sights I’ve ever seen. At the side of the Jacuzzi was a middle-aged, fat Chinese man, getting exfoliated by a small, prepubescent Chinese boy, perhaps 12 or 13 years old. What was particularly gruesome was the fact that the man was lying on his back, with the soles of his feet facing me, legs shoulder width apart, while the boy was exfoliating his perineum.

“Are you okay, Richard?” asked Michael in response to my look of open-mouth horror.

“No. I’m not okay. I don’t want to play anymore. I want to go home”.

The contorted look of determination on the boy’s face, while he scoured away at that man’s crotch, as if he was a squire scraping the rust from a suit of armour’s cod-piece, will haunt my dreams for many years to come. Just as I was gulping down a mouthful of vomit, a member of staff came over to us and asked if we wanted a ‘beautiful girl massage’, for five times the price of a normal one.

After such a vision, though, it was highly unlikely that I was about to be lured into soliciting any sexual services that may have been on offer. If it was my joint, I would certainly have moved the gooch scraping kid into a back room somewhere, out of sight of the other customers. It seemed to ruin any kind of erotic vibe, which would have been difficult to establish anyway, considering I was sitting in a Jacuzzi opposite a naked, lanky version of Willow.

Reading my thoughts, Michael explained that we were only after a ‘normal massage’, not a ‘beautiful girl’ massage. Eventually the man led us upstairs and my spirits were brightened somewhat when they forced Michael to wear a strange pair of see-through plastic underwear, whereas I wasn’t required to do so. His look of indignation was priceless.

While he was putting on his little plastic pants, one of the little kids started drying Michael’s back with a towel.

“Cheers Rich,” said Michael, thinking it was me

“That’s not me Michael. That’s the gooch scraper.”

“I thought it was a bit weird that you were drying my back.”

“Yeah well, to be fair, there’s very little chance that I’d be dabbing your back dry while you’re slipping into a see-through plastic thong”

“Why is the gooch scraping kid still drying my back? He’s been doing it for five minutes now. It’s been dry for ages”

“Yeah, it looks pretty red. Plus he’s using the same towel as the one he used to dry that bloke’s rotten crotch. That’s blatantly his gooch towel. I can tell because it looks and smells like he’s just rubbed a wet skunk with it”

“I want to go home now”

Day 15: “It must be Sayang…” – Singapore

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According to the schedule we were supposed to hit the road again, head across the bridge, and then 200 kilometres into Malaysia but the receptionist at Urban Hostel must have put a hex on us or something because we both felt a bit ill, especially me. Although, granted, our health could possibly have been due to a combination of too much sun, too much beer and eating chicken that was so raw it was still pecking at the vegetables on the plate.

Whatever the cause, we decided it was necessary to change hostels and stay an extra day to recuperate. We were both aware at this time that we’d been lucky with hitchhiking through Indonesia. We were fortunate it was such a chilled out country. The police seemed to play by their own rules, which, that time, had worked in our favour.

Singapore, however, has a notoriously officious reputation. There are over 40’000 illegal offences many of which are innocuous, such as littering, leaving still water lying around your house or workplace, failing to lock up your bicycle when not in use, walking around naked in your house, and oral sex, unless, of course, it’s part of foreplay.

We felt lucky not to have to hitchhike in this environment. The receptionist at our new hostel had agreed to take us over the bridge, to the border of Malaysia, in the morning.

“I know some Malay”, said Michael, while we were killing time in one of Singapore’s numerous shopping centres.

“Oh really”, I replied, “What’s that then?”

“’Sayang’ means ‘love’”

“Oh right so that’s what ‘Sayang House’ [the name of Michael’s house in England] means” I said.

I was in the toilet, drying my hands, when a small Singaporean, probably about 45, pottered over to me. He was about 5”4, with gaps between every one of his top teeth. He was wearing a short sleeved shirt that was too big for him and a belt high around his mid-rift.

“Hello!” he said, enthusiastically, leaning on his heels with his hands behind his back.

“Hi,” I said, and we started shaking hands. “Are you new to Singapore?” he said.

http://www.10best.com/

http://www.10best.com/

“Yes”, I replied. We then proceeded to have a 5 minute chitchat conversation, just the usual kind of stuff. When he was listening to me, the little man had a curious habit of tilting his head and pursing his lips as if he was sucking on an invisible straw.

Suddenly and inexplicably he came out with: “Do you know any gay people in Singapore?”

It was at this point that I realised we were still shaking hands.

I took my hand back. Michael was now washing his hands next to me. I could see him sniggering at me in the mirror. “No. I’m new to Singapore”, I said.

“Do you know where I can find gay people in Singapore?” he said, taking a step closer to me.

“Ermm, no”, I said, nervously scratching my neck and looking around. “I’m new to Singapore. You could check the internet?’

The little man appeared to think about this and he took another step closer to me. “Do you mind if I do this?” he said, and he started stroking my shoulder. It wasn’t in an especially erotic way –it was more like as if he was brushing some dust from my T-shirt.

“Erm… I’m going to have to go now”, I said, stepping away, feeling like my personal space had been invaded a bit to far, especially considering we were in the mens´ toilets. “Great chat though. Let’s go Mike”

“One sec mate” he replied, “my hands are still a bit moist-” I grabbed him by the collar.

The little man followed us out of the bathroom, asking us questions about our lives. He didn’t come across as threatening, just a bit weird and creepy.

He kept trying to engage us in conversation as we walked through the shopping centre.

“What was your job in Australia?”

“Miner”

“Did you have you drive far to work” “

No”

“Did.. errr… did you bring a pack lunch?!”

“What?”

“Did you bring a pack lunch to work”

“Yes”

“Can I have your address?”

“Don’t give him your address, Richard,” Michael whispered to me,“He definitely looks like the stalker type”

Mike went into a shop to buy some sunglasses. “Can I write to you in England?” the little man said to me again.

“No”

“Pleeeease”, he said tugging at my sleeve.

“Fine”, I said, and I ripped out a page from my diary. “You can write to me in England”

He studied the address I had given him.

“Oooooooo”, he said, looking excited, leaning on his heels. “Do you know that ‘Sayang’ means ‘love’ in Malay?”

Day 7: The Demon Masseuse – Jakarta

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On our second night in Jakarta, we were sat in a bar, sinking suds, watching the football.

I returned to our table with a fresh couple of beers.

“Hey Mike, do I look especially wretched, desperate and lonely tonight?”

“No more so than usual. Why?”

“Well, a fifth different prostitute has just offered me her services”

“Oh right. Maybe Jalan Jaksa is a seedy part of Jakarta? What did you say to her?”

“I politely told her that I am not yet wretched, desperate and lonely enough, and that she should either ask me in ten beers time or just come and ask you now”

Just as Michael was about to reply, a couple of pretty looking girls came over to our table. Except for the fact that one of them looked Indonesian and one looked Chinese, they both shared similar features: a bright smile, dimpled at the cheeks; long shiny black hair and a potent pair of dark chocolate eyes.

I lifted my eyebrow in Michael’s direction, as if to say:

“Careful, Michael, they could be ladies of the night”.

Michael furrowed his brow slightly and twitched his cheek, as if to say:

“I know, play it cool Rich. Let’s see what happens”. (We later discovered that the bar we were in was next door to a brothel)

“Hello, my name is Isabelle,” said the Indonesian looking one, the more confident of the two. “Is it ok if we sit down with you?”

“Yeah sure”

“My name is Christine”, said the one with Chinese features, as she sat down. Conversation started flowing and the girls told us they both worked in marketing. Oh yeah, I thought, here we go, what are they going to try and sell us. But they didn’t. They were just genuinely interested in coming over to talk to us. I kicked myself under the table for being so presumptuous. I kicked Michael, as well, just in case he had been too.

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For the next couple of days Christine took us under her wing and did a great job showing us Jakarta. Highlights included a trip to the zoo, trudging knee deep through putrid fish guts at the fish market and an excursion to the Cibodas Mountains, a welcome respite from the congested, urban sprawl of the city. We also experienced the uglier side of the Indonesian law enforcement’s character.

One night we were in a taxi with Christine when a police car, attracted by the silhouette of Michael’s western hairstyle, pulled us over. He demanded our passports and then, through Christine, commanded we go with him to the station.

For some reason, the officer’s attention was on me. I had apparently committed a misdemeanour and Christine pleaded with him for perhaps 15 minutes.

Eventually she paid him a sum of money, the value of which she never divulged. It was a constant struggle with Christine in regards to money. If she had had her way, we wouldn’t have ever paid for anything. At times, we literally had force money into her hands to maintain some kind of balance.

Without the bribe, she told us, I would have spent a night in the cells. This altercation was minor, however, and it paled into insignificance when compared to the next ordeal.

We decided we deserved a massage to relax are battered, travel weary limbs. We walking into a plush hotel-like reception, lit with red low level lighting around the side of the black room.

I was guided into the small massage room and I sat on the table eagerly awaiting my masseuse, when a little smiling woman, about 60 years old, tottered in.

I didn’t notice it at the time, but now I think about it I’m pretty sure she had sharp teeth, a fork tongue and the red fires of Satan in her eyes.

She started things off with some light pinching of my legs. This is weird, I thought. Little did I know she was about to unleash the full extent of her repertoire of playground bullying techniques.

After she’d tenderised me slightly with her girly, kiss-chase style, pinching, she started pummelling me with a series of brutal dead legs, right on the sweet spot. I bit my lip and braced myself as she pottered around to work on my arms where, with an iron grip, she literally started administering Chinese burns, the savagery of which would have made Genghis Khan wince, had he been there to witness them.

“You sleepy mister?” she mocked, before nearly lifting me off the table with a couple of nipple cripples. When she went to do my shoulders I half expected her to get me in a head lock and give me a noogie.

The she-demon did not offer me a famous “happy ending,” but if she did, I can only assume that it would have involved her standing over me, on all fours, before kneeing me square in each testicle with all her might. She then would have stood by the door with her hand out, expecting a tip; or, more likely, she would have demanded my lunch money and then given me a wedgie as I limped out of the door.

Somehow, despite this cruel and, yes, sometimes unusual torture inflicted upon me, I did not give her the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I did, however, have some residue sun-cream in my eye, so if that devil-woman starts gallivanting around town boasting about how she made one of the bulés cry, she’s a dam liar.

Of course, Michael loved his massage. In fact, his was such a bonding experience that I’m pretty sure I heard him offer his (male) masseuse a “happy ending” (this may not be true).

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