On ferries and friendship

TravelPosted by Simon Røn Dalsgaard Sep 02, 2017 14:24

I had around 300 kilometers left to Atyrau after crossing the border into Kazakhstan, and figured I would be there in time. After all I was driving along the E40 highway the entire way, and during border control I met a truck driver, who was going there too. Well, it turns out that the Kazakh highways have a different level of quality than the Danish ones. For the entire trip we never drove faster than 50 km/h, and it ended up taking us 11 hours to drive 300 kilometers. This also meant that I didn’t reach Atyrau until 3 am, but luckily I had an amazing couchsurfing host, who waited up for me, so I avoided having to repeat Moscow and sleep alone in a park for my first night.

There are a few cities in the world that sits upon two continents. The most famous one is of course Istanbul, The Queen of cities, which I will reach later on this journey, Insha Allah. However, the second largest is Atyrau. It spreads across both banks of the Ural river that flows from Russia down into the Caspian Sea, so whenever I went to buy food in the market I was entering Asia and then journeying back into Europe, even though it was only a 5-minute walk. Sadly, the location was the only interesting thing about Atyrau. I therefore quickly left after a couple of days.

Nurlan picked me up, just as the sun was reaching Zenit, and the dessert heat was starting to kick in. He had already been driving for 6 hours and still had 4 more to go, but before that we had to make a stop at his parents' farm. To get there we left the road and followed a tiny dirt track for 10 kilometers through the dessert. At one point, I even had to get out the car and help push it over a particularly big bump. On our way there Nurlan kept talking about horses and making weird animal sounds that I didn't quite understand, but once we arrived, and he opened his trunk, it turned out that my confusion was due to the fact that he had mixed up the English words for “horse” and “sheep”. In the back of his tiny Lada lay a live sheep that had been stuck there the entire 6 hours, it took him to drive here. Luckily the sheep was ok, and his mom invited us for some delicious tea and cake, so I had no complaints.

Kazakhstan is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, and most of its major cities are in the eastern parts, while the west is almost empty. This makes it very boring from a sightseeing perspective but makes traveling the dessert a truly unique experience. It took me an entire day to travel the 900 kilometers from Atyrau to the coastal city of Aktau and we would drive for hours without seeing houses When driving across the landscape I experienced an incredible sense of calmness and vastness that I have only felt before in the snow-covered, wilderness of Arctic Sweden, and it left me in complete awe.

I arrived around 2 am and went to sleep on the beach, where I could hear the rolling of the waves and get a sense of this massive body of water I was about to cross. The next morning I went down to the harbor. The ferry from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan doesn’t have a specific schedule, so usually passengers may be forced to wait in Aktau for up to 4 days. All you can do is give them your number, and then they’ll call you on the day of departure. By sheer luck I arrived on the departure day, so I only had to wait 10 hours, before they were done loading the trucks, and we could take off.

In the waiting area, I located the only other non-truck driver and struck up a conversation with him. Kim was a 36 years old Swede and a fulltime nomad. 5 years ago, he was living in Stockholm, had a couple of half-finished university degrees and no purpose with life. He decided to leave it all behind and move to Asia, and after half a decade of hitchhiking and working as a bartender and an English teacher, he was finally heading back to Europe, by way of Central Asia. We clicked well and since we were heading in the same direction, we decided to join forces in Azerbaijan.

We stayed a couple of days in Baku, the historic seaside capital, and then spent 6 days hitching all over the rest of this relatively small country. After being on my own for so long it was really nice to have a travel companion with me. Though I had loved being on my own and the freedom that came with it, solo travelling is exhausting as well, because you constantly have to be planning your next move, checking where you are, figuring out how to get food, making sure you don't spend too much money, and a thousand other small things that means you can never truly relax. When you are more than one you can delegate the tasks among you and focus on enjoying the journey.

It was made even better by the fact that Kim was such an experienced traveler and able showed me a couple of useful tips. My favorite being waiting for “lunch cars”. I usually try to hitch with every car that passes me but when Kim isn’t in a hurry he only sticks his thumb out for “lunch cars”: expensive cars that have rich owners who are more likely to buy you lunch. It meant that we spent most of the week in comfortable Range Rovers with A/C and saved a bunch of food money.

After living in Palestine in the spring I found it really interesting that Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country. Tough 95% of the population are Shia Muslims, we saw very few women in hijab and all off the roadside cafes sold very cheap beer, something that we would take advantage of as often as possible.

One night we enjoyed that a bit too much. We had hitched to Ganja, I’ll admit mainly because of the name, and went in to the first café we found. The local men liked us so they insisted on buying us a beer. And another beer. And another beer. And some vodka. And another beer. 6 hours later I went to buy some gum and when I returned Kim was gone and the owner ask me to take our stuff and leave. I grabbed our bags and went out to wait for him by the side of the road. A little while later Kim returned piss drunk, arm in arm with a couple of Azeri men who dropped him off and told me he was my responsibility now. It was nearing midnight, so while he was laying on the grass, I asked around for a park where we could camp. There was one just 10 minutes away, but when I asked Kim to walk over there he said, “Fuck you”, when I asked him again he said, “Fuck you” and when I asked him to just move away from the side of the road he said, you guessed it: “Fuck you”.

In the end, I had to put up the tent right next to him and carry him the last meter into the tent while I slept outside, but hey, that’s what mates are for. He repaid it several times over in the following days where we, camped in the mountains, hitched with the police and had lunch in what we thought was a café but turned out to also be a brothel with the waitresses doubling as prostitutes. Kim was heading to Armenia and later Iran so we said farewell after entering Georgia. I fell head over heels in love with Georgia and ended up staying there for 30 days, but more on that next time.

No matter how much you train the wolf, he still looks at the mountains and howls.
Old Kazakh proverb

- Simon

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On the big bear volume 2

TravelPosted by Simon Røn Dalsgaard Aug 14, 2017 16:37
If I had to talk about all the interesting rides I had in southern Russia, this post would be 5 times longer. So instead I’ll just give you a taste of the first 4 rides I had after leaving Moscow. There was the truck driver Vladimir, who had his two daughters in the back of the cabin, where there wore no seatbelts. They therefore had to hide behind a curtain every twenty kilometers, when we passed a police checkpoint.

Next up came Alexi who thought it was really fun that the only two kinds of people, standing by the side of the Russian roads at night, are hitchhikers and prostitutes. He was apparently used to picking up both kinds and spent most of his limited English praising Russian prostitutes over polish ones, and explaining the different prices in every European country. Then I was picked up by Abram. He drove me over 700 kilometers and bought me both breakfast and lunch, but I might have helped him steal diesel from a gas station. He told me something, I didn’t quite understand, about how all truck drivers in Russia steal, and I didn’t see him pay, before we left the gas station in a hurry. Oleg didn’t speak a word of English but he was very proud of his samurai sword and wanted us to exchange emails, so that we could keep in touch.

As I went further south, I was faced with a new problem, that I hadn’t experienced before. One of my rides dropped me of at an empty gas station around dusk, and as soon as they drove off, 7 big stray dogs came running at me from 3 different sides, barking and baring their teeth. Luckily another driver had seen it, and he pulled over to chase them away, while I quickly crossed the road. I had a lot of problems with aggressive strays, until I consulted the internet, which taught me how to circle around their territory without turning my back on them and to always carry some small rocks in my pocket. The rocks could be used as warning shots, when they ran after me.

Upon approaching Elista I noticed that more and more of the people started to look Asian, which confused me, until I arrived, and my host Anna explained the city’s history to me. Elista is the capital of one of the most unique regions in Europe. In the 1600s a nomadic tribe called The Kalmyks migrated from Mongolia and walked for thousands of kilometers before settling on the steppe west of the Volga River. Today there are about 200.000 Kalmyks left in the area around Elista. They look Mongolian, speak a unique language, that resembles the Mongolian language and live in the only region in Europe, that has a majority of Buddhists.

The city is even home to the biggest Buddhist temple in Europe, built in 2005 at a location pointed out by the Dalai Lama himself, when he visited the city. We were staying with Anna’s grandmother, a linguistics professor and former member of the local communist party, who had some very strong opinions on capitalism, that she was eager to share.

Anna and her grandmother wanted to go to Anarpa by the Black Sea, so I decided to tag along and spent a couple of days relaxing by the beach and drinking ungodly amounts of kvas: a local cider sold in special shops on every street corner.

I left Anarpa for Volgograd, expecting my trip to take two days. However, after the first couple of rides, I was picked up by Alexi who was going all the way and didn’t speak a word of English. He drove me 800 kilometers, which was great, but it also meant, that I arrived in a ghetto, 30 kilometers south of Volgograd, at 3 am. I was coming to terms with the fact, that I would be spending the rest of the night in the streets, when Alexi invited me to sleep in his apartment. I assumed we were going straight to bed, since it was 3 am on a Tuesday, but Alexi awakened his roommate and cooked some meat for us to eat. Then he brought in the vodka. It was a homemade monstrosity with 80% alcohol and at 3:30 am, I was absolutely not prepared to drink a shot of that, let alone 5 of them, so I went straight to bed afterwards.

I had really been looking forward to visiting Volgograd, but I was thoroughly disappointed by it. The city’s main claim to fame is also the reason, why I disliked it. It was the ground of the biggest battle in the history of men: The Battle of Stalingrad. During which 2 million people died, and a lot of the city was destroyed. This meant that most of Volgograd had to be rebuilt by Soviet architects, and to this day the entire center city looks Soviet in the worst sense of the word.

None of the buildings were constructed with aesthetics in mind, they are big soulless Lego blocks that are only mildly impressive because of their size. On top of that I was staying with a host whose house had a broken waterpipe, which meant that I couldn’t shower. Therefore, I quickly left the city and went south to Astrakhan, where I found a much better vibe, very cheap beer, and a host who was willing to drink them with me so I stayed there for 3 nights.

Russia stretches over 17.100.000 square kilometers and when you’re a 20-year-old kid who takes up only 0,25 square meters on a good day, it can be easy to feel very small and alone. Which I did a lot of the time.

Like most people in the West my primary contact with Russians, prior to this trip, consisted of pictures of Putin shirtless on a horse or villains in James Bond movies. Therefore, I often felt scared at night, and I suddenly became very aware of how fragile I was to robberies, carrying all my stuff on my back and with nobody to protect me. In the 23 days I spent there though, all my fears where disproven and turned into fascination.
My rides were all big, bald, Russian men who never smile at strangers, but they were also some of the best drinking partners, I’ve ever met, and they usually drove me hundreds of kilometers.

The land itself is extremely fascinating as well and i loved travelling through it. The endless empty steppe had a vastness to it that I have rarely experienced before and which seemed to be the complete opposite of my tiny homeland. I had a strong feeling of only scratching the surface of a country that it would take thousands of lifetimes to begin to understand. Every aspect of Russia, from the people, to the nature, to the Vodka is full of this power and masculine energy that seems unique to the country. It is a place that I will definetely revisit, but for now I turned east towards Kazakhstan.

Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma
-Winston Churchill

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On the big bear volume 1

TravelPosted by Peter Schødt Dalsgaard Jul 26, 2017 22:05
When I told people back in Denmark about my trip, they would always ask me, if I wasn’t scared about travelling alone in Russia and urge me to be careful, while I was there. When I was travelling in Poland and the Baltics, the eastern Europeans warned me, that Russians couldn’t be trusted and advised me not to go there. When I finally got to the big bear, I was even warned by all the Russians, who helped me, that other Russians couldn’t be trusted and wouldn’t want to help strangers.

Russia is a country with a, partly deserved, bad reputation across the world, and that reputation has been extended to the Russian people as well. Though the Russians can seem cold at first, you’re considered a creep if you smile at other people in the street, my experience hitchhiking the largest country in the world has been extremely positive. I rarely waited more than 10 minutes for a ride, and, despite the very challenging language barrier, most lifts would drive me several hundred kilometers and buy me dinner along the way as well.

I had dedicated the first half of my Mother Ruski to Saint Petersburg and Moscow, the cultural and political capital of Russia respectively. Both are massive cities, with 8 and 16 million inhabitants, that spans 20 and 40 kilometers in each direction, which made them hitching challenges compared to the tiny Baltic capitals. It took me 1 day to go from Tallinn, Estonia to Saint Petersburg. The border control was only about 1 hour, which after dealing with Israeli border for 3 months seemed like virtually nothing. To get to my hosts apartment, I first had to cross the city by different buses, and since I hadn’t been able to withdraw rubles for the ticket, I decided to play the dumb tourist with all my 3 bus drivers, who didn’t speak English, until they let me ride for free. Maria, my host, was an avid hitchhiker herself, who had once gone all the way from S.P. to Georgia, so she gave me great advice about the Russian roads and debunked many of my initial fears. On top of that her apartment was amazing and very central, so it was the perfect base for exploring this great city.

There are few words, which seem appropriate to describe St Petersburg by, and none that I know. So instead I’ll get some help from one of the city’s greatest sons: The poet Alexsandr Pushkin, who wrote a poem called “The Bronze Horseman” as an ode to his hometown.

By the new capital, the younger,
Old Moscow’s eclipsed at once -
Such is eclipsed a queen-dowager
By a new queen when her time comes.
I love you, Peter’s great creation,
I love your view of stern and grace,
The Neva wave’s regal procession,
The airy iron-casting fences,
The gentle transparent twilight,
The moonless gleam of your nights restless,
When I so easy read and write
Without a lamp in my room lone,

Saint Petersburg was established from nothing in 1703, by Tsar Peter the Great, who wanted access to the Baltic Sea and served as the capital until the revolution. It was built during the height of the Russian Empire, and every single building in the center would be considered an attraction on its own in any other city. The Russians imported architects from all over Europe, so the capital feels a lot more European than the rest of the country and reminded me of Vienna in its size and style. When walking around the grandiose palaces of the imperial city one cannot help but empathize a little with the revolutionaries in 1917, because these building were being built at a time, where most Russians, who were peasants, lived almost like slaves and weren’t allowed to move from where they lived without permission.

The highlight of St-P is the Winter Palace, which houses the second largest art museum in the world; the Hermitage. When you are walking around inside, it can be difficult to decide, which is more beautiful: The incredible collection of European art or the luxurious rooms of the palace. It completely took my breath away, and I ended up spending 7 hours seeing only a part of it. Before visiting Russia, I had watched Alexander Sokurov’s stunning film; Russian Ark, which is filmed in the palace, and he depicts the Hermitage, the way it should be experienced: Men in military uniforms and women in ballgowns sipping champagne amidst the masterpieces. I instead got to view the art in shorts and a t-shirt looking over the heads of about 1000 Chinese tourists and their tour guides, which was also nice but ruined a bit of the magic.

I was in Saint Petersburg during their famous white nights, a period in the end of June, where the sun only sets for a couple of hours. When I discovered, through Instagram, that two of my friends from Denmark where vacationing in the city, we decided to go out at night to experience it. We went for some Georgian food and then hit up some bars while waiting for one o’clock, when they raise all the bridges connecting the old city to the rest of the city, and both locals and tourist gather along the river banks.

Unfortunately, the opening of the bridges happened at the same time as the subway closed for the night. That meant, that when the girls wanted to go back to their hostel in the middle of the old city, I had no way of getting back to my host’s apartment until 6 in the morning. We therefore smuggled me into their hostel for me to sleep in one of their beds. This worked perfectly for about half an hour, until I was awakened by 4 hostel employees, who off course didn’t speak English, and had to get dressed in front of 4 people, who very clearly thought, that I had been trying to have sex with my, by the way lesbian, friend. I did the only thing, a person can do at 2 a.m. in the middle of a Russian metropolis and found myself a bar, where I befriended a couple of Polish law students on vacation.

After all the bars closed, I went to a strip club, where I spent a couple of hours, and way too much money, falling momentarily in love with a 23 year old girl from Kazan named Ekaterina. Then morning came, as all mornings do, and with it the opening of McDonalds. I went there to get some breakfast and wait for my friends to wake up. When they did I attempted to go sightseeing with them, but I was so tired, that I had to give up and go back home.

The road from Saint Petersburg to Moscow takes 9 hours by car, and I assumed, that it wouldn’t be doable in one day and therefore aimed for a night in my tent along the road before reaching Moscow the following day. Because of that I didn’t leave the city until 4 in the afternoon. I had however underestimated the Russians. After 5 minutes, I got a ride with a guy, who was going all the way to Moscow and offered to not only take me the entire way, but also buy me dinner along the way. The only problem with his kind offer was, that it meant arriving in Moscow at 2 a.m. in the morning. Sergei, my ride, dropped me off 15 kilometers south of the city center in a small park, where decided to put up my tent.

If you have not tried spending a night on an unknown location in the middle of Moscow, in a tent, during a storm, I can promise you, that it can be a bit frightening, if you aren’t prepared for it. By the morning the storm had increased, and though I stayed in my tent until noon in the hopes, that the weather would change, I ended up having to pack my completely soaked tent down in the middle of the rain and go search for a place to charge my phone. Luckily my host Jackson was cool with me drying it in his tiny one-bedroom apartment.

Moscow lacked the elegance of Saint Petersburg, but made up for it in a breathtaking sense of grandness in its giant plazas and impressive soviet monuments. Especially the Red Square is a reminder, that this is a superpower which has scared the crap out of the rest of the world for over a century. Here you can combine a visit to Lenin’s grave with a view of Moscow’s Kreml, where Putin would have be hard at work, if he hadn’t been in Hamburg, while I was here.

I stayed with Jackson for 4 nights. Jackson is a New Yorker, born and raised. When he was 20 years old, he had only set foot in a couple of other states and no other countries. That all changed, when he went on his first trip. He knew that he wanted to visit a place, that was as different from the US as possible. Being on the safe side however, he wanted to go somewhere in Europe, as was his first trip, and he was going alone. After much consideration, he settled on Ukraine, which was a great decision, as he fell in love with both the country's ex-soviet charm and with a young Ukrainess whom he dated for the 2 months, he stayed there and some time after returning. Since then he has devoted most of his time to traveling, and at 25 he has now visited more than 20 countries all over the world. Last year, inspired by the appeal he found in Ukraine, he decided to move to Moscow and work as a private English tutor.

When he is not working, he is arranging or attending events in the Moscow Couchsurfing community, and I spent most of my time in the capital being voluntarily dragged along to pub-crawls and language cafes. It was in one of these, I met Anna. She was heading south the next week to visit her grandmother, and when she heard, that I didn’t have any plans after Moscow, she invited me to join them. I was originally planning to go west and see the Ural Mountains, but when I compared the temperature there to the temperature in Annas hometown Elista, I quickly decided to accept her invitation.

The couchsurfers, I had met, all told me, that Saint Petersburg and Moscow are considered very European in their vibe, and if I wanted to experience the “real Russia”, I had to visit the Regions instead. For the next 13 days I did just that. It was an insane experience, that both confirmed and refuted many of my stereotypes about the Russians. But more on that next time.

Брюхо сыто, да глаза голодны. The belly is full, but the eyes are hungry.


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On colonies and cuisine

TravelPosted by Simon Røn Dalsgaard Jul 06, 2017 19:03

When travelling along the roads of Latvia in June, you will be met by the sight of women, young and old, plucking flowers in the fields. They are preparing for Jáni, the country’s midsummer celebration, a testament to both their pagan past and their location in an area where summer means long light nights on the beach and midwinter provides only 6 hours of daylight. During Jáni people flock from the cities to the countryside where they gather with friends and family to eat, drink and sing, while they light giant bonfires. The women wear headbands they weave themselves from twenty-seven flowers to symbolize fertility and innocence and the men wear headbands made of oak leaves, symbolizing the physical strength of the oak tree. The festival is especially important for young lovers. The legends say that the Jáni festival is the only time a year that you can find the “fern flower”, a magical flower that is supposed to grow on the fern plant. During more conservative times, young couples would go alone in to the woods and stay there all night to “look for the fern flower”.

I have always been fascinated by the three tiny Baltic countries, nestled just on the opposite side of our own well-known sea. With Nordic aspirations, a sorrow filled Soviet past and a unique Baltic vibe that is felt throughout the region, from the dense pine forests and the amber-filled beaches to the well preserved medieval capitals. The three capitals are even placed with the perfect hitchhiking distance between each other, so I was expecting the Baltic leg of the journey to be a clear highlight of the trip. And I wasn’t disappointed.

My first stop was Vilnius in Lithuania, which was also my first couchsurfing experience of the trip.
“The Great Prussian Delay” in East Germany had caused me to miss both my appointments in Poland and forced me to sleep in my tent. If nothing else I would have loved Vilnius just for providing me with a couch to sleep on and giving me my first shower in five days.

It turned out that Vilnius had a lot more to offer than just showers. It was extremely beautiful, with an amzing and well-preserved center. It reminded me of a mix between Århus and my favorite city, Ljubljana in Slovenia, with all its young students, cozy cafes and a river flowing alongside the cobbled streets. It even had its own Christania-inspired freetown. Complete with a constitution in Danish.

It was the first time in almost a year that I had the chance to get completely lost in a new city and I wandered the streets for nine hour the first day. One night I made a discovery that would shape the rest of the Baltic trip and force me to reevaluate my food budget rather drastically. My host Vilija had recommended a restaurant that supposedly cooked the best burger in Lithuania. Now I cann't speak to the quality of all other burgers in Lithuania, but it was definitely one of the best I have ever tasted.

When I was going to pay for it, I discovered a tiny yellow book laying on the counter and decided to give it a quick look. It was a list of the 99 best bars and restaurants in the Baltics and I noted down the ones that were affordable on my rather limited budget.

It’s still a strange experience to visit restaurants and ask for a table for one. Especially when I visited a sushi place in Riga and they decided to place me at a massive table with eight seats, as a not so subtle way of emphasizing my "lonely loser status" to the rest of the guests. However, I have found that, when I am able to move past my pride, eating alone gives you a lot more time to really enjoy the food.

I made it to Riga with only one ride from Vilnius and although it was a beautiful city, with the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture I have seen in Europe, my timing couldn’t have been worse. I thought I was smart for visiting it during Jáni but in reality, it meant that almost all of Riga’s inhabitants had travelled to the countryside and most of the city was closed off for the holiday. Add to that the fact that it was raining the entire time and the majority of my time ended up consisting of me getting soaked in the rain while trying to visit cafes and restaurants that were closed when I got there. The only saving grace was an Italian place with a great wine menu that ended up costing me more than five nights in my hostel.

I spent three of the four hours it takes to get from Riga to Tallinn in the back of a van owned by two Swedish DJs in their late fifties, who had such thick accents that I couldn’t understand a word of what they said, but they gave me pägen bread and I partied to The Chainsmokers blasting from their giant speakers while they sat in complete silence in the front.

Tallinn means Town of Danes in Estonian as it was first settled by the Danish crusaders who came here in 1219 under king Valdemar ll. The old colony is in great shape. Tallinn boasts one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe which includes the old city wall and the Danish King’s Garden, where the Danish flag fell from the sky, as we were being ambushed by the heathens, and helped us win the battle.

The Estonians have a different version of that story. In their version God was trying to give the flag to the Estonians defending their country but the sneaky Danes stole it from them in the same way they stole their land from them. Luckily, the modern day Tallinners doesn’t hold a grudge and they were extremely welcoming and talkative.

Estonia is a bit of an anomaly. Their language is unlike any other and shares more similarities with Finnish than with their Baltic neighbors to the south. They have had the best economic development of all the former Soviet states and are actually campaigning to be recognized as a part of the Nordic countries along with us instead of as a part of the Baltics. In spite of being control by a variety of foreign invaders throughout history, they never lost touch with their own culture and today they are fiercely independent and proud. If Tallinn is anything to go by, then they have a lot to be proud of.

Despite, or maybe because of, their small and slow roads, all of the Baltics offered a beautiful and unique hitching experience. Around fifty percent of their area is covered in deep, lush forest that makes it easy to feel transported to a time were nomadic tribes roamed the lands and people worshipped Svantevit rather than Christ. All Danes should try a Baltic road trip at least once because these places are truly wondrous.

I’m currently on my ninth vodka-soaked day in the Big Bear: Mother Russia. I’ll update you on how that’s going in a couple of days, Insha Allah.

- Simon

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On underrated places and human kindness

TravelPosted by Simon Røn Dalsgaard Jun 24, 2017 18:16

Janusz has visited Bornholm over 50 times.

He grew up in a poor family on the coast of the Baltic Sea but got in to the hotel business and worked his way up. Today, at 54, he owns 4 hotels on the coast, a giant mansion, 7 cars, an auto camper and a yacht. It was with said yacht that he was able to sail from his hometown of Koszalin to Bornholm in less than two and a half hours, something that he was very proud of. So, during summertime Janusz will spend almost every Saturday visiting Nexø in order to get a Danish Krøllebølle ice-cream.

He picked me up just outside of Gdansk and drove me for a couple of hours towards the Lithuanian border while we swapped travel stories. Janusz loved to go on road trips and had gone on some amazing journeys. Last year him and his son had driven his jeep all the way from Poland to Mongolia, where it was currently sitting in a garage waiting for them to come and drive it back through Russia in October. In 2014, he had taken that same Jeep around the Black Sea, crossing the Russia-Ukraine border at the height of the Crimea crisis. During the trip, he kept trying to call his daughter and talked about how her and I was the same age. I thought that was a bit odd until the end of my ride. As I was getting out of the car, he gave me his business card and asked me to come by his town on my way back through Europe, so I could meet his daughter, whom he assured me was both very beautiful and very single. So, if I ever end up as hotel magnate in Poland, you’ll know where it all began.

Janusz’s offer was just one example of the kindness and hospitality I was met with from the Polish people. When I first planned the trip, I had just seen Poland as a “gateway country” Something I had to pass through to get to the interesting countries. However, at this point, I think Poland might just be the most underrated country in Europe. It has a beautiful rugged nature with deep forests, great summer temperatures, well-preserved medieval cities, cheap prices and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. It also doesn’t hurt that the PJ and Michael were right and Polish girls are some of the most beautiful in the world.

Later that night, I was trying to make up some of the lost ground from East Germany by hitchhiking through the night. It was around 1 am and I had been standing at the same crossing for about an hour or so, when two road workers came up to me. I assumed that they were coming to throw me away because I was standing too far out on the road. Instead they suggested that it might be easier for me if I walked to next cross as it was bigger and then they made me a sign with some cardboard and their spray-paint. I took the advice and walked about 1 kilometer to the other cross. Half an hour later I saw their van drive up to me again. They just wanted to give me a reflective vest so the cars could see me better.

Despite all the help I had gotten, I still couldn’t get a ride, so I unfolded my sleeping mat under some trees by the side of the road and got a couple of valuable hours of sleep, intent on catching the morning traffic.

I woke up around 6 and got a ride from the 10th car that passed me. The driver, Adam, insisted on buying coffee and water and giving me ten Euros for my breakfast. The rest of Poland went smoothly and I am currently enjoying the three Baltic capitals which I will update you on in three days’ time.

I feel somewhat ashamed of the prejudices I had about Poland and especially the Polish people before seeing it. I think many Danes have the same and if you are one of them, I can only encourage you to come here. What you will find is a beautiful, friendly and proud people living in a country that has endured more hardships and challenges than almost any other European nation, but whose inhabitants never lost their sense of national and cultural identity. The beer is also crazy cheap.


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On toungespeaking and Polish wildlife

TravelPosted by Simon Røn Dalsgaard Jun 20, 2017 17:09
Do you know Jesus?

I had been waiting in Haderslev for 40 minutes when I was picked up by Jan and Rachel in a busted up old Toyota. At first glanced they looked like a typical hippie couple in their 60s. They offered to drive me to Aabenraa and we started chatting. We were chatting about hitchhiking when suddenly, Rachel turned around, looked me dead in the eyes and asked, “Do you know Jesus?” At first, I thought she was talking about a hitchhiker she knew or a Spanish travel blogger, so I just responded with an uhm. She then clarified, “You know. Jesus Christ, our lord and savior.” I told her that, yeah, I’d heard of Jesus. Then she wanted to know whether I had accepted him into my heart. I said that I was baptized and had visited his grave and birthplace while I lived in Palestine, but I wasn’t quite sure about the whole heart-thingy.

It was very important to her that I accepted him and she informed that once I did, I would be able to speak in tongues. Which she then proceeded to do. For then minutes she stared at me while speaking something that in my ears sounded like a mix between Arabic and Ukrainian. Jan then began to explain to me what they were doing while Rachel just whispered, Thank you Jesus, Thank you Jesus, Thank you Jesus… over and over again to herself.

Both were retirees who had found God late in life and now spent all their time travelling around Denmark to mission for the Lord. After a short stop in their church to pick up supplies they drove me to the highway. Just when I was about to get out, Jan turned to me and asked if it was okay that they blessed me before I continued? Not one to decline some extra divine luck, I accepted and all of a sudden, I found myself standing at a truck stop with Jan’s hand on my right shoulder and Rachel’s on my left. We stood like that for fifteen minutes with Jan asking Jesus to guide me and help me overcome any obstacles I might face on my trip, Rachel speaking louder and louder in tongues and me trying my very best to look like I was feeling to power of Christ rush through me while thinking of the two chocolate bars I still had left in my bag.

When we were done I thanked them for both the ride and the blessing and Jan asked me if I was carrying the Holy Book with me? I told him that sadly I didn’t have room for it in my back. Luckily, Jan had a pocket-sized “Street Bible” I could have. Enlightened and refueled with reading material I continued on.

The blessing apparently didn’t last for very long, because when I arrived in Lübeck, a couple of hours later, I ended up stranded for more than three hours at a desolate motor junction. I was rapidly seeing my chances of reaching my intended destination for the night, Rostock, disappearing. Just as matters couldn’t get any worse I saw two male hitchhikers coming up the road towards MY spot. If one hitchhiker can’t get a ride in three hours, then it will be absolutely impossible for three young male hitchers to get anywhere.

Usually. I don’t know whether it was divine intervention or simple luck, but within twenty minutes a man stopped for and offered to give us a ride, not only to Rostock but all the way to a town named Tribsees 40 kilometers east of Rostock where we set up camp for the night.

I decided that these two guys were my new good luck charms and that I would stay with them for as long as I could. On top of that they provided excellent travel stories and even better company. They were named PJ and Michael and were university students from England who were on their seventh day of hitchhiking to Poland to visit some female friends. Since I was heading the same way we agreed to continue together the next. The boys had visited Poland twice before and they gave me the most convincing sales pitch of a country, and especially it’s women, I have ever heard. That night we combined my canned tuna with their crackers and feasted like kings.

The following morning we packed our bags and headed for the border. We had been warned that the northeastern part of Germany was: 1 Not used to seeing hitchhikers. 2 Distrustful of foreigners. Neither of which is ideal when you are travelling with two guys of Iranian and Indian descent. The entire day we waited over an hour at each stop and our lifts averaged a distance of 12 kilometers, so I quickly abandoned my plan of reaching Gdansk that day.

We finally crossed the border to Swinoujscie around 1 am and at that point we were just happy to be in Poland. Almost immediately after arriving we got a telling reminder that we were now fully in Eastern Europe. I was peeing behind a tree when I heard JP call out “Simon… Do you have any experience with boars?” I pulled my zipper up and went out to them and true enough. 4 meters from us, in the middle of the city, stood a giant boar on the sidewalk. I started to look for my knife but it just calmly walked onto the street, where a driver screeched to a halt and stared in disbelief, and in between some trees. We walked to a boar-safe distance and set up camp for the night. The next day we were delighted to discover that Polish people are far more willing to pick up hitchers than East-Germans. We parted ways when the guys reached Koszalin and I am currently in the back of a car trying to reach the Lithuanian border where my Couchsurfing host is waiting for me. Res ipsa loquitur: Let the good times roll.


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On German maps and unknown places

TravelPosted by Simon Røn Dalsgaard Jun 17, 2017 21:47
I believe that the only way to truly experience a country is through its people.

On the wall of my childhood home hangs an old german map of the world, that we got from a closing public school. It has been the basis for a lot of great conversations in my family and with guests throughout the years. I've spent countless hours looking at the elegant lines and the leftover markings from, when somebody attempted to remove the tape from Northern Europe and Madagascar.

Through it I have come to know most of the landmarks and regions of the world. Some of the places I have been fortunate enough to visit myself, while I only know others through stories from my friends or depictions in media and litterature.

I know the Notre-Dame de Paris, the Taj Mahal in India and the Pyramids of Giza. I've marveled at the Grand Canyon, the Sahara Dessert and the majesty of the Himalayas. I've dreamt of partying at the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, at Burning Man among the hippies in the Nevada dessert or at the Full Moon Parties on Thailand's beaches.

However, on this increasingly small planet, one area has remained largely unknown to me and most of my friends: Central Asia and The Caucasus. I knew almost nothing about these large countries that, in some cases, were no farther away from Denmark than Portugal or Iceland. So, I decided that my ignorance had to end and therefore started to research them. What I found was some really interesting countries with a varied culture, rich history, almost no tourists and some incredible natural sites. (I mean just look at this picture from Kazakhstan) I decided, that I needed to go and see it for myself. I want the experience to be a journey rather than just a trip to a destination accessible by a couple of hours plane ride to a capital. Therefore, I have decided to hitchhike and couch surf my way from Denmark to Kazakhstan. I have already hitchhiked a lot the past four years, and I have found, that it is a uniquely effective way to interact with a large variety of people, that you would otherwise never meet while travelling through their country.

I plan on going through the Baltics and Russia to Kazakhstan and then find a way to cross the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and Georgia. From there on I will move along the Black Sea coast of Turkey and find a way back home through Eastern. I expect the whole trip to last approx. 3 1/2 months - insha'Allah.

So far, I have always had the pleasure of travelling with great friends or family when ever I have been abroad. I have just returned home from 3 months working in Palestine, and one of the best things about that experience was. that I was there with a great friend from Denmark with whom I could share the experiences and frustrations.

This time I´ll be travelling on my own, and I am a bit nervous about spending 3 1/2 months on my own without a steady partner in crime.

That is where this blog comes into play. I figured, that I will use this as a platform to keep my friends and family posted and settle my need for sharing my experiences. I will mainly write stories about the people I meet on the road, the homes I visit, and the things I see. I´ve decided to write in English both as a way to challenge myself and to make it accessible to the non-Danish friends, that I already have and the ones I hope to make.

The blog's name is stolen from the author Bruce Chatwin, who wrote my favorite book "In Patagonia" where he examined the anatomy of restlessness in the many settlers of the wild and rugged Patagonia area in southern Chile and Argentina. His writing is unparalleled and his approach to traveling inspired me a lot. This should be viewed as a tribute to him, rather than me having any delusions of being anywhere near his level.

I have a head full of thoughts, a stomach filled with butterflies and a backpack, that's slowly being filled with gear, as I prepare for my departure tomorrow morning. Hopefully you'll follow me, as I go along. :)


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