Finland – The land of a thousand lakes, a million trees and ten million mosquitoes

I leave England once again and have one intention – to visit Norway. I get as far as Sara’s in Malmo, Sweden, and we spontaneously agree, “let’s go to Finland!” And so my Norway plans are put on hold and I board a ferry in Stockholm with Sara, her sister Lea and Lea’s daughter, Aviaja. Nothing can ruin my excitement about visiting Finland, not even the hideous ferry crossing where most people’s intention is to get paraletic, and where the security man threatens to confiscate our food. Apparently we are not allowed to bring food on a sixteen hour ferry crossing which doesn’t cater for vegans!

We arrive in Helsinki. I have wanted to visit this city for about ten years, but all I see of it is a ten minute tram ride to a hitchhiking spot. I vow to come back to Helsinki in a week or two, but fate has other ideas, and I never make it back there. I also never make it to Norway. I hitch alone northwards, whilst Sara and family take the train. We are heading to the Finland Rainbow Gathering (a hippie meet-up) in the countryside in Paukarlahti. I repeatedly mutter to myself, “I have never seen so many trees!” There is forest absolutely everywhere.
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“YOU WILL NOT HITCHHIKE! YOU ARE A WOMAN!” Arguing with the Turkish military police

One day, a few years ago, I sat on the ground of a tea plantation in the mountains of Burma and refused to move. I cried and cried. My ex-boyfriend, Tom, reasonably tried to tell me that I was acting unreasonably. I sat there like a stroppy teenager. I was burnt out. I was exhausted from travelling, tired of meeting new people every day, tired of constantly packing my rucksack.

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Learning about Turkish Kurdistan

Any traveller who has spent time in Turkey has probably heard racism directed towards Kurdish people. It is believed that 20-25 million Kurds live within the borders of Turkey. I am often told that south-eastern Turkey, which is predominantly Kurdish, is dangerous, and that I shouldn’t get into cars with Kurdish numberplates. This is, of course, nonsense. I have argued with people over their assumption that their government provides everything for Kurdish people, but that Kurds are never grateful. This common attitude can partly be explained because the Turkish government presents itself “as if it gives substantial concessions to Kurdish people never granted in the history of Turkish Republic while, on the other hand, repressing the Kurdish movement by “anti-terror” measures.” (document published by Michael Albert on ZBlogs)

Mats, Robert and I arrive in Turkish Kurdistan at night, and a lovely man lets us spend the night on the floor of a petrol station! We are told about a recent attack in the town by the Turkish military, killing over thirty people.

Mats sleeps in the kitchen of a petrol station – Hitchhiking is so glamourous!

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Friendly faces in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq (but where are the women?!)

Kurdistan is a region that covers parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, and where the population, culture and language is mostly Kurdish.  Kurds  are “the largest national, cultural group that has never been able to achieve a national territory”, says Noam Chomsky. I am still travelling with my Norwegian friends, Mats and Robert, and we are given a ten day visa-on-arrival for Iraqi Kurdistan.

Our first view of Kurdistan!

 

 

Walking over the Iraq border

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Iran Part 3 – Christmas in the Persian Gulf

I would recommended any traveller to Iran to make a lot of time for the Persian Gulf, on the south coast. It’s like a different country – the Bandari people are super laidback and the women wear bright colours (such a relief after the black dresscode everywhere else).

I hitchhike with my mate, Mahyar, to the island of Hormuz. Our Norwegian friends, Mats and Robert, have found the perfect spot. We are mostly undisturbed on a peaceful beach, and I can even swim in my bikini without fear of breaking a dresscode. There are about eight of us, lounging in the sun and swimming in the sea each day.

swimming in Hormuz

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Iran Part 2 – Hitchhiking, Deserts, Caves and British Propaganda

Iranians love Chris de Burgh. This puzzles me. They also love Leonard Cohen, which puzzles me far less. There are many other things about Iran that confuse me, and it would take far more than the two months I have to understand this intriguing culture. Having been here for over a month, I am somewhat embarrassed by my previous preconceptions about the country. I shake my head in disbelief when I think back to the woman who crossed the border one month ago, the woman who thought she couldn’t talk to men, that she wouldn’t hear music anywhere, that friends were not allowed to socialise.

Hitchhiking
When Sara and I meet our Portuguese friend Karina, we all decide that it is about time to start hitchhiking around Iran. The biggest problem is explaining what hitchhiking actually is, as it’s unheard of here, and paid ride-share is a common way to travel. So when three tourists don’t want to pay, locals are shocked. Often people form a group around us, discussing amongst themselves how impossible it is. It is, however, completely possible, and we usually never have to wait more than a few minutes. The magic word is “salavaati”…it’s a religious charity word, and as soon as we say this, locals understand that we won’t pay!

Hitchhiking enables us to get to beautiful desert places, such as the Zoroastrian religion pilgrimage temple in Chak Chak, deep in the mountains.

Karina celebrates freedom from the headscarf!

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I have finally made it to Iran! Week 1 in Tabriz and Tehran

I hitchhike with my friend, Sara, from Turkey to the Iran border.

The first Iranian we meet is a border guard, and possibly the most beautiful man Sara and I have ever seen. We look at each other and burst into fits of giggles. Since that day, Sara and I have been constantly commenting on how good looking Persian people are. The women, in particular, are stunning.

From the border we hitch a bus to Tabriz. Tabriz is crazy in the daytime…people, cars and men pulling carts of goods everywhere. Not at all like Turkey! The population here is Azeri (Iranian Azerbaijan), and not Persian. Their language is similar to Turkish (luckily for us). We are told that the government is trying to phase out their language by teaching only Farsi in schools. We learn that Iranian people are unbelievably helpful. If you ask an Iranian for directions, they will literally stop what they are doing and take you there themselves. Which is just as well, because simple things like changing money seem impossible without local help!

Counting out 1,800,000 Rials!

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Tbilisi, Georgia – Sivas, Turkey, 22nd August – 24th August 2011

I have spent five months hitchhiking east, and now I find myself in Georgia, where it is easy to get a ride (you never wait more than a few minutes) and where the locals are very friendly. I spend a few days walking in the mountains and hitchhiking around with my friend Françoise.

Hitchhiking and hiking with Francoise
Hitchhiking and hiking with Francoise

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Travelling solo, sleeping rough, and trouble with the police in Italy

I have been travelling with my friend Naomi for a week or two, from Belgium, through Luxembourg and into France. We continue our adventure down to the south of France. The generosity of the French surprises me, and it’s the only country I have hitchhiked where most of my lifts have been from women. We sleep in many places: a couple invite us into their holiday home at the Cote d’Azur, another woman feeds us in her mountain home….we sleep on the rocks of the coast, and on balconies of summer homes that are not yet being used. We carry on travelling through hideous Nice and the even more hideous Monte Carlo.

We arrive at night in the shady Italian town of Viarregio. A group of lads are sitting outside a bar, listening to dodgy r’n’b on their mobiles. They invite us to drink with them. Naomi jumps at the chance, sits amongst them and exclaims, “this is just what I needed!” whilst I sit down moodily and think, “this is the last thing I needed”. Continue reading “Travelling solo, sleeping rough, and trouble with the police in Italy”