Hitchhiking Japan: some tips

Hitchhiking, Japan

I’m always a little bit nervous when hitchhiking in a new country, especially where there’s a language barrier. But Japan is great to hitchhike! People know the concept (pronouncing it ‘hitch hike’, emphasising the space between the two syallables). We also saw some Japanese hitchhikers.

To hitchhike, you do the same as you would in western Europe, and stand with your thumb out. Sometimes we used a sign, sometimes we didn’t.

Waiting times were similar to in Europe, ranging from three minutes to three hours.

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Hitchhiking at the exit of a rest area. We have a sign which may or may not say ‘west’!

Hobbling and hobbits on New Zealand’s north island

New Zealand

“You can’t hike any more. You have to change your plans,”  the doctor says sympathetically. “Was it your dream to tramp across New Zealand? Had you been planning it for years?”

“Well, no,” I reply, “but it’s really disappointing. How long will I take to heal?”

“Three more months, maybe…or keyhole surgery.”

I have torn a cartilage in my knee just 160km into the Te Araroa hike across New Zealand. It’s now very clear that I won’t be able to hike the whole trail. But because I can stay in the country for six months, it’s possible that I’ll recover in time to walk half of it.

One month hitching Sumatra & Aceh

Indonesia
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“What is he doing with his arm?”

We travel from Malaysia to Sumatra, Indonesia, on the Vomit Boat. Its real name is the Star Express. But throughout the four hour journey we listen to everyone on board throw their dinners up into plastic bags (ironically, before this, the staff give everyone a meal of chicken and rice when the boat is still on deceptively calm waters). The boat sways roughly from side to side, and there’s no access to a deck or any fresh air.

If you want to find out how it feels to be famous (and I mean really famous like a Hollywood actor) then head to the town of Tanjungbalai. Everyone we pass says hello to us. Everyone wants photos with us. And this sets the tone for our month hitchhiking through Sumatra and Aceh.

Hitchhiking, hiking & camping Malaysia

Malaysia
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Map of our route from my diary

“Aaaaggghhhh! You fucking wankerrrrrr!” I scream at a young guy as I chase after him on my scooter. He has just grabbed my breast, whilst driving at 60kmph on his scooter, and now I’m on a high speed chase.

But after just half a minute I wonder what I would actually do if I caught him. Ask him to pull over so that I can have a polite word with him about his misogynist ways? More likely the chase would end with me having a serious scooter accident. So I stop driving and cry instead.

Ton Sai, Thailand: the destruction of paradise

Thailand

img_20160920_203530“No Entry!! MOVE ON!” a security guard yells at us as we jump off the longtail boat at Railay beach. He is guarding a new, expensive resort, meaning that the ‘common’ public have to wade through the sea, waves crashing up to our waists, rather than step on the resort’s swimming pool grounds. Heaven forbid us commoners walking on the rich man’s land. 

I first visited this peninsula – made up of the bays of Railay, Phranang and Ton Sai – back in 2007. Coming back nine years later, things are bound to have changed. But i’m not prepared for how much it’s changed.

Problematic backpacker tourism in northern Thailand

Thailand

The below blog post addresses just some of the problems of (mostly white European) backpacker tourism. When I first travelled in south-east Asia ten years ago, I did not see that my presence could be detrimental to the communities that I was visiting. My awareness of this has grown and evolved over the last few years, and there are, no doubt, so many more issues that I am unaware of with regards to how I impact communities as a white European. Every day is an opportunity to learn and become more aware.

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An example of one of the photos that has been used by Lonely Planet

“Hill tribe tour!” “Trek to a longneck village!” “Spend the night with a hill tribe!”

Hill tribes hill tribes hill tribes. You can’t walk more than five metres in Chiang Mai without seeing signs for these tours.

Tour companies and guide books such as the Lonely Planet use different terms for indigenous people, depending on which country they’re referring to. In Laos it’s the term ‘minority’.

Scooter travels in northern Thailand

Thailand

In July 2016 we spent two and a half weeks travelling around the far north of Thailand on scooters. We were careful not to photograph people without their permission, and we avoided driving into many of the small villages that we passed. This is because these villages never see tourists, and may not want to, and didn’t give us our consent to visit.

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A sketch of our route (from my diary)

I don’t understand the fascination with traffic-clogged Chiang Mai. I can’t wait to get away from the city and the tour agencies selling treks to ‘hill tribes’. But I’ll write more about that in another post.

Chris and I want to explore the far north of Thailand on a long scooter trip. So we hire out two scooters and haphazardly brave the traffic of Thailand’s second largest city. (If you’re new to riding a scooter, I don’t recommend starting in Chiang Mai.) When we arrive in peaceful Chiang Dao at the end of day one, I’m just thankful that I get there in one piece.

Hiking the GR10 trail in the Pyrénées

France, Walking

We hiked the GR10 in June 2016.

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I don’t like climbing mountains. I think of it as macho: the egoic human wanting to conquer the peak. Don’t get me wrong, I love long distance hiking, and I have done my fair share of hikes. But I don’t feel the need to climb a few thousand metres high.

So I wonder why I am here, why I have chosen to walk the GR10, a trail that spans all of the Pyrénées, from west to east  – a whole 900km of up and down. It is, of course, because I want to be immersed in beauty. And surely you don’t get much more beautiful than the Pyrénées.

friendliness versus hostility: a visit to Italy

Hitchhiking, Italy
"Today is a terrible day," moans Nicol as we cross the border to Italy

“Today is a terrible day,” moans Nicol as we cross the border to Italy

“WHORE!” a man yells out of his car window at Nicol, as she stands at the side of the road with a sign for the next town. She screams something back at him in Italian. “Welcome to Italy,” I think to myself. Chris has joined us on our roadtrip. Unfortunately for him, both Nicol and I are in foul moods. Nicol’s got mixed feelings about returning to her home country, and I’m sulking because we have left friendly France, where people are softly spoken and rational (women are not conditioned to be scared of hitchhikers) and we have entered paranoid Italy, where we are only taken by male drivers who talk non-stop and tell us that the world is full of dangerous people.

But maybe I’m being too harsh on Italy. After all, I’ve been hosted in drivers’ houses four times on my previous visits, more than the France that I’m pining for. And hitchhiking as a three is proving to be surprisingly easy here.

Sure enough, a driver called Carmine takes the three of us all the way from southern France to northern Italy. He then checks us into a hotel room, which he pays for, and then takes us all out to his favourite pizza restaurant (and doesn’t get offended when we order cheeseless pizzas!) He’s a friendly man with a huge smile, and really talkative. He tells us about his job as a lawyer and his dreams of retiring and travelling the world.

Nicol and Carmine in the pizzeria

Nicol and Carmine in the pizzeria

VEGAN HITCHHIKERS!

VEGAN HITCHHIKERS!

We’re in Italy because we are going to visit Nicol’s family in a village in the northern Italian mountains. As we drive up, up, up the twisting, turning mountain road, me and Chris feel nauseous as we are suddenly transported to over 1000m high.

The visit is difficult for Nicol. She’s excited to see her family, but now that she’s returned home, they want her to stay there permanently with them, and they find it difficult to understand her lifestyle choices. Italian village life comes as a shock to me. Everyone knows each other’s business, and people gossip about the clothes Nicol wears and the fact that she has hitchhiked here. Still, it’s beautiful to see the place where one of my close friends grew up.

Chris and Nicol in the snowy, snowy mountains

Chris and Nicol in the snowy, snowy mountains

The snow is taller than Tommy the dog, but he insists on walking himself!

The snow is taller than Tommy the dog, but he insists on walking himself!

Chris has never been to Venice. “You have to see Venice!” I say. So off we go to Venice, hugging Nicol goodbye with the intention of meeting each other again in a few days for the hitchhike home to England. But, of course, life never goes according to plan, and when we say goodbye to Nicol, little do we know that she won’t be joining us for the hitchhike home…

Chris loves Venice. We wander the narrow alleys and he is pleasantly shocked by the crumbling buildings and the activist graffiti all over the city.

Mmmmm, vegan pizza from l'Angelo pizzeria, complete with vegan cheese :)

Mmmmm, vegan pizza from l’Angelo pizzeria, complete with vegan cheese 🙂

Beautiful Venezia

Beautiful Venezia

Activist graffiti, raising awareness about the No Tav campaign, against the building of a high speed train link that's set to desecrate the Italian/French mountains

Activist graffiti, raising awareness about the No Tav campaign, against the building of a high speed train link that’s set to desecrate the Italian/French mountains

We move eastwards towards the Alps, and to save time, we decide to hitch the motorways, rather than the country roads. I have been hitchhiking for many years now, and I have grown sick of hitching on motorways. I try to take the slower, scenic route whenever I have the time. Almost everyone driving on the motorway, in every country, is miserable. And it’s no surprise why: after all, the whole experience of driving in a metal box at about 150km per hour for hours on end, completely disconnected from nature, is really miserable! And the only break from the monotony of it all is a shitty service station with sugary, crappy fast food, which will only make you more miserable if you put it in your body!

Autogrill shitness at the Italian service station

Autogrill shitness at the Italian service station

Italy’s got to be one of the worst countries for hitchhiking on the motorways. We stand at the Autogrill (Italy’s brand of service station) and Chris tries to politely explain to drivers in Italian that we are hitchhiking. But whenever he says hello, people deliberately blank him, or give him a hostile response. This is poor Chris’s first experience of people being so rude to him whilst hitchhiking, and instead of getting upset, he laughs lightheartedly at the absurdity of this paranoid, fearful society. Chris is a breath of fresh air when I need it most, and I am thankful that he’s on this journey with me.

We laugh at how all of the men in Italy aspire to look like the below picture. Absolutely everyone is wearing the same jacket, along with aviator sunglasses.

Italian vanity.

Italian vanity.

Eventually, we get a lift with two friendly men, and the Into The Wild soundtrack plays on their car stereo. My god, we couldn’t be further from the Alaskan wilderness that Chris McCandless explored, I laugh to myself.

And then it’s another shitty service station, and more hostility awaits us. But then Chris gets us a lift with a 6’4″ man with huge muscles from the USA.

“Shit! He’s military!” I whisper to Chris as the man puts our luggage in his car. “Don’t say anything!” I warn Chris cautiously.

We’re anti-militarist activists, and I worry about how this journey is going to go. Inside the car is the soldier’s beautiful young wife and their baby. The soldier tells us about his life in Italy, and I find it tragic when he explains that he gets discount petrol in Italy when he shows his NATO pass to petrol station staff. Oh, can’t he see the irony? I wonder to myself. A military force, murdering for oil, getting cheap petrol. As I sit there in silence, I wonder why I have accepted a lift with this man. After all, if a truck driver transporting animals to be killed offered me a lift, I would refuse it. Surely there’s not too much difference. This man, if not directly a killer, is contributing to the killing of our brother and sister humans.

“Stay safe,” the soldier says in a cliché, macho way, as we get out of his car. Can’t he see the irony of that comment? I wonder yet again.

Chris would have liked to have talked to him about his job – after all, it’s possibly the only time he’ll be in the car of a NATO soldier. I am annoyed with myself: I sat in silence so that I could selfishly get a lift 100km further. I should have either refused the lift or engaged in a conversation about this guy’s ‘job’.

Of course, hitchhiking the Italian motorways isn’t completely doom and gloom, and we do meet a few friendly people and get lifts with lovely drivers, including a car full of actors who are touring the country, performing a play.

Our last stop in Italy is the Susa valley, close to the French border in the Alps. We’re here because we want to visit the area where the high-speed train track (Treno Alta Velocità, TAV) is going to be built – mostly for freight trains – with tunnels being bored through the Alps to neighbouring France. The No Tav activist campaign against the destruction of the valley has been going for two whole decades.

Chris and I are only about 15km from France. We decide that the border really can’t be far away, and that we’re going to walk it. Of course, we’re ill-prepared, without a hiking map. All we know is that France is somewhere west, over the insanely snowy Alps. I take my compass out of my pocket, and we start walking in a westward direction. Surely it’ll be easy…

France is somewhere over the Alps...

France is somewhere over the Alps…

A lunch break in the Susa valley with Chris

A lunch break in the Susa valley with Chris

After about six kilometres of hiking, we run into a group of activists.
“You can’t go this way!” they say. “It’s too dangerous!”
They explain to us that we’re about 1km away from the site where the tunnel is being bored through the mountain. There’s army protecting it absolutely everywhere, and apparently they’re quite pissed off with activists today.

The No Tav activists are friendly, welcoming people, and they invite us to their resistance house, give us dinner, and let us stay for the night. They tell us about two decades of struggle, and they talk about the environmental hazards of the TAV project. The mountains contain uranium and asbestos, which will be released as the tunnel is dug. Spending time with these inspirational, courageous activists is the perfect way to end our time in Italy.

The site of the building of the high speed railway. NO TAV!

The site of the building of the high speed railway. NO TAV!

Resistance flags and activist structures at the site of the destruction

Resistance flags and activist structures at the site of the destruction

The nature at the location of the railway site, set to be disfigured and killed

The nature at the location of the railway site, set to be disfigured and killed

Homeward Bound! Siem Reap and Bangkok to London

Cambodia, Hitchhiking, Thailand
A monk takes a photo of the Buddha in Bangkok

A monk takes a photo of the Buddha in Bangkok

A strange thing has happened to me! Whilst travelling through South East Asia, I’ve had a niggling feeling that I actually miss home. So because of this, I’ve controversially made the decision to book a flight from Bangkok to London. I don’t like to fly when I could go by land. But I don’t have a Russian visa to return the way I came, and the thought of doing the Trans-Siberian again alone fills me with dread! As I get closer to Bangkok, though, I guiltily wish I had tried to get that Russian visa and travelled the long way home.