“Hitchhiking is a mode of movement, a mode by which to know the world through free travel. It’s neither a principle nor a style, nor the exclusive meaning of life. Hitchhiking is just one of life’s components. It offers a way to examine the surrounding nature of the universe. In order to be a proper part of this universe, it is useful to understand what’s going on around you.”
— Anton Krotov.
The numbers alone are impressive — 14 months on the road, over 40,000 km travelled, across 200 cities, conversations with more than 900 new people and the formation of many friendships. “After graduating I worked for a large furniture company, found investors for start-ups and eventually started my own website development company”, – says 26-year-old Pavel Andreevski. In 2015 he closed his business and hit the road.
Pavel calls himself a traveller. Hailing from the small border-town of Grodno in Belarus, he travels almost exclusively by hitchhiking and has visited an array of places on his $5 a day budget. Before departing for South America, Pavel joined the weekly Couchsurfing meet up in George Town, Penang in Malaysia. He approached me to ask a question about Sunsurfers, which I knew even less about than Couchsurfers. He then went on to tell me about his journey to the “other end of the earth.”
On the photo: Big Almaty Lake, Kazakhstan. On the border with Kyrgyzstan.
Generally I enjoy challenging myself to figure out how to get somewhere, or where to go, or where to live, etc. A good friend of mine, who I travelled with in Cambodia, had hitchhiked in 80 countries, it’s like a sport for him. He’s one of those people for whom travel is a lifestyle, and does well without spending any money.
Have you ever paid for transport during your journey?
I always pay for public transport within a city from my own budget. The fare is cheap and it’s much easier to pay than to try and negotiate free travel with the driver.
One time when the distance to my destination was too far to travel in just one day I ended up in the middle of nowhere. Instead of paying for a room or sleeping on the street, I walked to the station, bought a ticket for the night train and continued my journey.
The internet is filled with publications such as Matt Kepnes “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day”. Or “How to travel the world for a year for less than $20K“, published by News.com, and many more. What do you think of these kind of things?
Judging by the name of the author and the article’s title it’s clear that this man is not from a Russian Commonwealth country. In these countries that’s a lot of money. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, travellers like Anton Krotov and Valery Shanin, began to travel and books such as “Around the World for $280” began to appear. What that tells you is that, generally, you can travel on any budget. However, a lot also depends on your nature, this is not necessarily about your personal perception of the world, but also how people perceive you. What impression of yourself will you leave others with? That will impact whether they help you or not. From personal experience I’d say that people with a smaller budget tend to travel further than those with a bigger budget.
How do you feel asking others for help?
It comes down to your own personal attitude towards things. For me it’s not the asking that is of importance, but instead creating a situation where people want to offer their help. One time in a car, the driver and I were exchanging stories and he offered to stop at his friend’s place, even though I did not ask for that. I think that people are sincere in their decision to help. It’s not out of pity, but rather due to admiration. For them, this kind of life is out of the ordinary.
I understand that the working people of Europe could see me as a self-indulgent idler. Which is the easiest thing to think when looking at a traveller. In fact, I do not choose a place to stay for the night. I choose the people, exactly the same as they choose me, out of mutual interest, it’s what Couchsurfing was created for. A mutual exchange of information is the school of life.
Hitchhiking works in the same way. It’s naive to think that a person is picking you up just to help you out. Most drivers pick up a traveller out of their own self-interest; to tell stories, to exchange information or even just to chat to. In countries where I don’t have the ability to communicate, such as China, hitchhiking can turn into a dull journey from point A to B. But if an attempt to string together some sentences, perhaps with the help of a translator app, succeeds, it can forge connections forever. I still get emails from people who gave me a ride asking “Where are you?” and “How are you?”.
I’ll reiterate, the point it’s about your personal attitude towards things. In a world with a surplus of transport, space, food and labour. I only use those resources of which there is an excess.
I’ve heard you can also hitchhike ferries and planes, is that so?
Essentially, you can hitchike anything that moves, but with varying degrees of success. I have only hitchhiked cars and ferries. You can, for example, ride domestic trains by hiding from conductors, we all remember the carefree years of childhood. In the U.S., people often travel on freight trains, there are two options; you either try to jump onto the moving train, or negotiate with the driver, which is the preferable option.
As for ferries, there are several options; it’s a lot easier to get onto domestic ferries than to get onto international ships. The second involve customs, strict passport control and a limited number of tickets and passengers. It’s a complex structure as it involves a transport company, the captain and the ship owner deciding whether to take you or not. In countries with an abundance of islands ferries often take trucks with passengers. The fare includes two passengers per truck, therefore it’s easier to negotiate with the driver rather than with the ferry company staff. On international ships you can arrange to be a member of the crew, cleaning floors and toilets etc. Its tricky, but it’s possible.
How do you feel being a guest in a stranger’s house?
Comfortable. I felt uncomfortable just once, in Mongolia while staying in a damaged and windy yurt in the middle of September.
Where do you sleep if Couchsurfing isn’t possible?
In a hotel, on transport, on a couch in someone’s house, in a mosque, in a buddhist temple, in a cafe on the beach, in an abandoned construction site, in a kindergarten, a tent, on a bench under a canopy, at the police station.
Do you feel obliged to “return the favour”?
If I’m being given a ride in a car, I never allow myself to just sit down and go to sleep. Or if I’m in someone’s house, I don’t just start using the internet. I understand that this is not a freebie, and if a person is doing me a favour, I should try to return that favour – by sharing experiences, telling a story, showing interest, listening.
Do you ever feel like you’re pushing your luck?
Of course, but not always. As someone who’s not so courageous I’m trying to challenge myself rather than pushing my luck. I would often solve the problem myself, rather than ask others, so I decided to push my boundaries by talking to strangers on the street. Over time I realised that my bravery leads to a better end result.
Tell me about issues with applying for visas?
All countries’ legislation requires conditional permits for entry, such as work visas, study visas and tourist visas. But there is no visa for a traveller, though the difference is fundamental. For example, those who purchase a tour to visit a country are tourists, whereas travellers aren’t necessarily interested in sightseeing. So I am a traveller.
Tourists are part of the system. They work, have a month of annual leave, bank accounts, property, family and a permanent address. All of this might not apply to a traveller. Visas should reflect these distinctly different circumstances. Unfortunately, at this point legislators have not yet created a system for this category of people, which is gaining popularity and growing – travellers.
The system has a clear set of criteria that has to be followed and documents submitted. A state representative has a list of the relevant documents in one hand and a set of submitted documents in the other. If everything comes together, you’ll get a visa. You just have to meet the criteria of the bureaucratic procedure. For some consulates the presence of such documents may just be a formality, for others they’re vital. Sometimes if documents are absent, they simply need to be “created”. After all, some things cannot be verified, such as the state of your bank account. Who knows, maybe you could really be a millionaire.
Is it true that people always help?
Through travelling you see that the kind and helpful people are greater in number than the ignorant and evil people. When you are open to communication people are willing to engage. Since time immemorial the culture of hospitality, in which a traveller is received with respect, has been a common tradition. It was believed that when traveller went on to other places he would carry with him stories about your people. Therefore it was important that they were left with a good impression. Such traditions are still carefully preserved in Caucasus, where the guest is considered as someone holy. In Grozny, Chechnya, my understanding of the word “hospitality” was completely changed when, out of the blue, I was approached by people, wondering whether everything was okay and if I needed help.
I’ve often been in a situation where people would come to the rescue. When I was in Turkey I went to sleep in a mosque and I was approached by a Turkish man, which is extremely rare, as the Turks do not tend to speak English. We got talking, and eventually he bought me a bus ticket to my destination. There was a case in Mongolia when I found myself in the middle of the steppe, and some local guys took me to a hotel and negotiated to get it free of charge for me. For free! In poor Mongolia! In a hotel!
In China, people picked me on the highway, probably very worried for me and drove me into town and put me on a train to my destination. In Cambodia, in Siem Reap, we were fed and given plenty of food for our journey. These things all happened in places where the people are extremely poor.
Such situations completely changed my attitude towards people who need help. Upon my return home, I will certainly help others.
As you are constantly on the road, is it possible to get acquainted with the local culture?
I travel through cities, where the probability of finding an English-speaking person is greater than it would be in the suburbs or the countryside. Such people can be found through Couchsurfing and social networks. Almost every country has expats whom it’s pretty easy to find on the Internet. The only thing that worries me is that due to my constant movement I don’t get to observe certain phenomena, whether that’s a change in society or behaviour. Instead I can only ask someone about this phenomenon, which will then help me to understand it.
Standing on the “edge of the world”, you will have to cross an ocean to reach South America. How are you going to do it and where will you get the money from?
One option is to find a boat or ship. If that flops I can ask friends for help with the ticket. Then the question arises – “Where do I get the money to return to Europe?”. I will try to find a job in South America, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.
Did you get insured and vaccinated?
My insurance lasted for 8 months, and of course that has now expired. Getting insurance separately by country is rather difficult, and the insurance is not made up by country but by region. There is insurance “for the whole world” but it’s expensive and was never possible for me. In relation to vaccinations — I have had none, but if I must, I’ll get what’s required on arrival to the country where the disease is found, as the vaccine will be cheaper there.
Why do you participate in marathons during your travels?
Essentially I had quite a false impression of travelling at first. I imagined that my journey would be difficult and unbearable, and I was likening myself to a version of the presenter Bear Grylls in “Man vs. Wild”. I thought I’d have to eat butterflies and drink urine. I came to the conclusion that there was no way I could survive without stamina and so I began to run. Sometimes I got lucky and participated in marathons. I got in to running and it became the most affordable and convenient gym substitute, which is also easy to carry in my backpack.
Some believe that travelling is a search for oneself. Do you think you know yourself better?
Some say that the journey is an escape from yourself, others say that it’s the search for yourself. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Travel is a search for your-old-self to your-new-self. I know myself. There were things that I didn’t like in myself, I went travelling to cultivate new features.
What would be your advice to those who want to travel but are afraid?
I would advise doing a trial trip for a month or two. If you’re a Russian-speaker I would recommend Russia. It’s a country rich with nature, with delightful places such as the Altai, Lake Baikal, the Caucasus, you find interesting people and rather unique drivers. For English-speaking people, I would advise visiting Eastern Europe. Generally these places can act as a test platform to help you understand what travel in general is.
There is a general assumption that it’s better to travel with a companion. Which is what I did, at the start, going with a good friend. A month later, we separated, he went his way, I went mine. I understand that people are afraid to go without any experience and the feeling that going with someone will guarantee your safety. Now my advice would be not to search for travel buddies. Going with a companion compared to alone is different, like travelling on a bicycle rather than a car. When you travel with someone, the world has to be shared with that person, when you travel alone, the world is open only for you.
Another very important thing is to have a goal. Without it, you get stuck, like a computer glitch, and you start to go in circles. You might end up in a place where you get paid just for looking European or a place that’s cheap and awesome, fun and warm, sunny and comfortable, etc. Often a journey without a goal ends like this. Having an end goal is very important, it provides meaning and will support you during difficult moments.
And finally – don’t be afraid. Nobody listens to news about good things, we all listen to the bad things. Before my trip to Chechnya, my friends were worried that my head might not remain on my shoulders. But here I am, my head is still attached and the Chechens are kind and helpful people. They were afraid that I might get shot and burned in Ukraine and Dagestan – yet I’m alive and well. Friends who went to Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan were very surprised that these countries are far from the image the media tries to instill in us.
After this story, I don’t think you can have a routine life again. Are you preparing for your return?
For me a life of travel is a bright one — travelling is much cheaper than living and working in one place. Living in one place certainly involves routine commitments; responding to emails, paying for the electricity, going to work. As a traveller everything is easier; don’t like the environment – replace it with another, don’t like the city – replace it with another, don’t like the country – replace it with another. And every time you start with a clean slate. This is the key point of travel – the feeling of freedom. It gives you the opportunity to choose which way you go tomorrow.
On arriving home travellers face a real problem – they all dream of travelling further. They may have returned due to external factors such as funds running out, or maybe a sick relative. So some unmet needs still remain in their soul. I believe that people should return home only when they realise that the time is right. But when they do return life will never be the same. After all, your perception of the world has changed and you with it. In the lives of others the world continues to be divided into countries, nations, nationalities, laws, cultures, religions, ideologies and passports. For me, the world is transparent. Even with my Belarusian passport, I understand that I can live in any country and be surrounded by all kinds of people.