Our friends from Bhopal had invited us for a family lunch in a fancy club. The place was classy and the food exquisite. A rich buffet offered anything one could have dreamt of. Indian food from South to North, Chinese, Italian and South-East Asian delicacies, meat or vegetarian, cheeses, pastries, freshly made omelets, salads, deserts… The guests sitting on the long table served themselves generous portions of their favorite dishes. It was a party for the senses. And Boris and I, sitting next to one another, looked towards our own plates: mashed potatoes, plain boiled broccoli, a few pieces of cheddar cheese, a little cous-cous salad and some cucumber sticks. The only trace of India was a plain lemonade. Was it that we had turn such ascetics on the road that not event he richest delicacies could tempt our senses? Or was it rather something else, something that two years earlier we thought would never happen to us. There and then we realized that we were not properly travelling anymore. Maybe it was time to start going home.
When a travel ends
Simple, plain and boring but comforting food was all we wished for after two years on the road. Our taste-buds were overwhelmed by a stroll of recipes wider than we would ever be able to remember. And the taste-less meals we longed for simply replicated our shared estate of mind: we loved feeling at home away from home, we enjoyed the changing landscapes, the ever drifting cacophony of foreign sounds, all the new faces, the smiles of strangers or the feasts of tropical fruits in every bazaar. But we could not take in many adventures, misadventures or, in general, anything new happening at all. We felt quite content with watching the rain fall from the safety of a covered balcony, throwing paper balls to the playful cat, walking the very same path to the shop and back for days and weeks or simply sipping one more cup of chai. But we could not bear adding any more stories to our packed travel diaries. The days of heavy backpacks and sleepless camping were fading away.
India had been our imaginary aim and the excuse to step on the map. Now it was starting to feel as a final destination. We knew that the way back was a maze of borders and passports seasoned with a lack of budget, for which we were faintly starting to figure out solutions. Our first book was almost ready, Burma was getting her microchip for Europe and random collaborations of the sort that bring travellers a bit of cash were waiting us around crooked corners. We decided to enjoy the process, visualizing the end of our journey as a long tail that would last a few more months and would inevitably transport us back to the starting point, somehow, sometime. But the tail, as if split from a lizard, turned out to have some life on its own; even after our compasses were set direction Europe, it still took its time to bring us hitchhiking across Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa, and all the way north to McLeod Ganj.
Our way back started in Upper Dharamkot. We had stayed for almost two months in the last house of the last village at the start of the trekking trails. A board at the door read “peace and calm”. Every few days we would walk 5 km down and uphill to shop groceries in McLeod Ganj. The rest of the days we worked, wrote, drew postcards and walked. And we met friends that we had made along the way. One day we woke up with the first rays of the sun, packed light and started to walk uphill, hoping to reach the trekking camp in Triund, just a few hours hike away from our doorstep. One of us is usually fast when it comes to walking mountains, while the other is slow and often trips with the pebbles and stones, so that the first one needs to stop and wait for her every few hundred meters uphill. But that day we walked hand by hand all the way to Triund, and beyond to a little shrine, and to an improvised tea-tent deviously called “snow-line”, where we found only puddles and not a trace of ice. Beyond a few more hills the Laka glacier stood motionless in its descent, as if waiting for us, or for anybody else. We kept on walking further as the evening came close, without caring for once how long we had already been on the move. We were looking for an imaginary end to this journey. When we found it, sitting by the edges of the ice tongue, we marked it well, called by its name. From the tip of the glacier our way back home started, it was all downhill from there.
The route back was uncertain. But equally erratic had been our way to India, so we could not care much. December had just arrived and we had not had proper winter clothes since the backpack theft more than a year earlier, neither could we afford to buy proper shoes or new sleeping bags, but at least we had consoled ourselves with a couple of Tibetan blankets and pretty socks bought in McLeod Ganj. Another little challenge was the one posed by borders; just like on the way east, we were still unable to get a visa for Pakistan and continue what felt like a natural overland route; careful examination of pet travel regulations indicated that our kitten companion would risk staying trapped in quarantine at the Burmese-Chinese border if we insisted on tracing our own steps backwards. It seemed that Burma (the cat) could also have difficulties entering Kazakhstan, and Russia, and Dubai and Oman… As we have said somewhere else, borders and visas shape our travels. We thought of flying. And struggled with the thought for a few months. One part of us wanted to travel slowly, visiting good friends we had made along the way, but we had limited finances. The other part of us thought it would be nice to be back home on time for New Year, or even better for the birthday of Boris’s mum, but we did not really want to jump directly to Turkey… our imaginary maps were an absolute mess, and we had changed plans and routes almost daily. Till that evening, having come back home from the glacier, when we decided it was time to leave our self-imposed restrictions aside.
Delhi, a sort of farewell
Delhi did not feel like the stressful chaos we had feared, but rather a sort of last taste of India, a gift to the senses, a few more thalis, the last sweet jhaleebis. Hellos and good-byes, sunset walks, shopping fabrics and long tuk-tuk trips all over town and beyond, arranging the last bits of Burma’s cat passport. Also, one last indigestion. We said farewell to the country that had hosted us for nine months in an unceremonious way, with a glass of nimbu pani (lemonade) and a milk-less chai. Then ordered a cab to the airport, because for some weird reason pets are not allowed to travel in the metro of a city where cows roam the highway. It felt good anyway. Just as natural as getting out of any town into any ring-road. We were going home; happy to be on the way, to have once again a direction, even if that meant jumping over the Pamir mountains in a plane labeled Air Manas.
Winter in Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek was dressing on her white robe as we landed on a weekday in December. At the arrivals terminal, Raj was waiting for us. We brought him ghee from his native country and he brought in the certainty that the friendships made along the way were not temporary or imagined. Together we spent a few days drinking beer and maxim, cooking meals with Kyrgyz flavours and Indian spices, and waiting for visas and permits. The route was slowly taking shape in our minds. What had seemed almost impossible a few days back, was turning probable, what had been feasible slowly became almost certain. With a bit more hope and less doubts, we were got ready to spare a few extra bucks for Kazakh and Azeri visas, and decided to try getting back to Europe overland from Kyrgyzstan, even if that meant we could try and fail. We knew that it was possible to be turned back at the first border, and that we could easily get stranded for weeks by the shores of the Caspian, but once the dice of chance were rolled, we could not do anything else than play the game and move on. Christmas was still a couple of weeks away.
One of our travel diaries reads “Normality. Everything feels just normal around”, normal and quiet. We crossed the large boulevards of the Kyrgyz capital wondering where all the cars had gone; from time to time we paused our walk in the middle of any neighbourhood to listen to the plain sounds of silence – no beeping, no talking, no “hello mister”, no nothing. If overland journeys are special because of their continuity, the rupture of flying had made us see the city under a new light. Bishkek was definitely more boring than Delhi, but it felt like a breeze of fresh air to our overwhelmed minds – of freezing air we could say. The non-human part of the team, however, was not so happy with the sudden change of season. “What the hell is this guys?” – would have exclaimed Burma if she was able to articulate words in any known language – “Wet sand? Is it a joke?”. She did not like snow; and she did let us know. But at least she liked the Kyrgyz woolen and cozy shyrdaks.
We, the humans, on the contrary were amazed by the winter beauty of the landscapes that had already made us imagine fairytales one summer back. A couple of weeks earlier we had admitted to ourselves that “winter was coming” for us, knowing that the way home meant breaking with the endless summer that had warmed up our wanderings for so many months. We were both excited and weary of the effect of winter on our travel mood. Winter it harsh, rough, brutal to the hitchhiker. But Kyrgyzstan made us feel that with proper clothes we would like to follow its frozen roads into any direction. The silence of the season called our feet. Even if our travel across Asia was still weeks away from being over, the seed of a new journey was probably being planted in the midst of the Kyrgyz winter. Our minds travelled northwards with the wind, into the nights of higher parallels, of future footprints on the snow. Along the road a family of camels paraded their winter coats – over summer they had all been bold.
Sliding through Kazakhstan
Our fingers trembled in the cold wind as we handed in the passports at the Kazakh border. The Kyrgyz authorities had given us a stamped permission to cross Kazakhstan with a cat, probably oblivious to the origin of the animal – we did not dare to ask. And now we crossed our fingers and toes that all would go fine. And so it did. We were given green light to cross our third border with Burma by our side.
Hitchhiking in Kazakhstan over summer had been wonderfully slow, dusty and tough. In winter, without proper clothes the mere thought of it beard a subtle shade of suicide. So the moment we considered the possibility of crossing the steppe westwards, the only feasible scenario was a long train journey over the endless winter plains of Kazakhstan. The three days train travel joining Almaty with Actau, brought students, families and workers of the oil and gas companies in their semi-nomadic life cross the country – one moth at work, one month back at home. For us it is a warm memory of sliding landscapes, a three days gift to watch the inhospitable flatness of the steppe pass by our side, alternating hues of a pastel palette, frozen rails under the heavy procession of trotting vagons. Soft pillows, thick blankets and an almost forgotten feeling of starched white bed sheets complement the vague memory of a soothing journey. Boiling water in a giant samovar. Food sellers on the snow. Fading villages in the midst. The slowness of camels. The wind. The steppe.
We arrived back to Actau, almost two years after our first visit, with a cat companion. Evgenia and Sasha, who had been our hosts then, opened the door of their flat to reveal a bigger surprise that would be born in a few weeks time. Without any grand statements we were reminded of something that would turn more clear as we came closer to home: the uncertain traveller’s feeling of impermanence, of constant change, of movement, is no more than an illusion. Time and life do not leave any beings behind, they pass and change, and go for all of us.
Crossing the Caspian by ferry and…by train
A journey across the sea had been one of our possible itineraries on the way to India. One of the many that were discarded as the doors slowly opened from Turkey to Iraq to Iran and Turkmenistan. Because travel is always about choosing, the Caspian had stayed in the chest of unrealized futures. On the way back to Europe, it turned up as our only option to making it home without taking one more plane. So we tried our luck, and fortune answered the call with a ship leaving straight away to Azerbaijan. We had barely an hour to pack our stuff, wave goodbye to Evgenia and Sasha, and buy some food for the journey. Nobody knew how long the sea transit would last, though. From one day to one week, or even more, depending on the weather or the storms.
The ferry was a cold box oscillating to the rhythm of the waves. We were told that actually, what felt like a roller-coaster to us, was in fact a very calm sailing day. The storm was behind, the movement insignificant. And we went to sleep reassured that if the sea was rough we would definitely notice. “The doors of cupboards would open, the glasses would fall… we would not be sitting around watching a movie” – the few other passengers, who go back and forth almost weekly transporting goods, spoke without a trace of doubt. In the freezing cabin, we crouched inside our sleeping bags. With every swing the ship felt like bending further, a contortionist shifting board and starboard like an oscillating pendulum that threatened to make us expel our undigested dinners. The toilet was blocked. And so we just laid down in the direction of the movement, hoping for the best, while following with precision the movement of the liquid inside a large water carafe. We thought it should be easy to calculate the degrees of inclination just by looking at it…if only we had paid more attention to physics in school… Then the carafe slipped from the table and fell, the cupboard doors opened, the cat stopped running around. In the common room the TV slipped from its grips. And the rest of passengers would confess in the morning, that they also started to wonder if the storm was indeed behind of around us. Thankfully, with the morning light came the calm.
For a good chunk of the way we actually crossed the Caspian by train. Two dizzy humans and a pretty fresh cat sat around the table in a kitchen, inside a vagon of a train inside the tumbling ferry. What looks like an absurd Russian matrioshka of transport means was in fact an everyday thing for our newly found friends, who instead of driving slow trucks over crumbly roads, guide these long convoys on rails all the way from Europe to Central Asia, loaded with horse meat that is more appreciated in the steppe than in the place where we come from. A cigarette burned away in a stoked ashtray while we followed Aslan’s finger along the paling lines of a Soviet railway map, his only driving guide. He traced the tracks that could take us all the way from the middle of the sea to Vladivostok while speaking of fuel and pressure and the comforts of a life in a vagon that was home and office at once…would it be possible to hitchhike a train one day… could we maybe, perhaps, travel eastwards in… travel dreams started building up again like castles in the air. But we still had a long way to hitchhike home. And a much further way before we turn eastwards once again.
The Azeri border police did not feel pleased at all with our answer. “How can it be that you travel the world and do not dare taking a little detour to visit our beautiful Baku?”. We explain that we have not seen our families for more than two years, that it is christmas, new year… Boris’ mum’s birthday… they insist we should visit their capital anyway, we agree it would be really nice. But we stick to our transit hitchhiking. Without any local money, but with a lot of extra Kazakh currency that, soon we would find out, was impossible to exchange, we hit the road and were picked up by a birthday bus, going all the way to the Georgian border. We can’t believe our luck!
In Georgia the first Christmas decorations reminded us that we were both getting close to our destination, and late for the marked date of return. We had less than two days to hitch the country through a road that we knew almost by heart, with two little missions marked in our travel agendas: to get the last stamp for Burma’s pet passport and to pass by one particular house in Samtredia, a small town on the road towards Batumi, where a family had taught us two years back what is means to be kind to a stranger. We remember them, they remembered us.
Crossing Turkey. Hitchhikers’ luck.
Batumi felt like being just around the corner from Sofia. It was a game of distances. What had once been far was then near and viceversa. But we counted hours of light and kilometers, and the maths said that there was no way to make it on time to greet a happy birthday to Daniela with a real hug. Fortunately hitchhiking is not only about numbers and stats. It is chance, decision and intention. It is good luck. Mostafa said “we’ll make it”, while turning on the engine of his Mercedes truck, and we wanted to believe him, but we could not help to doubt. Many more hours later than it would be legal to say, with the first light, we sat with a hot cup of Turkish tea, listen to the call for prayer from a TIR parking in Istanbul. We were almost home, this time for real, thanks to Mostafa who had kept his word. What had been two years earlier the first step into Asia, was now our doorstep.
We walked the contours of the city, hitchhiked, got rides, crossed the Bosphorous and spent hours circling around the elephantine metropolis. As the sun set, our steps were still walking along the white painted boundaries of a hard shoulder fn a highway heading northwards. The cat was hungry, we had not slept in 48 hours. Copious amounts of Turkish tea no longer helped keeping our eyelids in their place, only walking, with our thumbs extended to an invisible audience passing by at miles per hour, kept us awake. We are probably not going to make it to Sofia on time, but we have nothing else to do than walking away from the roaring city. Then a lightning struck, one named Omer, that catapulted us across the last border. And a last ray of hope in the good nature of fortune lifted us up from the road.
Plovdiv. Now we are really going home.
But we were not there yet, and we know it’s been long. Every section of this post had taken us a few days of transit travels. 21 since we left Delhi, 27 from Dharamkot. Plane, cars, train, ship, trucks, pickups, walks, vans, borders, metro, stamps. If you are tired and bored, if you could barely make it here or even remember how it had all started, then – dear reader- you can probably guess that we were by this time somewhere in between turning zombies or giving up and setting the tent by the roadside.
In the outskirts of Plovdiv, by the highway, a solitary petrol station glimmered in the dark. We knew the place well, it was not the first time that we were comfortably stuck in this very same spot. The image of us sitting on that very same table felt like a flashback of past hitchhiking adventures. But this time the place was even quieter. Nobody needed petrol on Christmas eve. Not many wandered around at dinner time. We were so near and yet so far. Could it be that less than a hundred kilometers away from home our birthday greetings were going to reach via skype and our Christmas dinner was going to be a cold cheese and cucumber sandwich? Could it be that we were going to spend our first night back home crouching on these wooden chairs in a petrol station at the outskirts of Plovdiv? Certainly it could. There is no reason why it shouldn’t have been that way. And yet we rolled the dice. Once and again. Then Teofil appeared “let me see if I can make room for all that luggage. And… is that a cat?”.
We probably remember all the rides of this journey. We will never forget the last one.
To everyone who took the time to make of their way our path, and specially to those who brought us back home: thank you, gracias, благодаря, meaow!