Can you just step out of your house one day, stand on the road watching the cars pass in a blur, and believe that you can travel across the world just through hitchhiking and asking people to let you stay in their houses? Surely one can’t really cross the world only depending on the assistance of strangers? Is it possible to trust the world and all its countries and people and religions and strangers and elements and conflicts, and believe that they will all conspire to make your journey a success?
Even if you are that optimistic (or naïve), how much can you really let go of? Let go of all your fears of being robbed, mugged or killed; let go of all your doubts about the future; let go of all the unknowns like language and culture? Can one really let go of every single moment that will succeed the one you are living in right now?
This is the story of Nenad Stojanovic, the man who hitchhiked twenty five thousand kilometers from his home in Serbia to China over five and a half months, only relying on people’s kindness and an indomitable and cheery spirit to do so.
Beginning the journey from his home in Serbia, Stojanovic used hitchhiking and the couchsurfing website to trot through Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey before entering into the world’s largest continent – Asia.
“Couchsurfing,” says Nenad, “is the major reason as to how I became a traveller”. Since joining the website, Nenad has hosted some 180 people and surfed at some 253 “couches”.
When he couldn’t find a ‘host’ in the town of Nevsehir (Central Turkey), he walked into a furniture store and asked the owner, through hand signals, if he could spend the night there. The owner asked him to spend the night at his place, and gave him a hearty dinner.
Neither did he have much trouble hitchhiking in Turkey. “It is very easy to hitchhike there. It’s not the drivers who choose you, you choose them,” he says laughingly.
It is almost surreal to hear his tale. As he rattles off the names of the countries and cities he passed through, you cannot help but smile at the incredible casualness with which he speaks of some of the ‘homes’ he lived in when he could not arrange for a host – A potato truck in Tajikistan. An Afghan police station. A Chinese expressway toll plaza.The home of some Taliban people. Remarkably, he talks positively of everyone he encountered on the way, be it Iran, Iraq, war torn Afghanistan – countries that the West have traditionally always suspected, accused and been hugely wary of. You wonder if this is a man who wears bravado on his sleeve, if he is walking the very thin line one side of which lies one of the most extraordinary journeys ever, and on the other side lies grave peril and possible death.
From Turkey, he decides to cross over to northern Iraq and crosses the border in a van of Turkish comedians, magicians and belly dancers. “This was the Kurdish part of Iraq. Even though it is still battle scarred and there are broken, destroyed buildings everywhere, the people were really hospitable and nice to me.” Hear hear, Georgie boy?
To help him hitchhike through Iraq, one of his hosts made him an Arabic banner which he would display on the road to flag down drivers.
Right, so travelling is that simple? Hold up a road sign and wait, that’s all?
Iran turned out to be even more fantastic. In many parts of Iran, the locals have never seen tourists at all, so hitchhiking is an alien concept to them. “In so many Iranian towns, there would be a huge local crowd gathering around me when they saw me and the roads would get blocked. One place, a group of soldiers saw me and actually ordered a passing bus to give me a ride to the next town. In another town, the guy who gave me a lift actually called the police to make sure my couchsurfing hosts were not dangerous and would cause me no harm. It’s amazing how they all were so nice to me.”
What made you go to Afghanistan, brother? “Well, actually I wanted to go to Pakistan from Iran, but the visa was taking too long, so on a whim I went to the Afghan embassy in Tehran. The consul there was a really friendly guy so I figured the country couldn’t be that bad either.”
Yes, that is how one decides to visit a country ravaged by war, on the basis of a ten minute interaction with one stranger. Nenad, we must check the marbles in your head, mate.
After crossing the Iranian border and reaching the town of Herat (Western Afghanistan), he stayed on a farm with some Taliban people. Life with the Taliban seemed uncomplicated enough. The men would sit in the living room and smoke all day, and ever so often the food would just appear out of nowhere, prepared by women (he never really saw) in the kitchen. They explained that they had joined the Taliban because they did not agree with the country’s policies. They insisted that they weren’t terrorists and Nenad asserts that he never saw any weapons in the house. When he wanted to proceed on his journey to Kabul they gave him tips on which highways he would be stopped lesser number of times. He approached the US Consulate hoping they would give him a helicopter ride to Kabul but was sent away after being told they “were not a taxi service”.
Crossing from one town to another in Afghanistan can be a terrifying experience. Hitchhiking is quite out of the question, with frequent kidnappings taking place. Besides bandits, there are also land mines and bombs to contend with. To go to Kabul, Nenad chose the south road from Herat, that would pass through Kandahar and that has been referred to as “one of the most dangerous roads in the world”. In the entire 25,000 kilometre journey, the South Road was the only one where he booked himself on a bus. To survive in the danger zone, he dressed himself as a local wearing a white salwar kameez and Taqiyah (traditional Muslim cap) and grew a beard. As his Taliban friends told him when he left their house “he looked exactly like one of their own”. They also taught him how to pray to Mecca.
Since he did not know the local language, he pretended to be a deaf mute person, and thus he travelled through the length and breadth of Afghanistan for four days, on a bus recommended by the supposedly terrorist Taliban, in one of the most dangerous roads, in the most dangerous country to travel in the world.
He was stopped by the authorities in the North Afghan town of Kunduz. The officer thought he looked like a terrorist and he was forced to spend the night in the police station. The next day realizing his mistake, the guilty officer offered him a lot of candy and an Afghan coat as a present before letting him go.
Ironically, he saw no gunfire, robbery or terrorist activity throughout his Afghan journey and the first time he was robbed was when he was just out of Afghanistan and had entered the neighbouring country of Tajikistan. He was walking on the street when a “KGB agent” stopped him, planted heroin in his backpack and demanded a bribe threatening that otherwise he’d throw him in jail. Freedom cost him a paltry 80 Euros.
Next he moved to the Pamir Highway, a desolate stretch where he would sometimes have to wait for four to five hours before a single car would pass by. It took him a week to cross the Pamir Highway.
After Tajikistan and Kyrgystan, he finally entered China where he hitchhiked for ten thousand kilometers and twenty four provinces before stopping at Hangzhou. Today, Nenad teaches English to children in Hangzhou.
That Nenad is a modern day Marco Polo can be debated. That he is a courageous, supremely optimistic man with a huge heart is a certainty. In a world that is becoming smaller via technology but yet grows apart daily due to a plethora of man-made differences, it is people like Nenad Stojanovic that restore our faith in humanity, in its goodness. So rock on brother, your students in Hangzhou have a lovely teacher to look up to.
When he’s asked to recount some of his most remarkable experiences during this long journey, he says “While travelling from Hong Kong to Guangxi province, one of the drivers who gave me a ride took me to a ten year reunion party for a group of Counter Strike players. We were all ready for battle, wearing Counter Strike Tshirts, yelling, drinking and having a food fight. That was fun.”
Heh, passes through Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and comes up with a Counter Strike party as one of the most memorable experiences. Well done, Nenad, the world needs more like you.