Tell me, can you just step out of your house one day, walk out believing that you can travel across the world by only hitchhiking and asking people to let you stay in their houses? Can we really see the world only depending on the assistance of strangers? Is it possible to trust the world, all its countries and people and religions and conflicts, and believe that they will all conspire to make your journey a success?
Even if you are that optimistic (rather naïve), how much can you really let go of? Let go of all your fears of being robbed or killed? Let go of all your doubts about the future? Let go of all the alien unknowns like language? Can one really let go of every single moment that succeeds the one you are living in right now?
This is the story of Nenad Stojanovic, the man who hitchhiked 25,000 kms from his home in Serbia to China over 6 months, relying solely on people’s kindness and an indomitable, 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 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 strolled into a furniture store and using hand signals asked the owner if he could spend the night there. The owner took him to his own home for the night, and gave him a hearty dinner.
Neither did he have much trouble hitchhiking in Turkey. “It is in fact so easy to hitchhike there, that it’s not the drivers who choose you, but you who choose them,” he says laughingly.
His tale is surreal. As he rattles off the names of the countries and cities he passed through, you cannot help but smile at the sheer casualness with which he speaks of some of the ‘homes’ he lived in when he could not find a host – A potato truck in Tajikistan. An Afghan police station. A Chinese expressway toll plaza. A Talibani house. 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 wary of. You wonder if this is a man wearing bravado on his sleeve, if he is walking the very thin line on 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 crossed over to northern Iraq 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, Mr Bush?
How did he hitchhike through Iraq? One hosts made him an Arabic banner which he would hold up 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 the smaller parts of Iran, the locals haven’t really seen tourists at all, so hitchhiking is an alien concept to them. “In many Iranian towns, there would be huge crowds 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, their niceness!”
What made you go to Afghanistan, Nenad? “Well, actually from Iran, I wanted to go to Pakistan, but the visa was taking too long, so on a whim I went to the Afghan. The consul there was a 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.
After crossing the Iranian border and reaching Herat (Western Afghanistan), he stayed on a farm with some Taliban people. Life with them seemed uncomplicated. The men would sit in the living room and smoke all day, and ever so often food would just appear out of nowhere, prepared by women (he never really saw) in the kitchen. The men 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 to Kabul they gave him tips about which highways he would be stopped lesser. He then approached the US Consulate hoping they would give him a helicopter ride to Kabul but was sent away after being told they “we’re not a taxi service”.
Crossing between towns in Afghanistan can be a terrifying experience. There are frequent kidnappings and hitchhiking is out of the question. Besides bandits, there are also bombs and land mines to contend with. To go to Kabul, Nenad chose the south road, that would pass through Kandahar. It has been referred to as “one of the most dangerous roads in the world”. In the entire 25,000 kilometre odyssey, the South Road was the only one where he booked himself on a bus. To survive in the danger zone, he disguised himself as a local wearing a salwar kameez and Taqiyah (traditional Muslim cap) and grew a beard. When he left his Taliban friends’ house they said “you look exactly like one of our own”.
Not know the local language, Nenad pretended to be deaf and mute, and travelled through the length and breadth of Afghanistan for 4 days, on a bus recommended by the supposedly terrorist Taliban, on one of the most dangerous roads, in the most dangerous country to travel in the world.
He was stopped by the authorities in the town of Kunduz. The officer thought he looked like a terrorist and made him 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, Nenad saw no gunfire or terrorist activity throughout his Afghan journey. 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 to otherwise 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 Highway.
After Tajikistan and Kyrgystan, he finally entered China where he hitchhiked 10,000 kms and 24 provinces before stopping at Hangzhou. Today, Nenad teaches English to children in Hangzhou.
That Nenad is a modern day Marco Polo is debate worthy. That he’s courageous, and a supremely optimistic man with a huge heart is a certainty. In a world that’s 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 mate, 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 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 but comes up with a Counter Strike party incident as his most memorable experiences. Well done, Nenad, the world needs more like you.