Welcome to part two of Andy’s friendly little list of travelling tips.
So you’re about to hit the road. Nice one on that but what kind of trip are you after? Winding up at the normal tourist traps with a zillion others or doing something a bit more adventurous?
Whatever you do you just can’t beat being on the road. That sense of freedom is something many people don’t even get a taste of. However there are a great many ways you can turn up the volume and make the whole thing miles more interesting.
If you’re on a serious mission of leaving behind ‘normal’ life as we know it then by all means meander through the list and see if you’re up for it.
I’ve now been on the road for well over ten years now. This means in and out of various consulates, police stations, across borders, countless hotels, guesthouses and stations while summoning maximum patients to the power of one hundred while whatever problem it is slowly gets itself sorted.
My experience is largely in China and surrounding countries but I’m sure most of the ideas below will still apply in some shape or form if your offski to somewhere different.
As per usual if you think of anything that may be missing from the list, all positive contributions will be taken on board so drop by via the comments and say hi anytime.
WKTG: Well Known Travel Guide
Of course use the WKTG but try not to plan your trip around it too much. This is stating the complete obvious I know, but if you do head for the places that are displayed as coloured pictures in your WKTG they are going to be full of holiday makers and lacking cultural authenticity. Of course some are simply ‘must do’ locations such as the Great Wall or Angkor Wat so the fact that it’s going to be heaving is something we mentally prepare ourselves for.
I am embarrassed to think about the amount of time I’ve wasted following other travellers looking for guesthouses and restaurants as recommended in their WKTG. Because of their popularity they can become crowded, noisy and unfriendly so don’t worry too much about trying to find one particular place. There will be no doubt cheaper, cleaner and more welcoming places that will really benefit from having you as their guests just around the corner of you take time to look.
Going Deeper: Why not take a pit-stop somewhere for a week or so and plan to go somewhere more ambitious. This is where the excitement really begins and time to take out the maps you stashed as mentioned in Part 1.
For me the best and most exciting times have been when I’m already on the road, stopping and spending time alone to think about what I want to do next. Many times, I’ve found a cheap double room and turned it into a temporary HQ for a few days while I get things straight.
If the next stage involves hiring transport put your WKTG to good use by visiting all the popular guesthouses then adding a sign to their notice board advertising your plan “Andy (UK) looking for people to go to Altai in the West next week. Share the cost of renting a Jeep. Find me at ….” You can also advertise that you are looking for kit and clothes. People going in the opposite direction may be looking to ditch their gear. I got some great gear off of a guy returning from Tibet heading for warmer climes.
Buying supplies for a new trip is a totally different experience from prepping back home. You have to be resourceful and buy things the locals would use for a start. You’ll also get to know the place you’re in in a completely different way from the normal tourist perspective as you hunt around all over for the market, relevant shops or the office to get that extension on your visa.
The safety issues regarding solo travelling cannot be ignored. I guess it’s one of the reasons why people stick together when they are out and about around SE Asia and China.
Whatever the negatives, there are surely some huge positives from breaking free and going it alone. It’s understandable that we want to share our experiences with others but on the flip side if you’re not accommodating others then you can bust your world wide open. Honestly, ask yourself how much of your day is spent independently or directing attention to other people? As a solo traveller you get to experience a whole range of emotions that you would never get to feel otherwise. Initially we feel the predictable ones such as loneliness and fear but if we give it time the real freedom and sense of adventure really kicks in plus a multitude of other feelings. I’ve always compared this to looking at a photo of a Piero della Francesca as opposed to standing in front of it for real in the Uffizi Gallery.
Along the way you’ll undoubtedly meet other people heading in a different direction. Check out what they’re doing and where they’re going. You can bet a thousand dollars that there are a huge number of amazing places you’ve never heard about in your country of choice or its neighbours. Often I’ve found that heading off in an unexpected direction can really add to the trip, especially if you’ve just met some new travellers to hang out with. If not then grab as much information as possible and give it some serious thought. It’s what happened to me and the trip to find the Eagle Hunters of Western Mongolia. It sounded so amazing I couldn’t not give it a go. What a fantastic trip that turned out to be.
Personal Space. In China there is none! People will enter the invisible barrier that surrounds us without thinking. For me it extends about one foot/30cms around my body. If someone comes inside this I flinch and become decidedly uncomfortable.
It’s hard but get used to it and don’t bother complaining about it like a moany old tourist!
Don’t get offended if someone does something that may clash with your culture. Remember you are a guest in someone else’s space. I often see Westerners taking offense to something that the locals are doing but who don’t have an inkling that it isn’t something that we would do back home. If they see you angry, they may not know why. Take it with a pinch of salt and a dash of humour. That’s what travelling’s all about anyway right?
Avoid touts and learn how to say no. Get wise quickly. The easiest and best thing to do is keep walking or walk away. It’s strange how touts have the power to make people stop and engage them. Once you’ve stopped and start to interact you’re on a downward slope gaining momentum. Give yourself the time to think about the situation.
On the other hand once you’ve found your feet then negotiating with touts can not only be a winnable contest but good fun. My friend Georgina who I met in Laos is like some secret weapon when it comes to dealing with taxi and tuktuk drivers, hotel receptionists and the purchase of any tickets. Her legendary interactions are hilarious to watch as she chips away at the most battle hardened of sharks until they finally and reluctantly give in.
If you’re wondering what the hell is going on in the photo, it was on the Mongolia 2007 trip within the walls of the Erdene Zuu Monastery. He was as strong as an ox and proceeded to do various ‘massage’ of sorts without asking. There was no way I was going to escape. Ten minutes of excruciating pain later he finished and demanded money!
Keep off the street food. Yes yes, I know I know I know. You’re here to sample the delights of another country and all that of course, but ask yourself, will this really enhance your trip? I mean wont the local restaurants do? You’ll meet a lot of people along the way unable to travel who have a dodgy stomach. You try sitting on a bumpy old bus for hours when things are getting urgent. If it aint you, sit back and enjoy the trip! Oh and yes, of course drink bottled water if you’re in a country that may need it. Check the cap is properly sealed when you open it.
In China it’s perfectly ok to ask to see your room before you pay for it. To the people who work there, they may think your room is perfectly ok but check out the water works, the beds are ok and that there is no building work going on right outside the window. Be prepared to roll your sleeves up and ask for another room if the one they are dumping on you isn’t up to scratch!
If you stay in a dorm watch out for your stuff. I’ve had loads of stuff stolen in dorms. If you find some travel mates (and you inevitably will) then pay for a cheap double room in a guesthouse if you can. You can get all of your kit out, do all of your washing and hang it up to dry. You don’t have to put up with others shagging in the bunk bed next to you, farting or throwing up!
Keep all of your receipts. I am terrible for this as in China it’s easy to end up with a huge wad of paper by the end of the day. I do it all the time and that is completely losing half of the paperwork that someone gave me the day before. You’ll need to hand back all of your receipts when checking out of your hotel. If you don’t have them then you’re going to be in for a big problem then can take ages to sort itself out when really you need to be heading for the bus station.
Aircon’ Flu: Keep off the aircon’ if you can. During my first few weeks I lived with it on cold whenever I was indoors and got really sick not knowing why. Duuuu! I blamed in on the street food.
The Red Lantern Guesthouse in Beijing was my second home for months. Filled with character it’s definitely worth a shout if you are heading through. (click here)
Visa Runs: (China) By far the best place I’ve come across so far to get a new Chinese visa or extension is Forever Bright Trading in Hong Kong Kowloon. Its office is easy to find and the website has a great interactive map via the ‘contact us’ tab. (click here) You can get a brand new L, F or M-Visa in 24 hrs if you get there before lunch time.
If you’re a Brit then you can also get a new Chinese visa in South Korea or Thailand as you only need a stamp in your passport for a thirty day entry and if you’re from the ‘States then likewise in Mongolia. The latter is super cheap including the airfare to get to Hohhot on the border.
Keep a small pocket-sized book. Keep it with you at all times and somewhere easily reachable. Get as much information as you can about anything. You’ll no doubt meet plenty of other travellers who will be more than happy to share information about where they’ve just been. New places you never heard about, extra info about the next port of call, great guesthouses and hotels that have no guidebook reviews, language, e-mail addresses and contacts and especially the names of all the locals in every shop or restaurant you get to know; get it all down! People will warm to you ten times faster if you remember their name the second time you meet and you have one step in the door to making a new friend, therefore making an inroad into a new culture. First-hand experience real info not just from the WKTG e.g. is there really an internet café there? In this case the guidebook had us looking all over for an empty shell of a hut that looked like it had been empty for years! Also the crap places to avoid are equally important to note down.
It really pays to be OCD with your most invaluables like your passport and your wallet. Everything else is secondary compared to these two items. Keep them in the same place every time you go out. Use pockets that are difficult to be rifled by someone else and never in a bag. Continually check them. If you’re in a hot place and have no pockets then leave them in a safe place back at the hotel, whatever! I met someone who got pissed and lost his passport. After a week of hell and reporting it missing to the police station he found it down the back of the sofa. A couple on their honeymoon got both their passports stolen putting their whole one year itinerary up the Khyber. It felt bad just hanging with them they were having such a bad time. Yes, they left them in a bag on a seat in a restaurant. Nice one! For me, Mongolia was the worst, where I had at least five known attempts at picking my pocket, one guy actually opening my rucksack while I was wearing it. Just as well he then collapsed in an alcoholic stupor at the side of the road.
When you are on the road and it’s time to come back to your home country, check out the cost of a return ticket. Tickets into your home country are often mega cheap compared to the price of leaving. It’s a really great feeling of security to know that if your reversed culture shock is too much you can just hit the road again immediately. Some friends I have seen, having arrived on home soil after a year or two on the road handled their reverse culture shock disastrously. Why should adventures come to an end anyway? I think life should be one big adventure that is forever moving forward.
There are plenty of trains so only catch the bus if it’s completely necessary, especially the notorious sleeper buses. These are the ones that travel over night with a single brief ten minute pit stop at some god forsaken dive in the middle of nowhere.
Despite that and the discomfort, lack of cleanliness and personal space I must admit to seriously enjoying this mode of transport; lying there all day and night watching a different country go by for hours at a time; awesome! However, the dangers of travelling this way are not to be underestimated. Out of four long distance trips I’ve made this way, we were involved in two crashes and one near fatal over the side of a cliff. On a brief trip from Lijiang our minibus drove past a head to head involving two sleepers. Though the routine is to rotate two or more drivers throughout the journey, it’s still hard for them to stay awake and that’s all there is to it!
Trains are obviously much safer though of course keep your valuables somewhere out of sight especially if you only have a ticket for a seat and you’re sharing with six other people. Make sure you buy your ticket from a reliable source such as the station ticket office and not private transactions, for example, a local you met at the hotel. There are fake tickets everywhere and if someone is already in your seat, you can throw them out no problem if you’ve definitely just bought one from the ticket office. And yes, don’t be afraid to ask someone to move. Most people will!
Well that’s about it. After 10 years of being away, by far the best times have come from stopping for a while and planning something more ambitious. Hit the thumbs below or for a close-up of the scenery from each trip go to (Galleries Tibet) (Mongolia: To the West) (Galleries: Mongolia, Hirvesteg)
Wishing you all a safe and incredible journey wherever you are.
Categories: On the Road