There are two types of wild travel stories. The first kind are the stories you hear at bars, like the tales you hear after young adults return back from their end-of-school break. The second kind of wild travel story belongs to those who venture off the well-travelled trail, far outside of the environment they came from.
These stories are about the latter.
Crossing the border with guns and guards
Crossing a border usually involves lines, some paperwork, a stamp, the end. Crossing overland between Iran and Pakistan, however, was a bit more intense. To get anywhere significant in Pakistan from the Iranian border, you have to drive through the desert running along the Afghanistan border, a sandbox for drug smugglers and Taliban alike.
The whole process took six days, starting with a military escort to the border on the Iranian side. We spent the night in a police station on the Pakistani side, its courtyard filled with cars riddled with bullet holes (“Drug smugglers, more smugglers, Taliban,” one of the officers pointed out with a devious grin).
In the days after, we were never without guard… nor Kalashnikovs. We were human batons, passed from one pickup truck to another as police took turns driving us across their districts. We watched dusty desert and colorful trucks pass from the open beds of the pickup trucks. Our guards alternated between scanning the desert for Taliban — fingers on triggers — and asking for selfies with us. One young officer offered to let us shoot his Kalashnikov; unfortunately his boss was more responsible.
The last stop: house arrest in a Quettan hotel, home base of the Pakistani Taliban. We were only allowed out once, with escort, to apply for permits to leave the area. After several days, papers in hand, we were put on a train (still with guards and guns), and rode through sweltering summer heat for 20 hours to reach Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city.
Never again will we take a quick and easy border crossing for granted!
By Alex, Lost With Purpose
The ups and downs of Armenian hospitality
The last car dropped us right in front of Vanadzor’s fire brigade station. Night was fast approaching. Dilijan, where our Couchsurfing host and a warm bed awaited us, was another 30 kilometers away.
I raised my thumb again, until a fireman who had come out to have a smoke approached me, gesturing to follow him inside.
Life turned upside down in minutes: we were ushered into a small control room with a couch and a TV, served a steaming dinner of hot mutton broth and bread, black coffee, and we refused offers of cigarettes.
“You will sleep here tonight,” the man made himself understood.
He had served in the contested Gorno-Badakshan region, shooting Azerbaijani soldiers for a living, until he had had a serious accident and was sent back home.
“Look this,” he said in English, pushing his smartphone into my hands.
The first picture had a photo of his daughter holding a rifle and a helmet, standing over an Azerbaijani flag. The next photo was a close-up of a severed human ear.
“I cut it myself from one of those Azeri dogs’ corpses,” he told me with signs and gazes. We gulped down. The room was cosy and warm, at least.
But at 10 p.m., his superior asked us to leave the station for “security reasons”.
We walked up the road looking for a dry space among dishevelled abandoned buildings. At last, a bread-maker allowed us to camp next to his shop’s door. We curled on the floor, rattling in the cold.
The next morning, the tent’s flap didn’t seem to work anymore: it was frozen shut. Breathing against it until it opened, we found three inches of snow blanketing our surroundings. The best way to start a day of May — at least, the bread-maker came out with hot coffee and a chocolate bar. You never go wrong with Armenian hospitality.
Heading to the Himalayas for peace and finding none
I have always correlated the Himalayas with peace and quiet. However, my trip up there was anything but that.
In India, I met a Couchsurfer who spent half his life searching for the best of the Himalayas. After convincing me to join him for a trip into the mountains, I happily took a nine-hour long night bus ride into the village that he resided in. On the first day of the expedition, we misplaced our cell phones during a break from a four-hour motorbike ride. After frantically searching for a working phone, we managed to dial our number.
Unexpectedly, a woman answered our call and happily agreed to hold onto our phones until we passed through the village again.
So we went on our way.
On the second day, I lost my wallet and passport. We traced our tracks for kilometers and kilometers, but got nowhere. Several hours and a mini panic attack later, we were contacted by a family that found my belongings on the side of the road… a village away.
We retrieved the things and kept travelling.
While passing a lake at night, our bike tripped over a pothole on the road and came crashing down. The review mirror broke and the engine refused to start. It was only after getting up that we realized if the motorcycle was going any faster, we would have been thrown into the lake.
Since it was late, we had to push the motorcycle towards the nearest guest house and wait for the body shop to open in the morning.
Now, I’m no believer in ghosts and such, but I swear India is no regular land. My first two months there were latent with weird happenings – deaths, sickness, accidents and bad luck. It was no surprise that I was incredibly relieved to have made it to the top of the Himalayas alive!
And might I add, it was all worth it.
By Daisy Li, Beyond my Border
Infected in East Timor
The nurse jabbed into my leg with tweezers, with the same gentleness and grace of a mountaineer with a pickaxe. Hot tears ran down my cheeks.
"We need to get the pus," the nearby East Timorese doctor told me as he picked up a scalpel.
I screamed and recoiled my leg. Thanks to an infected mosquito bite, my ankle swelled to nearly twice its normal size. The infection was red, warm to touch, and quickly spreading.
Local East Timorese people had caught the news of a malae, or foreigner, being treated in the hospital building and gathered around the door entry. The more I yelped, the more they gasped and giggled. Privacy wan’t a high priority in this hospital — and neither was proper sanitation. Dried blood speckled the hospital bed, and the doctor didn’t bother with cleaning the (very dirty) wound site before attempting to cut into my body with a scalpel.
A text message from my doctor back home came in and read, "If you can’t get the right antibiotics, you’ll need to be on the next flight back to Australia. You could get sepsis." My travel insurance seconded this sentiment.
Before arriving to this hospital, my group of friends and I motorcycled down chunked-out roads through East Timorese villages, stopping at every makeshift pharmacy on the way. Pharmacies here were typically a room in someone’s home, stocked with antibiotics in yellowed boxes donated by the U.N. and nonprofit organisations. So far, none of the places we’d visited on our five-hour journey had the antidote for my infection.
The largest pharmacy outside of Dili, East Timor
After I refused to let the doctor slice my leg, I handed him the name of the antibiotic I needed.
"Yes, we have," he nodded and came back with a brand new package. "Free," he clarified.
Within a day, the infection stopped spreading and my leg began to return to its normal state.
Note that I’m originally from the U.S., so East Timor, one of the world’s poorest countries, offered me free healthcare while at home this incident would’ve cost me a small fortune.
By Chantae Reden, Chantae Was Here
The KGB and a Flag
February 1989. The Berlin Wall was still in place. Nelson Mandela was still in prison and I was a naive 19-year-old heading to Russia, or rather, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as it was then called. I was travelling alone, but joining a group there.
On our first night at the hotel, the waiters asked to exchange money. We could get ten times the value if we exchanged directly with them. I was in. Not because I like risk, but because I was skint. It seemed this behaviour became a pattern as the week wore on. We were often approached and asked for Levi jeans and offered different things to trade.
I wanted a flag — a bright crimson red one with the hammer and sickle on it. When I found someone willing to trade, I was so excited. I had some mix tapes I’d brought with me, recorded off the radio. I offered those and some cash.
As soon as the transaction took place, two guys ran out of the hotel. They didn’t look like they were interested is poor radio recordings of 80s pop. We all scattered and I hid in the stairwell of the large hotel. I don’t think I slept that night. We left the next day — me with a large CCCP flag stuffed down the back of my trousers.
I loved that flag.
By Melanie Hayes, Adventures in Overland