As travellers, we're always wondering when and where our next trip will be ? For many of us, experiences such as quitting our job to travel, hitchhiking on a shoestring budget, or embarking on a months-long trip all seem like impossible dreams. But there are some people such as Sufian for whom all three of these amazing experiences have become reality!
Having hitchhiked all the way from London to Singapore over 7 months, we got to talk to him to find out more about his decision to embark on such a long trip, what he's learnt from it, and where he's headed to next. ?
We’re actually curious about the 3 years before this trip - we know you quit your job to travel more, and you mentioned that you hitchhiked in Myanmar and Borneo. What influenced that decision?
I have seen videos on the internet of how Western travellers travel on a budget by hitchhiking. I have always wanted to give hitchhiking a try but didn't have the chance to do so...it is more of not knowing how to than not having the courage to do so. And fortunately, I happened to meet a hitchhiker from Germany when I was in Myanmar in 2016. I joined him hitchhiking through Myanmar for 2 weeks. The following year, I hitchhiked in Borneo solo; from Sabah all the way to Sarawak along the Borneo Highway which stretches of about 1,000km long.
What was it about travelling or hitchhiking that appealed so strongly to you that you made this change?
As a solo traveller, I love hitchhiking because it gives me a chance to meet locals and understand their lifestyle with great depth. Also not forgetting the adrenaline rush of hitchhiking on unknown roads, with unfamiliar faces, in a different country. I like the idea of how 2 strangers are constraint into a small space and watching a friendship blossom. Till today, I am still in contact with some of the drivers that I met while on the road.
What was your 1 favourite city or country that you experienced during this trip, and why?
It is hard to choose a favourite country as there are bountiful nice people in every corner of the world. But the countries that surprised me most would be Russia and Kazakhstan. They both share the same top spot. Russia and Kazakhstan have a special place in my heart. They are so special that I am now learning the Russian language in hopes to be able to come back again to those countries and communicate with the locals better.
The Russians and Kazakhs are probably the most hospitable people I've met throughout this trip. As a traveller with a darker skin complexion, locals were curious to know where I come from. Just walking along the street, I was greeted with hellos in their native language, locals took selfies with me, they invited me over for meals and I even got to stay with them in their homes for the night. It is surprising to know that the locals aren't how they were negatively portrayed in mainstream media.
There was a time when a driver dropped me about 10km on the outskirt of Moscow city, as he wasn’t heading towards Moscow city centre. It was very late at night, I think it was about 1am. There were no city buses heading towards the city centre but there was a mall nearby. I tried to go to the mall’s carpark…somewhere warm for me to sleep. And then a security guard saw me walking aimlessly at the carpark. He called me. The funny thing was that he didn’t ask me what was I trying to do. He went inside his security post and came out with a cup of coffee. From his body language, I assumed he asked me to drink the coffee to keep myself warm. He told me that I can sleep in his security post until 6am when the first bus to the city centre arrived at the nearby bus stop.
You mentioned that you bought your ticket to London on a whim. Why did you decide to hitchhike all the way back, rather than take a flight? How much prep went into this almost year-long trip once you'd made your decision?
Just to challenge myself and have fun! I would love to see the world as much as possible. The only prep done was getting my Russian Visa and a list of things that I would want to visit in each country...only to realise later that I was not able to do most of the things there because they were closed during winter.
Before I embarked on this trip, I was somewhat sceptical about it. There were several worries running through my head, things like "what if no one stops for me because of my dark complexion?" or "Will I be treated differently if I am a foreigner?" or "Why am I so crazy to hitchhike around the world?" But because I am not getting any younger and knowing that I may not get the chance in the near future, I decided to take the risks.
Were there times during your journey where you felt personally or spiritually tested? How did you overcome those obstacles?
It has to be one of those moments when I was in China where I was stuck in Lanzhou city for 2 days with no one stopping for me. Drivers would slow down, have a look at me and then speed off. There was a driver who showed the middle gesture at me even. I was appalled by the driver's action and tried to calm myself down at a nearby coffeehouse. There, I had a chance to chat with the store owner and she was surprised to know that I am Singaporean. Her first impression of me was she thought I am a from Tibet and as she was explaining to me about China's conflict with Tibet & the Uyghurs, I realised maybe no one stopped for me because of how I looked.
Hitchhiking in China with a sign that says “From Singapore”
I then came up with an idea to come up with a cardboard sign which says "From Singapore" in Chinese characters. The following day, I put my experiment to action and it worked! I got a ride within 10 minutes and from there onwards, I was hitchhiking in China with that signage.
Despite all of our best efforts, things often go wrong during a trip - was there any one incident in particular that happened throughout your months on the road that really blindsided you? And how did it change how you would prepare for future trips?
While I was touring Southeast Asia 3 years ago, I was fortunate enough that I wasn't caught in any tricky situation at all. But in my recent long-distance hitchhiking trip, there were times where I was robbed, pickpocketed and got kicked out by my Couchsurfing host in the middle of the night due to a miscommunication, language barrier that is. I have learnt it is not a matter of how prepared you are but rather how you would react to it. There is no use in blaming yourself of something that you can't predict or control over it and then spoiling your whole travel experience for it.
We noticed you mentioned Ramadan in one of your Instagram posts. What was it like keeping up with your religious obligations (Ramadan, fasting, prayer, etc.) while on the road?
To my understanding, travellers (Musafirs) who are on a journey may not fast and their prayers shortened in Ramadhan according to Islamic Jurisprudence. I was travelling in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China during the month of Ramadhan. Even while on the road in Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan, I saw drivers stopping by the roadside, in the middle of steppes, to perform their prayers. I had a very meaningful Ramadhan as the Muslims in each of these countries lead a very different lifestyle and that I am grateful for having the chance to understand their lifestyle even better.
Was there a specific incident that renewed your faith, or made you feel like you could continue after a rough obstacle?
Travelling in China was the toughest. In the western part of China, in Xinjiang province, security was so tight that there were tank barricades at every road entrances, police checkpoints, public buildings were "decorated" with barbed wires and even body scanners at restaurants. Locals were not allowed to host foreigners and foreigners were not allowed to register themselves for a tourist sim card unless they have a Chinese ID.
So basically, as Singapore passport holders were given 15 days visa free for China, I was travelling blindly without online maps and without any Couchsurfing hosts throughout my stay there. I, however, managed to stay with an English professor in Nanning at a local university. It was so rough travelling in China that she noticed that I was talking to myself in the bathroom that I wasn't even aware of it myself either.
At the entrance of toll booth where a group of policemen helped me to get a lift to my next destination.
I see these hardships as a test for both the physical & spiritual body, where at several points of the journey, I was presented with kindness and learnt a lot of new things. For example, I was caught by the policemen for hitchhiking on the highway in Tianshui city. They brought me back to the police station at the nearest toll booth and I explained to them about my journey. The sergeant then ordered 6 of his men to help me out by stopping cars that were passing by the toll booth so that I was able to get a lift to my next destination. Turns out later, all 6 men and the Sergeant were all Hui Muslims who just wanted to help a fellow Muslim traveller.
We’ve heard from other solo travellers that it can feel isolating out there, which can be taken in various ways. Did you feel anything like this? Was the solitude a more positive or negative experience for you?
There was a massive traffic jam on the road from Nizhny Novgorod to Kazan. We were stuck in the jam for 2 hours. The day was getting dark soon and needed to find a place to pitch my tent.
There were times where I felt lonely when I was wild camping in Switzerland, Russia and China. And I find travelling solo is liberating, especially when I am hitchhiking. Most drivers who stopped to pick me up are usually those easy-going and hilarious bunch. It's a win-win situation for drivers who are on a long-distance trip: they get a companion and we share stories about our lives. Most importantly, we created a friendship beyond boundaries. When I am in a certain city, I will send messages to Couchsurfers if they are able to host for a few days or simply just to hang around for a meal.
Lots of us come away from trips feeling changed, in some way or another - how big of a change was it for you? What was the most life-changing thing that happened during your trip?
As a budget traveller, I couchsurfed, hitchhiked and dumpster-dived most of the time as a way to spend as little as possible. This has taught me how to differentiate between wants and needs. I learnt that lesson the hard way for almost 7 months and it has become a habit. Now, I do not fancy dining at expensive restaurants or branded goods. I wouldn't mind having a $5 meal at a local hawker stall that fills the tummy and a $60 second-hand iPhone 4s that allows me to interact with friends.
If you had the chance to do another big trip like this again, would you rather redo your trip (since hindsight is 20/20!) or go somewhere else completely new? If it’s the latter, what are the new countries you’ve set your sights on?
In July, I will embark on a hitchhiking charity marathon where I will try to raise awareness & funds for a charity foundation in India. The journey will start from Mongolia, I will hitchhike through Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Pakistan and end in India. More details to come nearer to the dates.
What was the one thing you had during this trip that was so important you can’t imagine future trips without it?
Smart Phone (and passport!). We are living in the most advanced technological times where gadgets & apps such as Google Maps & Google Translator can really take a burden off our shoulder while on the road. Also, happy thoughts & memories help a lot in lonely or difficult times. I get through a lot of troubles with just a smile.
Finally, do you have any advice - practical or inspirational! - for other Muslims who are thinking of attempting a long journey like this?
Let Curiosity Conquer Your Fear. I have been asked if I was ever scared while travelling alone and I told the drivers that when you travel with good intentions, good things will come for you. Thankfully, nothing serious happened to me as I was travelling without any travel insurance.
(#HHWT would just like to say that we highly encourage purchasing travel insurance especially for long trips!)
You can follow Sufian's future adventure on his Instagram.