Hello from Germany! I’m Hazwany, and for the last 6 to 7 weeks I have been backpacking solo through Eastern Europe, passing through 19 cities in 10 countries with another 2 countries left to go.
Touring Europe was my travel dream since university days, born by reading fictional tales of train travels through scenic mountains and river crossings. As a fresh graduate coming out of university however, money had been the biggest issue preventing me from actually doing it. Then it was the thought of finding a travel partner, and once I started working, my enemy became time.
Taking the First Step
It was towards the end of February this year when the opportunity finally presented itself. I was about to come out of a job, had some savings stashed away and would soon have more than enough time on my hands. I had also been travelling solo for the last few years, hence finding a travel partner was no longer a concern. So during lunchtime on one of my last working days, I looked up cheap flights to Europe and promptly booked a one-way flight to Athens. And that’s how my European adventure started.
You may wonder why Athens of all places? Honestly, when I was browsing through the flight deals, tickets to Athens were the cheapest as budget-carrier Scoot flies there (tip: fly ScootBiz for a comfortable journey but at a much lesser price than an economy flight on a full-cost carrier). Furthermore, I had been wanting to visit Budapest for a few years (for no particular reason besides beautiful pictures), hence this seemed like the perfect opportunity to expand the trip and make it a tour of Eastern Europe. I had also heard that Eastern Europe was much cheaper than its western counterparts, which would be an added bonus for my budget.
Preparing for the Trip
I should mention here that I am not an A-to-Z kind of travel planner. My travel style is to book flights and accommodation (and visa if necessary), buy travel insurance when I receive promotional emails, then decide everything else after I have arrived at my destination. This Europe trip however required a bit more planning than that (although I still left pretty much everything to the last minute).
Luckily for Singaporeans, we do not have to apply for a visa to enter the EU and Schengen areas (we can stay for up to 90 days within a 180 day period). The visa limitation and the upcoming Ramadan month, however, meant that I had to decide when to come back. I knew that I wanted to travel for at least a month, but that posed a question: Should I come back before Ramadan starts or after Hari Raya? Coming back before Ramadan would have given me about 3 weeks to a month of travel, but that meant I wouldn’t be able to cover much ground. Travelling for three full months would have allowed me to travel at a slower pace, but would mean a lot more in travel expenses as well. In the end, after asking my sisters (who insisted that I should be home to help with Raya preparations), I decided to travel for two months, returning one week before Syawal.
With a return date in mind, I began looking for flight deals out of Europe, along with travel insurance and European data/sim card packages. Past conversations with Round-The-World (RTW) travellers in previous trips also taught me that I would not want to be bringing around a large amount of cash. Thus I researched for good travel cards that could either cover withdrawal fees at overseas ATMs, admin fees for card charges and currency conversions and/or provide decent conversion rates. The last thing to decide was my travel mode within Europe. Should I get a Eurail pass (and what kind), or should I buy my tickets from point-to-point? To help me decide, I had to create a rough travel itinerary from start to end to see which option(s) would make better economic sense. With all that (more or less) done, I settled my accommodations for my first destination, then waited for the big day to arrive.
Breaking the News to Family and Friends
Being an impromptu traveller, I have a bad habit of booking my trips first, then telling people about it. Hence when I broke the news about this trip to my dad (who's used to it by now), he only had a surprised reaction when I mentioned how long I would be away. In fact, he started whining that he wanted to go on a trip too (next time dad!). As this was not my first time travelling solo or living alone (I had previously spent 2 years in Melbourne furthering my studies), I think he was not too worried and trusted that I could take care of myself.
Other friends and family members had mixed reactions. Some were excited for me, some were briefly worried, and others commented that I was brave (maybe too brave) for wanting to backpack through Eastern Europe alone. I think the apprehension everyone had was because Eastern Europe was practically unknown territory to many of us (me included), hence we simply did not know what to expect. But like my dad, they trusted that I would be able to take care of myself hence they simply wished me a good and safe journey.
Onwards We Go!
Fast forward to today, I am currently on week 6.5 out of 9 weeks in Eastern Europe and loving every single minute of it. I have visited 19 cities in 10 countries, taken trains and buses through beautiful mountains and across rivers, stayed in cosy hostels and had delightful conversations with other solo travellers at almost every stop (in fact almost everyone I have met is a solo traveller or has travelled solo). I have explored cobbled city streets and read by beautiful lakes, tried local cuisine and attended free art exhibitions and events. I have climbed up ruins, rode boats down rivers and visited countless castles and churches in various architectural styles. I have revisited secondary school history lessons and gained far more knowledge about world wars and communism beyond what was taught in my textbooks those many years ago.
The beauty of travelling to new places without much prior research or planning is that I also get to be surprised by every location and spontaneously discover new experiences. Like that time I walked up to the excavated ruins of Nebe Tepe in Plovdiv, Bulgaria and received a beautiful panorama of the town; or watched the sunset at the base of Ljubljana Castle in Ljubljana, Slovenia; or had lunch in Bucharest, Romania with two Italian students studying foreign languages (we had been on the same walking tour and bumped into each other at a restaurant recommended by our tour guide); or had my day planned by my hostel manager and ended up having a lovely few hours by Lake Zakrzowek in Krakow, Poland. These unplanned experiences have been some of the best on my trip so far, and I cannot wait to see what the next 3 weeks will bring.
The blessings of walking tours and learning about Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe’s ‘free’ walking tours (‘free’ because the tours have no fixed price but work on a tips basis) are an amazing discovery and something that I would highly recommend. Organised by non-profit organisations, the tours are conducted by professional guides who are either locally born or have lived in the city for at least 5 years. They usually last around 2 to 2.5 hours and bring visitors through the city’s main highlights while sharing the history of the country, the significance of the places visited, the guides’ personal stories and recommendations on best activities to do or local places to eat at. Some cities also have themed walking tours such as the communist tour in Sofia, Bulgaria, street art tour in Budapest, Hungary and the Holocaust traces tour in Krakow, Poland. One of the first things I do when I reach a new city now is to check out the schedules for the free walking tours and participate in one the next morning. It’s the perfect way for me to get a quick yet thorough introduction to the city and country, especially when I only spend 3 to 4 nights per location.
As I mentioned previously, prior to this trip I knew very little about this part of the world except for the fact that they used to be communist. I was woefully ignorant of their histories or their struggles for democracy and independence and wasn't even sure how developed or undeveloped they were. Thus, personal safety was one of my biggest concerns as I simply did not know what to expect. It was a happy surprise then to find out that Eastern Europe has some of the safest countries to travel to, and ironically this is due to their communist past. As my tour guide in Romania explained, under the communist regimes people were not allowed to possess any personal weapons and criminals were punished very harshly even for petty crimes. After they broke free from communism (as short as just 30 years ago for some countries!), reminders of these punishments were still fresh in people’s memories, hence the most common crimes that happen now are pickpocketing and scams. There has not been a day where I felt at all unsafe walking the streets, even at night. Learning about the histories and struggles of people who lived through those revolutions have also been a very humbling experience and a reminder that we sometimes take our peace and freedom in Singapore for granted.
The ups and downs of travelling
Of course, travelling is not without its challenges. I have been conned (and learnt fast from it), changed too much Euro at one place and too little in another (many Eastern European countries have their own currencies, hence I had either too much or too little money to spend), navigated my way to my hostel at night without any GPS or maps (my phone battery had died, so all I had to help me were scribbled directions from the train station to the hostel; thank God it was a straightforward route) and once chose to sleep on a hostel couch due to other disruptive guests who refused to leave even after hostel management asked them to (unfortunately for me there were no other available beds in the hostel that night; fortunately too that it was my last night there). In fact, if I have to share my biggest challenge while travelling so far, it would be trying to avoid second-hand cigarette smoke (this has been in vain; Europeans are heavy smokers, and the cold weather makes them smoke more). But all these challenges have made my experience richer and given me more interesting stories to tell people back home.
With spring quickly moving into summer here in Europe, Ramadan for me this time around means long fasting days and very short nights. Right now in Germany for instance, Subuh is at 2.44am while Maghrib is only at 8.50pm at night, and I know that the days will only stretch longer throughout the remaining 2.5 weeks of my trip. Luckily for me, I find that I tend to forget about eating and drinking when I am preoccupied walking around town and visiting attractions. The only drawback is that I can’t sit at cafes when I need to let my feet take a break (but that’s what public parks are for, and there’s plenty of them all over Europe). I am also used to skipping sahur (not a good thing, I know) so that experience comes in handy at this time, since I’m usually not allowed to eat in my hostel rooms but only in the common areas (besides, I wouldn’t want to be bothering my roommates who are trying to sleep). The bigger issues are finding out what the fasting times are for the different places (difficult to keep track when you keep moving) and finding late night food options (kebab stalls are usually open till late, but having kebab every day is not part of my plans while I’m here). I may have to consider finding hostels with kitchens that I can use at any time and cook my own dinner. In any case, I am definite it will be an experience I will never forget.
These two months around Europe has been a long trip in the making, and what a journey it has been. Aside from discovering new places and learning more histories and cultures, I have also become more aware of myself, my values, thought processes, limits and choices. I’ve learnt to let go at times, to worry less about uncertainties, to take better care of myself both physically and mentally and to just enjoy the moment. Travelling solo is more than just a choice by now, it’s almost a catharsis and a necessity for me.
As I approach my last 2 weeks in Europe, I am starting to feel a bit melancholy that it will be over soon, but I am very glad that I have taken the leap and made my dream a reality. I know that I will definitely be back someday, there’s still so much of Europe that I haven’t seen! So for now, I am just going to sit back, relax and enjoy my remaining 2 weeks.
My advice for anyone who wants to travel solo but is afraid to do so: Just do it. It’s better to have tried once than to regret not having tried at all. And trust me, whatever experiences you have (be they positive or negative) will make you better understand yourself.
To read more about Hazwany on her travels, visit her Polarstep account (search for Hazwany Razali and click on Europe). You can also find more of her writings on her personal blog as well her musings on Malay arts here.