Six things we’ve learned from six months of backpacking

We’ve officially been on the road for half a year! Here’s a look back to six things we’ve learned from six months of backpacking.

 

Hoorah hooray! Today is the day!

What day, you say?

I will explain, if I may.

On February 24–exactly six months ago, today–we said doei to the Netherlands, put our woefully underprepared backpacks and bodies onto a plane, and hopped on over to Tbilisi, Georgia. I’d like to say we arrived energized and excited to begin our epic voyage… but we were mostly sleepy and desperate for something that wasn’t airplane crackers. A fitting start to our (mis)adventures.

Our journey beginning in Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam

A throwback to paler days in the Netherlands, before we had regular sun exposure.

Cliché as it sounds, in the six months since, we’ve been through a lot. We’ve been led by spirit animals, explored the most ancient winery in the world, scampered on the roofs of grand bazaars, and been smoked silly and drowned in fruit by the most hospitable people in the world.

The Areni-1 winery near Yeghegnadzor, Armenia.

Despite having no permit, we were let into the Areni-1 caves to see the oldest known winery in the world. 6,100 years old, NBD.

We’ve grappled with parasites, hitchhiked with truckers, lost all of our socks, and frozen our bums off more often than not.

(The last two may be related.)

Looking out while hiking in Mestia, Georgia

Look, Ma, we’re intrepid! Just kidding, we’re actually freezing our asses off and wishing we had real coats.

After backpacking overland through seven countries, despite making complete fools of ourselves time and time again, we’d like to think that we’ve also learned a thing or two about travel.

(And not just how to toilet text on a squatty, though I am very proud of that one.)

 

Six things we’ve learned from six months of travel

1. The local is not always right.

The Esteemed and Omnipotent Local is always touted as an end-all source of wisdom. “Cafe X is recommended by locals.” “Locals love to hang out at Y.”

Sure, locals can give bombdiggity recs that your crumpled old guidebook hasn’t heard of… but we’ve gotten plenty of poor recommendations from locals, too.

Saif al Mulk lake near Naran, Pakistan

Naran was recommended to us by many Pakistanis, and to be fair, the surroundings were beautiful…

 

Clusterfuck in Naran, Pakistan

… but the area was filled with tourists, trash, and was generally less pleasant than the rest of northern Pakistan.

We’ve trekked across a city to find a local-recommended restaurant, only to find out they’ve pointed us towards their favorite American burger joint. Locals told us we could surely visit places without escort, and we ended up being accosted by police for walking around by ourselves. A million and one Pakistanis recommended we visit “Shangri La” in northern Pakistan… which turned out to be a 5-star luxury resort on a heart-shaped manmade lake. Break out the swan paddle boats! (Translation: not our cup of tea.)

I’m not saying you should bury your nose in your guidebook and tune out the locals–just keep context in mind when asking around.

Foul glacial water in Sost, Pakistan

“You can drink the water! It is very clean!”

 

2. Comfort is always worth an extra dollar.

At first, we were hardcore budget travelers. We knew how to travel cheap: we only booked the cheapest beds, we considered pastries from metro stations a nutritious balanced diet (onions count as vegetables, right?), and we always took the cheapest transport available.

An old orange soviet bus in Gyumri, Armenia

Nothing like a little cheap and cheerful transportation to start—and possibly end—your day.

… then we got bedbugs from the cheap sleeps, incessant pains from sitting in midget-sized bus seats for hours, and I began to literally shit pure cheese our intestines started to protest our wretched diet.

Ajarian kachapuri in Batumi, Georgia

Fact: melted cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is not a sustainable diet if you plan on living past 30.

These days, we’re still traveling on a budget, but now we’re willing to shell out an extra dollar for bus seats that recline, and I occasionally order a side of vegetables at dinner to keep the scurvy and cheesy excrements at bay.

 

3. The more you travel, the more stupid mistakes you make.

Not that we like counting, but we’ve each visited over 40 countries at this point, so we’re comfortable saying we’re somewhat experienced travelers.

… on paper.

Honestly, we probably make more rookie mistakes than first time backpackers. We constantly forget stuff in hostels. We constantly pack all kinds of crap we most definitely don’t need. We’ve starved on many a bus ride because we forgot to buy food ahead of time. No matter how many times we vow to be better prepared, we end up with one liter of water between the two of us for full day hikes. (Note: definitely not enough.)

Hiking in the meadows near Kolsai, Kazakhstan

One liter of water should get us through eight hours of hiking… right?

Unlike new travelers, who are constantly over prepared and on the lookout for everything and anything that could go wrong, we’re dangerously lax and constantly screwed as a result. At least we haven’t been pickpocketed… yet.

 

4. Language barriers aren’t as big as you’d think.

One of the most common questions that comes our way: “How do you communicate with locals? Isn’t language a problem?”

Not going to sugar coat it—sometimes it is. Xinjiang, China just didn’t float our metaphorical boats, and part of that is probably due to our speaking zero Mandarin or Uyghur.

But that was an exception. There’s plenty that you can say with body language, miming, and a smile, so long as everyone is patient.

Bonding with locals in Yeghegnadzor, Armenia

When Georgians and Armenians realized my Russian is absolutely abhorrent, they’d simply take our hands and help us along, or play Charades with us until we figured things out. The jolliest of Georgian grandmothers hosted and doted upon us for an entire day, despite not speaking a word of English. She still managed to communicate and stuff us silly.

Stuffed by a grandmother in Zugdidi, Georgia

Our first afternoon in Iran was spent with a crazy pair of girls who could hardly form a sentence of English between them, and still we had a blast. Further into our Iranian adventure, we were hosted by the sweetest young man in Shush. He only spoke basic English, but he had the patience of a saint, and took the time to look up translations to each of his thoughts. There was a 5-10 minute delay in conversation, but at least there was conversation.

Lunch with a family in Shush, Iran

English be damned–he hosted us for several days, showed us around the town, and we dined with his family, despite speaking no Farsi.

 

5. Malls are excellent places to have diarrhea.

When you’re straining your body with constant travel, feasting on street food and hole-in-the wall grub 24/7, the chance that you’ll eventually get diarrhea is 110%. I’m not shy about admitting it.

Street food in Karachi, Pakistan

We both picked up a parasite in Pakistan, and had to dash to a toilet every few hours for the majority of our time there. It was all well and good if we were at a guesthouse, but what to do when out and about on the street?

… MALLS. Though malls are the last place we’d want to spend time while traveling, they all have beautiful, shining, semi-clean thrones toilets… that come with toilet paper and air conditioning! Be still my heart—er, intestines.

Clifton Dolmen mall in Karachi, Pakistan

Oh Dolmen Mall. You’re so shiny. So clean. So well-equipped with western style toilets on every floor.

 

6. You can’t believe everything you see in the media.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all. Though media drives globalization, it also destroys it by focusing only on the negative aspects of countries.

Georgia and Armenia were made out to be bleak, war-ridden Soviet wastelands. Instead, we found warm hearts and kind souls (though they did drink just as much as we expected).

Friendly Georgians in Kazbegi, Georgia

According to the media, Iran is a hyper-conservative country of silent women swathed in black, and flag-burning young men. Tell that to the girls ripping off their hijab the second we went inside, or to the young men pestering us to help them find a way to visit LA.

A girl without hijab in Gorgan, Iran

Pakistan is portrayed as the land of guns, bombs, and turban-clad terrorists. Well, we did encounter some terrorists, but not the kind you would expect! Rather than angry hordes of Taliban, we were swarmed by hordes of the most hospitable people we’ve ever met in our travels.

Swarmed by hordes of happy Pakistanis

Onwards!

These first six months have set the bar dangerously high, and we often worry it’ll be impossible to top our experiences thus far. Our next steps will take us through Central Asia, a notoriously frustrating region to travel through, and to India, known for being insanely chaotic, uncomfortable, and wretched on the intestines. Only time will tell, but regardless of what happens, at least we know where the best toilets are.

 

We've been wandering around Eurasia for half a year! Here's six things we've learned from six months of backpacking. And they're not what you might expect.

 

Alex

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

24 thoughts on “Six things we’ve learned from six months of backpacking

    Probearoundthe Globe says:

    Toilet texting on a squatty is my new life goal! You guys rock, love following you along. Weirly, you look more out of place at Schiphol airport than amongst a few Pakistani guys. cheers for the next 6 months

    It’s secretly the accomplishment we’re most proud of 😉 We think we would feel more out of place too…It feels so distant now. Thanks for coming along for the ride, hope you feel the same after the next six months 😉

    Loveeeeeeeeed this post, Alex! Iran has been at the TOP of my list for the past few months and I am so excited to go there. I’m so happy you love it.

    And I definitely agree. Comfort is always worth the extra dollar. The last place I tried to budget travel, the room smelled like pee, grass was growing out the sink and there were like spiders everywhere. Let’s just say I neverrrrr did that again. Oh yeah, and the place had good ratings. :/

    Woop woop Iran! Will you be going there soon Natasha?

    As for budget travels… Um, WHAT, grass growing in the sink? Yuck man! Perhaps all of the ratings were bought or faked somehow… It’s always good to check.

    Don’t let your grassy experience turn you away from budget travels completely. There are plenty of lovely (and non-grass-filled) budget places in the world, too 🙂

    Hey, thanks for linking to our article on the rigors of travel in Central Asia! We’re glad you found it useful.

    This is a great list of lessons learned. #1 is absolutely true. We found that locals often recommend places they think tourists should go. The local person making the recommendation may not have even visited the place, but will recommend it because it is famous. For example, everyone in Kyrgyzstan recommended Lake Issyk-Kul, which we avoided because we suspected it would just be a tacky tourist resort.

    It was refreshing to read an article that wasn’t only positive. We still have several weeks to go in Central Asia, so we’ll let you know if we agree once we’re done 😉

    Issyk Kul is a great example! There are beautiful and less touristy areas around the lake, but all of the locals direct you towards places like Cholpon Ata, which was hardly more than a tacky tourist main street…

    Aaaah – Wish I could meet & host you guys when you were on Pakistan trip 🙁

    Hey Shahid! You’ll just have to catch us when we return 😉

    So don’t forget to ping me when you revisit my country 🙂

    Liliia Sokotun says:

    fantastic as always! I would agree with everything! You guys are great, I hope to meet you one day 🙂 we have such a similar prospective on life and traveling …or i dont know how to put in in English 😀

    I have nominated it you for a Liebster reward ( however I am sure your readership is much higher than 200 😀 ) Anyway, check it out here!
    https://bringbabyabroad.wordpress.com/2016/09/08/liebster-award-get-to-know-me/

    Heya Liliia,

    Perhaps our paths will cross one day! You never know — life is full of surprises. Thank you for the nomination! We’ll see if we have time to pass on the Liebster love once we’re back in a place with wifi…

    Cheers!

    Liliia Sokotun says:

    Whenever you guys have time!! 🙂 Good luck with your travels!

    Chris M says:

    Oooo khachapuri, I want to try one of those.

    They’re definitely awesome, but can get a bit heavy on the stomach after about a week ?

    Selena says:

    Guys- absolutely loved this post. Thanks for sharing (and not holding back!) all the details. Props to you for embarking on such a crazy adventure and also sharing your experiences with some commonly misrepresented countries around the world. Can’t wait to see what you do next.

    Sebastiaan says:

    That’s great to hear, thank you so much. It’s been nearly two years now, but these lessons are still valuable to us 🙂

    The cheese shits !! Hahaha ! I’ve been there. Also, I have learnt the same thing about mall toilets! Malls are also good when you are sweating your tits off and need a quick blast of air con to cool down.

    Courtney says:

    I love your blog!

    Alex says:

    I’m honored, thank you!

    Farenexus says:

    Interesting article.Good to know about your experience in this post. thanks for sharing this post.

    Tanya Chekhova says:

    Love seeing those kinds of blog posts. They tell a tale of a journey. Simple yet incredible. The people you meet. The views you see. Thank you for writing and sharing this with us. I hope one day i could left my footprints around the globe

    Alex says:

    Beauty is often found in the most simple pleasures 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to read this, and hope to see you on the road one day!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Lost With Purpose

Send this to a friend