To start with, I figured out my schedule in probably as much detail as I'll ever have it planned, so why don't I just post it here so you can see what I'll be doing?
- 8/25 Sat— My contract finishes. I go to Incheon in the morning in time to catch the 19:00 ferry for Weihai, China.
- 8/26 Sun— I arrive in Weihai in the morning and take a train to Beijing, find my hostel, and wander around.
- 8/27–29—Time for exploring Beijing. I wish I could allot more time, but my four months of travel in Eurasia, which originally seemed to me like a practically endless stretch of time, became alarmingly fast and cramped when it actually came time to cram them into a calendar, and I have to hurry somewhere.
- 8/30–31— In transit to Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia.
- 9/01–18—Time to explore all over Mongolia and try to learn how to be the best nomad I can be.
- 9/19 Wed— Board the Trans-Siberian in Ulaanbaatar.
- 9/24 Mon— Arrive in Moscow in the afternoon. Look around.
- 9/25 Tue— Another day in Moscow.
- 9/26–29— Stick that thumb out and start hitching, allowing four days to get through Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Germany, to arrive in München in the evening on the 29th.
- 9/30 Sun— Watch the brass band concert at Oktoberfest. Drink beer and eat sausages and pretzels.
- 10/01–03— Continue drinking beer and eating sausages and pretzels, but with a focus on seeing München and the places around it.
- 10/04–16— See as much of the rest of Germany as I can in thirteen days, and possibly spend a day or two in Prague.
- 10/17–19— Hitch (and/or take a train, since research suggests Spain is lousy for hitching) to Lisbon, and meet Grandma and Grandpa there.
- 10/20–21— See Lisbon with Grandma and Grandpa.
- 10/22 Mon— Set out to see the rest of Iberia, mainly Spain, probably starting with the Way of St James.
- 2 weeks later?— Move on to Italy.
- 2 weeks later?— Move on to France.
- 2 weeks later?— Move on to England. Meet Sean's friend who does parkour, and spend some time in Southampton doing that. Also see Stonehenge and such, and eat British Christmas food, which apparently is delicious.
- Late December— Fly out of London and go home. Christmastime. Tell everyone story after story until they wish they hadn't asked me about the trip.
The instinct upon hearing about a period of travel that long is to wonder, What about me getting a job and becoming a responsible part of society? There are a couple different ways to respond to that. One is the predictable rebel response that I don't believe in becoming a productive part of our society, since that would mean that I'm complicit in American culture's continuing destruction of the planet and of healthy communities and minds, and since I think that selling off half of your waking day for most of the year, year in year out until old age, is basically tantamount to taking your one absolutely irreplaceable allotment of life-force and burning it up.
That's an answer that I do believe in. But the other one is this: This year of traveling isn't just going to be a year of marking time and putting off the beginning of the rest of my life. I'm going to be spending it actively thinking about what I want to do afterwards. Visiting so many places in America—I have a growing list that so far has a dozen cities on it, plus living in the wilderness and working on farms—will allow me to figure out which one I could be happiest in, and what I could do there if I decided to live there. A year is long, and I'll have a lot of time to think about what kind of work I'd like to do in order to have the money to live in whatever kind of place I'd like to live in. I expect I'll learn about a lot of things I don't know about right now. To me it makes much more sense to look for an American job by traveling around America and meeting people who can tell me about their interesting jobs than by sitting here in Korea looking at Craigslist or LinkedIn or whatever and hoping I stumble upon something that interests me and is obtainable through submitting my résumé online and maybe doing a Skype interview. It's not what you know, it's who you know, they say, and as I travel I'll come to know so many more people.
That, by the way, is important to me for another reason as well: I'm not going to be looking just for people who can give me jobs, which would be a pretty depressing and mechanical way of thinking about people during a trip all around the continent. I'm going to be looking for friendships that will last and last. Friendships like that are what make life enjoyable, basically what make life life. And if I travel the way I want to, the gregarious vagabond's way, I'll be meeting a lot of people who think along the same lines, who I can learn a lot from and who I can have incredibly enjoyable times with. So I think I have ample defense for a year or so in which I won't be strictly economically productive.
Anyhow, I was ostensibly writing about preparing mentally and physically for all this travel I'm talking about. On the physical side, I've been getting my things ready. There are a surprising number of them to take care of. Visas are one of them. China and Russia, our old Red rivals, both apparently really don't want Americans entering them, so they make it as inconvenient as possible. As of now, my passport is in New York waiting for a company called VisaHQ to receive it so they can take it to the Chinese embassy. VisaHQ is doing this for the sum of $49.95, and for the privilege of having my documents glanced at by the Chinese embassy, I'm paying that country $140. I had to send the documents home because just within the last year China has decided to enact a new, inconvenient, byzantine rule that stipulates that foreigners living in Korea can't get a Chinese visa from the Chinese embassy in Seoul if their Korean visas will expire within the next six months. Basically this ensures that no one can finish their time in Korea and then go straight to China. Why China wants to prevent this is a mystery. But apparently I can get around this by sending my passport and visa application to New York and keeping quiet about the fact that I live in South Korea at the moment. Once I get my passport back, I'll have to get the Russian visa, which is annoying in totally different ways. I have to get an invitation to the country from a citizen (travel agencies will do this, of course for a fee), and get official documentation that I'm invited to Russia. Only then can I take that to the Russian embassy in Seoul and pay a fee a extortionate as China's to get my visa. You may not be surprised to find out that I think national borders are a stupid concept.
I've also been amassing the gear I need for traveling, and at the same time paring down my collection of other belongings. Recently I dumped a bunch of clothes in a donation bin here. (Where they go from there, I have no idea. There's basically no such thing as Goodwill or used clothes shopping in this entire country. The best guess I can come up with based on internet research is that they get shipped off to the third world.) I'm throwing other stuff away, anything that I can do without, and as I get closer to leaving, I'll have fewer and fewer things. Meanwhile I've gotten a new backpack, a big one made for carrying heavy stuff comfortably for long periods, and which has a compartment in the bottom that's perfectly sized to fit my sleeping bag. I've bought a tiny, lightweight tent from eBay, and it's on its way to me. I've made my journals: in a departure from the 500- to 600-page journals I've used since Volume II, I'm splitting Volume VIII into four (possibly five) subjournals of 100 pages each (except VIII-A, which is 160 pages to fit in all the time between when the current VII fills up in early August until when I get home around Christmas). That way they won't take up so much room in my backpack, and if I lose one of them I'll lose at most 160 pages of life history, rather than possibly hundreds. Over the next few weeks I'm going to be practicing using campfires and homemade camp stoves, and cooking road food that won't debilitate me. The idea is that by the time August rolls around, I'll have most things pretty much figured out and won't have to learn by annoying or dangerous or expensive trials and errors while I'm out on the road. I'm bombproofing myself, basically.
I sort of started the cooking part yesterday. We had a big barbecue by the river with all the foreigners in Sachangni and even a couple from Hwacheon, the next town over. I made myself a hobo pack. This is something I learned about from my friend Molly. The recipe is this: take some potatoes, onion, carrots, and meat. Cut them up and plop them on a sheet of foil. Put some butter and salt and stuff on top. Then wrap it up so it's waterproof and stick it in the coals of a fire for like 40 minutes so it can turn into stew. Pretty simple, but I'm glad I'm getting practice with it, because mine was pretty underdone. Instead of the coals of a fire I substituted the inside of the barbecue where the charcoal was. But the charcoal apparently wasn't very hot or didn't stay hot long enough. Lesson learned for next time. Even underdone it was pretty good, though.
But that wasn't even close to the coolest thing that happened yesterday. Obviously another great part was how we all hung out together and swam in the river and had a smashing time. I could write all about that, but really, you can probably imagine it pretty well with just the basics. Just picture a barbecue on warm sand next to a rocky stream with a bunch of friendly people, and we'll both have saved some time. More significantly for my transition to travelerhood was what happened just afterwards. There were too many people to fit in one car—some of us had taken a taxi to get there—so Sean, Amanda, and I walked back along the little rural road. I decided it was high time that I tried hitchhiking for the first time. So I flew the Asian version of an upraised thumb (one palm flat toward the ground, waving slowly). And the very second car to come by stopped for us. A grinning guy invited us into his car and I pushed his badminton equipment to one side and thanked him a bunch and told him we'd like to go to Sachangni, please. He took us the few minutes into town and we all got out and thanked him again several times, and he turned around and went on his way—which caused us to realize he'd actually gone out of his way for us. We all thought that was pretty splendid. And it gave me a huge boost of confidence for my upcoming hitchhiking-heavy travel plans. It seems it's not nearly as hard as I imagined. Now I can actually picture myself doing it. I love it when things become real like that.