The route from Germany to Pakistan includes countries like Iran and sketchy parts of Turkey, where Western tourists are not often seen. Pakistan — often referred to as a failed state — is no picnic, either: Since its creation in 1947, it has seen enough radicalization, crime and corruption to scare off most tourists.
Questions about these two road warriors were aflutter, the first and most obvious being: Why? Why risk life and limb for a series of rambling jaunts across the world to radical-infested countries like Pakistan? So we caught up with Morten via Skype shortly after the couple left Pakistan and entered the Indian Himalayas, where they both suffered varying degrees of snow blindness. Following a pleasant conversation, we were reminded that terrorism, corruption and violence were not the ethos of most individuals on the planet and that — beyond the possible but improbable threats they could come across — there were amazing vistas and life-changing encounters.
How’s the snow blindness going?
Everything’s fine. I got a treatment, and I can see again, so everything is good.
Happy to hear it. So what do the two of you do for a living?
We both studied journalism, and, after that, we didn’t feel like looking for a job straight away, so we decided to go abroad to South America. Initially, we intended to stay for six to nine months, and we met so many wonderful people from all over South America who invited us to visit their countries. So we said, why not? And it ended up being a two-year journey. We came back in January 2014 and really just fell in love with traveling, meeting new people and exploring new cultures. Right now, we’re doing freelance work for German travel agencies, and we write about a mix of everything: food, culture and some politics. The idea is to bring the world back home.
Do you have a state of mind or philosophy behind what you are doing?
Yes, we do our research; we don’t just drop in out of the blue. What we learned from our trip in South America is that everyone back home thinks South America is a dangerous continent — you hear stories about trafficking and crime — when, in fact, that’s not true. In every place we’ve been, we’ve always met really helpful, friendly people. We discovered that the image that we have about certain countries is mostly not true. So we decided to tell people not to be afraid of something they’ve never seen.
But surely in countries like Colombia and Pakistan, there are real risks.
Sure. But what we experienced is that 99 percent of the people really don’t want you to get in trouble. We would go to places where travel agencies would say not to go to because they’re dangerous. But people would come up to us and welcome us and tell us where to go and where not to go. So, for example, we went to favelas in Rio, and everywhere we went, we met really nice people.
Well, we met a French guy in South America who told us he had hitchhiked from Paris to Istanbul in four days. So we decided to try this, and we had this idea of hitchhiking from Germany to India, because it’s long distance and it’s possible over land. So we mapped out a route, did some research and bought a tent and sleeping bags.
Tell us about your route.
We kind of rushed through Eastern Europe, and our trip really got started when we got to Istanbul. We went south and walked about 250 kilometers down the coast, then headed east and went near the Syrian border. From there, we went to the Iranian border, and it was really uncomplicated getting in. We couch-surfed and stayed with about 15 hosts over two months. At least half of them were making their own liquor, because Iran is a dry country. Iran is like two different countries: There’s the Islamic world, where women have to wear hijabs, and you can’t speak to women that are not your relative. Then you have the inside world where people go crazy, women wear skirts that are shorter than belts, they wear tons of makeup and party. Inside the house is entirely different from the outside world. People are afraid to be betrayed by neighbors, but they still do all these things that are forbidden.
Did you ever have any trouble?
Just a couple of times the police came and told Rochssare to fix her scarf. So she did, and we apologized, and there was no problem. Most people are really frustrated with the laws, and women provoke the police by not wearing their scarves the right way; there’s a lot of anger toward the authorities. What was funny was that Iranian people had no idea what hitchhiking was; it’s just a foreign concept to them. So we had to tell people we were walking and, if they wanted to help us, that would be fine.
You hear stories about journalists getting arrested for espionage in Iran, did the police ever question you about that?
Well, we never told anybody we were journalists; Rochssare said she was a teacher, and I said I worked in PR. And we’re not typical journalists doing investigative work; we’re just traveling and writing about it.
How was crossing the border into Pakistan?
We were definitely excited. Once we got to a certain point, the Iranian police escorted us to the border; they wouldn’t let us hitchhike anymore. The one major rule was that we couldn’t take pictures of them. But then we got to Pakistan, and those guys were totally different; they kept asking us to take photos with them. When we got there, there was a huge sand storm, and there were power cuts, so we couldn’t get money from the ATM. We ended up staying with the police, and that region is close to the tribal areas, where you have groups like the Taliban. It was pretty strange — we felt like we were in a place we shouldn’t be. But we had some funny incidents, like when a policeman carrying a huge gun sang us a love song. Totally weird, but amazing.
In Quetta, we weren’t allowed to leave the hotel without a police escort, but when we called for them, they never came. So, after four hours, we just said “fuck it” and walked around to see the city. But it was a bit weird, because everyone kept telling us we needed a police escort, and it was quite scary because we felt like anybody could be a terrorist.
Do you think you got lucky?
Well I’m not saying that you can walk in Quetta at any time of day and be safe. But you can also cross the street in Germany, get hit by a car and die. You can’t allow yourself to always think like this.
You can follow Morten and Rochssare’s travel experience on their blog.
They have also written a book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to South America, about their 50,000-kilometer adventure through South America.