The Other Side of the Fence

A conversation with long-term traveler Rico Noack.


I’ve been feeling a bit worn out by my own stories lately — perhaps also a bit pressured (even if just internally) to keep churning them out.

I feel like it is once again time to surrender to the present — and because i want to keep up with my weekly newsletter output, i decided this would be a good opportunity to try something different: to share stories from other travelers’ perspectives!

The first one is a conversation with Rico Noack, a Couchsurfer from Germany who stayed with us for one night with his friend Kristin back in January. Rico and Kristin were especially energic guests. While we were sharing travel stories over dinner, i felt inspired to revisit an idea i had first considered a couple of years ago — to record and share conversations with fellow long-term travelers talking about their experience on the road 🙂

After they left, Rico and i kept corresponding, and eventually had a couple of calls during which we recorded the conversation below:

The Other Side of the Fence – A conversation with long-term traveler Rico Noack

If you prefer, you may also download the audio.

In our conversation, Rico told me in more detail about how his travels evolved, from typical family holidays while growing up, to his first independent trip to visit a friend in Bulgaria (and also first time Couchsurfing) in 2012, his time living, traveling in and falling love with Romania between 2014 and 2015, and finally his half a year cycle touring and backpacking from Azerbaijan to Georgia, then around Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and back to Azerbaijan in 2017. This last adventure is where we spent the majority of our time talking.

We also talked about his process documenting his journeys, which started as a method to manage sensorial overflow and developed into an ethical duty to share the experience with others back home, as well as where he traveled. Rico has written a chronicle of his 2015 trip to Romania, Moldova, and Italy, and is now in the process of composing another book — developing from his journals from his 2017 expedition in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and enriched with passages by Kurban Said and Chinghiz Aitmatow. He told me (via email) that “[s]haring these experiences, promoting those countries ([in] written or [spoken form]) is a way to stay in touch with them for me. And to give something back.”

Here’s a more detailed index:

  • 0:00:00 Preamble: Some words about my intention with this experiment;
  • 0:04:47 “Who’s Rico”: Introduction, and first travel experiences on the other side of the fence;
  • 0:14:51 “You should start working and make some money”: Or maybe not — arriving, staying, and falling in love with Romania;
  • 0:21:20 “I have to write this down, otherwise [my head] will explode!”: From managing sensorial overflow to an ethical duty to share;
  • 0:24:02 “And then I had the feeling that everything started”: Azerbaijani hospitality, from strangers to friends;
  • 0:38:15 “To German and Georgian friendship!”: Experiencing (literally) a different flavor of hospitality, and pondering its meaning and sources;
  • 0:45:34 “in Georgia, you always have your tent in a really beautiful place”: Everyday life on the bicycle;
  • 0:54:51 “Oh come on these mountains are just too high to cycle them!”: Backpacking in Central Asia, starting in Kyrgyzstan;
  • 1:00:30 “It’s a really cool concept I think”: Volunteering at the Community-Based Tourism in Sary Mogol, Kyrgyzstan;
  • 1:05:33 “She was hitchhiking alone to whole Tajikistan”: Getting curious about the country;
  • 1:19:22 “Dog sticks and baking soda”: Some of Rico’s practical solutions for dogs, personal hygiene, and other practical matters.

It’s flattering that i can help him fulfill this duty! Truth be told, editing the audio was more challenging than i anticipated, but i enjoyed our conversation very much and learned a lot from the whole process. I hope you will also enjoy listening to it!

Questions and feedback to Rico may be addressed directly to him via email: riconoack1 [at] hotmail [dot] de.

More about Rico

Rico is a 29-year old social worker from Germany. He currently works part-time counseling refugees and people with disabilities for an NGO in Leipzig. Parallel to that, Rico is writing a Master’s thesis on the circumstances of disabled refugees in Germany, aiming to give the topic more exposure in the academic community. He was featured in an article (in German) on ADZ-online about Social Work in Romania, where he spent eight months as a volunteer (http://www.adz.ro/artikel/artikel/der-aufbruch-der-rumaenischen-sozialarbeit/).

When Rico is not working or writing, he enjoys cycling small dusty roads and forest trails in the countryside, spending time with his flatmates, friends, and family, as well as playing his guitar or harmonica. He invites you to listen to some of his recordings on soundcloud.

References

Some books, opportunities and resources mentioned in our conversation:

  • If you can read German, he will be happy to send you the chronicles from his five weeks traveling in Romania, Moldova, and Italy in 2015 — just send him an email!

Annotated maps of Rico’s travels in the Caucasus and Central Asia:

Some photos from Rico’s travels (click for full view):

__
Featured photo:Rico, sunburned in a Kakhetian vineyard (Georgia ’17)


Enjoyed this interview? I plan to make more like it in the near future and will announce them on my newsletter whenever they go live — if you don’t want to miss it, then subscribe!


Interviews: cycle touring, hitchhiking, hiking; Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Central Asia;
Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Poland, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

The North Cape Hypothesis

UPDATED February 23rd, 2019 — after 154 days on the road, this project “concluded” with my temporary relocation to Lviv, Ukraine. Follow the links to read the chronicles of my experience in Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Transnistria, Moldova, back in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia (Kaliningrad), Poland, Sweden, Norway, back in Sweden, Denmark, one last time through Sweden, back in Poland, then finally home in Ukraine — more to come as i process it — sign up for my weekly newsletter to stay in the loop!


On April 2nd, 2017, i reassembled my cycle touring rig and left behind the lovely city and people of Niš, Serbia. My idea is to eventually reach Nordkapp, Norway via Eastern Europe and Russia.

About 25 days and 916 km later, on April 27th, i find myself in Bucharest, Romania. This has been my longest break on a tour so far, which i’ve taken to apply for a visa to Moldova, do some maintenance on myself and the rig, catch up with my writing, and along the way make some friends before throwing myself back into open water tomorrow.

So far i’m very happy i chose this route. I’m also happy i’ve been pursuing it at such leisurely pace — although this expedition has indeed been loosely guided by this hypothetical destination all the way to the far north, it has in reality been fueled by my encounters along the way.

I expect that to remain the case for the five or six months i have left on the road.

In coming articles, i will further develop on those encounters, and how they have shattered my assumptions and prejudices — about the places i’ve visited in particular, as well as how people behave and the world works in general.

There are also a few other dimensions to this project, such as the Geocaching trackable i’m bringing with me as far north as i can, the trees i’ve been climbing along my way, my efforts to pick up some Romanian and Russian on the road, and how i’ve personally dealt with some of the challenges and practicalities of a long-term cycle tour. These will also be discussed in future articles.

For the remainder of this one, i will just briefly describe the process leading to this route to North Cape via Eastern Europe and Russia.

Waking up

On November 24th, 2016, i arrived in Istanbul by bicycle, after 62 fantastic days on the road all the way from Copenhagen, Denmark. That had been my greatest adventure so far, in a series of increasingly amazing adventures throughout the year.

It was clear what to do next — up the ante! So, i moved to Niš, Serbia, where i would brave the Winter tying up loose ends from my previous life in academia, setting up this website, and planning the next epic cycle tour.

The Silk Road Hypothesis

I’d wanted to ride to North Cape ever since my very first cycle tour, from Copenhagen to Oslo, back in Summer 2015.

But once i had reached Istanbul, the obvious follow-up was the Silk Road — in almost every regard, it would have made perfect sense to bring my bicycle back to Istanbul, spend a few more days hanging out with my Turkish friends living in the city, then resume my ride further East through Turkey, Iran, the Stans, China, hopefully my wet cycle touring dream of Mongolia, and neatly set myself up for what might eventually develop into a World tour. That prospect had a cost that i was not willing to pay at the moment though — its logistical challenges (basically, visa requirements and weather patterns) would put me on a tight schedule, and possibly cost me more money than i might have had to successfully fund the project.

According to my travel philosophy, i actually did Copenhagen–Istanbul in quite a rush already — i wanted to avoid the snow, and so had to be always on the move, declining several invitations to stay and hang out longer with my hosts along my way.

No. I wanted my next tour to be as unconstrained in that regard as it could possibly be — i wanted the freedom to stop for five nights at the same farm less than one week into the tour, as i did at Dragan and Vera’s while lending a hand to them and their workaway volunteers,

or to stay for ten days in the same city, making friends and being silly, as i did in Bucharest.

In what other direction could i ride starting from Istanbul? — or perhaps even Niš already?

From Cape Agulhas to North Cape

The next most obvious route would have been finding my way to Egypt, possibly on a boat across the Mediterranean, then riding down along the East Coast of Africa to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in the continent — something along the lines of what my friend Zelda did. I wouldn’t have to worry as much about the weather, and the few visas i needed could probably be obtained more easily, would be more flexible than the visas for Central Asia, and also cost me less.

Scared (by my prejudices) to pursue that route solo, i came up with a really neat “excuse” not to do it — even if i eventually do feel ready to cross Africa alone on my bicycle, wouldn’t it be great to do that starting from Nordkapp, the northernmost point in Europe?

Yes!

How the hell would i get all the way up there though? I would not have enough time to reach North Cape and come back down before my Schengen visa expired, and i just talked about how i really didn’t want to rush on this tour!

Would it be possible to reach North Cape from outside Schengen?

So, Belarus and Brazil have just signed a mutual visa-free travel agreement for tourists!

That’s when i remembered Russia and Norway have a border crossing i’ve wanted to cross since i first noticed it several years ago, and that Brazilian citizens don’t need a visa to visit Russia as a tourist — neither do they need one for Serbia, Romania or Bulgaria, Ukraine and, as of November last year, Belarus also!

Habemus cycle tour. Apparently, constraints can sometimes be blessings — privilege is not spanned along a single dimension like much of what we read and hear about it these days seems to imply.

I’m not deluded — of course crossing those borders when i get to them might still be a challenge, or perhaps even wind up not happening at all. But these are all bridges i can worry about crossing when i get to them — my point is, at least i’d be able to plan my tour without much preemptive bureaucracy.

Indeed, with the experience and gear i had from the Copenhagen–Istanbul tour, there was very little left to be done to prepare for this one. I just had to come up with rough estimates of the distances, to make sure i could reach North Cape some time in the middle of Summer without having to rush, do a quick inventory check to figure out what i could remove from my kit to make room for my tree-climbing gear and, finally, the most important part of preparation for any cycle tour — to leave!

Along for the ride?

If you find value in what i share in reaction to my experience on the road and would like to support me in this endeavor, there are a variety of ways you can do it.

The first and most obvious way to help me is to share some of my writing with your network, wherever you hang out with them. This will help me organically expand my reach.

You are personally invited to sign up for my weekly newsletter, where you’ll get manageable bits of long-term travel inspiration and advice. Since i’m not on social media, this is the best way to stay in touch and get updates on what’s new in the Not Mad Yet Universe. You may always reach me by simply replying to any of my emails — i read and respond to all of them!

If you find yourself in a position to contribute financially, you’re also invited to visit my membership tab. There you’ll learn more about how i fund this project and the perks of becoming an active member.

Thank you very much in advance for your support and interest, and see you on the road!!


Read the next article in the North Cape Hypothesis series: But Why Serbia!?


The North Cape Hypothesis: cycle touring, solo travel;
Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Transnistria, Ukraine, Denmark, Norway, Sweden