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All photos: Nenad Stojanovic

An informal interview with a young world traveler.

Nenad is a 29-year-old self-described “couchsurfing drifter” who recently completed a five-month, 25,000km hitchhiking odyssey from his home in Serbia to China. An official Couchsurfing Ambassador, he has hosted 182 guests and surfed 253 couches on three continents. On his recent trip across Asia, he was detained twice on suspicion of being a terrorist. He is also a really friendly guy. This is his story.

I MET NENAD STOJANOVIC randomly through couchsurfing.org, when the site informed me that he would soon be passing through Beijing. I clicked on his profile page, scanned his rather impressive travel resume, and offered to show him around the city while he was here. I ended up interviewing him at a Beijing café.

A gaunt figure with a red Young Pioneer-style scarf wrapped around his neck, he resembled a less intense, Eastern European version of Che Guevera. Weary from his cross-continental hitchhiking trip, but still upbeat, he spoke positively of everyone he encountered, happily recounting their acts of kindness and charity. He has been on the road, or hosting others on the road, for five years. The café was a rest stop on his latest journey from Serbia to China.

His traveling career was launched when he discovered couchsurfing, which he said, “motivated me to connect with neighbors and neighbors of neighbors.”

At various points in his story, Nenad mentioned the unorthodox venues he has “surfed,” as casually as if he were describing what he had for breakfast. An Afghan police station. A Chinese expressway toll plaza. A potato truck in Tajikistan. A Turkish furniture store. The home of some Taliban members. Speaking to him, I got the distinct impression that he was navigating a fine line between exhilarating optimism and joyous madness, a latter-day messiah of the highway, intent on uniting humanity through travel and sharing tales of kindness far and wide.

On his hitchhiking journey from Serbia to China, he used the couchsurfing website to arrange hosts in each city or town he visited and just improvised when no host could be located. He hitchhiked the entire 25,000km, with the exception of a bus ride through the hazardous Afghan interior. He described Turkey thus:

    “It’s very easy to hitchhike there. Drivers are not choosing you; it’s you who chooses your driver. I didn’t have a host when I reached the town of Nevşehir in central Turkey. I found a furniture store and used hand signals to ask the manager whether I could sleep there. I stayed there for a little while until he just invited me to spend the night at his home. He served me tea and provided a meal.”

He continued hitching and surfing through Turkey and decided to pass through northern Iraq. He crossed the border in a van with a troupe of Turkish comedians, magicians, and belly dancers, who invited him to stay at the hotel in Iraq they were performing at.

Rolling through Iran

    “This was in the Kurdish part of Iraq. It’s not really an insecure area now, though there were scars of war, with destroyed buildings and bad memories. Everyone was extremely nice and hospitable. Moving on, I skipped Mosul because it was too dangerous.”

He managed to hitchhike through Iraq by displaying a sign in Arabic to passing drivers, written by one of his hosts.

Hitchhiking in Iran presented difficulties, as locals never see tourists in some areas.

    “I would be surrounded by locals wherever I went, to the point where roads were blocked by the crowds. Some soldiers showed up and ordered a passing bus to give me a ride to the next town. Nobody understands what hitchhiking is, so when somebody does give you a ride, they feel responsible for you. One of my rides actually called the police to make sure my couchsurfing hosts were not dangerous. Some people there don’t really trust each other, but they’re really nice. Amazing.”

The trip onward led through Afghanistan, and not even the prospect of traveling through an active war zone could temper his enthusiasm.

    “I wanted to do this trip overland. I tried to get a visa for Pakistan but it took too long. Then I decided to pay a visit to the Afghan embassy in Tehran, Iran. The consul was a really nice, friendly guy and I figured the country mustn’t be so bad. He gave me a visa right away after confirming my identity.”

After arriving in the western Afghanistan city of Herat, he became acquainted with some local members of the Taliban, whom he described as “actually really nice people.” Their mutual acquaintance operates a farm on Taliban territory, so they were happy to host him and provide advice to ensure his safe passage. Nenad thus joined the paltry ranks of Westerners who encountered the Taliban without incident.

Life with the Taliban was simple enough. The men would sit and smoke in the living room and then food would just magically appear, prepared by unseen women working in the kitchen.

Couchsurfing with local Taliban members in Herat, Afghanistan

They explained to him, through the mutual friend, that they happen to disagree with current politics and laws in Afghanistan, which is why they choose to be members. They claimed they were not terrorists, just people with different political opinions to those elsewhere in the country. They didn’t go into further detail and Nenad did not notice any weapons in their home. In addition to providing some tips on how to behave in rural environments, they suggested he use a particular bus company that doesn’t get stopped so often at the myriad highway checkpoints throughout the country.

    “They were friendly and hospitable people. Not all Taliban are terrorists. I suppose you never hear anything positive about them, but my experience was. They told me I looked like one of them, which I guess was a compliment.”

Before setting out, he reviewed each of the three main overland routes through Afghanistan. Hitchhiking through the south and central parts of the country was out of the question, though a bus trip was not much safer due to the possibility that he would be kidnapped and held for ransom. Additional hazards included land mines, roadside bombs, and bandits. He did consider hitching a ride on a US consulate helicopter, but was unceremoniously turned away after being informed that they were not a taxi service.

The roads linking the major cities were of greatest concern.

    “In the bigger cities, it’s okay to speak in English, as many people can understand. But when you’re on those roads, you never know what’s going to happen. Afghanistan can seem like the safest place in the world, until something happens.”

The north road from Herat to Mazar-i-Sharif had recently been taken over by the Taliban. The central road was in really poor condition, would take four days to cross, and many foreigners had been killed there. The south road, dubbed one of the most dangerous in the world, leads south from Herat, passes through Kandahar, and then on to Kabul, the capital. He chose the southern road on the basis that it carries the most traffic of the three and therefore should be the safest. One of his Iranian hosts had actually been robbed at gunpoint on this road, losing his passport and valuables. Safety in Afghanistan is a relative term.

He explained his Afghan survival strategy as follows:

    “I figured if I looked like a local while traveling through the danger zone, my chances of being killed were only 30%,” his voice rising comically. “My hosts told me many people take this road, so I had to disguise myself on this one busy, but dangerous, road so I didn’t get kidnapped.”

In disguise for his trip across Afghanistan

His disguise consisted of a white shalwar kameez (traditional Afghan clothing) and a taqiyah (cap for observant Muslims). The clothing was provided by his couchsurfing hosts, who also taught him how to pray to Mecca, should the need arise. In Case of Emergency, Pray.

With so many ethnic groups in Afghanistan, some locals do indeed resemble those from southern Europe, while others look central Asian. He also sported the long beard that is de rigueur among more traditional Muslim men. “I have this kind of ‘Afghan Look,’” he concluded.

Decked out in Afghan apparel and suitably indoctrinated, there was but one missing piece in his disguise — the local language. To get around this tricky obstacle, he pretended to be deaf and mute while in dangerous areas, resorting to hand signals to communicate with any locals he encountered. He also hid his backpack in a large smelly sack, along with his valuables.

Onward he went, a deaf mute faux-Muslim passenger on the Taliban-recommended bus, headed down one of the most dangerous roads in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. As the bus traveled southwest from Herat to Kandahar, then north to Kabul, he

    “…slept or pretended to sleep. The bus was hot and horrible and the driver drove like a maniac. The scenery was nothing special and there were many destroyed bridges and buildings. We stopped to pray a few times and went through several Taliban and police checkpoints. Eventually I arrived in Kabul and my host couldn’t believe I had actually traveled by land.”

After the hot and torturous overland journey, he likened his week-long stay in Kabul to a “summer vacation.”

    “Kabul feels like a city from the 16th century. Everything is everywhere and it’s all random. You smell fruits, vegetables, animal blood, dust, dirt, spices, sweat, and toilets. People walk around like they exist in a fairy tale with these long beards. Animals are being slaughtered in front of you and blood is going everywhere.”

His first encounter with the authorities, at a checkpoint in the northern Afghan town of Kunduz, did not go well. The checkpoint officer thought he looked like a terrorist, so he was forced to spend the night at a police station.

Fortunately for him, the station was fairly relaxed and he was not asked to stay in a cell. He surfed the station couch for the evening and was interrogated the following day. The interrogating officers quickly realized he wasn’t a terrorist and, feeling guilty, they offered him plenty of candy and a huge traditional Afghan coat as a present.

Ironically, he observed no gunfire, terrorist activity, or robberies while crossing the length and breadth of the country and was only robbed immediately after leaving Afghanistan, in the relatively safe neighboring country of Tajikistan. While walking on the street in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, he was approached by a “KGB agent” who planted heroin in his backpack and demanded a hefty bribe, threatening to throw him in prison unless it was paid immediately. Freedom was his for only 80 euros.

He spent a day selling potatoes with one of his rides and then moved on to the Pamir Mountains, a remote area in the eastern part of the country.

    “The Pamir Highway is one of, if not the most deserted highways in Asia. It took me almost a week to hitchhike there, averaging 200km a day. I felt like I was on another planet. Just nothing out there. I would wait four or five hours for a single car to come by.”

Posing at the Pamir Highway

While in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, he left his backpack at a café for a few hours, which resulted in a bomb scare and local evacuation. Once again, he found himself at a police station being interrogated by the counterterrorism unit, who, to his amusement, found some Afghan postcards featuring guns and bombs in his backpack. They let him go after two hours.

He was enthusiastic about his experience in China, which has involved hitchhiking 10,000km across two dozen provinces.

    “Drivers are nice and curious and they always insist on buying meals for me. They never ask for money.”

While traveling from Hong Kong to Guangxi province, one of his rides took him to a ten-year reunion party for players from a Counter Strike team. Counter Strike is an online first-person shooter game.

    “They were all wearing ‘Counter Strike’ t-shirts and we got drunk and had a food fight.”

One of his more memorable China experiences was at an expressway toll plaza near Shanghai. After arriving there at 2am, he asked management if he could spend the night on their couch, which they agreed to. The following morning, a local journalist came out to interview him and toll gate management asked him to record an English welcome message for drivers entering the expressway:

“Dear drivers, welcome to the Beijing-Shanghai Expressway.”

It is only fitting that a hero of the road should be the one to announce the journey to fellow travelers.

Now temporarily settled in a suburb of Hangzhou, China, Nenad has taken a job teaching English to children. He may just be the only kindergarten teacher worldwide that was once suspected of being a terrorist. His next move, like the meaning of his name (Ненад), will certainly be unexpected.

Trekking + Exploring

 

About The Author

Liam Litchfield

Liam Litchfield is a freelance journalist/roamer who is currently based in Beijing. He is the founder of The Face of China, a public interest journalism website featuring interviews with Chinese people from many walks of life.

  • Sparrow in Space

    That was an amazing story, and now it’s time to update the old Couchsurfing profile!

  • Jim Harrelson

    What a fun read! Thank you!

  • Scott Hartman

    Thank you for doing this, for doing your trip…

  • Devon Howe

    Amazing…. I am smiling over here.

  • Goran Opacic

    Great, someone should write a book about travelers prison experiences. I had my 4 days in Beirut, Lebanon. Good Luck Nenad! Greetings from homeland :)

  • Jake V Isaac

    dude that was sick! that guy has balls! huge hairy balls!

    • Howard Kiel Ilagan

      ahahahah., hairy balls! LOLS

  • Daniela Kenzie Smith

    Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing!

  • Neil Webb

    Facinating story.

  • Mehtap Çağlar

    Interesting story and nice piece of work.

  • Kevin Bujold

    Fantastic Article. I would love to see more details of this story as it seems like a fascinating journey that many people I know from the U.S wouldn’t be able to imagine. I’d definitely like to hear more information on what its like to stay in these countries.

    • Liam Litchfield

      Kevin, I’m happy to hear you liked it. You can check out his Facebook feed by searching his name there. Every time he posts, it’s another zany adventure in some far off land.

  • Kristin Conard

    How amazingly handy is this – Life with the Taliban was simple enough. The men would sit and smoke in the living room and then food would just magically appear, prepared by unseen women working in the kitchen.

    Love it when food appears before me and I don’t have to think about who made it.

    • Liam Litchfield

      Hello. I didn’t mean to give the impression that Nenad or I actually approve of those domestic customs. I suppose it just seemed simple to the men involved.

  • Kristin Conard

    How amazingly handy is this – Life with the Taliban was simple enough. The men would sit and smoke in the living room and then food would just magically appear, prepared by unseen women working in the kitchen.

    Love it when food appears before me and I don’t have to think about who made it.

  • Edrin Kondi

    Way to go Nenad. I hear you’re leaving the far east soon. How about you try Africa next time? Couchsurfing with the Mao Mao in eastern Congo, or the al Shabaab in Somalia sounds like the next best thing after the Taliban:)).

    • Marijana Grujic

      Beef from Edrin, as usual…

    • Edrin Kondi

      what do you expect, the guy is serbian… of course there’s gonna be some beef from an albanian :)

  • Edrin Kondi

    Way to go Nenad. I hear you’re leaving the far east soon. How about you try Africa next time? Couchsurfing with the Mao Mao in eastern Congo, or the al Shabaab in Somalia sounds like the next best thing after the Taliban:)).

  • Edrin Kondi

    Way to go Nenad. I hear you’re leaving the far east soon. How about you try Africa next time? Couchsurfing with the Mao Mao in eastern Congo, or the al Shabaab in Somalia sounds like the next best thing after the Taliban:)).

  • Bratran Mavuabu

    Nice story, and nothing surprising in it (for me, at least). At the start of reading it I would have bet that he would end up being an English teacher in China (as most people of his caliber would anyway). There is only one thing I can add: only non-Muslims are surprised that Afghanistan is a civilized, peaceful place. Of course it is. Only people who know nothing (or have distorted views) of Islam have these paranoid, ludicrous prejudices about Muslims as “dangerous”. Just the opposite: it is Westerners killing Muslims all around the world, never the other way around… So next time you hear stories like this, keep in mind that truth is different from what your Western media wants you to believe… :-) Salaam

  • Bratran Mavuabu

    Nice story, and nothing surprising in it (for me, at least). At the start of reading it I would have bet that he would end up being an English teacher in China (as most people of his caliber would anyway). There is only one thing I can add: only non-Muslims are surprised that Afghanistan is a civilized, peaceful place. Of course it is. Only people who know nothing (or have distorted views) of Islam have these paranoid, ludicrous prejudices about Muslims as “dangerous”. Just the opposite: it is Westerners killing Muslims all around the world, never the other way around… So next time you hear stories like this, keep in mind that truth is different from what your Western media wants you to believe… :-) Salaam

  • Priyank Thatte

    This story is very inspiring! I am going to Afghanistan in few weeks, purely as a backpacker and couchsurfer in ‘safe’ zones, and reading such articles only makes me realize how human contact can overcome challenges.

  • ‘Raj Dhawan

    Nenad, love your spirit of adventure, and desire to help kids learn English! I think you are living life to the fullest, by travelling, caring and sharing. Whenever I ask people what is their #1 desire, I almost always get ‘I want to travel’. I feel if we can figure out how to have more of the world population travel, meet strangers, experience different lifestyles…we do that, and we will eradicate most of this world’s problems! :-)

  • Lisa M. Romero

    This article made my day! He’s awesome!

  • Samuel Koh

    Almost dreamlike. Amazing article allowed me to experience and travel vicariously.

  • Stanislava Susic

    Divno,jedno veliko zivotno iskustvo,sve podseca na Santjaga oz knjige “Alhemicar”.

  • Luigi Weltenbummler Rappallo

    It would be nice if surfing couch be every time like this… we are just traveller, no need to harm.

  • Mavra Ghaznavi

    This is either hyperbole or the guy doesn’t really understand what different ethnic groups exist in Afghanistan. Herat is Tajik territory, under the control of Ismail Khan, a Tajik warlord who’s involved in national politics too now, but he’s not Taliban by any means. The Taliban would have killed this guy immediately. Sorry, but let’s be clear, there is no such thing as good Taliban.

    • Liam Litchfield

      During the interview, I repeatedly questioned him with regard to details about his hosts in Herat. I didn’t get many, so my guess is that they may have been Taliban sympathizers or were just posing, though I can’t imagine why they would do such a thing.

  • Vera Carvalho

    This is an awesome piece. Great adventure on that part of the world. I would love to read more about it.

    • Liam Litchfield

      Feel free to add him on Facebook, by searching his name. His feed is incredible.

  • Jocelyne Mas

    This is an amazing story! However I’m a bit sad that Nemad thought it was “simple life” to have food served by unseen women…

    • Carlo Alcos

      I agree. That’s the one part that rankled me too. Definitely up for criticism.

    • Carlo Alcos

      I agree. That’s the one part that rankled me too. Definitely up for criticism.

    • Liam Litchfield

      Hello. That was my interpretation of the experience. “Simple” in the sense that his hosts were just following ancient customs that they believed were right for their household. I apologize if my choice of words gave the impression that Nenad or I endorse such domestic customs.

  • Deia Skitalica

    Stories like these make me want to step it up a notch or 3 (: So inspiring!
    Svaka cast, kolega.

    • Liam Litchfield

      The week before I met Nenad, I met a couple of 20 year old Belgian couchsurfers who took the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow, then went down to Mongolia and bought a couple horses for 600 Euros. Their horses ran away with their backpacks, so then they had to cross the entire country on an overcrowded bus going over ridiculously bumpy roads with locals who were swilling vodka the whole trip while Kazakh techno blared from the speakers. Then they hitchhiked across China without speaking Chinese.

  • Karen Flores

    Insane! This guy is really crazy! What an adventure!

  • Otto Van De Steene

    probably these people were just keeping something in the middle of being Taliban or not. As Taliban has ruled this country for so long this is quite a good tactic of survival. I think the title is probably a little bit of an overstatement this way… And if you guys would have not only read this biassed american media you would understand that the current government also has his major downsides for the normal Afghans.

    Except for the little fact that the guy probably overly impressed the writer I quite enjoyed reading this article. It made me remember the true sense of travel.

    Traveling is and art. And I love it this way! Keep on going for more adventures Nenad!

  • Otto Van De Steene

    probably these people were just keeping something in the middle of being Taliban or not. As Taliban has ruled this country for so long this is quite a good tactic of survival. I think the title is probably a little bit of an overstatement this way… And if you guys would have not only read this biassed american media you would understand that the current government also has his major downsides for the normal Afghans.

    Except for the little fact that the guy probably overly impressed the writer I quite enjoyed reading this article. It made me remember the true sense of travel.

    Traveling is and art. And I love it this way! Keep on going for more adventures Nenad!

  • Alexander Ljungström

    Haha, awesome story! :) Great website also, glad I found it.

  • Grzesiek Świerczek

    Insane trip! I like the spirt of adventure and the funny way of breaking stereotypes about what’s commonly known. “my chances of being killed were only 30%” well that’s still less than 50! But honestly one needs to have freaking big balls in order to try travel overland through Afghanistan :)

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