I met Irina in 2014 in the Skaftafell area of Iceland. I was looking for the path to get to a close glacier and she was over there, a blonde and thin woman in her thirties that was wearing a nice hat which gave me a good feeling. She looked like nice at first sight, so I approached her and asked for the way. She nicely indicated me the path and we end up walking it togheter.
During the walk she told me she was German although she used to live between Germany and Beijing, and she was expending some months in Iceland as part of a travel that had led her from Mongolia to Iceland without taking any plane. I can’t remember if I was more amazed with the awesome sights that were surrounding us or with the things she was telling me, but i know that I enjoyed like a kid listening to her experiences and the incredible people she had met travelling.
We have kept some contact until now, and a few days ago I decided to write her and ask a few questions that were inspired about a topic which we’ll talk about in the second part of this interview. However, by now I wanted to introduce you to Irina Muschik so she tells herself just a little of the many things she have to tell. No matter if you like to travel or not, I hope it results as amazing and inspiring to you as it resulted to me.
Q: I assume that by this time you’re already a veteran traveler, but when did you begin to ride the world and what encouraged you to do it?
A: I became interested in backpacking and hiking the outdoors around the year 2005, mainly because I watched a lot of nature documentaries and had started studying biology. It was a logical consequence to get out there and see what the natural world has to offer. A few years later, in 2009, I started my first solo backpacking trip to the Russian Altai Mountains in Southern Siberia. Here you can still find snow leopards, ibex and argali, high mountain peaks, glacial rivers, wild flowers and so on. I was amazed.
I was tired of waiting for a travel companion so I just set off”
The reason I travelled alone was just simple: none of my friends had the time or the money to accompany me. I was tired of waiting for a travel companion so I just set off. I spoke some Russian and I knew the area from a university excursion a few years ago. So, I felt safe with the terrain and the people I would encounter.
During this first solo trip I also had my first hitchhiking experience. Busses are very scarse in that region and I wanted to get further into the mountains. So, I needed to use autostop. I was very excited and nervous about it, but an older German couple I met convinced me that autostop is quite normal in Russia. I gave it a try. The first car stopped and an older Russian couple from Novosibirsk took me with them. They treated me like their daugther! They gave me food and water, drove me three hours to my destination, helped me find a nice campground and bought me icecream. What a start! And believe it or not, it has stayed like this ever since.
Q: Briefly, because I assume that they’re a lot, which places have you visited until now? Or at least, which are the ones that have impressed you most?
A: Until now I travelled the Russian Altai Mountains already five times. So, it seems that this is one of my favorite spots on earth. I wouldn´t say it is my number one favorite destination though. My top three countries are Iceland, Mongolia and Alaska. I love to travel places that have vast landscapes and fascinating natural beauty. I´m not the jungle type person or beach and crystal blue ocean type, I´m more interested in geological phenomena and sights, like deserts, rocks, mountains, glaciers, volcanoes and so on. I still want to go to New Zealand. That is the next big dream destination.
Since 2012 I became more interested in long-distance trips instead of the regular 3-week-holidays. So, I backpacked from Germany over land to South Korea, coming through Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia and then by boat to Korea. Another big trip led me from Mongolia to Iceland over land through Russia, the Baltic and by boat from Denmark to Iceland. On Iceland I spent one entire months hitchhiking around the island. One of the best travel experiences I had so far, including meeting lovely Manel.
Q: How do you find the money and time to do these kind of travels?
A: How I find the money? That´s easy: travelling is much cheaper than living in Germany. The way I travel, I only use very little money. I don´t need to pay for accomodation, because I sleep in my tent or sometimes I use couchsurfing (it’s a way of room exchanching with other people). I use cheap public transport, like busses, or I use autostop. In Germany I would need to pay much more: I would need to pay rent, I would need to pay for more expensive food, I would need to pay a very expensive health insurance and so on.
I earn the money I need before my trips and then I just quit everything”
And about the time? I earnt money before my long-distance trip and then I just quit everything. I quit my job, I gave up my room in a shared flat and then my tent became my home. This is a big decision and I recommend everybody to think about what they want to do in life before taking this decision. Nowadays I have a part-time job in Beijing (including accomodation). With the money I earn I can continue with my very low-budget travel style.
Let me give you an example: I travelled 14 month (Germany to South Korea, then Mongolia, China and Alaska) and I spent 4.758€ for food, public transport, museum entrances, SIM cards, … and I paid 2.187€ for flights (Korea to Germany, Germany to Mongolia, to Alaska and back). So, in total my longest trip of 14 month costed me “only” 6.945€. If I wouldn´t have taken the flights it would have been even below 5.000€! It recquires some discipline to live cheap and you need to keep track of your financial situation all the time. I wrote every item I bought, every bus ticket, every single bar of Snickers in my analogue notebook and always knew how much I spent. South Korea and Alaska were the most expensive countries to travel, and Iceland!
Q: When I met you, you were traveling alone and moving from site to
site doing autostop. Do you usually travel this way? And why have you
A: As I mentioned before I started doing autostop in 2009 and it has proven to be a very positive experience for me. I think I did it over 300 times already, maybe more. I didn´t really keep track of it. I usually do it on the country side, where bus service is absent. In between bigger cities I use busses, trains, ferries and planes (if necessary). So, I´m not an autostop fanatic or missionary.
Last summer though I wanted to find out if autostop also works over long-distances. I set off in Prizren, Kosovo and wanted to get to Hamburg, Germany via all the Balkan States along the Adriatic Sea. This is roughly about 2000 km (my longest autostopping distance was around 400 km until then). I can say, I made it in five days and made some new friends on the road. It worked out very well. I have a lot of stories to tell about this trip.
About the experiences, only the first guy who stopped was an asshole. He asked me to kiss him, I refused and told him stop the car. He stopped and I moved on. That´s all. So, nothing really happened. This kind of sexual harrassment happened only two times during my autostop “career”. That means less than one percent were idiots. Now, do you think I was just lucky? I don´t think so. Look, what kind of peole pick up hitchhikers? It´s people who are not afraid to let someone get into their private car. That means they are interested in you, open-minded and helpful. Or they are not afraid, because you should be afraid of them? Well, never appeared to be true. Instead, almost everytime I was given food and drinks and more than once I was invited to stay overnight with them, giving me shelter plus dinner and a lot of story exchange and new friends all around the world.
What I’ve seen until now are beautiful people, kind hearts, interesting characters and all the diversity of life”
That’s my experience and it is the experience of many other people who use autostop. Over the time I figured that I get a feeling for people and that I can scan them rapidly. I have to decide in seconds if I want to get in the car or not. Until now I only had to refuse two rides. One guy was obviously drunk and there was only one person who I didn´t trust. I could tell from his eyes and face that he was no good. I trust my gut feeling and I trust my ability to read people. Look people in they eyes and you will know a lot about them. This is something that I learned during my travels. I learned to read people very well. I guess it needs some time to develop this skill to a certain level. I highly recommend it though. Dont´t be fooled by the appearance or clothing or the type of car or anything. Look in the eyes and in the face and you will know. What I saw were beautiful people, kind hearts, interesting characters, all the diversity of life.
That’s all by now. Soon it’ll be over the second part of this interview where Irina will give us a more personal and reflexive view of the world that she’s so fond of wander, and where we’ll also talk about the risks, real or just suposed, that this world and travels can cause to a woman who goes alone.