From Hitchhikers to Overlanders – Meet Kiki, Sebastiaan and a Kyrgyz Lada

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A Facebook message from hitchhikers Kiki and Sebastiaan read:

“On a Facebook group I (Kiki) saw that you are in Bishkek with your car. That’s so awesome. How much longer will you be there? We left the Netherlands, hitchhiking to China but we’re growing a bit tired of the continuous travel and change of surroundings. So we’re thinking about staying somewhere for a bit longer. How is Bishkek, would you recommend taking a rest there?”

Two weeks later they arrived in Bishkek. We met at our airbnb that we had rented for two months to get the Land Cruiser thoroughly fixed (read here). They entered with a surprising announcement:

“We bought a car. A Lada.”

The Lada is a brand of cars manufactured in Russia and Coen’s immediate question was if they had bought a Lada Niva, a car that’s high on our list of favorites. No, it wasn’t; they had bought a Lada Zhiguli! (In Europe commonly known as a copy of the Fiat 128.)

The VAZ-2101 was sold under the brand “Zhiguli” in the Soviet Union, and branded as “Lada” for export. The name “Lada” was derived from a name of a “small boat (“ladya”) in Slavic language symbolized by the logo badge.

Wikipedia

They had bought the Lada on the bazaar and were still sorting out the paperwork. In the days that followed, excitement dwindled as one car repair was followed by the other. The newbie overlanders got many crash courses ‘Lada-Zhiguli Repair 101’!

More visits grew into overnight stays and cooking meals together (they will share a great recipe in a future blog post!).

From a short message and question on Messenger we quickly became friends.

It has been a great privilege to meet this enthusiastic couple so full of plans and taking opportunities that cross their road.

Here’s what particularly appeals to me: Kiki and Sebastiaan packed up and raised their thumb to hitchhike from the Netherlands to China. And when that no longer felt right, they changed plans and bought a Lada in a country where red-tape procedures function quite differently than where they are from.

Buying a Lada sounds easier than it was and they had quite some hurdles to conquer before they could hit the road as overlanders. But they did it and are on the road, until, one day, they will feel yet again ready for a change. I love that flexibility, a combi of trying what works, sticking to it, but also being honest about when something no longer works and change accordingly.

As they write on the introduction page of their website,

And remember; every journey begins with one small step. No matter which journey you’d like to make yourself.

Kiki and Sebastiaan: Stay true to who you are and what you believe in. Even when the road is literally not the perfectly paved one, it will take you to new exciting opportunities and places. We will continue following your journeys.

Meanwhile, for the readers, here’s a peek into their lives of hitchhiking and overlanding in a Lada Zhiguli.

Enjoy the read.

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Thank you for your support — Karin-Marijke & Coen

 

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourselves and what Saigas Life is about

We are Sebastiaan and Kiki from the Netherlands. We both needed some change from what we were doing in the Netherlands, which was studying Nature & Communication for Kiki and working as an application developer for Sebastiaan.

We wanted to hitchhike from the Netherlands to China to see how far we’d get.

2. What is the story behind the name of Saigas Life?

When you Google ‘Saiga antelope’, you will see one of the most ridiculous animals ever: an antelope with some sort of trunk (added by KM: “A pair of closely spaced, bloated nostrils directed downward”, from: Wikipedia). We love strange animals as well as strange ideas. The Saiga antelope is an animal that used to be quite common from eastern Europe all the way into Mongolia and they migrate long distances, which is a kind of travelling.

Well, the Saiga antelope just seemed like our spirit animal!

Right now the species is not doing well, like a lot of species on our planet. I think if we’d become a less solitary species and care more about our surroundings, we’d be able to live in harmony with other species. It means we’d be bugged by bugs on a summer night, but also that those bugs would fertilize the vegetables we eat, for example. We can’t pretend that our actions have no consequences in the future, for that the number of humans has exceeded way too much.

There’s nothing solitary about hitchhiking, it’s a huge dependency on others. We feel it’s hopeful we got to Kyrgyzstan by this way of travelling.

3. Having been an enthusiastic hitchhiker in my twenties, I was thrilled to learn about your hitchhiking trip from the Netherlands to China. How did that idea originate?

We both like to hitchhike and we are no strangers to it. Every time you meet a random person and share some time with them, this can result in a funny story or a meaningful conversation. People tend to open up when you’ll probably never see them afterward.

When one of us started joking “Let’s hitchhike to China”, it became a joke we made one time too often. We started to think from “What if we really did that?” to “What is really keeping us from the plan?”

Apparently not so much. We gave up our rooms in the Netherlands and became dedicated homeless people.

4. What has been the best part of your hitchhiking trip to China, and the most challenging?

The best part I find difficult to define. It was not a certain place or happening, it was more that we learned that people can be very caring about others. And we learned that again and again, every time when we needed to ask someone a favor of giving us a ride, or a place to sleep.

I grew up with the mantra of not trusting strangers – and that’s what we are still being told by our parents, neighbors and the news channels: “Don’t trust the Bulgarians; they are thieves. don’t trust the Muslims; they are terrorists.”

We’ve encountered so many good people for all that goodness to be a coincidence. I began to notice that people don’t differ so much, most enjoy doing good for others and good food.

Specific events:

In Armenia we ended up in a small town, it had been a tiring day of travelling, crossing borders and we had walked several kilometers. There was only one restaurant in that town. It was late, we were tired and super hungry, so we went there. Once inside we realize we made a mistake, as we obviously ended up in a private party. Thirty pairs of eyes were staring at us and it was deadly silent.

Then they started cheering as if we were the guests of honour they had all been waiting for. Chairs appeared out of nowhere and glasses of vodka where filled. In Armenia it is a custom to toast for something, like health, presence of loved ones, or God. That night we were thankful for a lot. It was our first encounter with the Armenian hospitality.

The most challenging part has been Greece, as no-one dared to give us a lift. When we asked a woman in a car for water she answered frightened she hadn’t got any and drove away. It felt weird that people find us scary. We waited for 1,5 days near Thessaloniki before we got picked up by a Turkish trucker.

5. In Bishkek you had a couple of options. Hitchhike home, fly home, take the train, etc. But you bought a car. Why? How did that idea grow and become reality?

We met a couple that bought a car in Georgia and drove it home. Since we were a bit tired of hitchhiking we thought this was a nice alternative, and we could return the favour to other hitchhikers too!

A bit of naivety and an optimistic view helped us decide.

Lada Zhiguli getting a new exhaust
“Here we put a new exhaust pipe underneath to make her sound like a happy Lada.” ~Kiki

6. Tell us a bit about the process of buying that Lada Zhiguli

Buying a Lada in Kyrgyzstan to drive home is not custom. It is definitely possible, but you’ll have to visit a lot of offices, meet a lot of semi-official persons and bribe to speed up the process and no-one knows the procedure. It cost us three days.

Also, you need a lot of stamps on your official papers, as the Kyrgyz love the official looks of stamps. It’s a lottery whether you can cross the border easily after these legal papers, as the procedure is not known with the border patrol.

Fixing a Lada Zhiguli in a workshop
“Every rumble and rattle is located and dismantled. The gearbox has some worn-out bearings that will be replaced. A puzzle for professionals, so our Lada is staying the night at the garage where she’ll get the treatment she deserves!” ~Kiki

7. Why a Lada Zhiguli? Could it have been any car, really, or were you specifically looking for another one?

Lada is cheap and everyone in the former USSR is able to fix it. Also the car parts are easy to find. We bought an 2106 since we love the characteristic looks.

8. Does the Lada have a name yet?

Some people vote for Lada Craft, as we had to do a lot of repairing from the start and she’s tough….

Read More: Books on Overlanding – Meet These Fabulous Overlanding Authors

Lada Zhiguli in Kazakhstan with sunset
“Travelling from Almaty to Nur Sultan in Kazakhstan takes time. More than 1200 kilometers over some really horrible roads and with the view of endless plains. Halfway the roads got better and we got treated with the most beautiful sky. Endless, just like Kazakhstan.” ~Kiki

9. How’s the Lada holding up? And you two?

While entering Kazakhstan one of the front wheels was a bit lose as we’d been driving over horrible roads. We didn’t know, only that this sound we heard was new. Once we found a garage (many many kilometers through the mountains) the wheel bearing was molten. Whoops.

We are doing fine, and our Lada was fixed really fast.

The keys to its success were said to be its competitive price, reliability, simple DIY-friendly mechanics and simple functionality. The competitive pricing and ease of service made Ladas popular as police cars, taxis and a range of public service and civil defense vehicles in many parts of Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Today Lada vehicles are positioned as affordable, and as offering good value for money.

Wikipedia

10. You have a lot of hitchhiking experience and little overlanding experience. First impressions if you compare the 2: the goods and the bads?

Hitchhiking makes you interact with locals in a more intense way. You get to know the culture and learning a language is easier (and more necessary). Also, it is cheap and you don’t have to worry about the car.

Sometimes it takes a lot of time to wait for a ride or it is tiring to be interacting with others. Especially when you don’t have a common language.

By car you have more of a say in where you are going and when. We don’t have to carry heavy backpacks through hot cities and we are more able to visit natural parks and remote areas. With hitchhiking it’s usually from city to city.

A car does bring worries, about the mechanics and if you can cross the border.

 

Our Recommended Recovery Gear

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Lada Zhiguli in countryside of Kyrgyzstan
“Issyk kul, Kyrgyzstan. That moment where the car works and brings us to Kyrgyzstan’s heavenly places. That is when you realize how travelling works, again. For us it is not about seeing the highlights and go further to the next highlight, it is about the euphoria when you get there, after cursing the paperwork, bribing police and pushing the car. She is now a happy Lada and even a bit of off-road is not holding her back.” ~Kiki

11. What’s the biggest struggle as an overlander, and the biggest joy?

Struggle: Getting the car driving and keeping it that way.

Joy: Driving through the mountains, seeing so much nature and so many different landscapes! Freedom to go anywhere, something we didn’t always experience while hitchhiking.

Books on Overlanding

(click on the images to look inside)

 

12. Tips for those who want to follow in your footsteps, either as long-distance hitchhikers, or overlanders?

Three tips:

  • Avoid authorities in the eastern countries at all times if you’re western. They work differently and it can be confusing. Bribe if necessary, it can make your life easier. You can avoid high fines with bribing. Don’t tell your parents at home what’s going on until the problem has resolved.
  • Sebastiaan: Say yes more often. Usually we feel inclined to turn down an invitation but it can also help you step out of your comfort zone and open up to new ideas.
  • I (Kiki) would like to add: Listen to your guts. We almost ended up in a Swinger’s party in Greece. Some boundaries are perfectly fine to have.

The overland road by Lada Zhiguli

13. Where can people follow your journey?

Facebook

Instagram

Saigaslife.nl

All photos @Saigaslife.nl

 

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