Ethan Shone 19th September 2018
Straybob, or Rob Lowe, is a 29-year-old from Preston, who has spent a sizeable chunk of his twenties doing what many of us will only ever dream of: travelling the world. But, as he’d be the first to tell you, Bob is no more qualified or equipped to take on these adventures than the average 20-something, the only difference is that he’s decided to quit dreaming and just do.
Bob’s first big expedition began in 2012. After saving up for a year, he set off from his Manchester home on a 20-year old mountain bike, for Kenya. A few years later and he’s back on the road once again, this time hitchhiking all the way home from Hanoi, Vietnam, to Manchester.
The trip has taken Bob to some of the most remote places in the world, and through countries that most of us would struggle to place on a map, nevermind consider for a holiday. The good news for those of us who don’t have the courage, desire or time to manage such a trip ourselves, is that he’s documenting the whole thing online, in perhaps the most endearing and refreshing set of travel videos you’re likely to see.
Between early May and late June of this year, Bob uploaded five videos to his Youtube account, which at the time had a small handful of subscribers. The videos showed the first leg of his trip, starting in Vietnam and travelling first to China, then Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and (very, very briefly) Afghanistan. Filmed in relatively low quality and edited in a style we’ll call minimalist, they give a real and unfiltered look at a kind of travelling which we don’t often see.
The videos were a major hit on Reddit, where a post introducing users to Straybob’s channel gained 17,800 upvotes. Almost overnight, as Bob explains in a later video, his views and subscribers on Youtube skyrocketed, from a few dozen, to 483,000 views and 20,000 subscribers at the time of writing.
We spoke with Bob over the course of a few days while he was in Munich and about to set off on the final leg of his journey. We chatted about the trip he’s almost completed, his previous adventure to Kenya and why, despite what you might think, this kind of travel is not out of your reach.
Hi Bob! So how did you get into this kind of travel?
Well, initially, I dropped out of university to go travelling, which in hindsight was a terrible idea. After a few months working on fruit farms in Europe, I came home and I just jumped from job to job, wondering what to do with myself. Then I read Alistair Humphreys’ book about cycling around the world. I read the first few pages and knew that’s what I wanted — a rough, simple, adventure, and to come home with a few stories to tell. And, I had a bicycle. So, I saved for a year, and then in 2012, I set off on my 20-year old mountain bike, to cycle to Kenya.
The first months of that trip were horrible
And how was that?
Honestly, the first months of that trip were horrible. Not the fairy-tale freedom I had been dreaming of. But, months passed and, slowly, I adjusted to it and crossed Europe. The odd amazing thing would happen here or there, but most of the time it was just a lot of cycling and a lot of nervous, lonely camping. After nine months, I reached Kenya and flew home. But, really, Kenya was only supposed to be the halfway point: the next part of the plan had been to find a boat to India or somewhere else in Asia, and then cycle home. But, Kenya was enough, and I went home to my poor girlfriend.
You weren’t put off permanently though I guess?
No! It’s that route home across Asia — it’s always caught my eye! Anytime I saw a map I’d always think: “I’m going to do that one day.” So, when my girlfriend said to me in 2017 that she wanted to go to India, my first thought was, “Well, I can do that trip home, then!”
So, we left home for India, travelled for a few months until we ran out of money and then went to Thailand and found teaching jobs. We ended up living in Bangkok for nine months, and I loved my job. But, when the season warmed up, I left Thailand to start travelling home alone, while my girlfriend travelled elsewhere to study yoga.
What is it about these types of trips that appeals to you?
First off, I wanted to complete a round trip; so, travel as far away from home as I could and then travel back another way, without using a plane. I saw photos of the Pamir Highway (a huge highway which provides the only real route through much of Central Asia) years ago, and couldn’t really believe that places so untouched and remote were out there and able to be travelled. So, in a way, it was only really the Pamir Highway that I particularly wanted to travel, but the mystery of the other roads was enough for me to go.
I wouldn’t call myself particularly outdoorsy, but seeing these places in a rough, random way takes the experience of a country to another level, for me. I want to see the real place, wherever it is. And, travel like this isn’t always smooth. It’s completely unpredictable, but that’s when the amazing things can happen. I kind of miss the predictability of a bus, sometimes — you just sit there and get off when you’re ready, but following the rougher roads is definitely worth it.
Because you’ve been hitchhiking, you’ve relied a lot on the kindness of strangers, and there’s evidence of so much of that in your videos. Has it surprised you at all?
It’s always amazing, everywhere I go. Your days can suddenly take amazing turns; I was in Uzbekistan and a guy who picked me up off the side of the road ended up inviting me to his son’s wedding the next day, which was such a great experience. From reading books about travel, I think I knew that I’d meet kind people on the road, but not to the extent that I have done. Places can be so friendly that it can sometimes make you feel a little spoiled, especially in places where the people have so little. I’ve met so many good people in every country I’ve been too. Some places are crazy-friendly, like Tajikistan and Sudan, and I’ve found that Muslim countries tend to be really lovely, but every country has those good people, in some places, it takes a little longer to meet them, but never that long.
What would you say to anyone who wants to take on the kind of trip you’ve done?
I think it depends what you want from it, first of all. For me, I like the idea of overland trips; going from one place to another, and whatever is in between, I’ll see. You see a special little corridor through normal life, not tweaked for tourists.
Life on the road is generally pretty cushy, its a lot nicer than people imagine, I think. But, beginning a trip like this is the hardest part. Not the actual doing. The first time I camped alone, in 2012 in Belgium, I was in my tent terrified and horribly depressed. I had so many nights ahead of me and it was a dread, but everyday got gradually better. I had never cycled anywhere before, except to work and back, and I had no experience at all. But, I did the hardest part with that first horrible camp, and my life has been quite different, ever since. Money isn’t everything in travel; you just need some. So, just go with whatever you’ve got, and you’ll figure it all out, or a nice stranger will help you first.
Ultimately, just book something and then you’ll definitely be going somewhere. And, then you have time to prepare. You really don’t need much “stuff”, and most you can buy, but the landscape and season is what’s important. If in Africa in summer or central Asia winter, what do you need? The mountains are different, I suppose, and if there’s no people, then yeah, it’s completely different. But, yeah, for travel, you will be fine with whatever you have; if you have a good stove to cook on then great, it makes life easier, but a homemade beer can stove works fine, just slowly.
You embody the idea that we shouldn’t be overly-daunted by travel but have there been any times where you’ve wished you’d prepared a little better or realised you’d have done something differently, if you could?
I’ve had the feeling of biting off more than I can chew at the beginning of every trip, I think.
On the first trip, I walked across Nepal for a month without a map, which is a really terrible idea that I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do. It wasn’t a choice; we lost it. But, you know, sitting on a settee worrying about the things that can go wrong is just as risky to me as not trying anything. I’m terrified of looking back on life and thinking, “Shit, I didn’t try that thing I wanted to do,” or, “I didn’t try hard enough,” or, most of all, “I didn’t enjoy it enough.”
On the latest trip, because of a lack of preparation and a bad decision, I found myself walking through mountains in Converse.
I was very worried at the time
The terrain was rough, and it was really snowy and cold. Lots of people picked up on it and commented — I think that’s probably most of the Youtube comments: “Why are you not wearing hiking boots?!” — and I was very worried at the time. The video doesn’t show this though, for a few reasons: me not wanting to moan too much, editing quickly and making the videos a short enough length for my computer to handle.
There’s been a really great response to your videos, aside from all the footwear comments. How has that been for you? And why do you think your videos have resonated so much?
I love that people are interested in this sort of travel, and that it is completely possible for all of us.
People’s first thought can be that it would be dangerous but then they see how many wonderful people are so willing to help
Honestly, the views on YouTube was insane — still is. I don’t know why, really. I guess, it’s mainly the trip: travelling through countries we know little about, in a way that is completely open to strangers. And, people’s first thought can be that it would be dangerous but then they see how many wonderful people are so willing to help. Maybe people need to hear something like that nowadays, when there’s so many problems in the world.
I also love that my poor editing and camera knowledge doesn’t matter to people. If anything, it seems that they enjoy it more because of that. Maybe it’s more relatable, somehow.
Major cliche alert but have you learned a lot about yourself as a person through travel?
I wouldn’t say I’ve figured it all out, by any means, but I’ve got to know my self, in terms of recognising when I start getting grumpy or start making excuses. Eventually, I’ve learned to try and be very honest with myself and to not believe my own bullshit. But, that has taken many lonely days and nights on the road to learn. I think it’s because whatever problem happens on the road, I have to deal with it myself; my mum can’t come and pick me up. Although, in the end, I usually get helped by a stranger, anyway. But, these trips challenge me in surprising ways, and you can surprise yourself with how you handle them. You have to, so you do.
Ethan Shone 19th September 2018