In 2007, Kris Mole set out to reach every capital in Europe without handling any money whatsoever. It took him just under six months to travel 9,763 miles. Charming his way across borders, the challenge saw him nearly starve, give an impromptu motivational speech for AIESEC, eat a dish of pasta while a man masturbated next to him, and also raise some cash for Cancer Research.
Obviously a young man going backpacking is nothing new, but a guy who deliberately sets himself up for a bad time feels like a breath of fresh air from the stream of wearily familiar travel photos on social media. I caught up with him recently to ask him all about it.
VICE: Hi, Kris. Why did you make the trip?
Kris Mole: Basically because I wanted to travel and didn't have any money. It was also kind of that English tradition of doing something crazy for sponsorship. One night I drunkenly told a friend I was going to do it, and a week later I had a plane ticket to Sweden, where I started the journey. I didn't plan it anywhere near as much as I should have.
The trip was obviously intended to be a struggle, but what were your biggest problems?
Finding somewhere warm to sleep, obviously, and then the fact that I couldn't buy any food. While I was on the plane I suddenly realized I couldn't even buy a bottle of Coke, let alone a train ticket from the airport to Stockholm, where I'd arranged to meet a CouchSurfing host. Beyond Stockholm I'd have to get to another 26 capital cities. It was the first time I thought, 'Wait, what am I doing?'
Was that a recurring thought?
I had it every day after that, but fear of losing my pride kept me going. Even family and friends had told me, "You'll be back in a week, ten days at the most." I can say with honesty I'd rather have died on a motorway somewhere than go home and tell people I'd failed.
So that was your sole motivation for six months?
Pretty much, but it's weird how normal it all became. I'd wake up in the morning in Berlin, for instance, and know that day I'd have to get to Poland somehow, just like you'd wake up and know you had to buy bread and clean the floor that day. It was almost like a job. There were days that proved particularly difficult, though; one was when I was trying to get from Warsaw to Vilnius in Lithuania. I'd stupidly done the first part of Eastern Europe in a massive coat and been more or less prepared for the elements.
Then I went west and did France, Spain, and Portugal, where they had an early spring—a proper T-shirt weather one—so I ditched the coat and all my warm clothes, expecting to do the last leg of the trip in sunshine. When I arrived in Poland it was a little bit colder but still sunny. When I woke up the next day there was about three feet of snow. That was a big problem.
I ended up hitchhiking through a genuine blizzard. I was so hungry, cold, and tired that I had a moment of madness where I decided to walk 185 miles. After finally getting a ride, I got dropped off by this guy in the middle of a forest road, in the dead of night, and still in blizzard conditions. It was like a spaghetti junction kind of thing but with no lights anywhere. Cars were going by and I was wearing dark clothes. I kept falling in the snow because my shoes had just filled up by this point. There were a few situations like that, but that was the time I was most sure I was going to die.
How many trains did you bunk?
I don't know exactly, but it was easily more than 30.
What did you do about all the fines?
I realized right at the beginning when I was first asked to give my passport over that there was no address written inside, so I wrote the only other address I could remember off by heart in there, which was Tottenham Hotspur in London. I think the only fine that found its way to my actual address was from a German train company about a year-and-a-half after I got back.
How often did you drink while you were out there?
Alcohol helped a lot; it really is an instrument of bonding. Whenever I'd turn up at a host's place I'd get offered a drink almost without exception. Sometimes I hadn't eaten for a couple of days when I arrived, but I was 24 and wasn't going to turn down any amount of alcohol offered to me.
The kindness of strangers prevails. Did you stay with any weirdos?
The weirdest person was a guy in Luxembourg, a Frenchman. He hosted me on CouchSurfing and masturbated over me. Well, not literally over me, but he started masturbating in his pocket while I was eating some pasta he'd prepared me. That was a bit uncomfortable.
Did you finish the pasta?
Yeah, I finished it; I was hungry.
Taking into account the millions of people trying to find refuge from violence and atrocities in their own countries, how do you feel about being able to get around Europe as easily as you did?
Yeah, when I see what's happening now the irony isn't lost on me. It makes you realize how messed up the world is. I was able to do what I did just because of where I was born and the passport I have. I mean, especially in Eastern Europe people were almost afraid to treat me badly because of possible repercussions. I know it's a cliché, but the privilege of being a white European did help me a lot. But it is what it is.
You've released a book about the trip, what's the response been like?
Yahoo was nice—I got an email from a journalist saying that they'd seen the story and they wanted to cover it for Yahoo travel, which I thought sounded like a brilliant idea for publicity. The thing is, the journalist managed to omit the fact that the trip raised money for charity, so I was basically painted as a bum just trying to mooch around Europe sponging off people.
Anyway, it turns out that the people who read Yahoo travel are the kind of people who watch Fox News. Every other comment was about me being a "dirty Syrian refugee" or "a dirty Afghan refugee." There were even suggestions I'm a terrorist from ISIS.
Yeah, from what I've seen in terms of response, there does seem to be a bit of a race thing going on.
Yeah, that was the case even when I was doing the challenge. Quite a few times my British passport wasn't taken at face value; there was always a lot of extra investigation. People would ask me where I'm from, I'd say "England" and they'd say, "No, where are you from?" For instance, I was on the French/Spanish border, in Hendaye, where they have a problem with Basque separatists. The morning I was there I'd passed a poster with a load of Basque terrorists on it. All of them looked like me. Every single face looked like he could have been my brother. So I was sat in the train station, minding my own business. Four armed police suddenly approached me and took my passport away for about ten minutes. They didn't believe I was English. They scanned my passport, sent it back to headquarters to check. Eventually they let me go, but they still didn't believe I was who I said I was.
What's your advice for other people trying to travel for free?
Use CouchSurfing or similar websites, like Hospitality Club. Basically, try and find likeminded people that are willing to host you. Make sure you're willing to participate in the spirit of that whole thing, though—it's not just using these places as hotels; it's a cultural exchange. Now I'd say hitchhike. At the time I didn't do it so much because I wasn't used to it, but since then I've done it a lot. Do your research, though: look on Hitchwiki and you can see what thousands of other people have said about the same route. If you're going to take the risk of bunking trains, be confident, have a lie ready, and don't be embarrassed to use it. I just looked at it like I was stealing from a big rail company that wasn't losing anything if one guy rode for free. Don't just refuse to pay, either—I got kicked off plenty of trains when I had a good excuse, so being a dickhead won't work.
Do you think the challenge has changed your outlook on life at all?
When I went away on the trip I thought most of the world was shit, that people were just out for themselves. Then I came back as a bit of a hippy and thought, Wow, no, everyone's amazing. Now I've found balance again and I can see there are a lot of nice people, but also a lot of corrupted people.
Have you got another challenge lined up?
Yeah, a couple. I'd say within a year I'll be on another one, with a budget this time. I'd never repeat what I did on this trip in any part of the world because it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I lost about two stone (28 pounds) in weight and I'm not a big guy. In terms of morale I was completely at the mercy of other people; if people didn't help then I couldn't help myself. I think next time I'd like to be the one helping.
Kris has written a book about his experience, Gatecrashing Europe, which you can buy here.