Thursday, 14 July 2011

Going home and final thoughts

“Once you have become the companion of the road, it calls you and calls you again... the road lies outside the door of your house, full of charm and mystery. You want to know where the roads lead to, and what may be on them, beyond the faint horizon’s line.” (Stephen Graham, Through Russian Central Asia, 1916)

Our travels are almost over now and tomorrow we’ll be back in England, home amongst family and friends. It feels right to be going home: a year is a long time to live a transient existence and we feel ready to resume and rebuild our London life. Yet it’s been a fantastic year, and an opportunity we feel so privileged to have had and are unlikely to have again.

We feel so lucky to have seen sites we’d read and about and dreamed of seeing for years: the wonderful ancient silk road cities of Central Asia, the modern Chinese East Coast cities, Everest and the Potala Palace in Tibet, the temples of Angkor, the museums and galleries of St Petersburg and Moscow, and countless beautiful landscapes, like those of Siberia, Tibet, Kyrgyzstan, Western Norway, and the Caucusus Mountains. Enjoying twelve months of almost continual clear blue skies and sunshine has also been wonderful (even if at times it’s been oppressively hot or painfully cold). But it is the contact we’ve had with people along the way, and the friendliness and hospitality we’ve been shown time and again, that will linger perhaps longest. Over and over people went out of their way to help us, inviting us into their houses, offering us food, driving us where we needed to get to, or just welcoming us to their countries. Often the hospitality we received was warmest in those places with the worst reputations in the West, and it forced us time and again to abandon our prejudices and preconceptions, our Western fear of strangers, and to open ourselves up to new people and experiences in a way we tend not to at home.

Much though we’ve enjoyed our interactions with people along the way, and are acutely aware of the privileges that being foreign and white can bring, we’re are though weary of standing out in the street and of being an outsider, and crave the anonymity of London. In the countries we’ve been, from Russia onwards, we’ve faced constant attention and been asked the same questions over and over again (what’s your name, where are you from, are you married, why don’t you have children...). There seems at times to be a perception too that foreigners are public property, so we’ve been poked and prodded and had our belongings picked over repeatedly. For some people too our mere presence was evidence of our (relative) extreme wealth, and so unsurprisingly we were asked frequently about how much money we had and whether we could give people some, and were expected to pay inflated prices for everything. And while we know that most people were simply being friendly and curious, at times we found it awkward or tiresome, and never found an entirely satisfactory way of dealing with the question of money, either to ourselves or to people we’ve met.

Spending time outside the UK we’ve also been forced to re-evaluate life at home and have become aware of quite how privileged life in the UK is in so many ways. It’s not just a question of having enough money not to worry about feeding or housing ourselves and to enjoy our leisure time, but about all the infrastructure we take for granted but that so many people in the countries we’ve visited do not have access to, like running water, reliable electricity, heating, refuse collection, and generally good roads and public transport. Having witnessed the environmental and social impact that an absence of planning legislation is having on countries like Nepal and China we’ve also become firm defendants of our own much maligned planning system. And travelling largely in countries ruled by fairly autocratic or repressive regimes has made us acutely aware of the freedoms we take for granted at home: the generally high standard (phone hacking aside) of an independent media; freedom of speech and opportunities to challenge authority through elections, demonstrations or strikes; that we don’t fear of the police, and don’t face corruption or open discrimination of ethnic and other minority groups.

Yet our travels have also challenged our preconception that democracy is the only effective and viable political system, and is an end in itself rather than just a means to success. For China and Vietnam are faring far better than most of their neighbours who have embraced democracy, and the majority of people seem happy under one-party rule. Similarly, most of the Russians we spoke to were happier with the current authoritarian regime than they had been with Yeltin’s democracy. And while this year’s Arab Spring gives weight to the view that ultimately democracy will triumph over authoritarianism, at present it seems both a long way off and not particularly desired by many of the people we’ve met who seem pleased just to see their economies growing and personal well-being and affluence growing. Perhaps in those countries where poverty and starvation are such recent memories, for many people material wealth understandably assumes primary importance, with environmental, democratic freedoms or other concerns overlooked in rush for economic development.

We’ve enjoyed our travels right the way to the end, yet we have also found ourselves becoming weary of travelling: of constantly moving on, working out how to get to where we’re going, packing up our things and squeezing ourselves into the next mode of transport, learning the layout of new places, where to buy food, where to stay and what the local prices should be. And strangely even things that are a pleasure usually: working out how to spend days without structure and eating out at restaurants can be tiring. In essence we find ourselves craving familiarity, a routine and everything that comes with having a home. So we have very mixed emotions about the end of this trip, sad to be finishing but pleased to be going home, and are sure that we’ll be off again at some point hopefully not too far away, to revisit some of the places we’ve seen over the last year and to discover new ones.

Our year in numbers

• Number of nights spent outside the UK: 348

• Distance travelled overland (excluding the distance we walked - perhaps another 2,000kms): 45,500km

• Furthest single overland journey: 4460km – Kunming (China) to Lhasa (Tibet)

Longest single journeys:
• Sea: 52 hours – Alesund to Bodo (Norway), Hurtigruten boat
• Rail: 42 hours – Chengdu (China) to Lhasa (Tibet)
• Road: 15 hours – Yerevan (Armenia) to Kars (Turkey), via Georgia

Geographical extremes:
• Most northerly point: 71° 1’ 8” North – Nordkapp (Norway)
• Most southerly point: 10° 2’ 0” North – Can Tho, Mekong Delta (Vietnam)
• Most easterly point: 121° 30’ 0’’East – Shanghai (China)
• Most westerly point: 0° 7’ 39’’West – London (UK)
• Highest point: 5420m above sea level – Cho La Pass, Khumbu Region (Nepal)
• Lowest point: 154m below sea level – Turpan (China)
• Hottest place: +38°C – Karakum Desert (Turkmenistan) & Yerevan (Armenia)
• Coldest place: minus 25°C – Everest Base Camp (Tibet)

Monday, 11 July 2011


Our first stop in Turkey was Kars in the far north-east of the country, best known for its remoteness and as the setting of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. Although Kars is just a hundred miles or so from Yerevan, with the border between Armenia and Turkey still closed we were forced to detour via Georgia, and with next to no public transport along the way the journey took us 15 hours and 8 vehicles. With no public transport at all or even taxis from the Turkish border onwards we hitched the remaining 150 kilometres: first with an ethnically Armenian family whose grandparents had moved from Turkey to Syria during the 1915 Genocide, and who had moved to Armenia ten years ago and were returning to Syria – slightly nervously given the current political situation – for a family wedding; next with two young men who somehow managed to fit us and our bags into their tiny car; and then with an elderly man who drove us the last 60 km and offered to take us anywhere we wanted to go in Kars. One of the things we’ve both particularly enjoyed about the past year is the contact we’ve had with “ordinary” people around the world who have been almost universally friendly and welcoming. Gradually we’ve learnt again to be more open and receptive to strangers than is common or encouraged at home where a culture of fear seems to infect any interaction with people we don’t know.

Kars itself is a small town of pastel coloured buildings, prettily situated in a shallow valley, surrounded by open grassland. The town’s skyline is dominated by minarets, with mosques dotted around the town, some housed in buildings converted from older Georgian or Armenian churches. Many of the town’s buildings date from the 19th Century Russian occupation, and have a distinct Russian feel to them. Overlooking it all is a ruined castle on the hill above town, from which the views of Kars and the surrounding steppe were lovely.

There are few if any real sights in the town, but it has a pleasant atmosphere and we spent an enjoyable couple of days just wandering about, getting a feel for the place and how different it feels to Western Turkey. Although by the time we reached the town at the start of July summer was in full swing we were aware of how brief the summer is here, with many people already appearing to be preparing for the long and isolating winter by making piles of dung fuel and harvesting hay for the winter feed for the animals.

Just a few kilometres from Kars on the Armenian border is the ancient city of Ani, built by the Armenians as their capital in the 10th Century. The site remains highly important to the Armenians and its inaccessibility due to the closed border is a source of continued upset. Yet the city itself was only controlled by the Armenians for a little under 100 years before being taken in turn by the Byzantines, Persians and Georgians before falling victim to destruction by the Mongols, Timurids and a 14th Century earthquake. Since then the city has fallen into ruin and now the only buildings standing are the handful of churches and the mighty outer walls, with the foundations of the larger shops and houses poking through the long grass. It is a vast sight, beautifully situated overlooking a gorge and walking around it, visiting the beautifully and still wonderfully decorated churches was a haunting and moving experience.

From Kars we travelled to Cappadocia in central Turkey, famous for its strange landscape of soaring rock formations. When we saw it all the clich├ęd superlatives came tumbling out: astonishing, surreal, spectacular, breathtaking, moon-like. Hundreds of thousands of years ago the ancient volcanoes of Mount Erciyes, Mount Hasan and Mount Melendiz erupted and spread a layer of sand coloured tuff which blanketed the countryside. Over the centuries the wind and rain have worn away the soft rock, carving out spectacular gorges and leaving behind the dramatic pinnacles of rock - the 'fairy chimneys' - that are unique to Cappadocia. They come in an extraordinary range of shapes and sizes but most are around 50 foot high and cone or cylindrical in shape.

For thousands of years, the area’s inhabitants have carved their homes, stables, store rooms and churches out of the rock, and today almost every cliff and chimney contains the remains of a cave dwelling. During the Byzantine era, Cappadocia was home to a large Christian population, reportedly even St. George, who carved thousands of cave churches and monasteries into the rock and decorated them with wonderful frescoes of biblical scenes and medieval saints, many of which have survived the iconoclasts remain in spectacular condition. We were amazed by the richness of the colours, the detail of the painting and how in many churches every inch of wall and ceiling was covered with images or elegant carvings.

During the 6th and 7th Centuries, Byzantine Christians carved entire underground cities, up to eight levels deep and with room for up to 10,000 people into the rocks to escape the Persians and Arabs who periodically swarmed up through Syria and Capadoccia to Byzantium.

Today Cappadocia is a popular tourist resort with pretty villages set amongst the fairy chimneys, with boutique cave hotels and restaurants. After a year of travelling in some fairly difficult places with little tourist infrastructure, we found the comparative luxury and ease of Cappadocia very welcome, a real holiday to end our travels with, and made us realize the folly of underestimating the joys of easy travel. We spent a few days of active sightseeing: visiting the churches and monasteries, clambering about in underground cities and walking and cycling through the valleys until we succumbed to the allure of the pool, sunloungers and rooftop terrace bars.

Tonight we take the overnight train to Istanbul, a vibrant and fascinating city we know and know we like, and with its position on the edge of Europe it makes a fitting end to a wonderful year.