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)

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