A handful of days separate me from departure. As the hours shrink, the number of answers solicited by my family and friends swell relentlessly. I have been planning this expedition for almost two years and I have dreamt about it for even longer, yet when asked seemingly crucial questions as “why did you choose the Silk Road? Why so far, and for so long?” I blush in silence under the shadow of these towering doubts. No matter how often I tell myself that guesswork is a defining feature of this expedition, time after time I find myself searching for certainty.
Why am I going?
To explore the landscapes of places whose exotic names many cannot associate to a mental image. In my own mind, the sound of the word “Samarkand”, a former capital of the Silk Road, would awaken the bedtime stories I would listen to as an infant. Only recently, have I learned that Samarkand was the capital of Tamerlane’s dominion, a conqueror who may have massacred up to 17 million people in the process of building one of the largest empires in history. In retrospect, bedtime stories often had a sour taste. Stories of commerce, wars and discoveries can be told for many other cities or regions with apparently quixotic names such as Persepolis or Oxiana. As our borders with the East are being thickened by populism’s rhetoric, launching a flare on the other side, the so-called Orient, may shine a light on places whose cultures the West has rapidly obfuscated in recent years.
While this answer may appear fulfilling at a dinner table, I typically make use of it when looking for a smooth ride out of a feared qualm. I grin awkwardly as my mind expected more self-truth this time around.
The real answer though lies elsewhere. With time, I realized that my question could not be approached head-on; it had to be broken down into sub-questions as in a typical Fermi problem. The physicist Enrico Fermi was renowned for his love of bizarre questions; his favourite amongst them was probably “how many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Answering this question without consulting an external source of information is an improbable challenge. Fermi however would approach this question by substituting it with multiple sub-questions such as “how many people live in Chicago? How many households tend to have a piano per every 100 people? Moreover, how often does a piano have to be tuned per year?” In turn, with little or no data, the answers to these would allow him to construct a valid approximation to satisfy the initial question. Today, a by-product of the physicist’s hobby has been that graduates often find interviewers measuring their perspicacity with outlandish questions ranging from “how many tennis balls can you fit on a Boeing 747?” to “how many lightbulbs are there in the U.K.?”
After some time I managed to outline two questions whose rhetorical natures guided me closer to an answer: Am I heading on a journey so that my mind can never leave its path of memories? Am I hoping to exhaust all my drive to travel, sedating the child in me, or will I become forever thirsty, abandoning all hopes to follow an expected and well-defined career?
Once, after some speculation with one of my fellow adventurers I felt the taste of an answer for the first time. In our Eureka moment, we realized that from adolescence to the present our achievements had always been stepping-stones. Good grades in high school were essential to move to an elite university, and attending that same university was essential to achieve a satisfying job. Then, there would be an even more satisfying job, in monetary terms, followed by a master in business administration, and eventually an apartment, a countryside house and, for the ambitious ones, an unmissable motorboat. Every step of this ladder is a process, where one watches their step so carefully he/she may fail to enjoy the view. When that next step arrives, the ladder has stretched higher.
We both realized that we were searching for some time-off this runway to find an experience that was bound, a dream whose edges have a beginning and an end, where our minds could be focused on the present, rather than on a slippery conception of tomorrow. An adventure on the Silk Road seemed ideal, with a departure date, an end-date, and all the exotic grandeur essential to justify our brief detour from the runway.
Merchants’ ego trip
I realize that while the dreamer departs to seek a story, the ego hits the road to know a story will be told. The merchants who survived years of travel along the Silk Road and managed to return home would often become eminent storytellers. Marco Polo’s own story entered history, as he was fortunate enough to recount his travels to a poet with whom he shared a Genovese prison cell. Rustichello da Pisa, the poet, transcribed this oral narrative into a prose that allowed Polo’s memories to survive for seven centuries. Authenticity though was rarely merchants’ defining trait. Numerous historians have in fact questioned whether Polo ever reached China. Merchants would intentionally narrate stories of Central Asian valleys filled with monsters and spells to scare off competitors, or simply to replenish a reputation, that years, or often decades of absence from their home had wiped out.
To an extent, I fear my absence and distance from my loved ones may be similarly damaging. The duration of my expedition looks puny when placed next to the years of travel by the Polo family, or even Paul Salopek’s journey, a National Geographic writer who set-off in 2013 to retrace our ancestors’ travels, and may still be found in some Central Asian steppe today. Nonetheless, my confidence as a traveller often finds itself in contrast with my fear of not finding the same world when I return.
Maybe, this is all an excuse to write on an endless evening, while my mind is the great traveller, and my body awaits to join.
Maybe I am drunk on Kerouac’s prose, after all.