Today, Beijing is exactly a month away, leaving us very much in the midst of travel. Generally, I have refrained from sharing my thoughts during this journey for two main reasons. Firstly, overland travel has allowed us to experience change incrementally. While flying to Central Asia from Europe may leave one shell-shocked in the chaotic bazaars of Osh or Samarkand, to our eyes the peculiarities of these places have been tamed by our slow transition through a vast landmass. The graduality of change may have blinded us from many of the differences that exist between our homes and the places we visit. In turn, leaning towards favoring cosmopolitan ideals and seeing more commonalities than differences across borders are natural biases inherent to our way of travel.
Secondly, as I soon found out, overland travel provides polar extremes. One moment I would find myself running around a salt lake in the Iranian desert, exalted by the freedom that boundless isolation may awaken. Hardly a few hours later, I would be crawling out of a bathroom punished by food poisoning elicited by a cucumber, which I had proudly picked for breakfast, self-congratulating myself for the healthy choice. A few days earlier, we had found ourselves close to disaster as our car sputtered to a halt in Southern Iran. Little did we know that the same night we would be meeting Amir, a young mechanic, who would invite us to stay at his family’s place for the night to share a kebab with his 15 siblings. That encounter would then allow us to unveil a side of the Iranian lifestyle that we had long craved for, dramatically changing our view of the country as a whole.
To a large extent, our social media platforms filter some of these experiences, portraying one side of the story that flatters the ‘on the road’ lifestyle by painting it as a dreamy land of comfortable barbecues and starry nights. Nonetheless, life on the road is largely a rollercoaster ride where one is shuttled between feelings of discomfort and self-satisfaction. Telling our story truthfully is a task we will probably have to face with the benefit of hindsight once time flattens the extremes and allows us to form a stable narrative. Nonetheless, a theme has forcefully emerged during our last months of travel, encouraging me to make an exception to the rule.
I left Italy hoping I would return to write an ode to travel, or at least stand for the values that favor this act. At home, the three of us felt that borders were thickening as we were getting ready to cross them. Our values were under attack as Europe and the U.S. started taking an anti-liberal turn. The apparent invincibility that university’s rationalism had tricked us with was faltering, and we soon realized that our open-border mindset was minoritarian, or maybe even elitist. Personally, I felt a high level of responsibility before departing. Showing that overland travel could take place from Italy to China became a way to prove that the “us” versus “them” discourse that politics is deeply fascinated by could be falsified through travel.
In Trieste, on our second day, I crashed the car into a tree while reversing. One of the doors changed shape and we could only drive by keeping it open. At that moment, my thoughts turned sour as I realized that if anything went wrong with the journey I would suddenly provide ammunition to my opposing party. Two years of planning could easily be transformed into an example for parents to use with their kids when presenting a case against travel. After all, the scene would have been comic enough to stick into anyone’s memory. Dramatization soon faded though and we found a mechanic who flattened the door so that it would close. He did not want us to pay for his work and asked us to take a picture of him instead. We had a long way to go to China and he was happy to be part of our journey in some way.
The mechanic in Trieste gave us a taste of a theme we would repeatedly encounter along our road. En route we started noting that in our day-to-day interactions with locals the three of us would be asked our nationalities before we even mentioned our names. “Italia” I got used to saying, in a childish way, knowing that a single word could awaken smiles from border policemen to shopkeepers. In turn, from Turkey all the way to Kyrgyzstan, revealing my nationality sparked brief dialogues about famous Italian figures such as Celentano, Garibaldi, or for the witty ones, Berlusconi. The same ritual also took place for France and India. Inversely, we soon realized we knew very little of the people of most of the places we were visiting.
We had done our fair amount of study on the Stans’ history or Iran’s foreign policy, and were excited to see these take form in some way as we travelled. Nonetheless, we repeatedly reached the conclusion that the people we met wanted to be narrated as individuals rather than as part of a structure. In Georgia, we were invited one morning by a man to have breakfast and he asked that when we would return home we might tell our friends about his hospitality. “We don’t eat people here” a woman in Montenegro told us as we were looking for a campsite by a lake. “Tell the world about us” a student in Baku asked at the end of a night out. These people felt ignored by us as Westerners and were desperately asking for one thing: for us to tell their stories once home. The vast majority of people we have met have shown a shared sense of curiosity and hospitality toward us, but also a shared impulse to be acknowledged as individuals by the world, above the din of nationalisms or politics.
To be truthful, it is important to acknowledge that there have been some notable exceptions. Police, for instance, have a tendency to get excited when seeing our foreign plate as they believe that they can plunder a few dollars from us by inventing some bizarre law we have infringed. Speed-limits and overtaking rules become malleable when faced by dollar-carrying foreigners. However, these exceptions are part of the foliage of personalities one is likely to face along the road. Even in the face of these distortions, the overwhelming message can be heard from afar: "Let us be heard".