“The journey you set out on is not the journey you return from.”
I sit on the roof of our small pension overlooking the Sea of Marmara and Asia where we have journeyed the past four months. The ever present Turkish sun warms the stucco wall across the small lane, a cracked patina of melon and lime; an old woman sits on the deck of a tiny but spectacular penthouse, a two million dollar view in Seattle, and also ours for $38 this night. Ships, ferries, pilot boats, tugs and classic yachts draw white wakes on the stippled blue Sea of Marmara. The ever present call to prayer echoes off the historic castles and mosques behind me on Sultanahmet. Gulls cut arcs in the north-wind-scrubbed, pale blue sky giving way to distant haze. A rustbucket coastal freighter thrump thrump thrumps its way toward the Agean, bound for Cypress or perhaps Lebanon, Syria… If adventures must come to an end, and they must, Istanbul is the line we draw to end this one.
Aya Sofya after dark
I am always melancholy at the end of these things, this one particularly so. Throughout this trip, men have wanted to know my age; it has often been humorous to see the surprise when they learn I am not their age, but their father’s age, doing something they themselves could not imagine doing. And yet it didn’t really make me feel good. Sixty one is still sixty one. I may be as strong as many men half my age, but I’d still like to be half my age. That is a bad thing; that is a good thing. Bad in that it could contribute to getting us in over our heads; good in that it keeps me looking forward to the next challenge, keeps me feeling young. If it matters, and it does to those who love Claire and me, I think the very different challenges of this Asia crossing mellowed my I-can-do-anything attitude. Just a tad. Just enough. Not too much.
Inside the Blue Mosque
My original idea for this trip was to ride Zippy across the continent of Asia following one of the Silk Road routes; pure, elegant, simple. Hah! Claire had her doubts from the early stages of planning, but stubborn optimist that I can be, refused to hear. Still, she came (I would not, could not, have done it without her) and carried more than her share of the load; and seldom beat me with the I-told-you-so cudgel. Asia independent travel is never to be taken lightly, as we learned ourselves and from fellow adventure cycle tourists we met in Almaty, Kazakhstan; all use various forms of transport to skirt dangerous, difficult areas, more often the vagaries of officialdom and corruption. We had our share of both. But we survived them all, have more stories to tell than we can get to here, and we return from our most difficult adventure yet, glad we went. I will be processing the memories and lessons of this trip for years.
Several issues, not least of which the massacre of 700 Muslims by the government of Uzbekistan, coalesced to limit our Zippy riding to 3,700 miles. We made use of one taxi, two trains and one airplane to aid the traverse of what I have named the Genghis Khan route of the Silk Road. As luck would have it, this route probably best illustrates the evolution of the romantic idea of the ancient Silk Road to the reality of the new Silk Road; it is oil that is now being transported East to West, technology and culture West to East. The maze of Silk Road land routes forms a web that diverges west and south in Western China, and rejoins in Central Turkey. We followed the northern-most, least known route opened late in the game by Genghis Khan; it crosses the Tien Shan mountains over the Korgas pass in Northwest China and then various routes north of, or across, the Caspian Sea then south through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.
We managed to follow the Silk Road nearly all of the way, as evidenced by the caravanserais and fortress ruins we encountered from China to Turkey. People still make silk the old fashioned way, beat wool by hand, use camels, donkeys and horses for transport and live at a pace tuned to nature. But increasingly they also work on the oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Turkish south coast, modernize roads in far Western China and pursue modern career paths in Istanbul, T’blisi, Baku, Almaty, and Urumchi. They are more likely now to drive a truck than a camel train, plow with a tractor than a horse, and dream of the life of wealth they have seen on western television for a generation. They are making the transition to an oil based economy at a blistering pace. Asia’s use of resources is growing exponentially; exactly how drastically that will impact the West remains to be seen. The Asian Century might possibly be a rough one; it most certainly will be an interesting one.
Palace tile work
Holy man reading the Koran in the Blue Mosque
A blast from a ferry horn brings me back to my Istanbul roof top. The sun, flamed by western haze, reflects from a hundred windows across the Marmara, gemstones burning with the promise of Asia viewed from the comfort of Europe. But, tonight, for just one more night, I long for the rough hotel in a village of Gaoquan in remote Western China, a bowl of laghman noodles, rich and peppery hot, to sleep the sleep of the dead on a hard board bed and a rice filled pillow, and to awake not knowing what lies West.
Ah, but then I can have it can’t I, in memory and imagination until those fail me; and then someone can read these journals to me, and I can marvel at two adventurous fools’ exploits.
Thanks for coming along for the ride.
Bob and Claire Rogers