“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard
When Marco Polo returned home to Venice, dressed in Mongol rags, after 24 years tracing strands of the Silk Road, his relatives promptly disowned him. Luckily, we run no such risk. In 47 days, we’ve managed to cover what would have taken a camel caravan — capable of travelling 20 miles a day — a minimum of 400 days. To achieve it, we replaced four-legged dromedaries with a few trains, planes, buses and boats, but nevertheless have stuck to the original east-west route, taking in six countries, 7,456 miles, 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and accumulated a camel-load of souvenirs (like good merchants) along the way.
Of course, the statistics don’t capture the encounters and experiences — the mundane and the remarkable. From bidding adieu to sleep on overnight trains in China, to playing a starring role in countless Uzbek wedding photos. From the repetitive plates of bland beef and rice offered up in Turkmenistan, to the jovial supper invitations offered by every Iranian we met. From mastering the art of wearing the hijab, to learning how to pick out the prettiest yak at Kashgar Animal Market. From practising our most innocent-looking border-crossing faces, to sleeping by the stove in the home of a Kyrgz herdsman.
There were places where the Silk Road connection was strong, such as Kashgar, China, and others where it was hanging by a thread, such as in Sivas, Turkey. And there were times when I would’ve liked to linger longer. Incredibly, in Iran, I met another tour group who asked what we were doing. When I explained, one elderly lady looked impressed: “You’re travelling the length of the Silk Road in two weeks?” Immediately assuming all itineraries must be compressed into a fortnight. Today, two months is a luxury most can’t afford, let alone Marco Polo’s 24 years.
And in the rush — where most of us fly in and fly out — there’s a tendency to view each country in isolation. Extended journeys like these reveal the slow metamorphose of facial features, foods and scenery, until it hits home how flimsy geographical borders really are. How connected we are by our ideas, inventions and idiosyncrasies. As James Millward points out in The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction, what makes the Silk Road so unique is that ‘it stands for the idea that humanity has thrived most when connected across its far-flung habitats by exchanges of goods, ideas, arts and people’.
Now, as I sit overlooking the boats plying the Bosphorus, a steaming cup of Turkish tea in front of me, I wondered if the journey shows on me. The clothes are dirtier, but the mind a little richer. Around me the mood of the locals is as grey as the clouds hanging overhead. They hurry past, heads down, unaware of this Silk Road traveller that has journeyed thousands of miles to sit in this city. Like the tealeaves, I’ll need to let everything settle.