Traveling has come to an end, the distance between Stuttgart in Southern Germany and Beijing in Eastern China has been brought behind. What remains are many memories of great experiences and encounters, not only with local people, but also with other travelers. Each of these encounters has made me advance in one way or another, has broadened my horizon. One thing at the very beginning: the 100 days are definitely too short for such a trip. I knew this from the very beginning, but still did not want to miss the experience.
The Travel Route
The journey led me from Stuttgart first to my parents house in Switzerland from where I continued by train to Venice. In that famous city I started a game which would continue to Istanbul. A game I called sampling of countries. Since my time was very limited I used the little time I had to get a good first impression of all the places I visited and an idea what the soul of the country consisted of. It was a particularly interesting experience to get to know the differences of all the former Yugoslavien countries. Entering Albania meant a major change for me. Suddenly I was not familiar with the local language anymore and the well established infrastructure was nowhere to be found. I got the feeling I had left Europe far behind. The feeling however changed immediately when I crossed the Albanian-Greek border.
[travelmap-map first=2011-09-30 last=2012-01-09 height=500]
By crossing the Bosphorus in Istanbul I left Europe for good. Not only geographically, but also culturally Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey, is a very different world. The statement that Western Turkey is just like Europe is in my opinion a fairy tale, since the Turkish have their very own strong culture. The differences between west and east of that country however are very real and not only present due to fact that there are the Turkish on the one side and the Kurdish on the other side. Iran more than fulfilled my expectations with the people’s hospitality and their interest in foreigners. The people also surprised me with a respect for other persons, which I dubbed the Persian attitude. Entering Turkmenistan I left the Middle East and set foot to Central Asia. Again a huge change: with despots reigning their country with their personal wealth much more important than their people’s well-being. In Central Asia I could also see the first influences from China, for example in form of the green tea which was being offered besides the omnipresent black tea further west. Central Asia lasted all the way from Ashgabat in Turkmenistan to Turpan in the east of the Xinjiang province in China. The whole Xinjiang province is historically and culturally a part of Central Asia as one could tell by the food and the language of the local people. In Jiayuguan I had finally reached Chinese heartland, not only because I saw the Great Wall for the first time. The few spots of Central Asia in the Muslim Quarter in Xian did not convince me, that I would be seeing real parts of Central Asia.
Which Country Was the Most Beautiful?
A question which is often asked when one was on a long journey and visited many countries. And also a question which should be prohibited. Why? Every country, every region has to offer a unique nature, from mountains and lakes on the Balkans to the rocks in Cappadocia, the deserts in Iran, in Central Asia or in China. On the other hand, the interesting part of such a journey is not only visiting nature and tourist attractions, but also exchanging experiences with the local people.
Since I only got a very brief impression of most of the countries I traveled through it would also be unfair to come to an ultimate conclusion. Each country through which I traveled had its highlights. And in all the countries the people were hospitable and open to foreigners (maybe with the exception of Istanbul, where I just had too many bad experiences with people only wanting to make money from me).
What Would I Do Differently Next Time?
To prepare myself for the communication with the local people in Central Asia, I took one semester of Russian class at the Volkshochschule in Stuttgart. I had planned on a second semester, but the class did not take place due to a lack of interest. Before I left I did not realize that learning a little bit of Turkish would have been an even better decision. Russian was not a completely wrong choice and it helped me in quite a few places, but in places like Turkey and the Xinjiang province in China, nobody speaks Russian, while those two plus all the Central Asian countries have a national language which is related to Turkish.
A second thing I should have done, but didn’t do due to many reasons, was a good preparation for all the countries I visited. During past travels I realized how important and interesting it was to read a first introduction to the culture and the history of the countries I am visiting, before entering the country. Since I was traveling quite quickly, there was also not much time to catch up on the reading. My lack of information did not cause any problems, but it helps a lot especially when it comes to delicate topics like for example the war in former Yugoslavia. Hoe much better is it, when you know who was responsible for which part and why. Guide books usually offer a very good introduction, but I would still recommend additional reading.
One Big Question
Traveling through the countries of former Yugoslavia one is at one point confronted with the question how these different people and cultures were successfully kept together in one country. Or even more important why it did not work any longer after the country had fallen apart and why people are unable to live peacefully together. No offense to the people who were a part of the war. Sarajevo was and is a very good example of how people from different races and religions can peacefully live together. In Sarajevo the discussion about these topics was raised for the first time during the trip, but also during my extended talks with the Dag family in Van these were central topics. In Iran all the discussions with the local people led to a similar focus at one point or another. In endless discussion we came up with the fact that most difficulties between humans arise if there is too little communication among the people. In my opinion this starts in a relationship, but continues at work and finally even is responsible for wars.
It was impressive to see how much the people between Turkey and China communicated orally. While we need everything written down in the Western cultures, those people do not hesitate to clarify open questions on the spot by talking to the involved people or to gather the necessary information by calling their friends. The mobile phone is their primary tool for achieving this feat these days. It is incredible how many very short phone calls I witnessed, for example drivers letting their loved ones know that they were on a long trip and would be back late.
I am convinced that this intensive communication between people and especially between people of different races and religions makes this world a better place. No matter where one is from and where one is going, one can learn from every person, no matter what their background. And: the communication helps bridge the gaps between cultures. I am thus looking forwards to my time in China and hope to have many more interesting encounters with locals and foreigners alike.
During the time to come, the Chinese will have my undivided attention. The old and rich culture and what it has become today is very complex and wants to be discovered. Unfortunately I my main way of discovering the details will mostly happen in Beijing and not by traveling the country, although one or the other trip will still be possible. I am first looking for a new job, which will occupy the coming days and weeks. This search will be interrupted by the Spring Festival, the official name for the Chinese New Year, which will begin on January 23. The celebrations, during which the Chinese apparently spend their time on so-called temple markets and with their families, will last until February 6, when the Lantern Festival will close all the festivities. However only the first week is a public holiday.