I’ve been here before. Wondering whether what I’m about to do is possible, sensible, desirable even. Can I cross a continent? 20 years ago the plan was similar but different. I’d been living in Hong Kong, teaching English in a secondary school: my take on the middle-class British rite of passage that is the gap year. My friend Mark and I kept looking at the world map in the wall of our flat and our minds wandered to the point where we came up with the idea of coming home overland to the UK through China, Pakistan and the Middle East.
It’s astonishing how different planning a trip feels now. It’s not that long ago but just getting hold of information was hard. If we’d been in London, I guess we could have gone to Stanford’s and found some pretty good guidebooks and maps. In Hong Kong we managed to track done a few out of date guidebooks and there were a some basic webpages and forum posts on Lonely Planet and that was it.
Today I can find out so much more yet the sensation of going into the unknown is still palpable and there are many blanks in my planning (why hasn’t the Google Streetview car been to Germany or Austria?). In 1998, I was 18, carefree, fit, healthy and a bit arrogant; nor did I have to rush with nearly four months to make the journey before I started my first year at university. Now, I’m much more conscious of the things that could go wrong and I will be doing the trip alone to a demanding timetable so overall I’m probably slightly more anxious than I was then.
If my journey on the Transcontinental stays with me as long as that trip has it will have been worth it though. There are some bits I definitely want to avoid (a bout of dysentery for starters) but the scenery, cultures and people we met were amazing; the humanity of people towards us we couldn’t communicate with (an old, bling Uighur man on an overnight bus journey through the Taklamakan desert listing world leaders’ names in an attempt to communicate comes to mind) and acts of kindness gave me faith in my species; and the moments of humour gave me anecdotes you don’t want me to bore you with. (OK, one… in moto-tricycle taxi in Quetta, the driver gives us some hashish. Neither Mark or I smoked let alone knew how to roll a joint, but we had some cigarettes because we figured they might be a good way to make some friends. Cue a good thirty minutes trying to dissect and reassemble a cigarette to enjoy the pot. We failed.)
The connection won’t just be experiential. A number of places along the route I will cross the path I took back then. By the time we had got to Istanbul we had perhaps dawdled too long and Mark wanted to get back to go through clearing so we needed to speed up; plus all that was ahead of us was expensive, familiar Europe that would be on our doorsteps anyway. So we took a bus from Istanbul to Munich to get over-and-done with. Just us and a small group of Turks who I guess had moved to Germany as gastarbeiter in the 70s. I couldn’t tell you the exact route we took but we went across northern Greece, caught a ferry to Italy and drove north through Austria (over the Brenner Pass I think) and onto Bavaria. From there it was a train to Cologne, then on through Belgium to Ostend and a ferry to the UK. As best as I can guess the intersections will be pretty much at the start, between Innsbruck and the Brenner Pass, and about 100km north of the finish in Meteora. I doubt it will be familiar but I may try to mark the places. Plus it will finish some business as I’ve always felt we should have travelled up through the Balkans rather than a boat across the Adriatic.