Sunday, September 27, 2009

This is the last day of my trip and I am very glad, since I'm sick of traveling. The irony is that after traveling over 11,000 km by land and another 5,000 by air, I have an 8-hour flight back home. Going from Seoul to London mostly overland, as I've been explaining it, was one of those things that I never really thought would happen. When it did, at least when the interesting parts happened, the parts when you see East Asia become Central Asia, and when Central Asia becomes Europe, it was both surreal and a reminder why nobody ever goes to Kyrgyzstan.

It all has the risk of blending into one, which is why I'm glad I toured through China first, especially the less-frequented parts in Sichuan, Qinghai and Xinjiang provinces. Whenever I dismiss a European city as just another collection of reconstructed classical buildings assembled in a city centre reserved for tourists, I can contrast it with places like Yushu, China, where I paid $12 a night for a clean hotel room with two beds and a TV, and a communal bathroom that was a hole in the ground.

What I really wanted to do in this trip, apart from avoiding a long flight home, was to do what I wanted to do ever since I was 12 and I figured out that you could drive from Norway to Vietnam. I thought you would see people change gradually, and also land and living conditions change gradually, which I did, except for the horrendous blip in Central Asia. As a result, standards of living started out really well in Seoul, took a dive in Shanghai, and then flat-lined in China before dying an unceremonious death in Kyrgyzstan.

They recovered in Turkey and they've been on the upswing ever since. People and their languages started off East Asian, then became Tibetan, then Turkic (Uighur, then Kyrgyz) before becoming Slavic, Central European and then West European. I passed through a wide swath of the Islamic world, from Xinjiang province in western China, through Kyrgyzstan, where they shake hands with the right hand, offer vodka with the left, and then Turkey, where they shake hands with the right and rip you off on a doner with the same one.

I did a lot of things on this trip, but the sightseeing doesn't compare to the conversations and to a lesser extent, the runs I had. I met lots of Chinese people on trains, and I got to see the vast gaps in living standards for Chinese people. I bought a $60 train ticket to go from Shanghai to Chengdu, which I found out aboard the train was two weeks salary. I had 50-cent buffet meals at forgotten truck stops and I met university students who represented the friendly if uninformed future of their country.

I met lots of people I'll never forget: Fabio the Italian who studies in Japan, Abdullah the tour guide in Xinjiang who speaks perfect Japanese but no English, the American from Clemson who is traveling with his middle school student, the Swiss guy I traveled across Kyrgyzstan in a taxi and with whom I narrowly averted grim death in Bishkek. I met an Indian doing internships in Istanbul and then Paris, and I met my 83-year-old great-uncle, veteran of the Second World War in Burma, who has lived in London for 48 years.

Finally, it is unlikely that I will meet anyone more interesting today than the elderly Cornelius I met at The Euston Flyer. Cornelius appears to be a veteran of the Crimean War, roughly five feet tall with a handlebar mustache as white as snow and a handful of teeth to complete the outfit. He arrested me with his story of a legless friend named John, who could have won £15,000 if he had heeded Cornelius' advice on horse-racing, but obstinately refused because he does not gamble. Then they swore at each other and the rest I didn't understand because although we both speak English, Cornelius and I don't nearly speak the same language.

Anyway, the running on this trip was also interesting. Most people would say that last Sunday's long run past the Arc of Triumph, down the Champs-Elysees, past the Eiffel Tower and along the Seine was the best of the trip, but I'd differ. I'd probably say it was my last run at altitude, 20 gasp-inducing minutes in the surprising cold and beauty of Yushu, situated at 12,000 feet. There was also the first run of this trip, through the frightening back streets of Shanghai, on torn up streets that resembled an urban theatre of war. I ran in many a People's Park in China, as well as past farms in Kyrgyzstan (and Belgium), along the sunny waterfront in Istanbul and the cold, dark waterfront of Budapest. I also ran all over London, past every major tourist site and along the Embankment, which is a fancy British way for saying waterfront.

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