Pacific to Atlantic Ocean, overland
(April – June 2019)
Each red-dot identifies a city visited along the journey
Ulugbek, Tilla-Kari and Sher Dor Medressas at Registan Square, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Uzbek children seeking my photo, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
My Uzbek friends. Tashkent – Nukus Uzbekistan trainline
Ulugbek, Tilla-Kari and Sher Dor Medressas at Registan Square, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Click on picture to enlarge
1) EurAsia: Introduction
Samarkand, Uzbekistan – one of the oldest Central Asian cities (seventh century BCE) – was successively occupied by Greek, Iranian and then Turkic rulers prior to the arrival of Genghis Khan in 1220 CE and Marco Polo shortly thereafter. This mix of empires and civilizations created a city pleading to be photographed – and I was not alone in responding. Local Uzbek children and adults repeated asked me to join them in their pictures at ancient sites (see several photos above this text). I don’t know why, as I was not the only foreigner in Samarkand that week.
But now the time had come to travel on, as I was about to catch my night train to Nukus – said to be a tribute to Soviet urban planning. I was uneasy. Not only about traveling into the desolate Western quarter of Uzbekistan – and wondering what might await me – but also because this was the first time on my EurAsia journey that I was seated in a second-class car. No first-class cabins in the Uzbek outback, I had learned.
Most passengers were sleeping when I boarded at 11.00 p.m. on a Tuesday night. I was directed to Berth 53 – one of 60 beds in my car. Most curtains were drawn and hiding the sounds of slumber. I slept too, as the repetitive rocking of a night train is almost hypnotic – but not well – and awoke to a glorious sunrise and a rather rugged desert. I seemed to be the only foreign passenger in my car and perhaps on the entire train.
As the morning wore on, the four passengers across the aisle became interested in me and I in them. A couple of my new friends had just enough English to allow us to learn about each other. The fellow on my left was a Customs official in Western Uzbekistan’s only urban centre (see picture) and the two ladies in the centre were medical doctors. The woman on the right was introduced as being rather famous, as she had once been a free-style wrestling champion – representing Uzbekistan at the Olympics and at other international tournaments – and now worked as a wrestling teacher in Nukus. These four seemed to enjoy learning about my EurAsia adventure, as much as I enjoyed learning about their lives – making for a leisurely morning that was both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. We parted at the Nukus train station about noon, never to meet again, and I made my way to my internet-booked hotel: the very pleasant Jipek Joli Inn.
How did all this begin...
A journey invites discovery: of the world around us, of our engagement with that world and of ourselves. Enclosed in the pages that follow is the story of my EurAsia adventure from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean – overland in early 2019.
This travel-journal also offers an invitation to others to create a journey that excites the imagination. A life-enhancing journey is built on a concept that may include a purpose or goal. I am not sure just how all this began, as the concept for my journey evolved over several years, while the journey’s commencement was inspired by an opportunity.
Somewhere in the recent past, I became fascinated by China’s contemporary silk road, or what some call the ‘iron silk road’. Officially known as the Belt and Road Initiative, this Chinese-sponsored infrastructure project is slowly binding Asia to Europe. This massive undertaking will change – in unimaginable and dramatic ways – the EurAsia continent and perhaps global geopolitics. I thought I should see, with my own eyes, land that I had barely explored before such changes unfold.
The original idea was to travel the Silk Road, which is actually many paths that once linked China to Europe (from 100 BCE to 1400 CE). But the principal route dips south into Afghanistan – not an ideal travel itinerary currently. This insight eventually shifted the concept to EurAsia. What about the entire EurAsia continent? Why not …
I briefly considered the northern route via the Trans-Siberian Railway that begins in Vladivostok (Sea of Japan / Pacific Ocean) and ends in Moscow. From there it would not be difficult to travel by land to the Atlantic Ocean. The Trans-Siberian has operated since 1916 and is so well established that I concluded (with no direct experience) that every station stop must be a tourist-mecca. Tchaikovsky’s sugar-plum fairies danced in my head and merged with visions of smiling Russians treating me like an automatic bank machine. It didn’t seem very appealing, as my concept was focused not only on travelling the entire EurAsian continent but also gaining a deeper understanding of the various peoples and cultures that inhabit this unfamiliar land.
So, I began to study the middle route with some hesitation – as it seemed unknown. Obviously, it begins in China – and I decided to aim for Xi’an and the terracotta warriors – as the historic Silk Road began and ended in Xi’an. But where and how should I enter Central Asia? Furthermore, given that parts of Central Asia are sparsely populated, are there trains and buses that travel daily – or at all – and how does one get around or across the Caspian Sea and into the Caucasus region and on and on … into Turkey, the Southern Balkans (or perhaps north through Eastern Europe) and finally Europe and the Atlantic coast? A journey of this magnitude is not a casual venture – planning was clearly required.
How these questions were answered – and more – are demonstrated in the pages that follow. A journey invites discovery of the world around us prior to, during and even after that journey ends.
I am certainly not the first to travel from one ocean to the other. From the Atlantic to the Pacific: Overland by Demas Barnes (1866, D. Van Nostrand) may be the first written record, but that journey was undertaken through North America. The Great Railway Bazar: By Train Through Asia by Paul Theroux (1975, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) documents a rail journey from London to Tokyo and back, but the focus – as the title suggests – is overland through Asia, not EurAsia. Macro Polo (c. 1300) travelled from Venice to the Pacific Ocean but there is no written record that he also travelled to the Atlantic.
Until now, there does not appear to have been any personal narrative that begins at the Pacific Ocean and travels overland to the Atlantic Ocean through EurAsia. Yet, I cannot be the first overland traveller to conquer EurAsia.
The stories that follow, in 32 travel-journal entries, include anecdotes of the many people I met in the places I visited. These stories are presented in words and photos. I took thousands of pictures with my smartphone (Samsung A520F) and kept 2,300 of them. From this collection, I have included around 300 of my favourite photos. The writing that accompanies my photos describes my EurAsian adventure in great detail, as I documented my adventure as I travelled.
I travelled mostly by train and bus through eleven nations that required ten visas (three secured prior to arrival), while stopping at 22 destinations (cities). The entire journey (Pacific Ocean to Atlantic Ocean – 14,089 kilometres or 8,755 miles) required A$14,323 (CNY: 68,978; Euro: 8,909; US$10,006 – travelling mostly first class) over a two-month period.
The following pages introduce the reader to the on-the-ground experience of a complex two-month journey, which will provide each reader with perspective about planning and then undertaking their own journey. The first month includes 20 chapters, while the second month includes 12 chapters.
During the first half of my journey (from Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea), I only travelled by train and so I could regularly document my journey, as I could easily write on a train. From the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, I travelled by both train and bus. It was impossible to write on a bus – given both space limitations and a naturally bumpy ride – so, often I was not able to write about my journey until I arrived at my next destination. During this period, I could not write as frequently, but there are more pages per journal-entry in the second half of this collection. Each entry has around 10 pictures – over 300 photos total. I hope you find joy in what follows. Safe travels.