The University of the Open Road
“Three kinds of men die poor. Those who divorce, those who incur debts and those who move around too much.”
“Not travelling is like living in the Library of Congress but never taking out more than one or two books.”
Marilyn Vos Savant
I have led a fortunate existence so far. Much of it has been spent wandering the more remote corners of the globe with my backpack, or on an overloaded touring bicycle, seeing for myself the human and natural diversity of the world. When not travelling, I have worked at a succession of meaningless jobs in various countries, saving money for the next travel fix. There are people, my father among them, who wonder what I get from such an itinerant, nomadic lifestyle, and why I spent so much time obtaining science degrees which I seem destined never to use professionally. I do occasionally think about the question myself, and it occurs to me that I am pursuing higher education at the University of the Open Road. It is a liberal arts college, stressing breadth of learning across any numbers of disciplines. The syllabus is as follows.
For a history aficionado like myself, travel has offered a plethora of pleasures. From the dawn of hominid history at Olduvai Gorge, past the cave paintings of Lascaux to the rock art of the Central Asian mountains, I have seen prehistory come and go. I have camped amidst the gold-filled burial mounds of Scythian kings in Kyrgyzstan and in the shadow of the tumulus of China's greatest emperor Han Wu-di. I have picnicked on the Great Wall of China and recited the words of Ozymandias amidst the melancholy rubble of the Ramesseum. The endless sweep of ruined cities in the Middle East—Petra's splendid facades, Baalbek's bombastic scale, the perfectly preserved theatre of Bosra, Palmyra's vast extent set alight by the sunset, the Roman cities around Aleppo which now house shepherd families, the mountain fastness of Termessos—have taught me more about ancient history than any course ever could. I have savoured sunrises and sunsets over ruins from Macchu Picchu through melancholy Merv and marvellous Mandu to sublime Angkor. Retracing the Silk Road on bicycle has impressed on me the magnitude of the accomplishments of great travellers and traders like Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and my hero Xuanzang, the intrepid seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk.
Despite my pacifist leanings, battlefields have exerted a strange fascination on me, perhaps because, except for the accident of being born when and where I was, my bones might now be lying there among so many others. Xanthos, where the men killed their women and children and burned their city before marching out to certain death in battle not once but TWICE (against the Persians and then the Romans) brought tears to my eyes for its fanatic, futile heroism, as did Masada. The Crusader and Assassin castles of the Levant, with their air of bygone bloodshed and treachery, exuded sinister charm. More modern battlefields, from Waterloo to Ypres, Verdun and Gallipoli, along with the killing fields of Cambodia, Auschwitz and Dachau, filled me with revulsion at the industrial killing machines that have benighted recent history.
All those childhood mornings staring up at the world map on my bedroom wall, wondering what sort of places those far-off romantic-sounding names—Bolivia, Patagonia, Tibet, Borneo, Everest—denoted have been rewarded over the years. Our planet's incredible variety of landscapes never fails to delight me. Mountains have always had pride of place in my heart, the high ranges of the Himalayas and Central Asia chief among them. Panting breathless on lookout points below Everest, K2, Nanga Parbat and Annapurna, admiring the superb vertical, glacially polished rock, is an experience I can never get enough of. Other, lower, peaks such as Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya, Semeru and Fuji have provided an opportunity to measure myself against them on foot.
Of course there is more to the world than just mountains. Drifting down the Nile in a felucca, crossing the gorges of the Yangtze and Mekong in Yunnan province, following the infant Oxus through the Pamirs, swimming in the Indus or cycling past castles along the Rhine, rivers have been another collectible in my peregrinations. I have brought rain to the driest deserts on earth—the Atacama, the Taklamakan, the Sahara, the Australian—leading to speculation that I should hire myself out as a rain god to drought-stricken areas in Africa. Forests, from Japan to Chile to Nepal to Malaysia, all too often being felled in unsustainable quantities to make way for farms and ranches, have provided an glimpse into the endless struggle between competing species of plants and animals. And glaciers, those epic rivers of ice, have provided many a photogenic moment of deepest blue and sheerest white from Argentina to Pakistan.
I came back from my first long backpacking trip unhappy at how soft and sedentary I had become in eight months. It was then I vowed to incorporate exercise into my wanderings, and haven't looked back since. Long bicycle tours have become my favourite means of seeing the world, and I have logged over 35,000 kilometres over the years on three continents. When I'm not in the saddle, I like nothing better than taking to my heels in the hills, hiking my way through remote mountainous areas. European cities are another perfect venue for walking, searching for architectural gems and scenic backstreets. Even when I'm travelling by public transport, just lugging my bulging backpack in search of a hotel provides a full-body workout.
Seeing great buildings in flesh is the only way to appreciate them fully. Europe provides some of the great cityscapes of the world: the Gothic spires of Prague, the Renaissance elegance of Siena and San Gemignano, the gingerbread facades of old Amsterdam. Chefchaouen, Morocco is a cubist vision of dazzling blue- and white-washed adobe. Arequipa, Peru boasts some of the most distinctive Spanish colonial buildings in the New World, stately edifices cut from the local gleaming white sillar stone. India contributes the elegance of Rajasthani havelimansions, the exuberance of Khajuraho's erotic Hindu temples and the austere Mughal grandeur of the peerless Taj Mahal. Perhaps my favourite, though, are the blue-tiled Central Asian Islamic masterpieces of Samarkand and Bukhara, the legacy of beauty created under the patronage of the bloodthirsty destroyer Timur.
Nothing quite matches the thrill of communicating successfully in a new language. The first purchase in a shop, the first directions to the train station, the first telephone call, are all significant milestones. I can say “hello”, “thank you”, “where is”, “how much does this cost?” and “that's too expensive!” in any number of languages from Thai to Farsi. Travelling has also allowed me to use the languages I did study in high school and university, French and Russian, to work in real-life situations. Having wine-fueled ethical debates in French during the Burgundy grape harvest or discussing in Russian the intricacies of Kyrgyz corruption in a warm yurt in the Tien Shan mountains added another dimension to my superficial tourist's impression of those countries. Learning to decipher new scripts, from the elegant calligraphy of Arabic to the rounded runes of Thai, the modernistic angles of Korean and the maddening pictographs of Japanese, gives the satisfying feeling of being another Champollion, unlocking the hieroglyphic secrets of a long-lost writing system. The triumph of puzzling out my first bus destination in Arabic in Morocco remains vivid in my memory.
I never had much time for biology when I was a student. It all seemed too vague and imprecise compared to math and physics. However, visiting the Serengeti Plains and seeing a million wildebeest and zebras migrating past, I regretted not having chosen zoology as my university major. Coming face to face with mountain gorillas in Congo, wild chimpanzees in Uganda or orangutans in Indonesia makes you keenly aware of how little biological difference there is between all of us primates. Exploring the kaleidoscopic seascape of coral reefs is possibly the most breathtaking experience available to earth-bound humans. Hiking through a tropical rainforest is eerie, hearing a universe of birds, animals and insects but rarely being able to see them through the perpetual liana-enshrouded gloom. Even birdwatching, an esoteric pursuit whose appeal I never could see when I was young, has forced itself on me after seeing so many colourful, exotic birds crossing my path while cycling and hiking. A pocket bird guide and small binoculars are now a permanent fixture in my luggage.
I am no Margaret Mead, but no-one can spend time far from home without indulging in doubtlessly simplistic observations of the people and cultures around them. The strict code of hospitality in Central Asia, from Kazakhstan to Iran, made me feel ashamed of my own culture's relatively unwelcoming air to strangers. I was constantly invited into houses, yurts and shacks for meals or to stay the night, with the poorest people often being the most welcoming. Mountain peoples such as Tibetans, Ladakhis, Aymaras, Kyrgyz, Sherpas and Berbers impressed me by the sheer physical toughness required to survive in such harsh environments. India seemed chaos incarnate, and yet somehow the country worked: trains ran, tea was prepared, shops did a roaring trade. Living in South America, the essential cheerfulness of the culture brightened my spirits on even the gloomiest days. And I knew it was time to leave Japan when one of my students explained that he didn't use most of his vacation days because “I wouldn't know what to do with all that free time!”
Earning money in countries like Canada, Switzerland and Japan, I can travel well, cheaply and at great length in much of Asia and Africa. The abstract principles governing exchange rates dictate that the prices of food, transport and lodging, expressed in dollars, differ wildly, from the hideously expensive (Tokyo, London, Switzerland, Germany) to the laughably cheap (India, Nepal, China, Egypt), with all shades inbetween. A month in Tajikistan cost me less than $100, and much of that occurred on one night of expensive hotel and food. In fact, I would have gladly paid more, if there had been more to eat in the poverty-blighted pockets along the Afghan border. Comparing salaries and prices between much of the developing world and the first world, one of the most common topics of conversation with local people, shows the obvious economic incentives driving so much migration to the rich West. There seems little justice or logic in a teacher earning a hundred times as much in Japan as in Uzbekistan, far more than the difference in purchasing power can account for. It's easy to see what fuels the pervasive petty corruption that merely annoys the tourist but oppresses the local villager in the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the ex-Soviet Union.
Being arrested in a foreign country focuses one's attention on the arbitrary nature of laws. In China and Tibet travel restrictions, often obscure and unpublished, beset the individual traveller, and falling afoul of them can result in fines and being sent back to one's starting point, or, an even worse fate, being confined overnight in a grubby hotel room with five chain-smoking Tibetan cobblers addicted to loud television. Ex-Soviet states offer a taste of venality, with policemen, border guards and customs officials inventing regulations and law on the spot. A request for $20 parking fine for my bicycle in Dushanbe left me giddy with laughter as I rode off at high speed. A two-hour attempted shakedown by a drunken off-duty border guard in southern Tajikistan ended in victory for my patient obstructionism against his aggressive bluster.
Sometimes I have found myself the victim of crime rather than the supposed perpetrator. Pickpockets in Nice, Istanbul and Indonesia could have lived well for a few weeks off their takings from me. An Aussie con artist laughed his way south to Sydney in my old Holden car which he had taken for a test drive, leaving me with a walletful of worthless collateral. However, when a professor of mine asked me after a slide show whether I ever felt afraid of crime in remote corners of the world, I could truthfully answer that I worried more about it in North America, a point borne out when two audience members emerged to find their bicycles had been stolen.
I will never forget standing on a rooftop in Skardu, Pakistan, watching the culmination of the Shi'ite festival of Moharram. Thousands of men marched into town from outlying villages, thumping their chests in thunderous bass unison, bewailing the death of Imam Hussein. A handful of young men then flayed their backs with a flail tipped with razor-sharp blades, spraying blood as they flagellated themselves into a frenzy of devotion. Equally blood-soaked was the Filipino Easter parade I saw near Angeles City, with penitents marching with crosses on their backs, wearing crosses of thorns; some would go on to have themselves crucified. I much preferred the Tibetan pilgrims at Mount Kailash, barreling cheerfully around the sacred mountain to expiate their sins. The handful of prostrator-pilgrims I came across in Tibet impressed me enormously with their tenacity; measuring their length on the ground at each step, they inchwormed their way either around a single temple in a long day, or across the breadth of the country in a journey that could take years. The Kalash of northern Pakistan, whose ancestors entertained Alexander the Great's troops, offered the sad spectacle of a milennia-old polytheism being swept away by the twin tsunamis of tourism and Islam. Japan's Shinto, on the other hand, a practical and business-like polytheistic nature worship, thrives on the sale of good luck charms, mostly for school examinations.
Many an evening on the road is spent swapping tall travel tales and waxing philosophical over what we've seen. I won't claim that Wittgenstein or Nietzsche would have been impressed by any of the insights I've come up with, but the words of an American tourist whom I met in Corfu have stuck in my mind. Before he set off on his 14-month odyssey around the world, his parents mortified him by telling all their friends that he was going to Europe “to find himself.” “I'm not going travelling to find myself! I know who I am; I'm going travelling to enjoy myself!” When asked how he could afford to spend so much time travelling after graduating from college, he came up with perhaps the best response possible: “At this age, how can I afford not to travel?” His answer holds true at any age, and deserves to be the motto of my University of the Open Road.
Contemplating eternity on the shores of Tso Moriri