One of my earliest elementary school memories is of reading a story about a young boy living in Malaysia. We were studying geography and I’m pretty sure that story was where I learned what a peninsula is. That I still remember it probably speaks to my lifelong fascination with geography and the cultures of other lands.
I have always loved travel and while I would prefer being there myself I can be content doing it vicariously through books, magazine articles and other media. I’m the weird one who would actually show up if you invited me over and see your vacation slides.
During the past week I’ve been watching a nine-part Netflix documentary titled, Long Way Round. It focuses on the multi-month effort of two British motorcycle enthusiast, Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman, to ride a couple of BMW bikes around the world (see map) in 2004. A third motorcycle was ridden by cameraman, Claudio von Planta and a support team consisting of a medical doctor and several others in a couple of AWD vehicles stayed within a day’s drive of the bikers.
What struck me most about their fantastic journey was just how rapidly what we Americans would consider mandatory infrastructure disappeared as they traveled east. All-in-all they traveled just short of nineteen thousand miles and visited thirteen countries. Somewhere in Kazakhstan or Mongolia they ran out of anything resembling a real road and pretty much had to rely on their dirt bike skills to reach the Russian port city Magadan in the far east of Siberia.
Near Yakutsk, Russia they did pick up a dirt and gravel highway that’s officially named M56 Kolyma Highway. Unofficially it is known as the Road of Bones as a tribute to the tens of thousands of Soviet citizens who died during its construction. Many were buried beneath the road’s surface rather than fighting Siberia’s permafrost to give them decent burials. During the Stalin Era of the Soviet Union approximately twenty-million Soviets perished in forced labor camps (gulags) while working on such construction projects.
By the time they reached the end of their Asian leg they had almost totally become acclimated to life without infrastructure and amenities. Sleeping in tents, bathing in icy rivers, eating freeze-dried meals, and at times going native, had become the norm. At Magadan they loaded themselves and their gear onto a jetliner and headed for Anchorage, Alaska.
Arrival in Alaska was a jolt back to reality they weren’t prepared for. They found themselves overwhelmed with having choices about such mundane things as which fast food chain to eat at or what motel to rest their weary bones in. In one scene they were shown jumping with childlike glee because their cellphones suddenly came to life after weeks of no signals. In another they were outside a typical food court reflecting on being invited into the yurt of a Mongolian family and being happy to share in their home cooked meal of boiled animal testicles.
From Anchorage they followed the Alaskan Highway to Alberta, Canada and eventually into the United States and ending their North American leg at New York City. The one thing they repeatedly acknowledged was infrastructure. The thing we so much take for granted and the thing I saw disappear during weeks of their travels. But, in their reflections on they never criticized the lifestyles and conditions of those they met whose lives were so primitive when compared to ours. Wherever they went they were met with curiosity, but also a smile, a handshake, and genuine hospitality. The good of everyday people is universal.