A long journey comes to an end.
15.07.2007 - 31.07.2007 -17 °C
Riding the U-Bahn in Berlin, a feeling of warm familiarity overcame me. I had arrived, not only to my destination on this three-month journey across Eurasia, but to a nation that has been my second home before and now will be again.
I marveled at being able to understand, once again, the voices and signs around me (I speak a bit of German), and at the German habit of instantly breaking into English when they see me struggling. They graciously see an English speaker as an opportunity to practice a language they recognize as the most prominent international tongue. They are not shy about it, as are the few Chinese who speak English. And they are not insulted by its use, as the proud and provincial Hungarians.
It's been several months now, and there's really no good excuse for having left our blog readers in a total lurch as to our whereabouts. I think most readers have figured out we're still alive and not in some Central Asian jail cell. Actually, we've been quite enjoying a life of long weekend hikes, strolls around the ever-so-quaint pedestrian street scape in our new home of Bonn, and sampling the best Germany has to offer in meats, breads, and vegetables. Somehow, we got here and got busy setting up our life, and the more time that passed, the more embarrassing it got to finish the final post summarizing our trip.
Many apologies. Here goes.
Off the plane in Kiev, we wandered around the well-preserved baroque city avoiding any serious effort to visit tourist sites as we waited for Ben to arrive and inject new energy into the group.
When he did, we took several trains to eastern Hungary where we sampled musky, sweet wines in the famed Tokay region. Then I spent the remainder of my days in the Spis region of central Slovakia, an area where ugly, Soviet style housing blocks clash with wonderful medieval towns and some bucolic and forested landscapes before taking an overnight train to Berlin.
In Berlin I was reminded of how much the life around me had changed since Day One of the trip in Beijing and I thought about the transition points. Chopsticks, to chopsticks and spoons in Western China, to knives and forks from Kiev westward. Women covered in long robes and head scarves in Kashgar, to female frontal nudity on an advertisement for laser skin surgery on the Berlin metro. Tea, to instant coffee in Eastern Europe, to a pot of fresh brew in Germany. No dairy or bread, to Tibetan simple, sour yak milk cheeses and soda bread, to bagels in Western China, to mare and camel milk in Kazakhstan, and on to what has to be the most sophisticated and developed bread and cheese cultures in the world in Western Europe. China's disgust of body hair, to German women in summer tank tops exposing bushes from their armpits. Mobs at ticket windows in China, to a cashier's admonishment I received at a lunch counter in Slovakia when I tried to cut in front to quickly buy a chocolate bar.
Germany and China do not actually occupy different continents, despite what geography teaches. But they are, metaphorically speaking, an ocean apart in culture and language. As we found out, the stark differences between the peoples on both ends of the Eurasia continent develop incrementally over the distance as one culture blends into the next.
Central Asia serves as the most significant connection point, a veritable blend of peoples who have long been exchanging cultural practices and ideas along ancient trade routes and more recently by way of Soviet hegemony. East and West meet in the cosmopolitan city of Almaty, a miniature Europe built on the Central Asian steppes, and in the bustling Kashgar market in Western China, one of the largest and most central centers of trade in the world.
It was almost easy to miss some of the differences as we traveled these many months, so incrementally were they sometimes introduced.
A focus on differences misses the continuity we found across our journey. "The World is Smaller than You Think," a subplot of our trip, does, in fact, bear true. The Buddhist temples in China, where the devoted come to pray and leave fruit and flower offerings, are not, fundamentally, different from the Orthodox churches we saw in Kiev where the pious lit candles and dropped change in money bins.
The forces of globalization and modernization have brought many of the same products across the globe, from Magnum ice cream bars to a near universal love of television. In terms of human nature, we found kind-hearted people everywhere who graciously offered us help with nothing expected in return. We also came across liars and cheats who sought to take advantage of the ignorance of outsiders. Everywhere, in varying degrees, we found both unwelcoming stares and genuine curiosity.
We would like to invite you to our new blog, "The Pragmatic Epicurean." Once again, you can subscribe using your email (see the link on the right hand side of the page) or via an rss feed (very top on the right). The blog will chronicle our adventures in food and travel, starting, of course, with our year in Germany. Our first post "Bonn Voyage" is already there (and we promise to be punctual).
Additional photos of the Beijing to Berlin trip are up on our flickr account.