Friday, 8 April 2011

Uzbek Photos Below

oh, and what happened in Turkmenistan here if you missed it..

No Man's Land

A guesthouse in Tetserleg, regional capital of Central Mongolia, about 300km West of Ulaanbaatar. We are sitting on the bed of a simply decorated room, reading, sewing patches on our trousers, wasting time. A bright sun is shining outside, the cold air enters the open window and carries the playful sounds of the sleepy town. Inside we are restless and yet somehow unable to shake ourselves off of this malaise. A long walk on the hills yesterday brought us some respite but the chronic lack of enthusiasm is now very difficult to shift.

I remember exactly the turning point. It was not a moment after which everything looked bleak, but from then onwards the innocent joy of movement slowly started fading away. We were sitting in a cafe just off the N11 on Shikoku. In the past few days we had just cycled over 7 bridges connecting this and other 5 small islands to mainland Japan. The weather was still cold enough for us to wake up with frost on the tent, but definitely turning for the better. We had left the heavy snow on the mountains behind us and just finished some of the most enjoyable cycling we had done in a while.

While sipping our very expensive coffees we ran through the accounts of the previous few weeks. Japan is notoriously pricey, but we were not expecting to spend quite as much on a daily basis. On camping days, paying only for food and water, not accommodation, we were averaging 5000 JP¥ (around 40 GBP). Every 4-5 days we had been stopping at guest houses and hostels to dry out the sleeping bags and tent. Dampness is a cumulative problem and because of the cold wet air and chilly mornings we had no chance to dry our things while camping. The result is that day after day the sleeping bags get wetter and wetter and after the fourth or fifth day they are sodden, uncomfortable, and not that warm. The cheapest hostel (hostel, not hotel) in Japan costs around 3000 JP¥ (24 GBP) per person per night and along the road we did not find a great many of them. In practice we worked out that at that price our time here was very limited. Probably we could afford cycling another 3-4 weeks towards Tokyo, then have just enough money to fly back.

This was an uncomfortable discovery. Our plans had changed in Kazakhstan because of the cold, but when we decided to visit Japan first, we were never expecting to have to forego China, Mongolia, and the Transiberian on the way back home. In the space of a month our dream to cycle to Japan turned to a compromise to cover the distance half-way there and half-way back, then crumbled. We had to face our fallibility and weakness against the brutal cold of Siberia as well as an end for this trip. We originally envisaged to stay away for 18-24 months. We were now looking at the reality of having to come back just short of 1 year of traveling. Not a happy morning.

We later reviewed our accounts again and realized we could trade 4 weeks of travel in Japan and a flight back for 4 weeks in Mongolia and a train back. So in Japan we ended up spending much of our time at Komeichi Farm wwoofing instead of touring about. But the sense of nearing the end of the trip by this point had well and truly set.

The trouble with seeing a conclusion is that you start making plans for the future and not stick to the present. The end of the trip is a wall to jump over and its shadow looms over all that you are doing. It's not that we haven't had fun since, in fact we had good times and happiness but the tension in the background has been much more palpable. Japan had a lot to offer and is certainly a country we want to come back to. The tragedy that unfolded around us only made us more determined to dedicate at least some of our time to service. But again, those are all plans, future fantasies, and only contribute to make you more detached from where you are just now.

Just now. Mongolia. We dreamt of crossing this vast land. The landscapes are so wide around us, we cannot absorb them in one long gulp. You can feel your awareness of distance bending, as it follows the curvature of the horizon. Dots, hidden in the folds of small hills or curled at the feet of taller mountains, small Ger camps. Smoke rises from their rickety metal chimneys as yaks and goats and sheep and horses graze lazily around. Two or three gers, usually a wooden pen behind. Maybe a UAZ jeep parked just outside. So welcoming and yet somehow closed to us. When we were on the bikes we were travelers. If we approached a family it was because of a true need, for supplies, shelter, maybe company. Now we are tourists we are embarrassed to approach. It feels like it's just curiosity, the chance to steal a memory, an opportunity for a photo. It doesn't feel right. The lightness of movement transformed into a duty to experience. And, maybe being the timid people that we are sometimes, we don't feel quite so justified to intrude.