Sometimes when one embarks on a journey they have chosen the path and purpose and know what they hope to gain from the experience. Sometimes they just set forth with no plan of where they might go, where they might end up or what pearls they may experience along the way. We started ours knowing. We had to, for planning purposes and I think Matt and I both needed some structure for what we felt was such a big undertaking. We certainly knew why we were going – that was where the conversations about the trip began. We also knew where we would end up – geographically. We mapped out our route and although at times we have talked about deviating from it (across the ‘Stans instead of Russia? Nah) we have stayed our course. What we could never know was all that we would gain along the way, but most of that will be stories for other times, other posts or nights on the deck back home. I don’t think we gave much thought, though, to the journey across cultures and through history that our chosen route would take us. Now that we have arrived in the eastern reaches of Europe we can see with real clarity what a true journey this has been for us so far.
Australia is such a long way from Tallinn, capital of Estonia on the Baltic Sea, the city my wonderful Uncle Kus called home until after the war. Over 15,200 kms as the crow flies (or a Boeing) but we have journeyed almost 25,000 kms over land to be here. It is not just geographical distance, though, that we have covered since we left home. To say there are so many differences in all of the countries and cultures that we have been lucky enough to visit since we left home would be an obvious understatement. It has been an amazing thing though, to watch the changes. The gradual movement in facial features from South East Asia with the beautiful dark almond eyes and blue-black hair, to Mongolia where the skin lightened slightly, to Russia where the sun would burn their pale skin and the girls blue eyes were no longer a novelty. Mayhem in the streets, outdoor street vendors and the abundance of traditional ethnic woven fabrics (I notice these things) have all lessened as we have moved from South East Asia and into China. There was no Asian traffic bedlam in Mongolia and traditional cashmere knitwear was sold in department stores in Ulaanbaatar, not on the street. Having crossed the border from Asia into Europe at Yekaterinburg, by the time we got to Moscow cars would actually stop for us to cross the road, even without a pedestrian crossing, and fur hats and leather boots were sold in ornate buildings that have been selling fur hats and leather boots for hundreds of years. The quality of the WC’s has increased in direct relationship to the distance in kilometres we travel west. Ellie noted in Moscow that she had seen more people kissing there than anywhere else we’ve been. Welcome to Europe Ellie, and hide your eyes in Paris!
A constant source of awe for me, from Indonesia through to our current stop in Estonia, has been the length, depth and breadth of history. We have seen artworks and statues dated 600 years BC, walked along streets that have been pounded by human feet since long before Jesus walked the earth. The spire on one of the churches here in Tallinn stood as the tallest building in the world – in the thirteenth century. Coming from a land inhabited by one of the oldest known indigenous cultures yet with such a new European history I think gives us an interesting perspective. Most of what has gone before in the places we have visited happened while Australian aboriginals lived undisturbed in a land completely unknown to the rest of the world. When I zoom out, it’s incredible to know that such wondrous feats of engineering and artistic creativity were being produced before the enormous island Terra Australis appeared on any world map.
The political history of the countries we’ve travelled through is also heavily intertwined. It is possible to see how cultures that have been dominated by others have also been influenced by their oppressors, yet they remain ethnically distinct. Most nations on our route have ruled or been ruled by neighbouring nations, some have taken an entire continent to add to their domain (at one point Genghis Khan ruled over 21 million square kilometres!). This has contributed greatly to the melding and meshing of cultures, ethnic particularities and the stories of the people in these lands. I’m a visual person and I imagine it like different coloured paints being mixed together forming streaks and smears, one colour coming through stronger here, a different colour more prominent there and the two mixing to create a completely different colour somewhere else.
I think this has been one of my pearls; something unexpected that I have experienced on this long land journey. The incredible depth and richness of the history which can be seen tangibly and in such a real way through the diversity of the people and their ways. The journeying has shown me this. I could not have seen, felt or learnt these things by studying individual cultures or periods of history. This has been – and will continue to be – an experience that requires the thread of the journey to be so rich and illuminating for me.
(Happy days! to you Kusti)