I remember looking over the vast barren plains from the house we were staying at in Murghab. Nestled deep in the ridiculously high Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, I felt like no one would ever find us. I went out into the freezing night to use the outdoor washroom and looked up to see a blanket of stars that curved all the way down to my feet. Against the backdrop of dramatic peaks, it reminded me how small we all are.
Looking back at our past year of travel, I am aware of how fortunate Max is to have already seen and inhaled the different scents and flavours of 10 countries by his first birthday. But I also realise that despite all our trips, what I miss the most is the feeling of being somewhere, in between.
The big difference of travelling by land over a long period of time and organised plane travel is all those places you fly over when you’re not looking. The places that don’t even show up on the plane’s screen, because they are so small; the little green blinking aeroplane just glides over them on its direct route. It took us 306 days to travel slowly from Brussels to Hong Kong by land and 11 hours to fly back. We now glide over the places that are not official “destinations”. Many of them you cannot locate on a map, unless you are looking at a zoomed-in detail of the region.
They are the places you would never make it to if you only had two weeks. We fly into capitals and see all the “highlights” of a country, but we miss out on those small villages along the way, the border towns that only merchants know, the broken roads that most try to avoid.
It is in those places that a country shows you all that it is made of. It is in those sleepy hamlets that you see how most of the country really eats, how they work, how they worship, how they greet complete strangers. The towns and villages with hard-to-pronounce names that you did not even know existed. Some, you were forced to stay in because of a broken-down bus, a visa wait or an unfortunate stomach bug. Often it was worth it. It is in those places where I remember feeling calm, feeling like I had found something worth experiencing, feeling like I should stop and listen.
You could say “off the beaten path”, but it is not even that, it is not somewhere you aim to get to or explore, they are simply the places in between.
Not everywhere is remote, some are just on the way. When our bus slowed down to change a tyre on the way from Tachileik to Kyaingtong in Myanmar, we were by a small river. The sun was about to set and my bus seat was shaking itself loose. To keep it in place I had to push my foot against the metal floor and lean against the back of the seat, holding it altogether in some weird law-of-physics contortion. But I was distracted by the red dusty mist rising from the rice fields, the plain brown birds flying above it and the green leaves of never-ending banana trees. Silhouettes of children played in the last rays of sunshine before the darkness.
When we hiked in the Fann Mountains, we passed villages I can’t remember the name of, following the Archimaydan River in its icy blue flow. The villages were dry and almost monochrome in colour, everything was a uniform pale beige-grey and then in their midst were orchard after orchard of golden apricots. The sweetest, most succulent apricots to be produced on our planet; a hybrid of honey plums and vanilla almond apricots. A fruit you will never taste unless you take on the challenge of losing yourself in those mountains for a week.
Turkmenistan was full of places in between, places we had to pass to get from the tahdigs of Iran to the laghmans of Uzbekistan. And while sometimes I wished we could have escaped Konye-Urgench or Dashoguz faster, the experience of renting a room with an exploding tap from a Russian babushka who then brought us to a dark boarded up nightclub for a dinner of beet salad and oversized beers is, irreplaceable.
Throughout our journey, our best memories are not tied to the big monuments, historic sites or stunning capitals, but all those places we discovered by surprise. The places which did not come with heavy expectations or promises; the places along the border which wed the food and culture of both sides; the places hidden among the mountains and behind valleys, where people welcomed us into their homes and taught us about their way of life.
The places we discovered simply because we had no choice, but would do over again and again.