Asia in Retrospect – Final Post (Beijing, China)

And now, it is my last day in Beijing; I am finally ready to leave China, finally ready to go to Mongolia, to Siberia to Moscow on Trans-Siberian Railroad.  I have my tickets in my hand, my visas in my passport, and my plane tickets back to the US are already booked.  My journey across Asia is finished.  I cannot believe the words that flow from my fingers – journey and finished in the same sentence.  How can this be?

I guess it’s been over a half year, hasn’t it?  I left the United States on the very day that Obama was inaugurated, two Americans on two different paths, with two different sets of obstacles but sharing the same Hope and Optimism, the belief that we can salvage something from this crazy world and build something good from the chaos.

I have discovered many things on my journey, too many to write at the moment.  I had many pleasant surprises, but more often I was shocked by reality and forced to re-evaluate the world as I thought I knew.  My worldview has been destroyed and reborn almost every week, and each time it has been recast with a different perspective, each time slightly closer to the wisdom I seek.

The world I lived in before in California was quite a comfortable one.  It was easy to remain ignorant of many of the world’s ills, simply because so much of our world appeared to revolve around the America – Hollywood made all the movies on my television, CNN always talked about the issues that effected me and my people, and my President’s decisions appeared to influence the way the world worked, the way it was.

But I have been in South, South East, and East Asia for the better part of the last 14 months, and I don’t think I can return to that same way of thinking.  I have spoken with people from dozens of countries on countless issues and I have seen how some of the world’s poorest people survive. As a good friend of mine told me, life just isn’t the same once you’ve seen the moon from the other side of the world.

As I look back at the first months of my adventure, I laugh at my vain attempt to label the dates of each post – I lost track of time in the time-warp that is Burma.  Now, as I look back on all the places I have visited I can see phases emerging from within my Odyssey.

I started in Singapore, clean-shaven, energetic and ready to go.  I skipped through Malaysia quickly because I had yet to learn the value of traveling slowly.  In Thailand, Jay and I let loose and lost ourselves on the beaches amongst the seemingly endless number of beautiful people.

In Burma, I needed something different – I needed the anti-Thailand.  I got it.  I also got my first taste of what it is like to live without freedom, and I witnessed political oppression for the first time.

After Burma, I headed to Laos and saw the scars from the Vietnam War for the first time.  But Laos is a beautiful country with wonderful people, and I enjoyed my time sipping coffee and lounging around lazily like the Laotians do.  And of course, I will never forget how the locals included me in their celebration of the Buddhist New Year…then forced me to eat a boiled duck embryo.

Cambodia was a humanitarian nightmare.  In Angkor Wat I saw the potential greatness of the human race, and in the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, I saw mankind at its most cruel.  Cooperation erected the temples at Angkor, hatred dug the mass graves of the Khmer Rouge.  Cambodia tested my faith in humanity, but I emerged from the wreckage of genocide with a determination to do what I can to make the world a better place, a world free from Killing Fields and mass executions.

Vietnam was incredible, definitely my favorite overall country.  Stunning beaches, virgin jungles, excellent food, and hospitable people – but tough bargainers.  And of course, there was The Minsk.  Riding The Minsk across Vietnam has forever endeared me to travel by motorbike and inspired in my mind countless other motorbike journeys.

And then I came to China.  At first I didn’t know what to make of China at first because it was so large, so ancient, and changing so fast.  I initially disliked China simply because of how different it was from the South East Asian backpacking circuit.  And in Tibet I realized just how much you can disagree with someone’s government while still loving their people.  Many people I have met have expressed their contempt for George Bush while telling me that they love Americans.  It would be a pity if each country’s citizens were equated with their worst politicians.  China has grown on me, and as I leave I regret not having more time to explore this mighty civilization.

Have I shaken myself of all of my biases?  No, certainly not.  Many of them remain within this blog, but I am hesitant to correct them because I would rather preserve the way I thought at that moment, for ignorance is a step in the direction of knowledge.  A sanitized blog would be boring.

Instead, I have laid my naked thoughts before you and displayed my imperfect self for all to see.  Though my primary subject has been my host countries, I suppose you have learned more about me than you have about the places I have visited.  Maybe you feel you know me better, or maybe you think I have changed.  Though now I may seem to you a different person, if you trace my thoughts through my writings you shall discover the mind that rests within my current self.

At the onset of my journey I assumed I would cross into Russia as an enlightened traveler, as if my journey would inevitably elicit a series of spiritual revelations and magically endow me with wisdom of the world.  Seven months later, I summarize all I have learned with a quote from Socrates: “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”   With every revelation came more questions, with each taste of wisdom came greater appreciation for the complexity of our existence.  Traveling has humbled me and encouraged me to continue my exploration of the cultures, histories and languages of the world.

Now I conclude what has been, up to now, the best period of my young life.  It was a half year of experimental living during which I ignored the societal pressure to start a career, and instead followed my heart’s desires – to hitchhike, to wander, to ride motorbikes, to search for terra incognita and to test the words and theories of my favorite authors.  I had to know if it was possible to wander aimlessly like Dean Moriarty, if it was possible to chart one’s own path like Thoreau.  My journey was, in this sense, quite a quixotic quest, a product of reading too many beatnik books and listening to too much Bob Dylan.  But, like Don Quixote, I discovered that by imitating the stories I so admired in books, I soon became embroiled in the same dramas as my favorite works of fiction.  The lines between the fictional and the possible blurred and soon I had my own stories to tell.

As I read my first post, Castles in the Sky, I can’t help but smile at my words – the excitement, the energy, the wide-eyed wonder that first drove me to Singapore with nothing more than a few t-shirts and pen and paper.  I chased my dreams across all of Asia only to watch them materialize in new, unexpected forms.  I spent more time in Asia than I expected, and almost none in Europe; I intended to hitchhike across Europe this summer, but instead I am moving to Spain for an entire year.  The same dream, but in a different form.

Now my trans-Asian journey is finished.  I will be in California for two weeks before moving to a small village in rural Spain, where I spent one year studying Spanish and teaching English.  As one adventure ends, another begins.

So off I go, to Mongolia, to Siberia, to Moscow, riding on the train of my dreams, wandering in search of The Truth, stumbling blindly down the path of life, using ideas as my maps, and guided by the one thing that has remained constant as the world has shifted around me – the stars.  This is the beauty of Celestial Navigation.

I hope you have enjoyed my stories, and if you buy me a few beers when I get home I’ll tell you some more!  Now throw away your maps, look to the starts for guidance and start wandering!  I gotta go; I’ve got a train to catch!

– Marko

Beijing, China, 26 July 2009

The End!

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