Coast to Coast

Cabo da Roca (Portugal), 08.12.2013

The Eurasian land mass spans approx. 13.000 km as the crow flies from Vladivostok, Russia, to the westernmost tip of Portugal at Cabo da Roca. From here further to the west, New England, Long Island and New York City are pretty much the next stops. Today I reached this point after 29.000km by car in 72 days. Net of the “take it easy” days back in Europe, it took me around 50-55 days to cross the two continents.

DSC_0014 DSC_0018Slowly, I have been arriving in Europe mentally these days, although the somewhat sad feeling to no longer be on the road is hard to overcome. In the mornings I woke up and had no route to plan, no tent to pack, no fuel, food and accommodation to watch out for during the rest of the day. I watched the bright blue sunny sky over Lisbon, where I’m spending some time right now, but no longer in search of the weather for the next hours, a sudden rain cloud on the horizon or to see if tomorrow it might rain or not. It didn’t rain in Lisbon anyway in december so far, the weather was just great, albeit the “freezing” winter temperatures of 15 degrees Celsius during the day.

DSC_0007 DSC_0004This week I set up my base in downtown Lisbon, in the lovely district of Chiado, with its narrow cobblestone roads winding up and down the hills, the small baroque stone houses and many shops of all types. There was still a lot of local commerce that in many modern European towns had perished nowadays: coffee and tea shops with uniformed employees, shops for linen and textiles, paper books, local craft, small food stores, and a vast array of bars and restaurants dishing out a simple yet very fresh and tasty local fare. Food from a few Euros to a fortune can get a smile on your face at any time of the day, and not just in Lisbon downtown. This weekend I drove to an old favourite of mine, the wide white sand beach behind the dunes of Comporta. On my way back, cruising through the port of Setúbal, I bought a lobster in a fantastic seafood shop, still alive, that got converted into a mouthwatering dinner. The Sauvignon Blanc I had brought from Moldova was just a perfect match.

DSC_0009Then today I drove the last couple of km to the Cabo da Roca, a rather symbolic trip by the river Tagus and then past Cascais, along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. As I got out of the car and walked the few hundred meters to the coastline at the cape, I remembered the view of the Pacific in the bay of Vladivostok, Russia. 2,5 months ago I had started the long way home at the other end of Asia, and today I stood here at the end of Europe.

DSC_0041 DSC_0035Some weeks ago in Rome I had shown my mother the route I had taken on a big paper map. It was only there that I realised the sheer size of the land I had crossed. For a moment I thought about that huge distance. Crossing it had redefined the dimensions of space and time for me forever. But Eurasia 2013 had been so much more then just mastering space, overcoming distances, weather, adverse roads. Many people have asked me what had been the most beautiful place I crossed, the best food, the most exciting experience. My answer has always been that there has not been “one” excellent place or event, but that this whole journey in itself is the “one” great, fascinating and life-changing experience. I have lived 7,5 months of “best of” Europe and Asia, crossing 40 countries, driving over 57.000km through mountains, deserts, forests, steppe and endless countrysides. Pretty much every day I discovered new places, almost never driving the same road twice. I had seen countries I previously had absolutely no or wrong ideas of. I could stop where I liked it and drive on where this wasn’t the case, making this journey a “best of” trip of all regions I crossed.

I get asked if I was afraid, if there was any danger on the road. The immensely beautiful answer I can give to this question is that contrary to my own fears I have never felt afraid, not one single moment. I have met only friendly people, helpful people, curious people, and have received a lot of help and support by complete strangers. My belief in the good in people has received an immense boost. And it has been a moving experience to see how the poorest and simplest people have so often been the ones that helped intuitively. In so many places I received a warm welcome, got offered a cup of tea or a smile, and I hope I will have a chance to pay this back some day. Also, the feedback I received by many readers of this blog, some of them I don’t even know or have never met in person, has been a huge surprise and pleasure to me. It made me keep writing all this time when I wanted to skip stops, and made me watch my surroundings more carefully to be able to put in words what I saw.

Yes, there have been difficult moments. The car was a challenge at some points; the engine breakdown in the middle of the night in Bihar, India; the crossing of the end of the Hunza valley in Pakistan with armed guards; the cutting open of the roof top rack in Armenia and angry comments after the initial blog post, getting stuck in mud in the middle of nowhere in Tajikstan and Mongolia – all these were exciting moments, but I never felt threatened or scared. A year ago I would probably have listened to my own “naiveté” with a smile if today I say that I learned that the friendliness I give to people will somehow come back to me, and that if you don’t look for trouble you will also be unlikely to find some in most areas of this world.

Some luck also played a part probably. The protests on Taksim Square in Istanbul flared up a few weeks after I was there. A balloon went down in Cappadocia also some weeks later. I missed the elections in Iran and the potential tensions that in the end didn’t break out fortunately. In no place in Central Asia I witnessed any tension. The Taliban attack in the Waghan Valley area happened a few days before the (ultimately failed) attempt to enter the place. The China crossing went well despite the tensions with the tour organisers. The killing of mountaineers in Pakistan happened one day before I entered the country and nothing happened afterwards. I missed election trouble in Nepal and a bomb attack in Bihar. Unrest and protests in Thailand, Russia and Ukraine erupted way before or after I had left. And I “survived” countless corrupt police officials in so many ex-Soviet countries, paying just 2 bribes in the end.

To draw a line under this exciting chapter of my life that is coming to an end, I can only recommend to everybody one thing: pack your stuff and go traveling, see the world. It will be the best decision you have made in a long time and the time, money and energy you’ll spend will be the best use of it you can do.

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