Both the Silk Road and the Balkans have long been on my wish list. Finally I have come to see these two fascinating regions. Comparing with my 72- day overland journey to nine West African countries earlier this year, this 52-day trip to ten countries in Central Asia and the Balkan Peninsula is smooth, comfortable and uneventful.
First, all the ten countries have one thing in common. They have all adopted communism and are now shaking off the yoke of communism with varying degree of success. Any traveller will come to appreciate the meaning of the sweep of history on this journey. I have learnt a lot more about these countries since I started my journey.
Second, I dream of the journeys to Central Asia made by Zhang Qian more than 2,000 years ago and by Marco Polo in the late 13th century. Today though the national highway network in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is yet to be completed, one can travel with relative ease with public transportation and the journey is no longer an adventure. Though the novelty and sense of adventure have gone, my 4,500-km long journey taking me through the Tien Shan mountain range and deserts is still memorable. I have seen the legendary Akhal-Teke horses. My buddies on this overland trip are remarkable: they are all world travellers. Hortensia who is over 72 years old and remains active and inquisitive is my idol. I wish I could still travel like her when I reach her age!
Third, Central Asia is more developed than I have thought. Though the GDP for most of these countries is low, the people I have met are not living in poverty and look happy. Most of the people are Muslim but liberal and secular. Among the four Central Asia countries, I find Turkmenistan least open where the government has a strong grip on the lives of the people.
Fourth, I travelled about 3,110 kilometres in 19 days in the Balkans and have done much more than I had done during my 38-day overland trip in Central Asia. I am intrigued by the Balkans and want to better understand their psyche of different ethnic groups especially after all the conflicts since 1990s. Travelling on my own has indeed given me more flexibility: I made better use of my time and travelled with greater comfort (without camping or cooking). Nonetheless, I may still have to take organized overland journeys to remote countries in Africa and South America in future.
Fifth this trip has wetted my appetite for a true Silk Road journey from Beijing to Italy. I am too old to do it on foot, horseback or motorbike (I have learnt a friend did a trip from England to Beijing on motorbike recently). My ideal way to travel would be in a 4-wheel drive with a couple of friends. Failing that, I shall do it on my own using public transportation. This dream trip may be a few years down the road as I still have a dozen countries on my waiting list.
Finally, all the ten countries I have visited, my favourites are the mountainous Kyrgyzstan, beautiful Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. The Balkan countries have complex relationship with their neighbours. It is understandable in view of the history and development in this region. They are now looking for stability and economic and social development. They are all rich in tourism assets i.e. history, natural scenery and cultural heritage. Tourism infrastructures are relatively under-developed. I hope they can catch up and have regional collaboration. I am sure tourists will swarm in bringing more jobs and facilitating economy development eventually. I surely shall return to the Balkans one day.