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xEurasia Odyssey

Ending a journey

USA | Tuesday, 10 December 2013 | Views [487]


Ending a Journey

While life may be one continuous journey, travel journeys do eventually come to an end.  My fabulous xEurasia Odyssey has come to a close; I am writing these words while looking out at the freshly snow-covered mountains and pine trees of Northern Arizona from my kitchen table in Flagstaff after a brief sojourn in Utah with my parents.  I am happy to see my family and get kisses from my not-so-young puppy, (my Australian Rosella yelled at me when I first came home, she was suitably unhappy with my being gone so long - & the poor bird’s toenails are almost curled over…), yet I am also very sad to have come to the conclusion of this particular adventure.  I was incredibly lucky and blessed to have met wonderful people throughout the last seven and a half months on the road and seen amazing sites.  Every day was filled with learning experiences that I have not nearly processed.  My Macbook Pro is stretched to the limit with the tens of thousands (yes, really!) of images I captured in the various cameras I schlepped with me. It will take some time to work through them and organize them by culture and era so that they can be used in my classes and shared with colleagues.  If a picture says a1,000 words, then my iphoto library captures the sum of knowledge from the northern hemisphere!   Which doesn’t mean that I will be able to interpret that knowledge in any meaningful way, but this leads to the next adventure, the academic one. 

Part of the process of reflecting on the journey is to put each of the legs into a context for understanding our intricately intertwined global community.  This was the reason I intermittently tried to post some of the local news stories to show what was important to the people of that particular place at that particular time.  While the elections in Nepal, for example, have now concluded (the Maoists lost their majority), the election process in India continues and Modi, who has been denied a U.S. visa for human rights violations in his home state of Gujarat, is becoming an increasingly more popular contender for the P.M. position.  Erdogan in Turkey managed to suppress the protesters, but his push to islamicize this secular country is continuing. The opposite is happening in Uzbekistan where the President is adamant about keeping the country secular and the radical Islamic factions at bay. Often Islam is now not being lived as a religion, but as a political force and this shift from a beautiful and rich sacred tradition to a drive for political domination (including that of one form of Islam over the others) is causing issues for people of all faiths, including faithful Muslims, across the continent.

It was fascinating to see how some of the completely totalitarian governments have actually benefited their citizenry in times of transition from one political structure to another, and yet also see the consequences of some of their more questionable decisions.  Most of the Central Asian countries are ruled by a President who has complete control.  While the title might be that of an elected leader and elections do occur - but they merely support the status quo as any opposition would be severely dealt with - the leader functions as the emperors and kings of old.  What they say goes, and there is no further discussion.  Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have immense natural resources for sale and they are by far and way the most prosperous, although in Turkmenistan this prosperity doesn’t seem to reach as many people as in its northern neighbor.  Tajikistan is now the poorest of the five “Stans” I visited, but this may change with the new dams that they and the Krygyzs are putting in place.  They have the water that Uzbekistan needs and once the dams are completed and operational, which seems to be another inevitability, this will change the economic balance of the region, which now has Uzbekistan as a major global player through their export of cotton and citrus, both of which need water to grow. Clearly, the Uzbeks are not going to give up their water rights without a fight, so the current more or less peaceful coexistence in this region may well heat up in the next couple of years. Yet if the Boys’ Club (my term for the 5 Presidents of the five Stans) and the elected leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan could agree on an equitable distribution of their individual resources and keep the radical religious factions out of the negotiations, their combined citizenry might well be better off than they are now and that in turn might lead to a destabilizing of the causes for the radical movements.  But this of course is wishful-thinking as the Boys’ Club seems to be mired in testosterone driven one-upmanship, rather than a true desire to help their people.

 This region is also heavily influenced by their larger neighbors to the north and east, Russia and China, both of whom are continuing their ages-old economic interest in “The Stans” as potential markets and suppliers of goods. Both are heavily involved in building the infrastructure of the region. Chinese roads and tunnels and Russian dams help fuel the local economies. The Russians and Chinese are also starting to make deals for the sale of natural resources in their own currencies rather than in the U.S. dollar, (which has been the basis for these kinds of global transactions for the last forty years and has upheld our economy), which will likely eventually lead to a restructuring of the global economy, and one in which the U.S. will not have as strong a role as it currently does.  What this means to our personal pocketbooks is yet unknown, but it was clear to me at least that given what I saw, heard and read across Eurasia the restructuring is inevitable.

 European countries, however, despite what one reads, are for the most part doing well, even if it doesn’t seem so for the vast unemployed numbers of twenty-year olds in Ireland, Spain, Italy and Greece. But I have faith in these kids, they are smart, well-educated and they have a desire to change their worlds for the better, even if it means changing the way the current political and economic European Union functions. England, France, Germany and Austria all appear to have much stronger standards of living than in much of the U.S today. 

 For those of us who grew up during the Cold War it is a bit of an intellectual adjustment to see that the tourists with the most disposable income, and the ones who spend the most, are the Russians and Chinese.  Tourists from these two countries are everywhere, and they often act like the stereotypical ugly American of yesteryear (I’m pleased to report that most American tourists now do not behave quite so obnoxiously). The Chinese government has even started a campaign to educate their citizens on being civil tourists.

 China is a country of tremendous contrasts.  The beauty of the Western landscapes and richness of their art and literature is astounding; yet the censorship that doesn’t allow for access to many of the internet sites I constantly use was very frustrating.  Freedom of speech and intellectual inquiry are blessings we in the West should never underestimate or undervalue. We should do everything in our individual and collective power to maintain the freedom to question, critique and investigate that which our governments and the media tell us.  Maybe we will never know the “truth” of an event or action, but only by researching and questioning will we be able to come up with a more objective understanding than one simply foisted upon us.

My journey was taken to learn about how sacred traditions dealing with the concept of the goddess changed over place and time across the continent.   I had hoped to uncover some of her pre-Islamic presence in Central Asia and to trace her changes in this middle section of the Silk Road, but she is deeply buried under those sands.  I should have realized that the Russian colonialists did what the British, French and German colonialists did, which is take the most precious artifacts out of the country and put them in their own museums.  In order to view the goddess from Merv or the Sarazm Princess, I now need to go to Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Which I guess is a good reason to finally get there:)

The entire journey was simply incredible, but even so there were some real highlights that I’d like to point out – not in any particular order.

 1)   Yunnan Province as a whole and Shangri-La and Lugu Lake in particular. James Hilton never went to Shangri-La, but this area is truly spectacularly beautiful.  Lugu Lake’s Bay of the Goddess is blessed with a transcendent beauty. And the people were so welcoming and friendly even though they didn’t speak any language I could communicate in.  There was a spirit of shared well-being in both Shangri-La and Lugu Lake, perhaps because the minority cultures in these two areas have emerged intact from times of severe oppression.

 2)   Austria – the Austrian Alps are ‘home’ to me and wandering through them does make my heart and soul sing (yes, for those of you who know I can’t keep a tune – the music is inside!)

 3)   The Buddhist Caves in Longmen, Dazu, Ellora and Ajanta.  Each is unique, but they are all simply amazing.

 4)   Paestum and the Elysian Fields – Classical Greece lives on in So. Italy in spectacular fashion. The Sibylline Cave and sulphur eruptions from the volcano are ancient bridges to the underworld and the legends come alive when standing in their midst.


5)   The cathedral in Assisi – the Giotto paintings of the life of St. Francis on the first floor are coupled with frescos from numerous early Renaissance masters on the floor below.  The view of the surrounding country-side and the path through the woods filled with sculptures to meditate upon fills one with a sense of peace that is much in the Franciscan tradition.

 6)   Walking the mountain pass that Jesus is supposed to have traveled to get into Kashmir Valley and his supposed tomb in Srinagar.

 7)   Finding lost petroglyphs in the middle of nowhere in Kyrgyzstan.

 8)   Following Alexander the Great’s trail and standing where he stood.

 9)   Seeing one of the oldest and largest Korans in Tashkent.

10) Learning about tea production from the best tea research center in Assam.

11) Witnessing people worshipping the goddess in numerous temples across the Kathmandu Valley.

 12)  Riding a double humped camel in the Karakum Desert.

13) Swimming in the Arabian Ocean in Goa.

14) Journeying through museums – large and small – that house our human history in artifacts, books, and scrolls. From the most impressive such as the Louvre and British Museum to the small on-site one room displays in Paikent, Uzbekistan, all offered new ways to understand our world.

 15)  Spending time with family and old friends and gaining new ones. The people we are with do make or break how we experience our world and I am sincerely grateful to all who made this just a fabulous journey.

I especially want to thank Kathleen and our students for the time we had in Paris; Maria and Alan for a delightful dinner on the Danube in Budapest, my family in Vienna for their help and support; Gerhard, Rita and Miguel for fun times in Seville with great tapas and swimming in the midst of vinyards in Merida; Ulrike and Martin for their hospitality in St. Jakob am Thurm and a beautiful Salzburg hike; Marianna and her family at Il Pettirosso in Agerola for their friendship and advice on navigating Neapolitan traffic to get to the ancient sites; Ruth for suggesting Paul as a travel companion through Central Asia; Paul for meeting a stranger in Istanbul and accompanying me on an adventure through deserts and up mountains; Karamon and Kamola for their expertise in Uzbekistan and for the friendship they shared with us; Shaban for beautiful hikes and fun rain-soaked pony rides in Pahalgam; Nisar for allowing me to experience family life in Srinagar; Vijay for his assistance with arranging the Jammu, Kashmir and Assam portions of the trip; Lily for her help with the arrangements in China; Amanda, Yan, Olivia and Jasmine for helping with the university lectures in Yunnan and building a possible Study Abroad Program with Yunnan University; Wayne formaking the arrangements for the lectures in Chongqing; James and Melissa for organizing the lectures in Xi’an and Lena for her hospitality and generosity of spirit; Roshan for helping with the transportation arrangements in Nepal; Manish for sharing his expertise on Newari Buddhism; Binaya for old friendship, possible new Study Abroad partnerships and a good coffee in Thamel; Becky for helping with the photographs; my parents for staying healthy throughout my journey; my daughter for taking care of the house and animals while I was away; the Center for International Studies at NAU for their assistance with the study abroad programs, the conference in Hungary and the lectures in China; and the College of Arts and Letters and Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at NAU who awarded me the sabbatical time which allowed me to travel and learn. Without the help of these people as well as the countless taxi drivers, guides, and hotel/guesthouse personnel this trip would not have been possible. I thank you all.

The thing about travelling is that one is never really done.  There are always more places to see and new experiences to be had. So stay tuned.  I leave for SE Asia the end of January to lecture in Yangon and Ho Chi Minh City. The blog will continue as I make my way through Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia this winter.

Please add your thoughts and comments on any of the individual entries or the pictures in the comment section. I’d love to hear/read your thoughts.



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