Friday, December 3, 2010

Hunting Snarks: A Journey in 8 Bags

From Snarks

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
 They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
 They charmed it with smiles and soap.

(Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits, 1874)


"In crook stories it is almost always the necklace,
and in spy stories it is most always the papers."

(Alfred Hitchcock on the McGuffin, interviewed by Francois Truffaut, 1966)


Often throughout this journey we have wondered why. Why are we riding all day into headwinds on sandy roads? Why are we camping on a bare hillside surrounded by goats? Why did we craft such an elaborate and outlandish way to occupy ourselves during our grand year off? The romantic in me would like to think that we were on a quest of some sort, for an elusive object that always remained strangely out of reach.


 

This journey began somewhere during our second year as doctors when we decided to sidestep the conveyor belt to specialization and take a sabbatical. ‘It’s healthy, we need it!’ we cried. Having taken the bold step, we were left with a large chunk of time to fill in, and to at least create the illusion of doing something substantial.

We had spent a month cycling in East Timor together the previous year. We could do a little more of that, we thought. Sitting down to compare our lists of ‘I’ve always wanted to go to…’, Mongolia was placed near the top and from there the seed was sown. Various snaking paths and possibilities emerged from Ulaanbaatar until the end-point of Istanbul emerged and a wiggly line was drawn between them. Much planning, acquiring of gear and altering of routes followed, and then we set off on our journey.
It all sounds so simple in retrospect, but what was it that drove us forward in our cycling quest and kept us going day to day? What was it that we sought? The questing story is at least as old as Homer, and exists in almost every culture in multiple, chimeric forms. Though on setting out we had no overt Golden Fleece or MacGuffin (a Hitchcockian plot-device of convenience that propels the narrative), I suspect we longed for one or harboured something like it deep within our cultural subconscious. 

Like many, we went to Mongolia for the remote and strange pleasures of yaks, yurts and friendly herders. So far from our own country and yet not dissimilar in many ways, we wanted an experience and an understanding of this vast place of which we had such a fragile idea before we left. Part of the search was for the objects and features that represented this foreignness, part of it was for personal connections that breached the chasm and rendered the country less strange.

From Istanbul

Or maybe our McGuffin was Istanbul, the mythical city and our chosen end point. Any substitute would have worked, but as so many historical, literary and cultural narratives have concluded on the shores of the Bosphorous there was a certain ring to it. We adjusted our itinerary at various concrete and existential forks in the road and ultimately arrived. Maybe we rode merely to reach the other side, to have travelled.

Perhaps the object of our search became a common thread amongst peoples and landscapes, something with which to weave a narrative of our travels. Central Asia was a region I had wanted to explore in order to fill in the black hole in my mental geographical map that existed between China, Russia and the Middle East. We had chosen no particular historical figure in whose footsteps we followed, rather picking up the crumbs and markers left by cycling bloggers that had been before us. 

From Snarks

We journeyed between the far distant points of one axis of Chinggis Khan’s ancient domain, from the island of Jeju in the south of Korea to the far reaches of Anatolia. Traversing the outskirts of the former Soviet realm, we found its imprint in the scattering of its language, its Lenin statues and the displacement of peoples: Koreans in Almaty, Russians in Tashkent. The crumbling of that behemoth opened niches which have been filled by the more subtle, commercial empires of Korea and the US. 
As we reached the region beyond the Altai Mountains, the Turkic culture insinuated itself into the tapestry of our journey and we followed this filament through the deserts and then into the heart of the former Ottoman empire. We only skirted the edges of the Persian domain, a strand of the overall picture that will have to be picked up during other travels. Had I been a more studied linguist, I could have picked out the threads of commonality within the Turkic and Farsi language families of the area. Instead I contented myself with the scattered moments of recognition amongst our phrase-book endeavours.  

Now I have an image of this region in mind, and it is textured with roads and plains and hospitable people. It has a historical depth to it which tells of the changing fortunes of a land trapped between powerful and grasping kingdoms. Cycling around mountain ranges, across steppe-lands and devising routes that bypass waterless deserts, we could see a little of what ancient armies faced and what the modern inhabitants must contend with.


From UB to Lun

But our quest always had more of a self-indulgent tone to it than an attempt at scholarship and amateur anthropology. We sought ‘adventure’, that oddly ill-defined term that shifts the boundaries of someone’s ordinary life to a realm in which comfort and familiarity are put aside for a time. Perhaps this was our Questing Beast, that creature composed of many parts whom we are condemned to hunt through distant lands, gathering its fewmets along the way. We knew it when we met it, but did not always know how to recapture it. To describe it to someone else would be futile, as their Beast would surely be different to ours. And yet on a vast plateau in Mongolia, as we bid farewell to the herder who set off on horseback to gather his camels and we cycled off on a dusty, corrugated road beset by sudden rain and windstorms, I think we found it.

And now - if you have made it to the end of our last post - I would like to request input. By comment, guestbook or email (8bagsfull@gmail.com) I would love to hear about your questing objects. What do you seek when cycle touring or otherwise adventuring? And why seek adventure at all?

And now that we reach the end of our quest we will softly and suddenly fade away. .

For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.



3 comments:

Al said...

Thankyou both SO much - I've absolutely loved reading your blog during the year, and have often been left speechless by your amazing and striking photos. You've kept on reminding me of that wide world out there, off the 'conveyer belt of specialisation' that is modern medicine.

And of that, I am deeply grateful!

I might not have the legs for a similarly crazy (!) cycling quest, but I'm definitely taking time off the conveyer belt for some travel sometime soon...

Having said that, I'm looking forward to having you both back home, so I can see much more of you both in person!

Big hugs to you both,

Al.

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