Thursday, 27 February 2014

An Intoxicating Aura

An Intoxicating Aura
Reflections on the interface between curiosity and experience

It could well be an ancient phenomenon. 

Here is Scene One, set a thousand years ago:
I’m sitting at the fireside of a friend’s small roadside inn one evening when a traveller descends in from the cold to join our circle. His feet are dusty, his sandals well past worn-in. His walking stick looks strong and business-like and it fits the curve of his hand like a long-time friend. His robe is fringed with the same frayed and dusty look as his sandals, and from the folds of its fabric as he moves through us to settle into his seat waft intriguing scents – the incense of Eastern temples, fragrant spices from the South, the sharp tang of the northern forests.

Through the evening as he quietly, slowly tells us tales of the far-off lands he has trod, we listen spellbound. As he paints pictures with his words, our imaginations flesh it out still more. Mysterious, alluring something like a dream but with more colour and surprise. The strange foods we hear of are as heavenly feasts, the battles with wolves and coldness are tales of epic triumph, even the endless burning deserts are glorious austerity.

Scene Two, last year:
I’m sitting on the cream synthetic leather couch at 67 Hillary Street, Dunedin, the MacBook Pro warm on my lap, a cup of peppermint tea growing cold on the coffee table while I pour over a blog showing photos of Tajikistan’s Pamir. The raggedy endlessly-stretching road, even the slightly leaning wooden power poles, the dusty looking bicycle, all speak to me of adventure. The frames of photographs are small peepholes to some other wonderful, fascinating world. Brightening each of them, suffusing every object and place, is the intoxicating aura of mystery. Everything glows with a kind of otherworldly light. Even the snapshot showing an overnight snowfall blanketing tent and bicycle with a painfully freezing white crust produces in me a warm thrill at the glorious hardships and triumphs of high adventure, and I long to take part.

Scene Three, last month:
Ollie and I laze on the stained gold coloured quilt of a Vietnamese guesthouse, watching a slideshow run though of a random selection of our year’s photographs. We exclaim, sigh and reminisce over a bright Kyrgyz morning, a bread-stop in Georgia, a Turkish coast road. A photo flicks up of Vietnam hill country, and we are quiet. It is too fresh. Our older photos have gained a glow of nostalgia that this does not yet have. Instead it has an almost unsettling quality, reminding us that there is work still to be done to navigate our way safely and successfully through this part of the world, still guesthouses, roads, food and water to be negotiated and attained. I know that within a month’s time, when this chapter too is complete, this photo will glow as brightly with nostalgia as the others around it. For now though it is present, and that is too raw and not altogether relaxing.

Scene Four, recently:
I pull out our map of Central Asia, and look at our wonderful winding route through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. My mind flashes back to the map in the front of the book I read at home, “The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia”. Now our map of the area has memories attached. The names of little villages spring up for me an image of a friendly encounter, a confusing intersection, a particularly good bread oven. The high passes have a 3D and almost a physical memory, I know their height in my legs and lungs, and know the exhilaration of their drops. All so precious. But I wonder if it comes at a cost. I know these places with a different quality than I knew them as I read The Great Game. I’m not certain that these places have not lost some of their size for me. My eyes have seen the peaks, my bicycle wheels have rolled the trade routes, and I have been deeply blessed and in ways changed by them. But the thrill of mystique that made the peaks soar beyond comprehension in my imagination has lessened.

Scene Five, today:
We cycle the road out of Thakkek in Southern Laos. The road we have chosen is a flat road by the mighty Mekong River, fringed with palm trees, orange dirt and a motley collection of housing. Away to the west of us is a line of great looking forest clad karst hills. Appealing in the mystery they hold, they are just out of reach of this journey of ours, leaving us to wonder in curiosity what it is hiding over there. Our ride can only ever be one line on a sprawling map. There are always things just off our map that are tantalizingly unexplored. What is it like further up the Bartang Valley? How about in South Eastern Turkey? What is it like to ride in the Dolomites? Massive thankfulness for our amazingly full journey precludes any regrets, but does not squash a curiosity in the next hills over, the other road, the country across the border. Terra incognito (land unknown) will surely always be alluring!

Concluding thoughts:
I am not sad to not go everywhere in the world. I am massively happy that we have been given a world that as hard as a person tried, they could never reach the devastating position of having “seen it all”. I like it that some things are left to the imagination, because imagination can give so much delight! When we hear or read a tale, unbidden our mind builds worlds of pictures, pictures that seem deep with concept, feeling and wonder. I love it that for me, the ideas of the frozen Far North, where snow-covered forests are filled with bison, wolves and bears and the huge ice covered rivers lead out into a stark endless sunset tundra, are just that for me, just ideas. Ideas huge in their aura of mystery and wonder. Enriching me even without a physical encounter.

We look forward to getting home and watching some David Attenborough documentaries, reading more tales of daring exploration in the Himalaya and Pamir, finding out about recent Chinese history, keeping tabs on dam projects on the Mekong and finding “terra incognito” on the rough tracks behind Swampy Summit, Dunedin. So many ways to love and delight in this fascinating world. Our bicycle journey this year has given us questions, encouragements, sadnesses, curiosities, revelations. We have been challenged and enriched by experiencing the world in this way, and when we are back home we will carry all this with us, although we’re still unsure all the ways that that will play out. For certain, we will continue to find delight both in the intoxicating aura of the world's distant wonderlands, and in exploring the terra incognito that is there for the finding not that far from the back doorstep.


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