Monday, 30 April 2012

The Decision: I'm taking my talents to Asia

The opportunity: six or so months to travel before my job begins

It was April, 2012, and I had about six months or so to spare before my law-firm job was scheduled to begin, and given the heavy schedule that associates tend to work, it would be the last opportunity in a long time to do any extended traveling.

Six months might seem like a really, really long period of time, but I like to travel slow. Part of this is because I don't have money to spare, and it costs a lot more money to travel quickly and efficiently, but a big part of it is that by traveling slowly you get a better feel of the local culture and mindset (traveling cheaply also means you are, by necessity, much more connected with local life). It varies widely according to size and how interesting the country is, but I typically end up spending about a month in each new country I visit (and rarely less than two weeks), so time adds up and six months goes faster than you might imagine.

Because I like to travel slowly, I wanted to do a trip that would of somewhat limited scope and that wouldn't leave me feeling too much time pressure, as opposed to a wide-ranging trip on multiple continents (which I probably wouldn't be able to afford, anyway) that would force me to move quickly and on a schedule.

The Choices: Asia or South America?

So, within those limitations, where to go? Well, I've spent a fair amount of time in Europe, Japan (where I taught English for a couple of years) and Southeast Asia, so they were out. Africa was out because I don't have much of an idea of what to see there, and I harbor the same kind of prejudices and stereotypes about safety and ease of travel that many Westerners have. The main options I was considering were South America and Mongolia and the Silk Road.

The pluses for South America were that it would be a completely new experience in a region I was totally unfamiliar with, with the added bonus of easier—and fewer—languages. The possibility of Patagonia was a huge bonus, as was the sheer variety of landscapes throughout the continent. On the negative side, I had to be back home by the New Year, and this meant that summer would only be beginning in Patagonia. The sheer size of South America was also problematic, as it meant I would either have to zig-zag from East to West and back again as I worked my way down the continent, or largely skip one side of the continent altogether. I figured it would take longer to properly see South America, and ideally I would have liked to do it on a motorcycle.

On the other side, Asia would offer a more familiar jumping-off place, the opportunity to visit Mongolia in the height of summer, and the allure of visiting little-visited (but highly-praised) Central Asian countries, as well as giving me the chance to visit some friends in Japan. On the down side, visiting Asia again felt like I would be going to the same well once too often, refusing to stretch my boundaries.

The Winner: Mongolia and the Silk Road (the loser: me)

I bought guidebooks for both South America (the Footprint South American Guidebook, which seems to be head-and-shoulders above its competition) and a number of Asian countries (the Lonely Planets for Mongolia, China, and Central Asia, as well as an extremely helpful Insight Silk Road guidebook), but in the end I obviously decided to go to Asia. Mongolia in summer had a deeper appeal than Patagonia in late spring, and I managed to convince myself that Asia was the better choice despite harboring the (not-so) secret conviction that I was somehow chickening out by taking the more familiar path. This may not make a lot of sense to you, as South America is almost certainly much easier to travel through than much of Central Asia, but I would be starting in familiar territory in Asia by beginning in Japan, and by avoiding airplane travel I would also be avoiding any large shocks (or minimizing my perception of them): how much can things change in a simply bus, train, or car ride? This is very different than taking a plane from Canada and landing in Panama or Cartagena—or at least it seems that way to someone who has never been to South or Central America before.

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