The Best Part of Traveling is that Moment that Reminds You, In the End, We’re All Kind of the Same

If you travel far enough, you meet yourself”.
Quote from TopChan Hostel (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)

It was that final hour of our final day in Uzbekistan, the moment that marked the end of our two month backpacking and volunteering adventure in Central Asia. As we prepared to leave our hostel in Tashkent Uzbekistan,  I noticed this quote scribbled on their wall: “If you travel far enough, you meet yourself”. It struck me immediately because it was so vague, yet it meant so much, and somehow summed up my experience from these two months in this often termed “mysterious” region of the world; a region I previously knew little about and had not met a single soul who had visited it; a region, which now, was not so mysterious anymore.

Over these two months, we embarked on a journey from Beijing overland on the Trans-Mongolian Rail to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We lived with nomad families for two weeks in traditional Mongolian gers in the Gobi Desert and vast Mongolian steppe, amongst sheep, goats, cows, horses, and camels, with no running water and no flush toilets, (daily showers? Forget it!). We volunteered in a remote mountain village in Southern Kyrgyzstan at 3,200 meters elevation, and lived in a shepherd’s house where we all slept in the same room in a mudbrick house, with only towering Alay mountains and yaks surrounding us. We met an impoverished teary-eyed babushka (Russian word for Grandma) as we volunteered in Kyrgyzstan’s northern capital Bishkek with a local charity helping the impoverished elderly. And we rode the rails bunking with migrant workers overland from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. In this entire process, we learnt so much; we saw so much; we met so many people of different cultures, languages, ethnicities, backgrounds, life experiences, and financial situations. It’s hard to sum up these experiences because they are so complex. Yet, when I saw this quote, I realized, if I could sum up the trip in a single sentence, perhaps this is it: “If you travel far enough, you meet yourself”.

Because once we got talking to the locals we met at the organizations we volunteered with, the hosts at our guesthouses, fellow local bunk-mates on several overnight train rides, and the migrant workers on our overland train journey to Uzbekistan (in broken English, Russian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, hand-language, and with the help of google translate, I must add), it cemented our understanding that no matter where we are from, we just want the same things in life.  This is the real learning from travelling, and I believe, these such learnings are the real reason why we should all travel.

Being from a country as multi-cultural as Canada, and from an immigrant family, this is not something new for me. But in my view, putting ourselves out there in new environments and cultures first-hand is very different from being in our regular lives, despite a multi-cultural surrounding at home. There is a stark difference of being immersed in a foreign culture versus being in the comforts of your home country surrounded by multi-cultural elements.

No matter how far we travel in the world, masked under a different language, culture, religion and vastly different life experiences, we all just want the same simple things in life. Family. Safety. Happiness. Reflecting on our two-month journey across Central Asia, three examples to illustrate this really stand out in my mind.

1. We make sacrifices to support our family …

Migrant workers boarding the train for an overland crossing from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan

The migrant workers we bunked with on the train from Turkestan, Kazakhstan overland to Tashkent, Uzbekistan showed us pictures of their house and kids. They were on their way home from 6 months working blue-collar jobs in Russia (or so we understood). They just want to earn money for their family, raise their children, and have a nice house, but in order to do that, they don’t have the luxury to work in a nice office tower overlooking the city – their only option is to travel thousands of kilometers to a foreign country where they are a minority to work for half a year, sadly forced to leave their families for extended time periods in the process.

2. We help our spouse with the family business, and also sometimes feel insecure about our cooking …

Overnight in a Shepherd House in Rural Kyrgyzstan near Sary-Mogol, Alay District

A young “shepherd” couple we stayed with in Southern Kyrgyzstan had recently married and built a house in the countryside near Sary-Mogol village. She worried her cooking (which included the freshest, free-range, and organic yak meat with potatoes fried in a wok, I might add) wasn’t good and we reassured her it was delicious. The couple wanted to see photos from Canada, a place they probably never will be able to visit. In the end, I realized, despite her very different background and lifestyle to mine, and a language barrier, I could see myself in her. She and her husband go about their regular day just as we do. She felt insecurities just as I would about entertaining guests. When I looked at them, in their simple house, with friends and family popping by every few hours, I wondered, they may in fact be happier than many people back at home. They help their neighbors. They shared their best yak meat with us even though they barely have anything. Despite being financially poor, they seemed to lead rich lives, full of warmth and love. And in the end, this young woman who lives in a mud-brick house with no running water, in rural Kyrgyzstan, will accomplish as much as many women lucky to be born with more privilege. She will be a mother and raise her children. She will help her husband with their family business, waking up at the crack of dawn each day to milk their cows. She will open her home to tourists (like a B&B) and entertain guests, a secondary source of income. In the end, she’s the very definition of that super-star mother and successful business woman no one pictures when they think of those terms in the West.

3. We like to let loose, dance, eat good food, drink wine, and as it turns out, we are all fans of Justin Beiber

(Ok, as for the last item, maybe not specifically you or me, but you get my point …)

Locals young and old dancing to the hit Spanish language song “Despacito” in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Check it out!

Our first night in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, we decided to go to a highly-rated restaurant of the same name. As the evening wore on, the music got louder downstairs, and more and more locals, young and old, spilled onto the dance floor. We realized, even in Uzbekistan, a country which has been essentially closed off for years to tourism, and often erroneously viewed as conservative, people cheered and bobbed to the hit Spanish language song “Despacito”.We felt like we were back in Canada … but then again, not really, because Canada doesn’t have these awesome restaurants where everyone, from little kid to elderly man, is willing to get up and dance mid-meal. (And of course, there was incredibly cheap local wine from Samarkand and Tashkent … did you know Uzbekistan was rated as the world’s 37th largest producer of wine in 2014?


Over these past two months, we journeyed across the Pacific Ocean to those mysterious “Stan” countries of Central Asia that many people have either never heard of or assumed were too dangerous to travel. And what we found was a world that is multicultural, hospitable, incredibly safe, friendly, and local people who are just going about their day, striving for exactly the same things we are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s