Now firmly in Europe and no longer on the Silk Road, I was completely caught off guard by how sudden the changes would be. After being close to alone for so long, I was now surrounded by tourists. Everyone can speak English. Fancy mosques are replaced by fancy churches, and all the buildings — spires, statues, windows, paint — exude Europe. Crowded streets of hodge-podge clothing stores give way to wide streets of high fashion. Instead of small businesses’ neon signs fighting for attention, it’s billboard-sized screens. Pop culture, advertisements, posters depicting people of a far more diverse spectrum of skin colours and subcultures both mainstream and niche, promoting individuality, but also frequently flaunting flashier things, wearing less clothes, trying too hard. And no more marshrutkas, dolmuş, or minivans: it’s all trams. For better or for worse, I was very much back in the Western world again.
I’m satisfied that this is the end of my trip, and though I passed through some stunning locales most people would go out of their way just to see, I have to admit that my focus wasn’t all there anymore. My planning only took me up to Istanbul, and the places thereafter — all of which warrant another future visit — were really a bit of an afterthought: all I wanted to do was to see my friends.
Even more so, I just wanted to feel like a normal person again.
Plovdiv and Sofia, Bulgaria
Bulgaria is a country whose stamps are in my passport as I’ve transited before by bus, but I’ve never actually stopped and visited anything. Unfortunately, this “visit” was only for two days. Having done no research on the country and only deciding to stop in it after I couldn’t find direct buses from Istanbul to Belgrade, I was really just winging it.
Not finding that bus turned out to be a stroke of luck, as I really did enjoy the old town of Plovdiv — second-largest city in Bulgaria, and possibly the oldest in all of Europe, first inhabited by Thracians in the 6000s BC. Its modern history began as Philippopolis in the 300s BC, by its namesake, the father of Alexander the Great. Invaded thereafter a bunch of times, its appearance belies its age and the number of diverse rulers and cultures it’s been under.
Having no prior knowledge of this place myself, it’s still pretty easy to spot what some of those are. There’s a Roman theatre smack in the middle of town, as well as a bunch of ruins and pillars. There’s a mosque that looks straight out of the Ottoman empire not far from it. And of course, there’s some drab communist-era buildings, mostly in the part of town north of the river. (On another note, the linguistic similarities between Bulgarian and Russian meant that I could understand quite a few signs, and even say a few phrases and be understood. After Iran and Turkey, that was a nice change!)
But of course, the highlight of it all is the Bulgarian old town. Charming (but slippery) cobblestone streets are lined with colourful, elegant houses built at all sorts of angles, and there are remnants of the city wall and fortress remaining. On each twist and turn, tourism-centric businesses rub shoulders with residents, and behind many gates are mansions with intricately-painted details. Sadly, I didn’t have time to enter many of those, now turned into museums, although I entered one that housed a raki (strong, anise-flavoured spirit) shop.
The main drag of Plovdiv is just adjacent, and a bustling pedestrianised street with tons of quirky cafes and restaurants. I only wished I had more time to spend there!
And that’s not to say of Sofia, the capital — I had a mere two hours there to walk around as fast as I possibly could, before catching a connecting bus. I’ll have to come back someday to see some of its more famous sites, because I have no idea what I saw!
Four years ago, I visited my good friend Ivan in France, but lamented the fact that I couldn’t visit him in his home country. This trip fixed that. And while Belgrade was a great city and Ivan (now working in tourism, and with a huge knowledge of history) was the perfect guide, the city played second-fiddle to catching up over great coffee and great food. With so much variety available, we sampled pretty much everything under the sun. As someone who loves to do this at home, after months of mono-cuisine, I can’t even describe how giddy I was inside. Better yet was just hanging out in general, and so I briefly got pulled into Ivan’s social circle for a few days… which improbably involved a fun, spontaneous university television talk show interview about my travels with his good friend Aleksa. That was a first! (Some rather insightful questions also got me reflecting a lot on the whole trip in general, bringing back moments I hadn’t thought about in some time.)
The city itself is easy to love. The food culture pervades, and is quite affordable. (As delicious as ćevapi and rolled schnitzel and pljeskavica and burek are, not all Serbian food is meat or pastry!) The people are friendly too — as he was speaking English with me, Ivan was mistaken several times for a foreigner, and to our surprise, locals (especially old ladies) frequently approached, welcoming us to Serbia, even sometimes giving unsolicited yet spot-on advice on things to try out. And of course, the architecture is yet again wonderfully grand, tastefully lit at night. The pedestrianised Mihailova St. is all decked out for
Christmas “New Years” too, complete with “New Years trees” and sales (you can blame the Orthodox church for that), while the now touristy and cobblestoned Skadarlija St. has wall murals, restaurants, clubs, and a convival al fresco atmosphere that I wish I could have enjoyed in warmer weather. In the cold, foggy weather that I had, the imposing Serbian Orthodox churches I visited (including the Saint Sava temple, under construction since 1935) looked downright scary… in a cool way.
Separated from the old town by New Belgrade, Zemun, formerly a city of its own but now just a municipality of Belgrade, is a taste of a more down-to-earth Serbia better found outside the capital. You can just as easily find nice bakeries, farmers’ markets, and restaurants in Old and New Belgrade, but there’s a more familial vibe here. Past the main square are narrow streets, traditional houses, and a great hilltop panorama of all of it, including Zemun’s own waterfront.
Where the city further shines is by the water. Belgrade’s famed nightlife is all over town, and most visibly so in the form of houseboats lining the Danube and Sava rivers. Some of these houseboats are even hostels, cafes, and restaurants too — and it’s great to just have a coffee on the water in the afternoon. We also spent an afternoon walking around Ada Ciganlija, a pseudo island/artificial lake on the Sava, and a sudden but brief change in temperature made a walk on the beach downright feel like summer, at least for 15 minutes. From the Belgrade Fortress (complete with the Pobednik statue, the nude, oddball victory symbol of the city overlooking the confluence), another great place to relax if it were warmer outside, you can see just how much the rivers dominate the city.
While I guess I could have just floated down the Danube River instead, I took a bus to Budapest for another journey-breaking stopover. With the most elegant city centre of the European cities I visited, I greatly enjoyed just walking by all the palaces and buildings and heading to the riverside to enjoy the views. The weather wasn’t exactly cooperative, but I got a sunset in!
Budapest is a merger of… well, Buda and Pest, lying on opposite banks of the Danube. Buda’s got the famed Castle Hill, a historic but somewhat empty neighbourhood which seems more geared to tourists than locals these days. At least there’s a spectacular head-on view of the famous Parliament building and the many river-spanning bridges from the Fisherman’s Bastion, Varkert Bazar, and the castle walls.
The Pest side was where I spent most of my time. While tempted by the (expensive!) treats at the Market Hall and the many Christmas markets scattered around town, I settled for just taking pictures, and made sure to also check out the St. Stephen’s Cathedral and some of the synagogues around the Jewish Quarter. With varied architecture and street art, and so much happening everywhere, everything was quite photogenic! I also paid a visit to my first museum in quite some time, the House of Terror (a former prison and site of torture), dealing with Hungary’s rather unfortunate history with the Nazis, Soviet Union, and the nationalist Arrow Cross Party, and the totalitarian shadow they emerged from only after much time and many lives lost.
But of course, like any good tourist, no visit to Budapest would be complete without heading to a thermal bath. With many to choose from, I followed new hostel friends Büşra and Kadir to their choice, the Széchenyi baths also being the largest one in town. It’s always better with company! Swallowed up in the giant crowds both local (playing chess, doing aerobics) and tourist, we hopped in and out of saunas, steamrooms, and baths both indoor and outdoor (yes, all the better on a snowy day), one even with a nifty little fast-flowing whirlpool feature. After so much time spent on the road, my muscles did thank me — although they were definitely wishing for that massage there that I couldn’t afford!
Following the Danube once more, I reached my final stop! That’s now 28000 km by land, and I can’t believe that Hong Kong was on this same trip.
And yeah, it is a little strange to end a pan-Asia trip in Austria, of all places. But given the time I had, this was as far west as I could go, and I wanted to visit my good friend Bernhard again before heading home. I’ve already visited him here before four years ago, and so felt absolutely no obligation or inclination to do anything touristy — rather, we reflected on how different our lives are since the last time we met! (He’s a dad now!)
Our setting? The many, many, many Christmas markets that Vienna has to offer, whether set in picturesque alleys or in front of the majestic Rathaus (city hall). You can’t even walk more than a few minutes without running into another one. Chimney cakes, kartofelpuffer, bratwurst, and mulled wine outside… then coffee, strudel, beer, schnitzel, spaetzle, and tafelspitz inside, perhaps in a cosy, elegantly Austrian restaurant.
Even better? A regular night in at the apartment of Bernhard’s good friends Normann and Carmen, where we went full Bavarian with weisswurst and pretzels, played some board games over more mulled wine, shared some stupid laughs over YouTube videos, and basically had a sleepover. I’ve missed stuff like this.
It’s winter. The days are getting shorter. I’m cold. I’m tired from the long journey, from packing up every few days. Like at the end of my Africa trip, many of my possessions (like my shoes again, already repaired several times) are breaking. It’s a very logical time to end. But most of all…
Being on the road for so long, I’ve learned so much and seen so many incredible, unbelievable things. It’s such a predictable thing to say, but it’s true! And while that feeling is one I could chase forever, there’s always that nagging feeling of what I’m missing, growing day by day. I miss being a normal person — being in Istanbul, Belgrade, and Vienna with friends really helped with that. I’ve met new people and said goodbye to others practically every day on this trip. I’ve had to introduce myself ad nauseum: my name, where I’m from, China or Japan, oh yes it’s a nice place, where I’m going, wow your trip sounds amazing, how do you like our country. Pleasantries are pleasant, but ultimately small talk. I crave deep friendships, meaningful conversation, and a sense of belonging. I’ve seen so much of the last point from locals everywhere along the way: a sense of pride as they eagerly introduce me to their village/town/city, friends, and line of work; lead me to try things, or even host me! It’s by far the best part of the trip, and why I travel. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t believe in or miss having the same thing for myself.
It’s time to go home! To friends and family! But beyond that, I have no idea what’s in store for me there, and I’m sure there will be days coming where I wonder how I ever felt “done” with travelling, or why I decided to go back to a routine life again. As they say, the grass is always greener… but I know how I feel now, and it’s an unmistakable sense of satisfaction, a time to move forward.
Oh, but there’s no question — I’ll travel again. And this trip was a dream years in the making, now fulfilled. I’d do the whole thing again, and then some, in a heartbeat:
China, with its many regional subcultures and diverse landscapes that would take a lifetime to see; a complicated, beautiful mess of balancing tradition with rapid change and an increasingly knowing population taking matters into their own hands.
Kyrgyzstan, home to the most stunning variety of scenery, where nomads sprawl free and hikers have infinite possibilities, and home to the coolest showcase of traditional culture and sport on Earth!
Tajikistan, which I would love to see far more of beyond the Pamiri and Afghan culture of the beautiful, remote Wakhan Valley.
Kazakhstan, modernising to the beat of its own drum, super chill and with my favourite city on the trip (Almaty) to boot, and with so many more landscapes on offer than the little slivers I saw.
Uzbekistan, with the best plov of them all and those jaw-dropping blue mosques, intricate handiwork, strong pride in its Silk Road history, abundance of fruits and nuts, and friendly folk.
Turkmenistan, if I could only get another visa to enter and see its own historical sights past its sheltered but extravagant capital…
Iran, smothering in its extreme hospitality, unmatched in the sheer size, scale, and detail of its dazzling mosques and shrines; ringed by coastlines and dotted with mountain ranges that I’ll have to return to visit.
And of course, Turkey and into Europe, home to so many dear friends spread everywhere that I need to visit again and again before I even think about exploring more!
But for now… home!