And so it comes to this.
Almost six months of wending my way through the most unknown, most ignored parts of the world and I am almost at my final destination: Istanbul.
I’m on the slow train from Tabriz to Ankara – three days of increasingly frightening toilets, making friends in the corridor who, later, bring me plates of fruit and refuse to share my kilo of pistachios (they claim to have their own), and learning not a word of Turkish.
I’m surrounded by Turks, Baha’i Iranians taking their kids to school in Ankara, and Azeris from the north of Iran and from Azerbaijan proper.
With the latter I revived my failing Russian with a woman from Baku, and fell into rudimentary Farsi with the Azeri Iranians in my compartment (our accents defied much mutual comprehension).
It’s the opposite extreme to how I began, in China, unable to say much beyond “how much is it”, and surrounded by people who, although some wanted to talk, communicated in such a fundamentally different way to me that conversation was effectively impossible.
The sightseeing was incidental, and although I did force myself to see the obvious sights – the Terracotta Warriors, Samarkand, Persepolis in Iran – it was the unusual, sometimes crazy, often loveable, sometimes irritating characters (local and tourists) I met along the way who I will remember.
Some of them inspired me to comment. Others, although making a significant impression on me, weren’t interesting enough for a mention. Moreover, I held back from public naming for reasons of fairness, embarrassment or personal safety.
Even though I never had any problems with police, the only country I travelled through that doesn’t routinely disappear people was Kyrgyzstan (Turkey isn’t included in this list).
In saying that, this was still less a holiday than an ego trip.
Being “that crazy New Zealander who went to the Stans and Iran by herself ” in the hostels in Istanbul, as admiring (usually Australian) backpackers asked me to repeat stories and vow they’d never, ever be able to do something that brave, is quite a fillip to the ego.
Then there’s the knowledge that I did it: I bested five dictatorships (China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran) and one shaky democracy in the visa stakes, and occasionally in things they’d much rather I didn’t. Drinking alcohol in Iran, for example, and finding out the worsening social situation in Uzbekistan are two.
But I’ve also heard some horrific stories that I was lucky to avoid.
Stories such as my friend the Australian cyclist Dhieu who had to go into hiding in Uzbekistan thanks to a mix-up in the authoritarian bureaucracy almost had him deported, or the German man who was secretly jailed for two weeks by the Iranian secret police, the Basiji, who accused him of being an Israeli spy on the basis of being lost in central Tehran with a French tourist who had a Lonely Planet PDF on his computer.
There were the Uyghurs who were terrified of speaking out about their situation for fear of persecution (this post is from Urumqi but the situation is the same throughout Xinjiang province), and the Pamiris in Khorog who suffered again from the heavy military hand of their fearful dictator just as I was leaving the Tajiki mountain outpost.
These stories always caused we independent tourists to stop and consider whether we were becoming too comfortable in these seemingly welcoming countries. Usually the answer was, “probably, but I’ll deal with it if or when something happens”.
And now I’m sitting in the uber security of an Istanbulian hostel’s rooftop bar.
There’s a wide choice of beer and western spirits to hand and music playing that passed me by while I was in isolation, thanks to an Internet connection that is functional instead of a source of irate conversation; the mostly Australian backpackers ignore the Bosphorus views and discuss the best European countries in which to get the most boozed for your buck (it’s still Serbia).
I’m back, and it’s the most surreal part of my trip so far.