Nunavut is the size of Western Europe or all of Mexico, comprising 20% of Canada’s landmass. A statistic like this would typically suggest millions of people, heavy attention on the world stage, and significant development.
But we’re not talking typical here. There are no roads into Nunavut, nor are there roads between any of the 25 communities that make up its town-like population of 35,000 (<0.1% of Canada). Majority Inuit, proudly part of Canada yet largely disconnected from the national conversation, it feels like a different country. Maybe even a different planet: the landscape looks like Mars. No amount of Canadian flags, Tim Hortons, or TVs playing “southern” content can change that. Up here, people pay attention to what’s going on down south, but I can’t say that many of us down south do the same for the north. I found myself needing constant reminders that I hadn’t left the country, even with the words “us foreigners” once slipping out of my mouth. It’s hard to absorb how drastically different Canada can be from coast to coast to coast.
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
It’s a lonely, loud propeller plane ride from southern Canada up to Yellowknife. The cities disappear, the Rockies, the roads, the farms and plains of Alberta, and then… no signs of civilisation. You see the familiar Canadian Shield out of the window: bedrock, bogs, short trees, and a million lakes. Like a random map generator, it’s endless permutations of taiga (or boreal forest if you prefer). Then all of a sudden, Yellowknife.
Despite being so far west, in terms of travelling east, Yellowknife is basically it. It’s the easternmost territorial city connected by road to the rest of Canada. (Never mind the fact that across Canada’s three territories, only their capitals are cities, and they’re all pretty small! Yellowknife’s just under 20,000 people, containing roughly half of NWT’s population.) Other tiny settlements east are accessible by ice road in the winter, but the summer? Good luck with that.
So let’s stock up and head east! Wait, whaa?
Oaxaca de Juárez and Puerto Escondido, Mexico
Music rings from every street corner. The streets and plazas are alive with conversation and activity. Colour adorns every building, whether by paint or by nearby blooming trees or by street art. And in the background, mountains.
This is not what I expected from the state of Oaxaca, a place that’s forever been on my radar as a food destination. We’ll get to that point later, but this was literally the reason I came, and the only thing I knew. But food is only one facet of what Oaxaca really is — a shining showcase of every facet of culture in this state, one which holds on strongly to its traditions yet embraces new ideas.
There’s an immediate difference if you compare Oaxaca de Juárez (the state capital, also called Oaxaca for short) to Mexico City. Gone are all the skyscrapers or any semblance of a modern metropolis: brightly painted colonial-era buildings line streets of brick and vibrant cathedral-centered plazas. It’s a bit of a time warp. Oaxaca’s zócalo is the big hub of activity, packed with crowds under the shade of its many trees, doing everything from chatting to shining shoes to people-watching to idly strumming a guitar to enjoying whatever roaming live entertainment comes their way. Surrounding it all are snack vendors and sidewalk cafes. It’s just a thoroughly pleasant place to kill time, closely followed by the plaza surrounding the Santo Domingo cathedral, just a short walk away past a Semana Santa-special artisan’s market.
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City, a metro area of over 20 million, is one of the largest in the world. Packed to the max with traffic above ground and like sardines down below in the expansive metro (complete with unique identifying icons for each station!), it unexpectedly brings to mind other disparate megapolises: New York population-wise (and the Bronx and Queens demographically speaking), Tehran in density, and even London based on the sheer number of museums and cultural institutions out there.
Just when I thought I was done (which, you may recall, was first December, then February), I had to squeeze another trip in. Upon signing a new job contract, I impulsively booked a flight leaving the next day, scrambling to figure out how to make the most of my remaining sabbatical. This meant the least amount of preparation and planning I’ve ever done for a trip. Usually it’s not much at all, but this time I’m really flying blind. And everything in the first paragraph was literally stuff I just learned and perceived upon landing. It’s about time I found out what I’ve been missing all these years, as our close neighbour!
Tainan, Kenting, and Hualien, Taiwan 臺南、墾丁、花蓮
With Taipei’s treats capturing so much of my attention, I was left with just one week to circle the rest of the island.
Where Taipei looks forward with modern trends, Tainan looks back to history and tradition, as the oldest city in Taiwan. On the streets, I hear far more Taiwanese than I do Mandarin. And as if Taipei didn’t have enough temples, well… Tainan’s chock full of them, and each of them are chock full of people. Tradition isn’t something just for the old though.
Taipei, Taiwan 臺北
I said I was done with travelling for the time being. Turns out sometimes trips just happen, and a bunch of factors led me to say goodbye to home again, but just for three weeks. (There is an end!) Being in Hong Kong for a wedding meant a short hop over to Taiwan, a nation (for lack of a better word… we’ll get to that later) I’ve been to around 20 years ago, but only remember of it a hotel room shared with my family and a hospital: I was sick the entire time. Never saw anything else other than some traffic, but never felt curious enough to return either.
What was I thinking?!
Amongst the hordes of Hong Kong tourists I encountered (and eavesdropped on) throughout Taiwan, there’s one primary thing on the minds of visitors. I count myself in that crowd, and certainly didn’t have to hear it from them: it’s the food.
Food food food food food.
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.
Doğubeyazit to Istanbul, Turkey
Standing at the Esenler bus terminal in Istanbul after a 23-hour bus journey, I felt a sense of going full circle.
Istanbul is the endpoint I had in mind for this journey, a city straddling both Asia and Europe, and the Silk Road to its most logical conclusion. While finally reaching it is still an accomplishment I can be proud of, it felt a little anticlimatic, given that I skipped the rest of Turkey yet again and took a direct bus over. But four years ago, I found myself at this very station, taking a bus to whatever was available and feasible (which ended up being Macedonia and Kosovo) in a moment of grief for a friend lost days before our reunion and intended trip. But at the same time, I was confounded by this bus station, with destinations every which way — to Europe, but also eastwards towards Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and connections to other points further. I saw flags around that I didn’t recognise. It may seem tenuous as I didn’t visit any of those places save for Iran, but it really was that one glimmer of curiosity that planted the seeds for this Silk Road trip.
But anyways, where did I leave off? Right, Iran. After crossing into Turkey, I made a brief stop in Doğubeyazit, the town closest to the border.
Sanandaj to Tabriz, Iran
The words “Kurdistan” and “Azerbaijan” typically don’t bring Iran to mind. Kurds are often associated with separatist movements in the countries they live in: Turkey (where the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK, engage in acts of terrorism), Syria, and Iraq (where there’s already the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region). Azerbaijan… well, they already have a country to the north of Iran.
To my pleasant surprise, both of these minority groups seem generally happy as part of Iran. (There is still a Kurdish movement for autonomy/independence and incidents of violence, but much smaller than those of neighbouring countries.) Locals are as nice as always as in the rest of Iran, if not nicer, and as much as I heard “welcome to Kurdistan” and “welcome to Azerbaijan,” from my experience, they’d happily add “welcome to Iran!” in the same breath.
(For more context, consider first reading the entry from Mashhad.)
Tehran is not my kind of city, and for most Iranians I talked to who weren’t from there, it’s more a necessity than a pleasure of life for them. This city/metropolitan area of 9/16 million is one of the larger ones in the world, comparable to New York (8/20 million) and feeling a whole lot like it in terms of sheer population. An expansive metro runs all over the city, completely packed at all hours of the day, making getting around town feel a whole lot more like going to work. It’s worse on the roads too, as traffic has made Tehran one of the most air-polluted cities in the world; the days before our arrival (which thankfully coincided with rain to clear it up), the air was so polluted that schools were closed and depending on who you ask, between 400 and 1000 people actually died of pollution-related causes. That’s absolutely crazy. There are actually some plans to move the capital of Iran to another city in the future because of this.
(Speaking of New York, in my Tehran hostel, I randomly met someone who turned out to be a friend of a friend. I didn’t know him before, and they’re coworkers in New York. What can I say other than to repeat myself… it’s a small world. This isn’t the first time I’ve had such weird run ins.)
For me, visiting Tehran wasn’t really necessary (though it was for Tom and his visa extension, and I tagged along), but an intriguing little add-on for the sake of its importance to Iran.