Lonely planet

This leg of the journey from Siberia to Mongolia has been the first I’ve encountered travelers.

“Travelers” sometimes known as backpackers are quick to tell you they’re not tourists.  As far as I can tell, though, the only difference is that tourists are willing to pay a fare rate for accommodation and have a better understanding of their contribution to the local culture – infusing the local economy with foreign cash.  I’m still trying to figure out how it is that my bed+breakfast+24 hour tea/coffee in Ulan Bator costs only $5 a night.

Up to this point, I had been living and working with organic farmers, journalists, friends of friends, random people I met on the street.  When I got to Irkutsk, the gateway to Siberia, though, I joined up with the circuit.

The one railway carriage going from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator (or UB as it’s fondly called) was filled to capacity.  Of its passengers, though, only one was Mongolian; their were no Russians.  The rest of us were British, Australian, French, Polish, Chilean. I was again the only American.

A typical conversation among travelers goes something like this:

“Where are you from?”
“How long have you been traveling?”
“How long are you going?”

I had been feeling pretty smug about my 3.5 months on the road.  Nothing to sneeze at, I thought.  It turns out, though, that on the circuit six months tends to be the average.  I met a guy last night at one of UB’s many Irish pubs who had been going for 3.5 years.  Not sure if this is a development of the world wide economic crisis and the unavailability of jobs or just representative of traveling in this part of the world.

What strikes me is not so much how one funds all these months of travel.  In addition to the aforementioned penn-pinching ways of the traveler there’s a fairly well established infrastructure, especially in developing countries for short term employment, particularly for native English speakers.

What I wonder about is how a traveler defines home.

A traveler decides to leave the place he has called home with the expectation that he won’t in the foreseeable future spend enough time in any one of the dozens of places he plans to visit long enough to put down any roots.

He leaves the people who have invested in him and he in them with the understanding that along the way he’ll by and large make shallow acquaintances useful for travel advice and drinking buddies.

When I left home I did so with the expectation that I would think seriously about what I wanted to do with my life’s labor.  I learned about hard work on the goat farm; I learned about the global economy in the Latvian classroom, and the value of maintaining traditional community life with the Russian religious sect.

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from the travelers.  Maybe don’t leave home without a Lonely Planet.  (Funny name if you think about it.)

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