War zones and deserts
The hard reality of maps
On which dreams founder
I had been trying to get 'serious' about the crazy plan I hatched at this time last year to walk home from China to the UK, following the ancient trading paths of the 'Silk Road'. Tracing the route on Google Earth, however, soon becomes deeply dispiriting. For one thing, it's hard to determine a single definitive route, since there have been numerous variations over the centuries. And then, of course, the terrain is pretty extreme: one tries to skirt the deserts and mountain ranges, but they can't be avoided altogether. Even more importantly for me, the most commonly followed parts of the route have usually evolved today into major highways, which don't make for very pleasant walking. (Hitch-hiking might be a more realistic way of approaching the journey; but I had my heart set on walking, dammit!)
And then, of course, on the 'home stretch' the last three capitals you pass through are Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus. With luck, the Syrian civil war should be over long before I'd be attempting this. And Tehran, though challenging, should be survivable, I think. Iraq, however, is likely to remain a death-trap for the solo Western traveller for years to come.
I haven't completely given up on the idea. But finding a route that is actually walkable - 'cross-country' rather than on the hard shoulder of busy roads - is a big problem. Finding a way across Iraq without getting mugged, kidnapped, or blown up is, strangely, a slightly lesser concern at the moment. If the rest of the trip starts to seem doable, I might just take my chances there. After all, attempting to traverse Asia on foot (apparently, it's 4,311 miles from Beijing to Damascus, as the crow flies - probably rather further, as the Froog limps) is in itself recklessly self-endangering, just in terms of the physical challenges posed by geography and climate - without the additional risks of the human violence one might encounter along the way. Recklessness is exciting, invigorating, up to a point; but I'd draw the line at 'suicidal'. I don't mind facing danger after a rational calculation of the risk, but I wouldn't want to be putting myself in any situations where the chance of death is starting to look more likely than not.
[Unfortunately, it's the first leg of the journey that would probably be the biggest hassle of all. China is very safe for foreign tourists, but it's not amenable to extended solo travel. Outside of the major cities, foreigners are still a rarity, and apt to provoke suspicion and panic in the local authorities. There are many areas of the country where it is still supposedly 'illegal' to travel as a foreigner; and many more where that is de facto the case because the local policemen aren't comfortable with the idea. The physical hazards waiting further down the road may start to seem appealingly straightforward after a few weeks of trying to progress through the bureaucratic minefield that is China.]