Three Islamic missionaries brought the word of God to Samaqand. When they arrived, tired and thirsty they, being devout and learned scholars, decided to leave their future in the hands of Allah. So to understand his word they killed a sheep, cut it into pieces and boiled it in a pot. When the pot had cooled, the first missionary put his hand in and drew out the heart. He understood immediately. Allah was commanding him to return to the heart of Islam, he was to return to Mecca. The second of the missionaries put his hand into the broth and drew the head; Allah had again commanded. The missionary knew he was to remain in Samaqand and spread the word of the prophet. The third, having seen the word of God so clearly speaking to his companions wondered what Allah had deemed his future to be. So he too plunged his hand into the pot, and initially finding nothing in his hand, continued to sweep his hand through the mixture with ever increasing anxiety. Eventually his hand was guided toward a part of the dismembered sheep. After a pause, he withdrew his hand, he had, quite unmistakenly, pulled out the sheep’s arse; he knew at once he was to go to Baghdad.
I’m not absolutely sure why I find that story so funny. It’s not simply that some places are ‘nicer’ than others. Perhaps it’s that we believe that some places are inherently more worthy of being long sought after goals for a journey or that, for whatever reason, some places are imbued with a certain mystique, whereas others, quite simply, aren’t.
Possibly, and getting a little closer to the truth, it’s that having chosen a place to visit, a place somewhere a little unusual, a place a little off the beaten track, then anything that helps vindicate your choice is gladly welcomed. This is especially true if the joke in question is ancient, it simply therefore must possess a long held truth.
It cannot be just the rock in the road that defines the journey and gives it its essence. A rock, even a great monolith of a boulder on the journey to say, somewhere as hum drum as Newport cannot define a journey that requires no definition and cannot therefore be possessed of any essence. No. A journey has to be worthy of definition, it has to be worthy to be possessed of any essence.
How much more essence is acquired if the rocks in the road are first encountered before the journey starts? Now, obviously, I’m not referring to real rocks here, rather the ‘rocks’ encountered on the Travel Advice pages of The Foreign and Commonwealth Offices website. This excellent website is packed with (hopefully) overly cautions, but otherwise, helpful advice delivered in a caring and paternalistic manner; ‘the land border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is closed’, ‘special restrictions apply to the import of motorcycles into Iran…..’, ‘Turkmenistan’s restricted areas………’ and so forth.
If the hurdles to be encountered before the journey even begins increases the essence of the journey, how about the method of transportation? Does the mode of transport chosen to get to the desired destination have any bearing on the destination’s essence? Of course. Quite clearly so in fact. To be ferried to the top of some suitably large Alpine peak by helicopter and to be dropped there is perhaps a form of mountaineering, but surely one possessed of little essence. To have crossed the Gobi Desert during the twelfth century in a caravan – and to put that in perspective, a journey from the borders of western China to Xian would have taken roughly a year, is surely possessed of more essence than any journey that a twenty-first century voyager could ever hope to achieve.
So where does that leave us? Does the destination give the endeavour essence? Yes. The rocks that are encountered, both in the preparation and execution of a journey, do they give it essence? Again yes. How about the choice of transportation? Is the commercial airline flight over say a long train journey possessed of less essence? Few would argue otherwise. In that case how about a motorcycle over a luxury fleet of 4 x 4s? Certainly! It’s at this point I feel that I’m heading toward the inevitable point that a journey on the Chang Jiang 750, must be possessed of more essence than a journey undertaken on a BMW R1200GS, simply because the CJ is not such a ‘good’ motorcycle. However I’m not going to make that point, I’m going to veer away before this inevitably arrives as a conclusion.
Not for that fact that I don’t like that conclusion, but for that fact that I believe that essence lies, essentially elsewhere. This journey will be possessed of essence. And not for the fact that Samaqand is inherently worthy of a journey (it is). Nor, for the fact that ‘rocks’ will have to be surmounted (even though they will). It’s not even for the fact that it will take a great deal of determination and stamina.
The reason why this journey and myriads of other endeavours, carried out by countless other people have essence, is that it is done for personal reasons, reason that resonate with the individual. Even if, maybe especially if, these reasons mean nothing to anyone else.
I want to visit Samaqand. It’s a part of the world that has had a long held fascination for me. A part of the world, which for most of my lifetime was secret, unknown and unknowable. It was inaccessible, out of bounds, dark and forbidden.
Having ridden motorcycles since I was sixteen, any other mode of transport is almost unthinkable and certainly would reduce the trips essence. It is also the fulfilment of a long held dream; the long overland voyage. This is why the trip will have essence. And when we get to Samaqand? Well, the journey will still only be halfway over.