Organisation - December 6, 2018

Eight pairs of trainers and litres of tea - The WUR programmer who walked the Silk Road

Tessa Louwerens

Taking Marco Polo as his example, programmer Bart-Jan van Rossum set off for China from Istanbul. Wearing trainers, after expensive walking boots gave him blisters. ‘I gave those to an Iranian shepherd.’

Text Tessa Louwerens photos Shutterstock and Bart-Jan van Rossum

‘I have always been fascinated by history,’ says Bart-Jan van Rossum, a programmer with the Biometris group at Wageningen Plant Research. He read 13th century explorer Marco Polo’s stories and the idea gradually took shape of following in his footsteps and walking the Silk Road from Turkey to China.

He made up his mind in 2015, Van Rossum tells me over a cup of coffee in Impulse, where he gave a talk about his travels in October. ‘I had been working as mathematician for a big market research bureau, and I was ready for a change.’ He handed in his resignation, gave up his rented accommodation and got on the train to Istanbul. From there he wanted to walk to the Chinese city of Xi’an via Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

Van Rossum covered about 9000 kilometres between Istanbul in Turkey and Almaty in Kazakhstan. He was refused a visa for China.

Van Rossum stops for a chat in Tajikistan.
Van Rossum stops for a chat in Tajikistan.

Special cart

Van Rossum set off ‘pretty unprepared’. ‘I had done some walking in the Alps, but never for longer than a couple of weeks. I thought, I’ll see how it goes.’ But, mathematician as he is, he had made an Excel file with a schedule. And he had made himself a special cart for his luggage. ‘That’s nicer than a heavy backpack. The disadvantage was that I couldn’t take any narrow mountain paths, but the route mainly followed roads.’

The first section of the journey was tough. Within three days, Van Rossum had so many blisters that he came to a halt in a hotel in Turkey. ‘I don’t know exactly why, I had good walking boots, but maybe it was the long distances or the heat.’   Fortunately, the hotel owner was friendly and helped him recover. He wore trainers for the rest of the trip, and got through eight pairs. ‘I eventually gave the walking boots to an Iranian shepherd.’

Bart-Jan van Rossum (second from the right) has a cup of tea in Iran.
Bart-Jan van Rossum (second from the right) has a cup of tea in Iran.

Sleeping in the mosque

Hospitality was a recurring theme during Rossum’s journey. He could sometimes be invited for tea 10 times in one day. Or maybe for beer, vodka or kumuz, slightly fermented horse milk. ‘That is funny. Most of the people are Muslims, but the culture is more Russian, especially when it comes to alcohol consumption.’

The fact that he hardly spoke the local languages at all was not much of a hindrance. ‘At some point I knew enough words to say where I came from, where I was going, how old I was and what my job was. In combination with some gesturing, that usually provided enough conversation material for at least one cup of tea.’

Van Rossum took a tent along but he usually stayed with people, in mosques, or even in first-aid posts. ‘In Iran, they are used to put up travellers for the night.’ The most interesting accommodation he stayed in was a yurt, a traditional round tent, in Kyrgyzstan. ‘It turned out there was a festival of some kind, and people came trickling in throughout the evening. Alcohol flowed freely and it got more and more crazy. Then everyone went off, rolling drunk. I had no idea what they were celebrating, but it was certainly fun.’

The traffic is probably the biggest danger in Iran

Wild dogs

Van Rossum never once felt unsafe. ‘When I told people I was going to walk through Iran, their first reaction was, is that a good idea? But it was fine. The traffic is probably the most dangerous thing in Iran. Apparently there are about 20,000 deaths on the roads there every year, and some people seem to do their best to push that figure up.’ Something else that scared him was the wild dogs he encountered. ‘I was bitten once in Ethiopia and had to go home because I could have contracted rabies. I’ve been scared of dogs ever since.’

Because he only had a 30-day visa for most of the countries he passed through, Van Rossum walked an average of 35 kilometres a day. ‘You get into a kind of rhythm. I walked for eight to ten hours. When it got dark, I put up my tent and read a bit. I think I read 120 books on my e-reader.’

The life of a wanderer suited Van Rossum, although there were less pleasant moments as well. ‘Around Christmas 2015 I was in Azerbaijan. There wasn’t much to do, the roads were boring, it was cold, and I just had to cover the kilometres. Then I felt like going home. I stayed a while in the capital, Baku, staying with the nicest people, and that helped me get through it.’

No visa

In the end, Van Rossum had to cut short his trip because he was refused a visa for China. And so, after about 9000 kilometres, he ended up in September 2016 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. ‘Initially I wanted to go home. But I thought it was a pity to stop at such a low point.’ So he decided to travel on to South Korea and Taiwan, and do some more walking more there. ‘It was nice to end on a positive note.’

Van Rossum flew back to the Netherlands in December 2016, and has been enjoying his job as a programmer at WUR since April 2017. But that does not mean travelling is a thing of the past. He has just come back from Nepal, where he walked for five weeks. Without his cart, which he left behind in Taiwan. ‘It had been welded together so many times that there was no way I could take it apart for the flight.’

Inquisitive boys in Kyrgyzstan.