In the summer of 2015, I left the United States. After growing up in Taiwan and New Zealand, I went to America to study before working in New York City. But in the end, I was unable to secure my permanent residency through a Green Card. As the prospect of my exile drew nearer, I correspondingly grew fascinated with a story I heard even as a child: in AD97, during the Eastern Han dynasty, China sent an explorer and envoy westward along the Silk Road to locate and to make contact with the Roman Empire. His name was Gan Ying. He had been a veteran of China’s wars against the Huns under the famous General Ban Chao. And he almost – not quite – succeeded in meeting the Romans. He was an Asian man who almost reached the heart of the ancient Western world, Rome. I am an Asian man who almost got to stay in the heart of the modern Western world, New York City. From the Wall to the Water part 1: Retracing the Old Silk Road to meet the Uygurs in Kashgar I conceived of the idea to travel along Gan Ying’s path, as recorded in that ancient text of Chinese history, the Hou Han Shu . I studied where he might have gone. I began in Hong Kong. The journey then took me through parts of China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and finally to Greece and Italy. The journey took place over the second half of 2015, when the world felt like a very different place. The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book I wrote about that journey. From the Wall to the Water – Suyab In Bishkek the traveller’s melancholy caught up with me. It was a spiritual distemper that I had experienced before from time to time, typically when I travelled alone – one reason to wonder whether experience not shared was worth having. And yet I also wanted to be alone. My constitutional misanthropy was catching up with me. Now I had what I wanted, only to feel lonely at the same time. Not just lonely but aimless. Why was I doing this again? One afternoon I summoned just enough wherewithal to reread David Foster Wallace’s essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again . Of course that was about a luxury cruise, and like DFW I would avoid luxury cruises with as much effort as I would herpes. But doesn’t travel, even when it is not mere tourism but genuine travel, sometimes feel like a supposedly deep thing I’ll never do again? From the Wall to the Water part 3: talking Chinese politics and dodging IS in Afghanistan The Chinese say: “The journey of 10,000 miles is better than the study of 10,000 volumes.” But as Proust puts it: “The true journey of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I had set out on this journey with the aim of endowing “mere travel” with some higher purpose, by tapping into Gan Ying’s legacy, by engaging with the history and cultures along his path in a way that a mere traveller never could. That higher purpose would justify doing something as monumentally stupid as going alone to Afghanistan. It was also supposed to shield me from the wanderer’s melancholy. And it had succeeded in doing so – until Bishkek. Here, because I’m a sceptic of all things including myself, I couldn’t help seeing my mission from a different point of view: I was chasing a ghost. A young man called Aliaskar got me out of my hotel room and helped to dispel my distemper. Years ago I had met an enterprising young Kyrgyz named Bolushbek in Shanghai. Or Boka, as friends called him. Now I mentioned to him that I was in Bishkek. He was away when I arrived, but he told his cousin Aliaskar about me, and the next thing I knew I was sitting in a Japanese restaurant with him and his friends. He had the thick torso of a Mongol wrestler and a stentorian voice like a big bronze bell. After dinner they went to see a French movie dubbed in Russian. I passed on the offer to join them – my Russian wasn’t good enough for that. One thing I wanted to see in Kyrgyzstan was the ruins of Suyab. Even many Kyrgyz, Boka told me, had never heard of the place, which once stood a few miles away from the modern town of Tokmok or Tokmak. I wanted to see it because of the city’s most famous son. It was once a Chinese garrison town, known to the soldiers as “Suiye Cheng”, or “City of Broken Leaves”, although the Persian etymology of suy ab actually meant “toward the water”. In AD701, when it still fell under the jurisdiction of the Tang dynasty, China’s greatest poet, Li Bai, was born there. Aliaskar and I had talked about Suyab over dinner, and he had asked me about Li. “He was like the Pushkin of China, wasn’t he?” “Yes,” I said, “yes he was.” No, he wasn’t. Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin was to Russian what Shakespeare was to English, a singular towering figure who remade the entire language in his own image. Li Bai was nicknamed “the Immortal of Poetry” and often considered the greatest who ever lived. But a few other poets rivalled him in both artistry and reputation – his friend Du Fu, for example, “the Saint of Poetry”; or Wang Wei, “the Buddha of Poetry”; and later figures like Su Shi who would excel in the Song style as Li mastered the Tang poetic forms. Nonetheless, Li was one of the greatest figures in Chinese literature, having written some of the most memorable lines in the language’s 3,000-year recorded history. Some of Li’s contemporaries believed that he was literally the avatar of the “Great White Star”, or the planet Venus. The young American Theo, whom I met in Xinjiang and who spoke excellent Mandarin, had named one of Li Bai’s poems as his favourite. History records that Suyab-born Li never saw China until he was perhaps five years old, when his father, a Silk Road merchant, decided to move back to the land of his ancestors. Presumably also because of time spent abroad, Li likely spoke numerous foreign languages. Today we would call him an expatriate or a migrant. Or as I like to call individuals like him – anachronistically similar to the likes of Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul – a transnational writer. It was what I wished to be. One of the many tales of Li’s life says that one day an ambassador from a foreign country arrived at the Celestial Court to present a hostile communique. Not one Chinese courtier knew his language and could read the document. But Li could. The emperor sent for him to draft a reply. Being a high-functioning alcoholic, he had yet to recover from the previous night’s drinking. The emperor summoned the palace chef to brew a hangover cure for the poet. Having properly woken up, Li delivered the empire’s response to the ambassador and rescued China’s honour for an afternoon. An emaciated young taxi driver named Kostya agreed to take me to find Suyab. He said his mother was Russian and his father Georgian. “Georgia is very beautiful,” he made sure to let me know. He wore a black Emporio Armani T-shirt and drove a Japanese car with the steering wheel on the wrong side. From the rear-view mirror hung a wooden cross with orange ribbons. He took me to be from China and mentioned that his sister lived in Guangzhou and that he had tried learning Mandarin in college. “But it is very difficult,” he said. “ Ma can mean either horse or mother?” I wondered how a man who went to university and studied Chinese wound up driving a cab. I told him in the best Russian I could muster that a great Chinese writer was born in Suyab. “He was China’s Pushkin,” I explained, taking up Aliaskar’s false analogy. In response Kostya asked me about Chinese philosophers, which surprised me. “You mean like Confucius?” I suggested. “Yes, yes, Kong Fu Zi,” he replied, supplying the more accurate pronunciation instead of the Anglicised corruption. “And Jackie Chan.” South Korean hit novel about young mother Kim Ji-young strikes a chord among women across Asia First we made a stop at the Burana Tower near Tokmok. It and the surrounding archaeological digs were all that remained of Balasagun. A younger city than Suyab, founded by the Sogdians in the ninth century, Balasagun overtook Suyab only to die as well after the Mongol conquest. Many Nestorian Christians lived here, after their version of Christianity fell out of favour in the West. The tower itself was actually a minaret built in the 11th century. A field of bal-bals, or petroglyphs – egg-shaped stones with faces carved into them like matryoshka dolls – lay to one side. We pushed on to look for Suyab, which, unlike Burana, was not considered an attraction. Again and again we stopped to ask locals for direction, and half the time they threw up their hands, having never heard of the place. But Kostya persisted with remarkably good humour in what must have seemed like a wild-goose chase. Following what directions we got, Kostya drove down increasingly stony and bumpy roads until we came upon a pond in the middle of the trail. He stopped the car, went out, and threw a rock in it to determine its depth before turning around to announce that his car could not pass. I told him to stay put, got out, and began walking, splashing my feet in the mud around the pond. But just a few minutes later a tractor with three farmers on it drove by and set us straight. I’d been walking in the wrong direction. I got back in the car, and we drove where they pointed us. Amid a field of tall yellow grass, we found an archaeological dig, a pit in the ground, unmarked and unprotected. Fifty meters farther, what seemed like a small hill revealed itself to be the remains of Chinese fortifications. I climbed up the hill, or wall, and Kostya followed after. I jumped off the wall and began wading through the tall grass. “Be careful,” he burst into English to make sure I understood. “Snakes.” That was enough to deter me from wandering in the tall grass any more. This was Suyab now, a handful of clues of the vibrant city that it once was surrounded by long stretches of grasslands, ringed by distant mountains, visited only by farmers on tractors and quixotic me and poor Kostya whom I’d dragged along. China’s Dilmurat to Japan’s Rola, why do Asians fetishise mixed race celebrities? Underneath the grass and dirt lay Christian churches, Zoroastrian ossuaries, bal-bals like the ones in Burana, and the homes of a deeply mixed population of Chinese and Sogdians and Turkic peoples. And of course the birthplace of China’s greatest poet – I liked to think that the multiculturalism of his upbringing held the key to understanding his art. I surveyed the empty fields around me, imagining 1,300 years ago the Chinese soldiers and the Sogdian caravans and Nestorian Christians cast out from Europe but happily worshipping here and the Turkic horsemen passing peaceably by, ancestors of the Kyrgyz and the Uygurs. I tried to explain to Kostya further why I wanted to see this field of nothingness. “In AD700 or so,” I told him, “the Chinese army was here and built these walls. Then a great writer was born here …” My thoughts exceeded my grasp of Russian. But he nodded with understanding of what I failed to convey, with empathy of the vanished city I was trying to conjure. Of course all of that was buried now. A thick blanket of earth covered the city, keeping it nice and snug as it slept its undisturbed sleep. It was a city that lived only in our memories now, like the empire that built it. We left the dead where they lay, as one ultimately must do with the dead. But when we got back to Bishkek I discovered that my earlier gloom had lifted. Kostya had empathised with my peculiar obsession. If I could translate ancient Chinese history into bad Russian for the benefit of a half-Georgian man in Kyrgyzstan and gain his understanding, perhaps I could bridge those divides across time and space and cultures after all. The mission that I assigned myself, what I deemed the higher purpose, which I had begun to question in my traveller’s ennui, felt suddenly renewed. Will Russia and Japan ever reach an agreement over the Kuril Islands? I had yet to fully understand that mission. But I had intuited that in the end it was all about stepping across the lines we drew in the world that divided people from people, us from them. It was about empathy for the other in a time of xenophobia. It was about erudition in the face of ignorance. It was civilisation over barbarism. It was a mission that already called to me, even then in the twilight of the Obama years. Ultimately Gan Ying had attracted me because, to paraphrase Salman Rushdie, he was a voyager who had refused the boundaries imposed upon him, who had transgressed against the limits of what fear prescribed. I paid Kostya more than what we agreed on for what he didn’t realise he did for me. We shook hands warmly and said our farewells.