The 1,200 miles across Turkey was a good time for reflection. The days were warm and the nights cool. Most of the cycling wasn’t especially tough, food was amply available, and we could wash in the Black Sea daily. As we traced the coast westwards, I began to look back at the past eight months. I considered the question that led us to undertake this expedition: what does a border between Europe and Asia really mean in the modern world?
Looking at the literal geographical/geological idea of a continent (humour me here), Eurasia is clearly one rather than two. The northernmost stretch of the Europe-Asia border are the Ural mountains, 600 miles of which we traversed by ski. The Urals are the world’s oldest extant range and formed from tectonic jostling over 250 million years ago. It wasn’t a collision of landmasses either side of a shrinking sea, as famously with the Himalayas. It was eons of frottage between three already joined tectonic landmasses within the super continent of Pangaea.
The other five continents could all be argued to inhabit their own current tectonic plate. However, if we are to use defunct tectonic plates as continental boundaries, then things get very complicated with many, many continents to consider. Even if we are to use current plates as a guide then Far East Russia and much of Japan relocates to “North America”, Iceland snaps in twain, and the Philippines get their own shiny new ring on the Olympic flag. Silly isn’t it?
If we rudely ignore the Philippines and Far East Russia, Eurasia is currently formed of four plates: the vast Eurasian plate, the Iranian plate, the Arabian plate, and the Indian subcontinent (which is actually an appendage of the Australasian plate). “Europe” is less than 20% of the Eurasian landmass. It’s not a tectonic plate. It’s not a continent. In the context of Eurasia, it’s a place that was a backwater for much of human history. It then flourished for a thousand years before becoming a backwater for the next millennium after the decline of the Western Roman Empire.
“Europe” has roughly equivalent land, spread of states, peninsular shape, range of languages/dialects, culture-shaping history of a predominant religion, and historic population level as the Indian Subcontinent. And yet nobody refers to the “European Subcontinent”, and India remains lumped in as just another part of “Asia”.
“The global geographical framework in use today is essentially a cartographic celebration of European power. After centuries of imperialism, the presumptuous worldview of a once-dominant metropole has become part of the intellectual furniture of the world.”
-Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen The Myth of Continents
The vast majority of “The Line” that we have been following lies in just one country. We spent five of the expedition’s eight months in Russia, steadily progressing south by ski, cycle and kayak. This huge country, with the same surface area as Pluto, is dissected by many north-south lines: 150 degrees of longitude, ten time zone meridians, three 2,000+ mile rivers, two 1,000+ mile rivers, and one supposed continental divide.
During our time in Russia, it was often easy to forget our investigation. We could go whole weeks without sign or mention of it. In fact, we sometimes went whole weeks without spotting another human. Seeing that a border between Europe and Asia is a human-contrived concept, to my mind, the absence of people denotes the absence of a border. Nothing changed during each of the many occasions we skied across the invisible line. Crossing east to west, we didn’t suddenly become more enlightened and start pontificating on epistemology or the imperative of democracy for a healthy society. And passing west to east, neither of us embraced mysticism, miraculously sprouted a Fu Manchu and came into sudden ownership of an incense-wafted harem kowtowing to our despotic greatness. It was cold and white and bleak and windy on one side. It was the same on the other side.
The people indigenous to the Polar Ural region are the traditionally-nomadic Nenets. We didn’t pass through any of their sparsely-scattered, semi-permanent settlements, but a couple of them on a snowmobile came roaring across the tundra towards us one day, deep in the Arctic. The two men wore reindeer skin clothes with knives tucked into tasselled garters. Their features looked like those of other reindeer herders in Arctic regions of Scandinavia or North America. In less PC times, most of us would have classified their appearance as simply “Asiatic”.
The Nenets have similar ways of life and shamanic belief systems to those other groups ranged around the Arctic because they are culturally cousins. At some point in the eastward migration of northern peoples across Eurasia and the Bering Strait, some crossed the unimposing Ural mountains and some didn’t. Does this make those who stayed put somehow “European”? In fact, the pair we met are technically termed “European Nenets” as they live on the Western side of the Urals. Their literal cousins across the low mountains are “Asian Nenets”. However, to the post-revolution Russian authorities they were neither Asian, nor European. They were simply a wandering nuisance that needed forcing into a sedentary lifestyle. Inevitably, collectivization was to the detriment of much of their cultural identity.
Elsewhere, we came upon the abandoned remains of former mining settlements: snow-drifted relics of a brutal existence, all crooked doors, rotted roofs and rusted hulks of mysterious metalwork. Both the deserted settlements and the still-peopled ones in this desolate region began life as northern islands of the infamous Gulag Archipelago. The non-indigenous people still living there are the descendants of a patchwork prison roll call that consisted of Poles and Ukrainians and Lativians and Kazakhs and Germans and many, many more diverse and hungry men and women plucked from home and unceremoniously dumped near frozen deposits of coal and ore. In the camps, prisoners broadly organized into two major groupings to improve odds of survival. These groups were not “Asian” and “European”, but “criminals” (mostly Russian) and “politicals” (Russian and every other Soviet satellite nationality).
Further south, during Siberia’s short Springtime, we cycled through many small villages. We visited in the one month sweet spot when they look like something bucolic from a Thomas Hardy novel: after the unspeakably long, harsh winter but before the sky-blotting mosquito swarms hatch for the summer. Quaint, but often faintly depressing, these villages were visibly poor and remote and neglected. Many of the little wooden cottages were lovingly painted in cheerful blues and greens with antiquated farming machinery in front of them. But just as many had been left to decay when their owners departed for the urban centres, economic migrants from these villages with no future.
These impoverished settlements in Asia are inhabited almost entirely by Slavs. Usually blonde-haired and blue-eyed, these people are “Europeans” to the eyes of most of us. Many of the communities wouldn’t exist at all if not for the forced resettlement of the ‘kulaks’ by the Soviets during the first half of the 20th century. Affluent peasant farmers were rounded up as ‘class enemies’ and forced into an exile of hard work to atone for their sins of succeeding under serfdom. Stalin feared landgrabs by the Chinese and the Americans in Russian’s unpeopled regions. And so, the kulaks were moved to assert “Russian-ness” across the largely uninhabited landmass. There are similar villages reaching right across Russia, to the borders of China and the Pacific coast.
Months later, we cycled through the Republic of Kalmykia, one of many “autonomous” oblasts in the Russian Federation. The Kalmyks are descended from Mongols, look like Mongols, speak a form of Mongolian, practice Buddhism, and established their Khanate four hundred years ago. Yet, Kalmykia lies west of the Ural River. It even lies west of the Volga. Therefore it is in “Europe”.
In Chelyabinsk we met a man called Andrey. An enthusiastic cyclist, he came with us on our search for the source of the Ural river. We pedalled through the southern foothills of the Ural range on increasingly rutted tracks. When the ground became boggy and the tracks disappeared, we ditched our bikes and continued on foot. Finally, in a gladed wood, we found the spring. This trickle emerging from the ground was the start of the next 1,509 miles of the Europe-Asia border. There is a metre-long metal bridge over it with peeling black paint. On one side the metalwork announces in Cyrillic lettering “EVROPA”, and across the water more metalwork proclaims “AZIYA”. Stood on this bridge-between-continents, I asked Andrey for his views on the concept of this border. He chuckled.
“They built a bridge here, not a wall, didn’t they?” He said with a smile. “This river doesn’t separate. It connects.”
I later discovered that we had found one of five sources of the Ural, all within a couple of hours’ walk and all equidistant from the river’s mouth on the Caspian Sea. The other four all have their own novelty bridges that mark Europe on one side and Asia on the other. If plotted on a map, this would make the small areas between these five bubbling tributaries a confusing mess of Europe-Asia-Europe-Asia-Europe-Asia-etc. But, understandably, nobody cares, it's completely arbitrary.
Fast forward a thousand miles of paddling in a cramped, two-seat inflatable kayak, and we’re in western Kazakhstan nearing the city of Uralsk. About 10% of this huge country sits west of the Ural River and is therefore “European”. Some people sitting around a fold-up table beside the river waved us over. We were lured in by their friendly smiles and steaming samovar. They were two couples on a weekend camping trip. Vitaly and Tatiana were Slavs. Viktor and Amina were ethnic Kazakhs. They all were Kazakhstan citizens living in Uralsk which is a majority Muslim, Kazakh city. It sits on the European side of the river and was founded by European Cossacks in the 17th century, just after the land was wrested from the Kazakh Khanate, a successor of the Golden Horde which itself was part of the original Mongol break out from the Mongolian heartland in the 13th century. A gloriously mixed history, I feel.
We sat with our new friends and sipped Chinese tea in the milky, sugary Russian style. We ate Watermelon and foil-wrapped sweets, and I explained the border-tracing purpose of our expedition. Viktor interrupted:
“I’m sorry, Charlie, to tell you that this is not the border.”
“It isn’t?” I asked.
“No. Well, yes, but only formally. It means nothing really.”
The following day in Uralsk, I walked down Eurasia Avenue. I passed Eurasia Bank, Eurasia Sport Centre, Eurasia Motors and Eurasia University. Kazakhstan clearly sees itself as neither European, nor Asian, but both.
Fast forward another thousand miles down the river to the sea, and thence along the Caspian coast. We cycled into Dagestan: Russia’s most ethnically diverse and politically fractious area. Sitting on the west coast of the Caspian, and with the Caucasus watershed lying on its southern border, Dagestan is geographically located in “Europe”. It was part of the Persian Empire for several centuries, then the Arabs arrived and held sway half a millennium until the Mongols took the reigns. The Persians eventually wrested back control before the Russians reared up and rode south. The region pinged back and forth between Iranian and Tsarist rule for a further century. It is now a Muslim Republic within Russia and has only a 3% ethnic Russian population, the lowest of any region in Russia.
Dagestan is on the FCO’s “advise against all travel” list and is often melodramatically dubbed “the most dangerous place in Europe” due to a long-running Islamist insurgency. Dagestan feels Iranian. The people look Iranian, the men drive like Iranians, and the hospitality is as ubiquitous and freehanded as that of Iranians. Any European airdropped into the region would probably think they are comfortably in Asia…and soon be invited in for tea.
Further south, in the Caucasus, things get a little more complicated. Crossing the border from Dagestan into Azerbaijan technically took us back into Asia. However, in this region, continental identity is increasingly tied up with political persuasion. The Azerbaijanis are diplomats. They are oil-rich businesspeople eager to deal with both East and West. Baku, the capital, hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 and the European Games in 2015. It was also a Capital of Islamic Culture in 2009 and hosted the Islamic Solidarity Games earlier this year.
The neighbouring Georgians are perhaps the most desperate candidates for EU membership, and also one of the least likely to gain admittance. Despite being geographically in Asia, they want the warm embrace of the club that is “Europe”. They want it because they are Christians in a Muslim region. They want it because they think of themselves as European. However, they largely want it to protect their border from the menace of their northern neighbour, Russia, a country administered from comfortably far inside geographical Europe. EU flags flew proudly outside many government buildings as a sign of the country’s membership of the Council of Europe. Some Georgian academics cite Herodotus to affirm their European-ness. In the 5th century BC, the Greek historian was the first to codify a border between Europe and Asia. He placed it on the Phasis river (now known as the Rioni) which would make most of Georgia fall within Europe. However, Herodotus also wrote about races of people with faces in their chests, and dog-headed men.
As soon as we entered Georgia, we noticed hilltops marked with towering crucifixes and roadside signs directing tourists to ancient monasteries. Orthodox Christianity became the state religion in the early 4th century and a little later the Georgian alphabet was created for the sole purpose of translating the Bible into something the Georgian people could read. Some Georgians feel a kinship with “The West” due to their relative geographical isolation from the rest of “Christendom” and some historical ties with the Ancient Greek world (you may be familiar with Georgia’s ancient name of Colchis).
During several centuries of Persian and Ottoman domination, when most of Eastern Christianity had been subsumed by Islam, Georgians looked longingly to the western Christian realm. They identified Europe with a sense of freedom. Ironic, perhaps, as we are talking about a religion born and formed well within “Asia”. That said, it does seem difficult to look at Europe’s wider self-identification, both historically and presently, without allowing that Islam and Christianity have much to do with it. “Europe” turned it’s back on Spain during the Arab occupation between the 8th and 15th centuries. Backs were similarly turned when the Ottoman Ampire swelled all the way to the borders of Austria for a time in the 16th and 17th centuries.
So, that brings us back to our fifth and final country. The Turkish approach things much like the Azerbaijanis. They once had an empire reaching far into Europe, Asia and Africa. Istanbul famously bridges two continents. This fact is part of the city’s brand today. T-shirts celebrating the idea are hawked to tourists. The Turkish joined the Council of Europe in the 40s, NATO in the 50s, and Eurovision in the 70s. Turkish Airlines uses “Europe’s Best Airline” as its slogan. However, only about 5% of the country is in geographical Europe and some of its international borders sound very “Asian”: Syria, Iraq, Iran. Some Turks identify as “European”, some as “Asian”, most as neither. President Erdogan is dancing down a daring diplomatic tightrope between NATO, USA, the EU, G20, Russia, the Syrian Opposition, and Iran.
We cycled through the string of towns and cities dotted along the Black Sea coast They seemed relatively affluent and, if one ignores the mosques, could easily be mistaken for Bulgaria or Romania, two of the EU’s youngest members. However, seven years earlier I cycled across the entire country in the other direction on a parallel road only 50 miles further south. Some of the mudbrick farming towns along that road told a different story. They resembled some of the more remote villages I’ve visited in Iran or Tajikistan.
Callie and I both noted a huge increase in women wearing conservative Islamic garb from each of our last visits about five years ago. Young men in jeans and t-shirts walked alongside (or often in front of) their wives dressed from head to toe in black burqas or niqabs. A tailor I spoke to referred to them mockingly as ‘Ninjas’. For a time I wondered if the Turkish had taken a dramatic turn towards Islamic conservatism, but then I listened closer and noticed these couples chatting in Arabic and the penny dropped. They are among the 2.5 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
This has been a fairly rushed and rambling review of some ideas that surfaced while we followed this controversial line. Rushed because it would take a book to expand on these thoughts satisfactorily, and rambling because that is the nature of the history of this border. The border was drawn. It has been shifted many times. It exists on maps rather than in reality. To most living along it, it is a non-event, little more than a novelty, a photo opportunity. The history of the Soviet Union is perhaps more important in determining divides, or common and current traits between the areas we have traversed. But that’s a tangent I daren’t explore right now.
The people on one side of any given part of the border largerly look, act and live the same as those across ‘the line’. Genetic variation is minimal and irrelevant anyway due to the relatively small number of migrants who left Africa roughly two million years ago to populate the rest of our planet. There is often greater genetic variation between members of neighbouring African villages than there is between a flame-haired Scot and, say, Kim Jong Un. And, besides, there is only around 0.1% genetic diversity among all human beings. We're all the same really, or at least, it would help if we tried to believe that.
With the above ideas pingponging around our minds, Callie and I reached the Bosporus on a sunny Saturday morning. We had a symbolic “finish line” arranged to meet with some family who had touchingly flown out to greet us. However, we were early and, in theory, anywhere along the Bosporus marked the end of the border we had been following and was a finish line of sorts. We dismounted from our bikes and scrambled down the rocks on Istanbul’s “Asian” side. Holding hands, we dipped our fingers in the water together and gazed across at outlines of the magnificent mosques in Europe.
At the start of this journey, we set out with the aim to raise a modest sum for Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who boldly ignore borders in order to bring vital humanitarian aid to the world's most vulnerable people. If you feel like sending a few quid/dollars their way then you'd be doing a very good thing.
To donate, please click here, or text "FOLL50 £10" to 70070 from a UK mobile (the donation amount can be altered in the message).