If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. –Psalm 139:9-10
As mentioned in “No Man is an Island–Part 1,” Reverend John Donne penned these now-famous words during a Christmastime epidemic in London in 1623:
“No man is an island, Entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.”
I befriended the remarkable Terry Racher on the continent of Asia, but we made a joint decision that soon took us across three continents.
It was the winter of 1990/1991. Terry and I were two Americans teaching English in Hsinchu, Taiwan. For Americans living there, a common conversation topic was “When do you plan to go back to the States next?” Since the world’s biggest body of water–the Pacific Ocean– is between Taiwan and the US, such a trip requires much planning and expense.
Terry and I were sitting in his comfortable, American-decorated living room that winter discussing the upcoming summer 1991 travel plans. We both agreed that the easiest and fastest way to go home–by flying directly over the Pacific–was also the most boring. “Let’s have some adventure” we somehow concluded…”what would it be to go home by taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Asia and go home by way of Europe?”
We were living examples of the saying, “Ideas have Consequences.” Out of that idea in our brains was hatched the adventure of a lifetime.
Another common pastime for foreigners living in Taiwan was meeting other foreigners. Through a mutual friend, Terry and I met Max Gufler, a native from Austria who had moved to Taiwan in the 1970s to serve as a Catholic priest missionary but who later became disillusioned with Catholicism and left the church. When we met him, Max was supporting himself by teaching English and German. (To avoid confusion, Max often explained that he was from Austria, the small, German-speaking country in the Alps in Europe; that is not the large, English-speaking country/continent of Australia with kangaroos.)
One of the things that most amazed me about Max was his unbelievable gift with languages. As an Austrian, his native language is German. However, he speaks and writes English at a native-speaker level. Thanks to his priestly training, he knows Greek and Hebrew. Thanks to his decades in Taiwan, he was fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Out of personal interest, he also knew Russian and French. (He has since taught himself Spanish.)
Once in the 1980’s Max had traveled from Europe to Asia via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, but he had wanted to repeat the trip but going the opposite direction, from East to West. His experience was a goldmine of information and his stories inspired us to make the trip. So, the three of us soon found ourselves in Terry’s living room dreaming up and mapping out a plan to make the trip together.
The year 1991 was some five years before we were to hear of the internet, so we did all our trip planning via mail and telephone with a travel agency in Hong Kong called — (I’m not making this up) — “Monkey Business.” Since there were only one or two trains a week and summer was high season, we had to make plans and book tickets early.
Max explained that the second-class train cars (cheaper than first-class) slept four people. We invited a fourth friend, a fellow from Maryland teaching in Hsinchu, if he wanted to join us. However, his job required him to stay in Taiwan till June 30 and the rest of us hoped to leave early. Therefore, we planned on going as a trio and realized the fourth person to share a train car with would be a total stranger. But that was part of the adventure!
There are two routes of the Trans-Siberial Railroad linking Beijing and Moscow. One went directly from China to the USSR, while another went through Mongolia. “That would be cool to go through Mongolia! Another new country!” we thought. By the time we booked tickets, however, the Mongolian route was sold out, so that settled the question for us.
Max, Terry and I met on June 18, 1991, at Terry’s home on the campus of the Hsinchu Presbyterian Bible College. Being June, the spreading royal poinciana trees on campus were a blaze of brilliant orange flowers, like an orange carpet against a bright blue sky. There is a Chinese saying, “The Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and we put that into practice. We had packed light and put our bags in Max’s car and he drove us up the lane from Terry’s house, through the campus gate, and one hour north to the Taipei airport. From there we flew ninety minutes southeast to Hong Kong, which was still a British colony then. We spent about three days in Hong Kong where we applied for a visa to Mainland China and picked up our tickets and travel tips at the Monkey Business office.
This may be hard for some to believe, but technology in 1991 was such that I used a pay phone in Hong Kong to call my parents in Virginia. Calling from Mainland China or the USSR would be either expensive or impossible, so I told them I would plan to touch base again by phone when we arrived in Berlin, Germany, about one-third of the globe away, a few weeks later.
We were truly going “off the grid.”
From Hong Kong? Stay tuned….
– Scott Dreyer
Hear these interviews from the Life App Podcast with Terry about our trip around the world in 1991.