Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, looking out the train window at endless Taiga, the largest biome on the planet, you begin to realize how big the Eurasian continent truly is after traveling for five weeks across its varied and culturally diverse landscape. Arriving at the Ural Mountains, stretching from northern Russia's Arctic Ocean frontier to Northwestern Kazakhstan, we are only at the halfway point in the journey. The next five weeks will surely bring more adventure as we transition from Europe to Asia. How the Ural Mountains became the dividing point between Europe and Asia has always been a mystery to me considering our bent on geographic boundaries. I remember the difficulty of explaining to students in my International Studies 101 class why Eurasia is considered two continents. To travel across the entire Eurasian landmass would no doubt shed light on this complex question of what truly divides this colossal continent. With this overwhelming question looming over our heads, nine Colorado Mesa University Outdoor Program students and faculty traveled its entire length over 10 weeks during the summer of 2012. This was the 20th international expedition led by the Outdoor Program's popular International Learning Adventures, a program designed to help students explore their world and answer the tough questions that simply can't be answered in the classroom.
To overland across Eurasia is no doubt one of the planet's most epic journeys. By all accounts Eurasia is massive, covering 32 percent of the world's land mass and 72 percent of the world's population. By comparison, the Americas, stretching from the arctic fringes of Greenland to Chile's Tierra del Fuego, covers 28 percent of the earth's land area and 13 percent of human population. We started in London, crossed Europe to Germany and Poland, making our way through the Baltic States to St. Petersburg, Russia. Then we headed to Moscow for the start of the Trans-Siberian railway, traveling across Russia to Lake Baikal, the largest and deepest lake in the world. Heading south, we made our way through Mongolia and finally ended our trip in Beijing. The first four weeks were a smorgasbord of European cities such as London, Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw, St. Petersburg and Moscow, exploring the major sights and getting a feel for train travel. Next, we boarded the Trans-Siberian Express heading toward Mongolia, making several stops across Siberia, including a trek along the shores of Lake Baikal. After arriving in Ulaanbaatar, we headed into the outback of Mongolia for trekking, horseback riding and staying in traditional gers. The last week we explored the Great Wall and the thriving Chinese capital of Beijing.As we traveled across the continent we started to dive deeper into the distinctions between the East and West, realizing that culture becomes the dominant distinction rather than geography. Traveling through 13 countries, we encountered dozens of distinct languages, the Cyrillic alphabet and Chinese character writing. The food is markedly different, ranging from the rice and noodle dishes in the East to the bread and cheese of the West. And the architecture stands in stark contrast, ranging from gothic and baroque cathedrals and towering minarets to giant Buddhist temples. But when you are immersed in the culture of Eurasia on the whole, you realize that our differences are rather fuzzy. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of finding commonality occurred in Kazan, the capital city of the Republic of Tartarstan, Russia. This multiethnic city is widely recognized for its Muslim and Christian populations living in harmony for hundreds of years. In the city's Kremlin, a fortified central complex found in most Russian cities, you will find mosques and cathedrals standing side-by-side with traditional weddings taking place in each location. Wedding parties from both religions mingle in the open plazas and streets which imbues a since of belongingness and community not often portrayed in our popular media. In places like Kazan, you start to see a transition between the East and West and in the same moment, you see the simple similarities that make us all one common people. Perhaps Rudyard Kipling, a Nobel Laureate English poet and writer, said it best in his 1889 ballad: Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!This poem epitomizes what we saw on our trip, that cultural difference between the East and West will always exist, but when "two strong men" or individual people from different cultures meet and mingle, they are indeed equals in every sense of the word. Nationality, race or religion seem to matter not at all, rather a fundamental connection resides that we are all passengers on this earth and come from equally great cultures. This was no ordinary journey, rather an adventure across the planet's most populous and culturally diverse supercontinent. The most amazing part of this journey for me was when my 4-year-old daughter, Sage, my wife, Alisa and mother-in-law Juliana, all joined our group in Mongolia for the final four weeks of the trip to Beijing. No doubt sharing this experience with my family and watching my little girl play with Mongolian kids in traditional gers and walk hand-in-hand with Chinese kids in the Summer Palace will be one of the highlights of my life. This was an adventure of a lifetime and a journey of self discovery that neither book nor traditional classroom could ever emulate. Thatcher is the Outdoor Program Director at CMU.