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Interview with William Han, author of From The Wall To The Water

William Han set out in 2015 to travel the ancient Silk Road from China to Europe, following in the footsteps of Gan Ying, a Chinese explorer who attempted to contact the Roman Empire in the first century AD.

His journey was chronicled in the book From The Wall To The Water published by Earnshaw Books in 2022. William Han is a screenwriter and occasional journalist, as well as a travel writer and lawyer. He was born in Taiwan and raised in New Zealand before attending Yale University and Columbia Law School. William has traveled to over 120 countries and spends his time here, there, and everywhere. 


What prompted you to travel to distant and isolated places? What are you looking for?

I think people naturally possess an urge to explore, and there is always a kind of romance in the idea of going to the “final frontier” or the “undiscovered country.” The trouble in the modern age is that in reality, almost no genuinely unexplored areas remain. That doesn’t stop us from having a taste for exotic and out-of-the-way places. But the truth is that I found European tourists in the middle of Uzbekistan.

So I think of that Proustian dictum: the true journey of discovery consists not in seeing new lands but in having new eyes. In an age when anyone with a credit card can buy a plane ticket to Samarkand, it is only by going deeper, by observing more closely, by imbuing our voyages with greater meaning that we can elevate “mere travel” to something worth writing about. In my case, I tried to do this through history, by attempting to follow Gan Ying‘s path along the ancient Silk Road, by in that sense traveling through time as well as space.

Livestock market, Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

What were the biggest challenges in exploring this route? Have there ever been times when you felt really in danger?

Afghanistan obviously presented the greatest danger. In the book, I write about the one car bomb that went off in the middle of Kabul while I was in the city (though thankfully nowhere near the bombing) and generally looking over my shoulders for potential kidnappers and Taliban members. Also, very unusually for me, in Afghanistan I donned local clothes to blend in better to try to make myself less of a target. There certainly were moments in that country when I’d be promised safety exactly where I was standing but also told that if I so much as walked a hundred metres in the wrong direction, all bets were off. 

Whatever dangers other countries on my route presented paled in comparison to Afghanistan. A lot of people in the Western world imagine Iran to be dangerous, but that is generally not the case–as long as you don’t go looking for trouble or for a drink. In Tehran, the greatest danger to me was probably the traffic.

In China’s Xinjiang region, due to the ethnic tensions, there was a small degree of discomfort for me as an ethnic Han Chinese. In parts of Xinjiang that were almost 100 percent Uyghur, a person of the Han race stood out. But, in 2015 when I passed through, I never felt it was that bad.

William Han in Afghanistan, taken in Mazar-i Sharif

Along the route, has anything remained unchanged since the days of Gan Ying?

Gan Ying made his journey at the end of the 1st Century A.D. and the beginning of the 2nd Century, so almost 2,000 years ago. It’s hard to point to any single thing in particular that has remained entirely unchanged over such a long period. But it’s interesting to think about what has remained and what has changed.

The Han Dynasty extension of the Great Wall into the Xinjiang area has largely disappeared. But ruins of some Han Dynasty watchtowers still stand in the desert. Visitors can see ruins of Yumen Guan (the Jade Gate Pass) right about where the province of Gansu meets Xinjiang.

The desert itself, the Taklamakan, is of course on some level forever and indestructible. But even the natural environment has changed to some extent: windmills for electricity generation now dot the desert.

This is even more true with the Aral Sea between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Environmental degradation since Soviet days and continuing even now has meant the almost total diminution of the Aral. I write in the book, “Oh horrible vulturism of man, from which not the mightiest ocean is free,” which is a play on a line from “Moby Dick”: “O horrible vulturism of the earth, from which not the mightiest whale is free.

As for the different cultures along the way, although obviously an incredible amount of history has happened in the intervening centuries and thereby changed those cultures, there are ways in which “though much is taken, much abides”–to quote Tennyson. There are persistent themes in Chinese culture that arguably have remained since the Han Dynasty, and there are aspects of ancient Persian culture that I suspect have survived the Islamic conquest and much else besides so that we can still detect them just beneath the surface.

The graveyard of ships in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan. This used to be the Aral Sea

Who were the people you met in the most isolated places?

I met many interesting people in unlikely places. I write about many of these encounters in the book and remember them all fondly: the young Chinese woman in Sichuan who wanted to talk about Marcus Aurelius, the young Kyrgyz students in Bishkek bushy-tailed for the future, the border guards on both sides of the Uzbek-Afghan border, the Afghan museum director in Herat who showed me around his site as well as his old photo collection, the elderly Iranian man talking about Montesquieu, and many others.

What struck you the most during your trip? What were some of the most unexpected moments?

I set out on this journey with the specific concept of traveling in Gan Ying’s footsteps because of my own cultural identity: I was raised in many ways in traditional Chinese culture but subsequently educated in the Western world. What I already suspected, but what really struck me as true during the trip, is the extent to which countries and cultures we think of as entirely separate actually have long been intertwined with each other. Chinese history and culture long interacted with the cultures of Central Asia and Persia, which in turn was locked in centuries of interactions with the Roman Empire. In a very real sense, there is no Chinese history or Persian history or Roman history; there is only a single universal history of humanity.

As for unexpected moments, of course travel is full of them. But I was constantly struck by how different people along the Silk Road would behave toward me based on their interpretation of who I was, who I appeared to them to be. My being racially Chinese obviously played a role in how folks I met interacted with me, and it would’ve been a very different trip if I were racially European.

Darul Aman Palace, Kabul

What are your sources of inspiration as a traveler and writer?

Of course I write in the shadows of great travel writers such as Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paul Theroux, Eric Newby, Peter Levi, and Rory Stewart. But another one of my literary heroes is T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia.” “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” was a stylistic revelation for me when I read it.

Why does the unknown lure our curiosity?

It’s sometimes said that in every good story, the question being posed ultimately is “who are you?” I think we want to experience cultures that seem exotic and different to us because we want to see just how different they can be, because we also know that underneath we’re all equally human. Travels to apparently unknown places and experiences with unfamiliar peoples allow us to see just how differently other human beings can live, just how different from our own another human society can be. Ultimately that helps us understand who we are.

A man posing with a Soviet tank in Herat, Afghanistan

What precautions do you take before embarking on an exploration? How do you plan your trips? How do you find information on the routes you want to travel?

That depends a lot on where I’m going. If I’m dropping into France or Italy, I don’t take any precautions at all and barely make plans. The book of course recounts my visits to some relatively more dangerous places. In the case of Afghanistan, I registered with my government where I was going, and I promised a group of friends that I would check in with them at least once every 48 hours to let them know I was okay. There was also an issue with information when it came to Afghanistan: not all Afghan embassies and consulates abroad would give me a visa. I researched the question of where and how best to secure a visa on travelers’ forums focusing on Central Asia.

Setting aside such exceptionally challenging countries, I increasingly fly by the seat of my pants. There was a time when I made sure to read the Lonely Planet guide on where I was going. Not anymore.

Architecture in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

What does your equipment consist of?

Equipment? What equipment? 

Uh, a backpack, or rather two backpacks, one large and one small containing the important things like my passport. Generally, I don’t pack anything special. I’m a traveler as other travelers are. The important thing for me is just that I must be able to carry everything on my person and have my hands free, for the sake of both convenience and safety.

What is your next project? 

I would love to write another China-related travelogue, but given pandemic travel restrictions, it may be a while before I can write such a book. There may be some fiction in the works. And, although I shouldn’t say too much about it right now, I’m making a foray into Hollywood as a screenwriter.

Images courtesy of William Han, A special thanks to Tash Galasyuk

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