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?
“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”.
-Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen The Myth of Continents
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 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.
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.
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”.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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