Vanishing Act: Journeys to Places Without Maps

1. Mongolia

Mongolia is the only country I’ve ever been to that publishes a fictional road atlas. I noticed it one day as my driver Degii and I were slamming across the open plains in a faded blue Russian jeep. The book was nestled between the two front seats, just behind the gearshift, and covered in dust. Degii consulted it from time to time, but I think it was only for show. A reminder of where things like towns were in relation to, oh I don’t know, China, perhaps. None of the lines so carefully plotted in this atlas related to any corresponding lines in reality, because Mongolia is a country almost entirely without roads. Outside the capital of Ulaan Baator, the one paved road gives way to a desperately random collection of jeep tracks. When we wanted to go someplace we simply pointed ourselves in a general direction, and when the jeep track veered off we cut cross-country until we found a new one.

I saw one of those road atlases once in the State Store back in UB, but at the time I thought it was too expensive to purchase. I’ve regretted it ever since.

2. The Darién Gap, Panama

Sure, you’ll find aerial views of the Darién Gap on Google Earth, but how many people know what lies beneath the tangled green of the jungle canopy?

The Gap marks the southern limit of Central America where it borders Colombia. It’s an unbreached span of jungle in the Alaska to Ushuaia Pan-American Highway, containing some of the world’s last truly unexplored territory. It’s also a place of legendary reputation among adventurers: a lawless frontier swarming with Colombian guerrillas and drug smugglers-thieves, murderers and bastards of the worst kind. I went there once to visit an isolated Embera Indian village in the interior. We traveled by dugout canoe up one of the winding mud-brown rivers that are the region’s highways. With every mile of upstream progress we plunged back another century. When we arrived, I learned that the children of this village had never seen white people. They were slightly horrified by my appearance. Or perhaps it was my fashion sense.

3. The Taklamakan Desert, Xinjiang, China

The name Taklamakan, roughly translated, means, “Those who go in will never come out.” Explorer Sven Hedin called it the most dangerous desert on Earth. It swallowed caravans, adventurers, and entire Silk Road cities. I ventured into it once in midsummer, which in hindsight was a little like tugging Death by the goatee. I expected to be drinking my own urine within days.

Eighty-five percent of the Taklamakan consists of shifting, crescent-shaped dunes that can tower to 200 metres. It’s also located farther from the ocean than almost any place on earth. Summer temperatures can soar to a blistering 50C at the peak of the day only to plummet below 20C at night. Winter isn’t much better, with daytime temperatures dropping as low as -20C. As if this weren’t bad enough, violent sandstorms are common. They’re particularly dangerous due to the strength of the winds and the nature of the desert surface. To be caught even in a mild windstorm gives one the feeling of being flayed alive.

My favorite Taklamakan quote comes from the Chinese explorer Fa Xian, who encountered this desert on his travels to India in A.D. 400. He wrote: “In this desert there are a great many evil spirits and also hot winds; those who encounter them perish to a man. There are neither birds above nor beasts below. Gazing on all sides as far as the eye can reach in order to mark track, no guidance is to be obtained save from the rotting bones of dead men, which point the way.” Doesn’t that just make you want to go there?

4. North Korea

Surrealism supplanted reality the moment I landed in Pyongyang. Work groups of people with homemade brooms swept empty ten lane streets, and by the roadside people cut grass with small knives. Pyongyang is North Korea’s showcase. It’s a Potemkin village on an enormous scale, built to dazzle the few foreign delegations allowed to visit. Only those most loyal to the regime are permitted to live there. Old people, cripples, and the extremely ugly are banished to the countryside. Even the female traffic control police are said to be chosen for their beauty rather than for their abilities. It wouldn’t matter much anyway; there isn’t any traffic.

To say a place is without a map is to imply that its people are uncertain of their position in space. They have as little regard for or knowledge of the outside world as the outside world does for them. North Korea has taken this one step further. Its people have been cut off from reality entirely: dislocated from their place in history, and sold an elaborately crafted lie in its place. Everything they’ve ever known is false.

It’s no surprise that North Korea is a place without maps. In a country such as that, walled off from the rest of the world, paranoid, despotic and delusional, even diagrams on a napkin would be considered a security risk. Besides, why would anyone even need a map? They aren’t allowed to go anywhere.

5. The Undiscovered Countries of Your Imagination

No, that’s not a cop out. I’ve been to many more places without maps. Far too many to list here. But I truly believe that the greatest journeys to places without maps are the journeys you haven’t yet written. The journeys you take when you sit and stare out a window, or when you plod away at a dull job that insults your intelligence simply to save another hundred dollars to fund your escape.

These imaginary settings in your personal landscape are also sparked by the places you pass by. I’ve noted down several throughout the course of my travels. Places to explore further and in greater detail: the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, the Julian Alps of Slovenia, Xinjiang’s Pamir Range. Brief glimpses of such places are like a flash of lace or a whiff of perfume. They tantalize, and they hint at undiscovered pleasures.

Knowing that there are still secret corners out there helps us maintain our sanity during those times when we’re caged up and acting out society’s grand farce. Those secret places give us hope, and they provide us with a reason to go on.