Originally published on PassionPassport.com
Photographer Matjaž Krivic might not compare himself to Marco Polo, but the two share something in common — a route.
Matjaž was selling dreams to other people at a travel agency before he first journeyed across the Silk Road. Since he quit that job in 1997, he’s traveled in the footsteps of Marco Polo and countless other traders and explorers at least five times, crisscrossing and zigzagging through the countries where the greatest civilizations in history intersect.
The story of his journeys begins in Venice.
Two hours from his home country, Slovenia, Venice thrives on tourism. Matjaž had visited Venice many times with his family and was familiar with its gondolas and watery canals. The city seemed like a big mess — full of foreigners and tourists instead of locals. But he liked the history and knowing that the city was, in a way, an open-air museum.
Leaving Europe behind, Matjaž drove through Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Bulgaria to reach Turkey.
The first thing he noticed in Turkey was the mosques. Enormous, extravagant mosques that were unlike anything he was used to seeing in Europe.
While making his way through the Eastern part of the country, he found himself sleeping outside at night. In the early hours of one morning, while sleeping in the shadow of the Nemrut Volcano, he woke to a strange noise outside his tent.
Matjaž peeked out and saw a herd of hundreds of black and white sheep. Though Matjaž was trespassing, it was the shepherd who apologized — for disturbing his sleep. They shared a tea and, as the shepherd walked away, Matjaž felt the magic that lingered in the biblical land.
Driving through Turkey allowed Matjaž to notice things he wouldn’t have seen if he had taken his Silk Road journey by plane. He watched things slowly change around him. Not just the terrain, but the people, the food, the religion, and the culture, too.
He noticed that the cultures seemed to mix and influence each other. Though they were distinct from one another, they were all interconnected.
When Matjaž arrived at the Iranian border and handed over his passport, he was surprised that the border control officers knew where Slovenia was, and even more surprised when they asked if he was hungry and invited him to lunch. They shared chelo kabobs and rice, a common meal in Iran. Then they handed him the paperwork for his car, officially welcomed him to Iran, and sent him on his way.
The Iran Matjaž has always experienced is different than the Iran the media portrays. Matjaž wasn’t expecting Tehran to be so developed and was shocked when the eight-lane highway led him to a city filled with modern skyscrapers. Young people were eager to talk with him and everywhere he stopped people offered him free meals and diesel, though, at his insistence, they eventually relented and let him pay. Matjaž felt safe in Iran.
When he journeys the Silk Road in the opposite direction, it is Iran that makes him breath a sigh of relief and think, “Finally, back in Europe.”
The condition of the roads worsened once Matjaž crossed into Pakistan. The villages and towns were filled with donkey carts instead of cars. The humidity of the Indus Valley pressed down. It felt like he was driving back in time to the Middle Ages.
Though he wore the traditional salwar kameez to blend in with everyone else, in a post-9/11 Pakistan, people were constantly asking Matjaž if he was from America. The question became annoying after a while.
He noticed the women, or lack thereof. In Iran, women had been everywhere. Repressed, but everywhere. But the women were missing in Pakistan and Matjaž could feel the difference in a society without their presence.
Compared to the monochromatic feel of Pakistan, India is bright and full of color. And, while no one cared where Matjaž was from, the police cared that the steering wheel in his European car was on the left hand side and not the right (though they didn’t have a solution to this perplexing problem).
Matjaž spent a month in Varanasi and made a habit of spending time each morning with some of the local sadhu (holy men) he befriended. They often shared chai tea and, though they couldn’t speak the same language, found other ways to communicate. Matjaž quickly realized the men were no different than anyone else around the world — in the morning they wanted to check the stock exchange and read the newspaper.
For Matjaž, photographing someone isn’t just seeing a face through the lens of his camera, it is a deep and intimate moment they both share. Once, he was sitting along Lake Sarovar in Amritsar and admiring a Sikh pilgrim during his ritual washing, when he realized 30 people had gathered behind him to photograph the same man. Suddenly, he wasn’t sure who was more embarrassed — the man, as an object for curious photographers, or himself for disturbing the man’s peace.
The Kathmandu Valley is special. Matjaž has local friends there and they make it feel like home. He always made time to observe the evening contrast on the two sides of Kathmandu — on one side, the restaurants and vendors opening for the tourists and, on the other side, the monks reciting final prayers before their rest. A city coming to life and getting ready to sleep at the same time.
Tibet is where Matjaž feels the best. Everything is wrong — the high altitude causes constant headaches, there’s no hot water, the food leaves a lot to be desired, the hotels are shabby — but not for Matjaž.
Craving a slow experience, Matjaž once bought a bike, fashioned his own saddlebags, and cycled through the country. People called out to him as he rode by to offer food or shelter. They could tell he was a foreigner and wanted to interact with him.
His bike let him see the country differently.
When Matjaž finally made it to China, via the Kunjerab Pass, it felt developed compared to many of the other countries.
Matjaž was drawn to Kashgar on the westernmost border of China because it has been a meeting point and trading hub for centuries. At the famous Sunday Animal Market in Kashgar, he found himself watching a local man who was making traditional spaghetti. He thought of Marco Polo bringing pasta back to Italy, and how the Italians had then become famous for their food. The cultures along the legendary Silk Road really had mixed in ways Marco Polo couldn’t have imagined.
Matjaž might not compare himself to Marco Polo but, in following the famous explorer’s footsteps, he has realized one important thing — it’s not about the end destination, it’s about the road.