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Call of the Ride

Following a Fulbright scholarship to China in 2013-14, where he worked as a translator and interpreter while researching the political economy of Chinese ceramics, Nate Brown ’08 felt the lure of the open road — and beyond.

He had dreamed about undertaking a long motorcycle trip even before learning to ride — from watching YouTube videos while in Taiwan in 2011.

“Having lived off and on in China since 2009, it always seemed like a natural starting point,” said Brown. “There was so much of the country I had yet to explore and so much I wanted to see.”

Of particular interest was Central Asia.

“Every time I looked at the vast expanse on the center of the map, stretching between Europe and China, I always wondered what was there,” said Brown. “Central Asia’s not somewhere easy to get to, which made it all the more alluring.”

Brown and a former classmate from Middlebury College — Jiening Sun, a commodities trader — decided to leave their comfort zones and “see the world through very different lenses,” according to their trip blog.

“The purpose of this trip was the same one that is inherent in all travel for me — to experience firsthand how other people live,” said Brown. “It’s to see places and do things that I could barely even conceive, let alone have tried before.”

So in July 2015, they packed up their gear, gassed up their bikes and set out on the six-month, 21,700-mile trek from China to Europe. Their route took them to cities and towns, mountains and valleys, lakes and deserts.

“I liked that with just a motorcycle and some gear, we could make our way through some of the world’s most remote places, camping where we wanted, stopping when it felt right, just slowing to feel what’s around you,” said Brown.

Many of those places took his breath away.

“There are mosques with interiors covered in mirrors in Iran that are verge-of-tears stunning; skies on the Tibetan plateau that push so close to the earth you want to just grab the clouds; blues in the Aegean Sea that pool like a pile of gemstones,” said Brown. “There is a laundry list of places that made me feel like I could viscerally experience what comprises raw beauty.”

Sometimes it was the scenery that left Brown overwhelmed, sometimes it was the people — the kindness, the hospitality of strangers offering directions, meals, places to stay, encouragement.

“I didn’t understand the meaning of hospitality until I went on this trip,” said Brown.

“From Chinese mechanics to Kazakh jazz singers, Kyrygz cowboys and Iranian fashion designers, we got to spend time with some of the best people I’ve met,” he said. “They defined the experience for me. Without them it would just be a collection of pretty places and rough drives.”

The trip was a success for Brown.

“My goal was never to get somewhere, my goal was to be somewhere,” he said. “To be able to be aware of what exactly comprises this world, to see how big or small it really is.”

Although the journey is now over for him, Brown said Sun is continuing the rest of their originally-planned trip into Africa, which may take another year and a half. 

While Brown is back to work — he just finished making a film and is working on translation projects in China — he still longs for the open road.

“I’m hoping to be able to drive through Scandinavia and Russia this summer, maybe even to Mongolia if it works out,” he said. “In my heart of hearts … I’m not ready to stop driving. If another trip can manifest itself, I won’t rule it out yet.”

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