Kazakhstan: A Nihilist Dilemma

How nihilism kept me travelling after 3 months

The crackle of gravel pops down the maroon-coloured chips of rock in the sunlight.  The incline poses no immediate threat as I trudge through the dry sediment, looking up at it as sweat forms to quickly evaporate on my temples.  Behind me, two women of equal tenacity and travel experience, march in unison.  I feel like a member of a garrison, led by a sergeant, a leader who forces the regimen to new heights — a fearless leader in a loose, black tee and a bandana that says “you mess with me and you’re out”. 

Kazakh Tour Guide

With each step I take, I carefully and repeatedly consider the ramifications of stopping for a brief rest, then reconsider in an effort to preserve my character as the tenacious person I want to be.  Or, perhaps more fittingly, it feels like an extension of gym class, getting forced to run for eleven minutes straight without stopping, lest your fellow students subject you to a session of mockery and finger-pointing before the class starts… only to find out you now have to do fifteen minutes straight.

I eye our fearless leader, well ahead of us, at the top of the chipped section of the incline and watch as she effortlessly shimmies up a narrow crevasse with the use of her hiking poles.  I only dare, for a moment, look behind at the struggling pair of experienced female travellers as their faces involuntarily show signs of sluggishness and fatigue; I know that a fall in the wrong direction can easily send me falling to my death.  I also know that yet another, even longer session of physical exercise will follow, but I indulge in the fantasy that the finish line lies immediately ahead.  I simply can’t stop now while I’m so far ahead, I tell myself.

I reach the bottom of the crevasse and unjustly preform a sigh of relief, my knees naturally decompressing, firmly becoming rigid.  It all nearly sends me tumbling behind into the others.  Sabina, our fearless leader, extends her hand from the top in what, at the time, feels to me more like a visual mockery of my hiking inadequacies than a gesture of courtesy.  I shake my head, rescinding the offer just as quickly as she extended it and begin fumbling the camera cradled in my sweaty, dry hand.  Time seems to tick extra quickly as I carefully plan my assault tactics; the steep 90-degree incline will certainly require some ingenuity.  I move up towards the parallel chunks of rock and try to angle my foot on the 25-centimetre indentation to gain leverage but slide back with a grinding sound only fitting enough to indicate my failed experiment.  I begin mumbling to myself in gibberish, muttering some limited, muffled obscenities under my breath and reconsider my approach.

“Ok, you know what: I think it would be best if you held my camera; I’ll need two hands for this,” I admit to my sensei, now nodding in approval that I know my own limits.  I extend to her my camera which frees my other hand to stabilize my body and to begin the maneuver, which lands firmly in her gloved hands.  I mount my hands over a few protruding rocks until I find the right one and begin propping myself up on alternating sides, a move I had seen in video games like Mario and Super Smash Brothers.  I soon find myself sweating and slouched over, watching the other two women surmount the same obstacle I just overcame.

I dare not ask how much longer, as the existentialist in me knows the journey far outweighs the destination.  I take a few steps towards the vast canyon of orange, a 200-metre cliff on either of my sides to a certain death, and soak in the emptiness of it all.  Through the feint breeze and the laboured panting of the tour group, I think to something I often missed in China: emptiness.

Local shrubbery in the backdrop of a desert canyon
Local shrubbery surrounding the vast desert landscape

The quiet envelops me, despite the other eight people sleeping in close proximity just metres away. I impulsively press the power switch on my massive phone, lighting up the room. Our other tour guide remains unphased to the lights flooding the room, sprawled on his single bed, strewn with makeshift sheets.

The bed feels uneven, just as the patches of makeshift sheets that line them.  I don’t even pretend to care, though.  Tours never make me exceedingly happy; I always find myself the happiest when I’m sitting in the driver’s seat — when I experience something different, that I would never find in tours.  I feel empowered when I can say “I did that.  It was just me, and I didn’t need the help of a tour guide”. The bed leaves much to be desired, but the hospitality still remains unparalleled; still, in the middle of the mountains, our tour guides managed to secure formidable accommodation: our host, a bald, mustached Russian immigrant who made his new home, farming in the mountains.

Mustached, Russian Landlord
Our Russian, moustached BnB Host

Still one in the morning, and I struggle to make sense of the day’s events.  A social influencer who contorts her face into a smile as soon as the her camera turns on, contrasted with a quiet, shy German who seems increasingly more genuine behind her veil of secrecy.  The group seems like it would never work, but it does.  It does something for me.  It outlines the power of silence and laziness: nihilism.

I think back to the intense hiking our group did and compare it to my recent expeditions.  While all my friends and family opt to take the most convenient way up — the help of the guide — I, for some reason, decide to diverge.  I, for some reason, continuously tell myself that I need to differentiate myself from the crowd.

But do I?

Why turn down the offer for the easy way out.  Why complicate life at all when we already have enough problems: family, relationships, and money?  Why do we even think to diverge in the first place when it only seems to complicate things in the end?  We already have enough on our plates as it is.  Why complicate things?

The tale of my travels certainly won’t end in a blanket appeal to Nihilism, but I can’t help but see the logical appeal of Occam’s Razor.  As I get older, I certainly won’t have the same level of tolerance for failure — an expectation afforded from the wisdom of my 29 years lived.  Life does not get easier as you grow older; it only gets harder.  That’s just the science of aging.  If life only gets harder as we age, and we want to mitigate risk to succeed, we must, therefore, take whatever paths afford us the least risk.  Thus, if taking the easy path requires less risk, then why take risks on a daily basis by travelling and by not working?

Just like a hike that never ends, I constantly find myself looking for some goal, some flag at the end of the Mario level.  I keep on telling myself that with each increasing level of difficulty, I will derive equally-satisfying level of satisfaction.  It seems all too too fitting for a person who relentlessly peaches existentialism.  But what does this unending quest ultimately afford me?  Sure, in existentialist terms, it might manifest in the betterment of my own perception of myself through others, but what does that perception afford me?  In other words, can you explain existentialism through existentialism?  Why do we seek to better ourselves in the first place?

It all seems so meta, but it begs the question of my motives in the past two months.

The question makes me wonder about everything I’ve done so far: my efforts to reinvent myself to new people, to justify my living expenses in foreign countries, to learn new languages just because of statistics and YouTube videos.

I then realize my answer, rooted in the blanket narcissism I very fittingly started with.


The emptiness that embodies the Instagram posts of a smiling tour participant doesn’t have any bearing on the result.  How that person acts away from the camera means nothing when it never reaches the audience.

Why do I need an explanation?

Humans are irrational beings.  We call ourselves logical, but we almost always act on instinct.  Rather, we use logic as a cover-up for our wrongdoings to justify our actions to ourselves.  Look at the world wars; look at religion; look at the political systems which govern repressed countries.  They seem to come up with a way to explain things.  That they do is enough.  But really, they don’t have to.  They never had to.

Turning to philosophy at all emphasises the need to steer away from such damaging cover stories.  The systems we devise only act as buffer zones between our conscience and ourselves; they make us feel special just like any religious system, like we are doing the right thing.  They relieve us of our autonomy at the cost of donating our lives to some greater causes, for giving away our so-called “freedom”.


But freedom was never the answer.

In certain video games, doing nothing is the answer.  In a newer game, Farcry 5, when faced with the first question at the beginning of the game, not choosing an answer and waiting for 5 minutes will end the game.  In life, you don’t always have to react.  Though some might consider indecision a form of decision, something does not equate to nothing.  The polar opposites don’t give us permission to proselytize some ultimate “raison d’etre”.  We really don’t have any obligation to do anything, and, ironically, that lack of motivation often manifests in what we observe as “freedom”.

But we don’t have to exercise our freedom every time — albeit contrary to North American ideology.  Being lazy never had a better place than in today’s world of never-ending media and advertisements telling us how to behave — or what actions to take and how to exercise our “freedom”.

Instead, it’s the lack of freedom that controls us.  The constant bombardment of social media posts on Facebook and Instagram, showcasing models in swimsuits, Photoshopped meticulously to resemble some unattainable figure.  Even schools, giving students A-B scenarios on how to act and what to prescribe patients when they display specific symptoms.  We rely increasingly on the influx of information to guide our decisions, and that’s just the reality.  We really don’t want our freedom, and we never did.  Everyday life just becomes simpler when you can keep yourself on autopilot.

I think back to the social media influencer and her role in society.  My opinion on her as fake and artificial quickly changes to one of reverence.  The world so desperately needs these fantasies to derive purpose in their lives.  It all adds structure to an otherwise chaotic existence.  As Sartre once said: “existence preceeds essence”.

The world certainly won’t stop spinning anytime soon, and that time is running out to experiment irks me.  Reality might suck, but its rashness makes it real.  We can’t choose our neighbours, our family, or our surroundings, but we can change our outlook on ourselves and the way we perceive those obstacles.  Perhaps, like the extended pole of support, I only need to change my perception of taking the path easily followed and to coalesce my being with the average person.  Perhaps I don’t need to embark on these trips of “self-discovery”.  Because in the end, I was never going to change myself; rather, I was only going to change my perspective on myself.  I know that I can’t become some godlike being who can please everyone and to do everything, so I just need to forget about that and live normally like everyone else.  There’s nothing wrong in that; it works because everyone else does it.  As one pragmatist said: “there is power in numbers”.

The silence of the Russian family and my tour group envelops me, as if to confirm this inevitable conclusion.  Why spend time philosophizing when you can sleep?  You search for meaning when there is none.

Just live.

Go home.

Live a normal life.

You’re not special.

There’s beauty in simplicity.

This nihilist voice, calling in my head, disgusts me, that I have ignored it for so long.  Perhaps, so fittingly, that I didn’t want to hear it or want to hear it makes it ever so important to revert to the old ways of life I so desperately wanted to abandon.  Yet after all this hard work, I only came full-circle to find myself at the same place I started.

The realizations hit me hard, as I come to terms with what I must do next: not some ambitious undertaking, not a trip around central Asia, or a break from work.  In fact, quite the opposite.

There’s no point in continuing this travelling act.

It’s time to move back to Canada and start back where I left off.