Friday, 5 March 2010

Seeing the world, differently

What was your best journey ever?

Not the best holiday, or the best place you’ve ever been to. The best journey?

In my time, I’ve flown all over the place. Heathrow to Bangkok on Singapore Airlines where even economy class felt like staying in a posh hotel. LA to Heathrow where a most unexpected British Airways upgrade taught me why those with the money always turn left when they enter an airplane. I’ve experienced the other side too – Nigeria Airways, Libyan Arab Airlines, the ubiquitous and universally hated Ryanair, and, quite the worst in my book, Monarch. Flying is certainly an experience. But even the best flights I’ve ever taken don’t even get a look in compared to my best journeys.

To talk about my best journey ever, you have to get much closer to the ground. And get on the train. Say you love trains and people think anoraks. And even I can’t get too excited about the 06.57 Norwich to Peterborough that I sometimes have to get for work.

But… Cairo to Luxor on the exquisitely old-fashioned overnight train. Waking up a stone’s throw from the Valley of the Kings.

The Transalpine Express that crosses New Zealand’s South Island Alps, leaving the fertile Canterbury countryside on the east, travelling up to snowy Arthur’s Pass in the mountains before descending to the wild western shores of Greymouth.

The rickety and crowded Bangkok to Petchaburi train, full to capacity with locals travelling for business or for pleasure. The frequent stops at tiny villages to take on yet more passengers, food-sellers, freight.

Even thinking about these journeys makes me excited, nostalgic. I can’t wait do to them again, maybe this time with the children. And do more. Trains across India, Helsinki to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian. Wherever there’s an epic train journey to be made, I want to be there.

However, there is a snag. Before you can take one of these trains, at the moment, you first have to take a plane. Some of the reasons are political; you’re never going to take the train through Iraq or Afghanistan at the moment. Some of the reasons are more to do with the society we’ve built around ourselves. I work full time. I get six weeks holiday a year – more than most. But spreading that over Christmas, Easter, summer, the school holidays, isn’t easy, and like most people, I’ve convinced myself that if you want to go somewhere, you need to get there as fast as possible so that you can then relax. Wind down. Chill out.

But the destination isn’t the same as the journey; in the same way that going on holiday isn’t the same as going travelling.

Travel is an essential part of the human condition – if it wasn’t, we’d still be crowded into Africa’s Rift Valley, having not moved for millions of years. Travel broadens the mind, opens your eyes to other cultures, helps you find yourself, or lose yourself, helps you to realise just what we have living in England. Without travel, we would stagnate, become insular.

So, what if we were able to change the way we’ve been taught to think over the second half of the 20th Century and into this one. Taught that the only way to “escape it all” is to fly thousands of miles to a sanitised tropical enclave where any interaction with the “picturesque” local culture is from behind the glass of the tour bus. What if we didn’t need so much to “escape it all”, and instead take all the opportunities that we could to explore it all. Take the time to travel, overland by bus and train, over sea by boat and ship, and really get under the skin of this beautiful and diverse planet that we share. Change the pace of our lives so that travel isn’t something we just squeeze into whatever time is left in our busy lives. Isn’t the bit we have to endure between leaving work and hitting the beach.

I love Norfolk, and Britain more generally too, yet even so, I don’t want my children to go no further than our beautiful shores. I want them to explore the whole world. I want that still to be an option for them when they’re old enough to do it, as it was for me.

So what do I want the future to look like? A future full of “best journeys”, where flying isn’t even part of the equation. Where we have time, and can connect to all parts of the world by train, by coach, by boat. Where we can explore all the places that we, in our previous lives, just flew over and missed out on. That would be a future worth making.

(picture courtesy of


  1. And don't forget bicycles Jon - the slower you go, the more you see.

    I was thinking about a TN bicycle/camping trip along NR1 in the summer - we could have an overnight near Beccles for people who don't want to go far - others could go on to Ipswich and come back by train. NR1 is all on quiet roads. Anyone interested?

  2. The journey is about connecting with the environment and the people, not always an easy task in our increasingly urbanised way of life. Our environment has a correlation to our mental wellbeing, the rise in eco-pshycology is a testament to this fact. Projects, such as Discovery Quest, aim to bring together the environment and the mind. The journey is also a metaphor for our struggle, yet as travel becomes faster, we lose sight of both our own struggle on the journey and our triumph upon arriving at the destination. We also miss something of the culture and the struggle of those we encounter on the journey. Take for example the plane that lands us within a mile of a beach, or the tour bus thy takes us away from the shanty towns, conveniently masking the slums. What of the journey to the Incan remains of a once mighty civilisation, brought to ruin by the West. And yet the coach takes us past the villages of the cocaleros whose lives have been enslaved by American Imperialism, the weakness of the UN and the unassuming cocaine user in a nightclub. The journey teaches about ourselves, the environment, the lives of others and the world our money votes for. Great article J, thought provoking.