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What’s the best way to travel?

When you’re trapped in the daily commute, it’s easy to forget that journeys can be a delight, not a drag

January/February 2014

Colin Thubron

Walking

The choice to travel on foot is a transforming one. The unhurried pace brings a sense of things restored to their natural proportions. Time slows down and geography stretches out. The details of the land—its small topographical changes, its chance noises and scents—become more potent and absorbing. Some of the finest works of travel, from the sagas of George Borrow two centuries ago, to those of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin, were achieved on foot.

Many people have remarked on the curious relationship between walking and thinking. The rhythm of the body seems to free the mind, just as the rhythm of a mother's walk (it is imagined) puts at rest her babe-in-arms. Solvitur ambulando, declared the ancients: "it is solved by walking". Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move, as did John Clare. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical discoveries while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote that "I have walked myself into my best thoughts."

In an age when time is precious, walking has become a luxury. But of course it is among the earliest human desires (one-year-olds cannot stop). It is no surprise that pilgrims travelled on foot, and still do. The body purges the mind, and its primal contact with the ground reminds the pilgrim that we are dust. A few years ago the Chinese talked of building a road around Mount Kailash in Tibet: a mountain too sacred ever to have been climbed. In the end the idea of a pilgrimage by car was so bizarre that even the Chinese began to relent.

To walk in the world's poorer countries is to enter the orbit of their inhabitants. An attachment to the earth—to the vital soil or rock underfoot—is still the lot of most of the world's population. I have walked most happily in small countries—Cyprus, Lebanon, Kyrgystan—where the regional changes are close and intimate. The footpaths and goat-tracks thread a network of sites—villages, fields, wells—whose genesis belongs to a time before tarmac. Sometimes they give you the pleasing sense of walking through the ancient character of the land. Shorn of the steel straitjacket of aeroplane or car, this might be called "deep travelling" if only your feet were less transient on the track.

 

Emma Duncan

Cycling

Transport is a subtly political business. Left-wingers like trains (central planning, low fuel consumption, largely egalitarian seating). Right-wingers like cars (freedom, independence, individualism). Only the bicycle crosses the political divide: it embodies both liberty and equality.

When cycling took off in Britain at the end of the 19th century, H.G. Wells explored its liberating power in a novel, "The Wheels of Chance". He saw that by allowing the working classes to move around the country for work and for fun, the bicycle would lead to social as well as physical mobility. "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle," he wrote, "I no longer despair for the future of the human race." In poor countries these days, just as in Britain then, billions of people who would be trapped in their villages enjoy the freedom that the bicycle confers to pedal around the town or countryside—to buy, sell, learn and love.

Even in rich countries, the cyclist has a greater liberty than any other traveller. She cruises up alongside traffic jams, as drivers fume. When the road is closed and screeching cars make angry U-turns, the cyclist picks up her bicycle, smugly wheels it along the pavement under the impotent glare of policemen, and nips back onto the road when their backs are turned. Visiting friends in the countryside, she hauls her bike onto the train and pedals off at the other end, along paths, through woods and up mountains. If either she or her bike is the worse for wear, most taxi-drivers, asked nicely, will carry them both home, where the bike may be tethered to the railings, left in the garage or parked in the hall.

At the same time, cycling is a great equaliser. Other types of traveller can, if they spend enough, set themselves apart from their fellows. Train-lovers can take the Orient Express; drivers splash out on slick sports cars; a private jet allows air travellers to avoid the hell of the airport terminal. But cyclists are all on a level; all have to meet each other's eyes. Even the priciest bike cannot make cycling glamorous. However much a cyclist spends, he will still look faintly ridiculous—crouched over the handlebars, pedalling furiously, weaving round obstacles, determined to get somewhere, rather as man travels through life.

 

Richard Holmes

Ballooning

In somnolent late middle-age, I've become crazy about hot-air balloons. Gazing at their stately shapes from my study window in Norfolk, as they float at dusk over the beech trees down the line of the River Yare valley, fills me with pleasure and longing. My heart leaps up when I behold a dragon in the sky.

Actually travelling aboard them I find little short of a visionary experience. In the words of Jacques-Alexandre Charles, who took off in the first-ever man-carrying hydrogen balloon from Paris on December 1st 1783, "Nothing can ever match the sensation of euphoria that filled my whole body as we made our ascent. I felt that the Earth and all its troubles were silently dropping away…"

Of course there's a reasonable view that balloon travel is insane. Balloons are brilliant at departures, but useless at arrivals. What the earliest 18th-century balloonists discovered was that they could always leave A, but never—despite endless experiments with wings, oars, airscrews, silken paddles—be sure of arriving at B. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

It's not that they couldn't travel remarkable distances, from A to X, as it were. In 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and an American, John Jeffries, ballooned 35 miles across the English Channel from Dover to Calais. Though of course not actually arriving at Calais, but in an unknown wood, having abandoned everything to avoid drowning on the way. They departed in fur coats and arrived in underwear (an experience, I'm told, common for Ryanair passengers).

Balloon fact and balloon fiction are inextricably entwined, another reason for this enduring charm. In 1870-71, 67 airmail balloons escaped the Prussian siege of Paris, the first carrying a letter of complaint to the Times, the last landing with three mailbags on a snowy mountainside in Norway. They delivered 2.5m letters, keeping the morale of the besieged population alive. This is largely fact.

Seven years before, three Englishmen ballooned from Zanzibar to Senegal, overflying an erupting volcano and being attacked by condors on the way. This is fiction: Jules Verne's "Cinq Semaines en Ballon".

My own best balloon moments float similarly between factual and fictional travel. I can never be sure they really happened. They include flying over Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, Australia, and trying to land on the front lawn of the National Parliament, until waved off by a security attendant—"you can't park here, mate." Or joining the Mass Dawn Ascent at Albuquerque, New Mexico, alongside 400 other hot-air balloons, and gently (but surely fatally) colliding with another balloon at 1,000 feet. As we bounced apart, in dreamlike slow-motion, it revolved, revealing its name: "Jesus Saves". And He did.

How can I explain this? Probably I'm experiencing a sort of second childhood. I remember seeing Albert Lamorisse's miraculous film "The Red Balloon" when I was nine. I identified with the small boy carried away over the Paris rooftops by a multi-coloured cluster of helium balloons, to some heavenly destination X in the clouds. Perhaps I still do.

 

Joanna Kavenna

Overland skiing

The setting is Oslo, the Nordmarka forest, a wilderness which begins at the city’s edge and stretches for hundreds of miles, towards the great mountain ranges of the interior. The land is bleached, smothered in snow; you can scarcely remember the smell of grass. The air is so cold that it hurts when you breathe. This should oppress you but instead it makes you feel intensely alert, hyper-aware of the mechanics of being alive. The deep blue sky is like a painting that never ends, dreamlike, mysterious. Far below, Oslofjord glitters between the trees. In the stillness every sound is amplified: the thud of snow falling from the branches, the slur of your skis on the frozen ground. You are not quite walking, not quite sliding; you are moving jerkily, like a figure in an old clock in a forgotten Bavarian town. You are slightly lost, because all the tracks look the same, and anyway it seems somehow absurd to cling to fleeting notions of route or purpose. There is no one around; the forest has swallowed them. You ski for hours, nothing changes, you wonder if you have gone back in time.

The great Norwegian explorer, statesman and polymath Fridtjof Nansen said, "It is better to go skiing and think of God, than go to church and think of sport." The experience is simultaneously beautiful and terrible; a glimpse, perhaps, of the sublime, in the Romantic sense of the word. If it wasn’t so cold and wet on the ground, you would be on your knees before it all, worshipping, sounding paeans to some forgotten deityHumbaba of the forests, the oak god Thor.

Your thoughts become non-consecutive, your unconscious imprints itself on the blankness, you move in a trance, like a pacifist beserker. After hours, years, great ages, you finally stop. The sky is pink, a silver moon is rising. You are cross-eyed with exhaustion, and yet you already knowtomorrow you will return.

 

Jonathan Raban

Sailing

If you truly want to arrive somewhere, and experience the place in its most elemental aspect, go there by sea. If the pilot book describes the approach as "tricky", so much the better. From seaward, the outer entrance buoy is easily gained: you get the sails down and study the water ahead—a lakelike space, dotted here and there with more buoys, if you're lucky, or withies (willow sticks) if you're not. The waiting town shows as an irregular stain on the haze in the distance.

Moving cautiously at half-speed on the rising tide, you commit yourself to a channel that loops and winds through the invisible, ever-shifting banks of sand or mud. Not a marker can be missed, and you must constantly look back over your shoulder to make sure the boat isn't being driven into the shallows by the current. As the tide roils through the markers, long, woven braids of water stream from withies and buoy-chains, so you can see exactly its strength and direction (which is often straight across the course of the channel). The grinding crunch of sand under the keel, or the sudden skyward tilt of the bow as the boat grounds on soft mud, is not a fatal mishap so long as the tide stays on the rise. You can terrorise yourself with too many glances at the depth-sounder.

Meanwhile the town travels to and fro across the horizon, slowly revealing itself from new angles. Smudges become explicit: that grain elevator above a dock; the cooling tower; radio masts; a statue on a plinth; a spire, its church hidden by the white façade of a hotel with golden-section windows. Still barely daring to breathe, you round the final bend in the channel.

The more anxious the approach, the sharper the imprint it will leave on the memory. I've only visited Wexford, for instance, once in my life and long ago, and I was in a funk all the way; the reward is that every detail of its serpentine harbour entrance is permanently seared inside my skull. Working your passage up-channel with extreme watchfulness, you earn a place in the landscape: you are not an idle tourist here.

It's almost high water now, and the town is afloat on its brimming reflections. There's a vacant space on the wharf. As you go ashore with the ropes, your conceited sense of accomplishment is tempered by the thought of just how many others, coming home from the sea, have been this way before.

 

Oliver August

Taking the bus

To cross an African border in a hurry, take a bus. Taxis or lorries will be fleeced laboriously by customs, since both carry valuable cargo. Bus driver to the rescue. He is in a hurry, and may not seem very friendly. But he can’t leave passengers behind, and as a regular on the border he knows how to squeeze them through.

Though they’ve a reputation for being slow, some buses may actually travel too fast. I have seen Africans get off and wait by the side of a dusty road for a few minutes, calmly idle, before walking on to their final destination: to let their spirits catch up, I’m told.

Most people travel in the hope of unexpected vistas and entertaining company. Nowhere better than a bus. Encounters are unhurried and the views unmatched. Travelling from Accra to Lagos I was seated between a fast-talking evangelist and a modern-day concubine. Behind us were a politician, a reformed thief and a young widow. The driver worked as a voodoo priest on his days off. We sat high above other traffic, comparing notes on our faiths.

In rough parts of the world a bus can be a haven. Kenya’s north is troubled, but cocooned among the penniless I crossed it without fearing the highwaymen. There may be a price to pay. The seats can be narrow and hard. In Zimbabwe I rode from the capital to the border with Botswana in a minivan with 27 others. I decided to get off there rather than carry on to Namibia. Still, I envied them. As I got out, the smell of lunch-boxes mingled with the breeze coming through the open door, like a messenger from a land beyond the road, carrying dry grass and rain yet to fall.

In Tanzania, I took a bus from Dar es Salaam to the border with Zambia, travelling 1,000 kilometres in a single day. It reminded me of an African proverb: "To go fast, go alone, but to go far, go together."

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