Nearly four months and more than 20,000km into our trip, we know we are in the middle of an incredible adventure. We’ve braved tumultuous storms on a ferry from the UK to Spain in the Bay of Biscay, which the Spanish newspapers wrote up under the headline—a quote from a fellow passenger—“I thought my time had come!” We’ve skimmed across the frozen surface of the stunning Lake Baikal in Russia in a hovercraft, ridden on camels in Mongolia and cycled through the streets of Amsterdam.
And we’ve undertaken last- minute detours overland through the Baltic Republics when we realized we didn’t have transit visas for Belarus. Which was infinitely preferable to negotiating with grim-faced border guards in the dead of night.
All this, as part of our “Around the World in Eighty Ways” challenge. Much of this would have been missed if we’d flown and, if you like, this is the real cost of flying—the loss of rich experience.
The word slow has a bad press. In our big, shiny, speedy world, slow is the poor, hick country cousin of cool urban metropolitan fast. But things are beginning to change. In the context of cuisine, for instance, the fast food backlash on waists— and waste—has seen the birth of the slow-food movement, promoting taste over haste, less-intensive agriculture and local food production.
Might a slow travel revolution mimic this trend? In March this year, I set off with my partner Fiona to find out. We are on a 12-month slow, low-carbon travel circumnavigation of the globe without flying.
The increasing threat of climate change indicates that bunny-hopping around the world in an aluminium sausage might not be the best or most sensible way to travel. Not only because of flying’s planet-stewing slew of carbon emissions, but also because of what you miss. If slow food is about savouring the flavour and celebrating the time and effort of quality food production, slow travel is about the whole experience—enjoying the transition of landscape, culture, people and language while travelling through the world, rather than simply over it. In the Taoist sense, the journey, quite literally, “is the reward”.
We certainly haven’t missed the tarnished “glamour” of flying. The cattle truck treatment of budget airlines, the threat of deep vein thrombosis and the nature of the gourmet aircraft meal experience hardly conjure up an air of aspiration. Add to that the grim commercial gauntlet of functional but soulless grey metal and glass airports, the creeping spectre of terrorism and the climate havoc being wreaked on a burgeoning scale by the associated carbon emissions, and it’s hard to see the appeal of holiday aviation. The flying emperor has patently mislaid his clothes.
But it’s not really about being anti-flying, it’s more about being pro the alternatives. Slow travel is not necessarily for those whose idea of a vacation is to slump on a beach. It can be hard, stressful and you need to be prepared for the unexpected. That said, the challenges, vibrancy and full technicolour experience of slow travel are what is so often lost in the blur of travelling fast.
We’ve lived through every inch of our journey across Eurasia, gaining a real sense of place and our progress throughout, not merely gazing down through the clouds at the landscape below from 50,000ft. We’re proud to be labelled “slow” and perhaps, the trend for travelling ever further and faster is not entirely against us. With the recent retirement of Concorde, for the first time in history, commercial air travel just got slower.
Russia: Jet lag on a train
The grandaddy of slow travel is undoubtedly the Trans-Siberian Express. The full mission takes more than a week, passes through seven time zones and traverses 9,000km of spectacular Russian landscape. It’s probably the only train journey in the world on which you can actually get jet lag. We didn’t quite manage the whole trip, only doing four nights on the train between Moscow and Irkutsk in Siberia, but there is definitely something rather wonderful about a prolonged train journey of this duration.
For starters, you have time to build up a rapport with your fellow passengers. The Trans-Siberian is all about sharing food, experiences and, of course, alcohol. We befriended the neighbours from the next compartment, two retired Finnish gentlemen—Seppi and Peppi—who spent most of the time in a benign cognac haze. We ventured out onto the platforms at station stops across Russia to buy tasty goodies and (very) cold beer from local babushkas (old ladies). Pirozhki (a sort of fried dumpling), smoked fish and a huge variety of potato-based products complemented the vodka we’d brought with us. The long winter evenings just flew by.
As the train rolls through birch forest, the pines of Siberian taiga, across vast rivers and between mountains, you get to delight in the exchange of travel stories, spirits and snacks with your comrades. After four days of travel you also need a shower. You can either pay extra for this privilege—or do as we did and fashion a reasonably effective device from an empty plastic bottle and douse yourself in the toilet.
You can also while away the time on a journey of this length by practising your Russian—a sure-fire way to entertain the locals—exploring the train, reviewing the different classes of carriage and sampling the delights of the buffet car. Of course, there are faster ways to cover the distance, but I can guarantee none is so visually appealing, socially and culturally revealing or downright pickled (by vodka).
Another advantage is the imposed isolation from our “always connected” communications world. For four days, you cannot check email, get online or be in contact with home, and this can be a liberating experience. Not everyone deals with this in the same way. Seppi mourned the fact that he was missing his old cat; “sometimes the love of an old cat is better than the love of an old woman,” he said. “But an 18-year-old woman on your chest is better than an 18-year-old cat!” Indeed.
Mongolia: My Humvee for your Russian van
The Mongolians could claim to have invented slow travel. The lack of any surfaced road across the vast majority of the country means journeys are inevitably conducted at a sedate pace. Until recently, most of the population relied on horses and camels. Though that is beginning to change, when the roads run out, one is still offered a bewildering choice of rutted dirt tracks that scratch across the landscape like crazy calligraphy.
Mongolian drivers seem to instinctively know their route. GPS merely serves to confuse them, encouraging them to take direct routes from A to B, via inconvenient mountain ranges. We met one German-Mongolian couple driving with the woman’s father, who’d been a truck driver 15 years ago. His chosen route, somewhat archaic, resulted in no less than four punctures in two hours; the rough, unused track was punishing and unforgiving even by Mongolian standards.
To the cruel vagaries of the road surface, add suicidal sheep (we only ran over one, but it was a rather brutal collision) and Mongolian dogs, which try and chew the wheels off the van at speed, and it makes for a challenging journey.
Apart from route knowledge, the van should also be a basic Russian vehicle as opposed to a swank American jeep. This is for the simple reason that Russian vans can be repaired with anything you can find at hand whereas it’s hard to reprogram a faulty engine microchip in the middle of the Gobi desert. This brings to mind the apocryphal story of the multimillion dollar US “Space Pen” research programme to develop a writing device that could work in zero gravity, underwater and in the most extreme conditions. The Russians apparently used pencils.
Travelling in Mongolia requires effort, but is paid back in spades by the wild, wondrous and wholly unspoilt beauty of the countryside. Cool alpine forests, mystical frozen lakes, windswept desert plateaux, rugged rocky mountains and the historical remnants of the biggest continuous land empire the world has ever known make for a compelling travel experience. It is an enormous country with an incredibly low population density and this is its appeal.
China: Culture trip on a train
Like India, China has an extremely extensive and effective railway system. At any given moment in time, so legend has it, there are around 10 million Chinese people on a train. An impressive feat, given that many smaller countries struggle to transport even a small fraction of this figure. Then again, one thing China isn’t short of is passengers.
Booking and buying train tickets can seem a little daunting at first due to the obvious linguistic barriers. But the Chinese are always willing to help and spend time assisting inept tourists. The curiosity and intrigue in laowai (foreigners) from your fellow passengers mean they will happily stare at you for hours, watching your every move with a mixture of horror and fascination.
It is the profound cultural differences that make travelling in China amongst the Chinese so interesting. Writing in the Roman alphabet attracts major attention. When scribbling in my diary on trains, I would regularly attract a crowd of onlookers, in much the same way a Chinese calligraphist would outside China. They are also keen to find out where you’re from and, most importantly, what you are eating, food being such a vital component of Chinese life.
The food on Chinese trains is brilliant. An almost constant stream of trolleys plies the corridors with trays of freshly cooked noodles or hot box lunches to tempt you with their delicious smells. This is all part of the entrepreneurial culture unleashed by the opening up of the Chinese economy. Even the train staff get involved. On one journey, the guard appeared with a basket of socks and gave what we assumed to be an extremely polished sales pitch in Chinese. His “indestructo-socks”, made from a weird material, were indeed impressive. He raked them with a metal brush, burned them with a cigarette lighter and swung his whole weight on one from the luggage rack above. Then, he punched the tickets.
Despite the incredible distances, you can traverse from one side of China to the other in a little over 24 hours, Chinese trains run with phenomenal punctuality. You can, more or less, set your watch by them and, despite recent improvements in air safety, it still feels a lot safer on a train than a plane.
Japan: Go slow at 400kmph
Perhaps the pinnacle of the modern world’s slow travel experience, Japan offers an almost unbelievable level of incongruous speed and efficiency. Shinkansen “Bullet” trains streak through the beautiful green mountains and cities of the Land of the Rising Sun at speeds approaching a bewildering 400kmph. Okay, so it’s not exactly “slow” travel at that kind of velocity, but it’s still better environmentally than getting on a plane. The track is so smooth you could almost be flying anyway.
After the informal chaos of Mongolia and the in-your-face directness of the Chinese, the deferential respect culture of Japan comes as a not altogether unpleasant surprise. As attendants walk through the train, they bow on entering and leaving each carriage; if you’ve bought an incorrect ticket on the metro, the staff are almost apologetic—in contrast to the brusque interrogation you might receive in Russia.
Japan is also well served by ferries from China, South Korea and Russia, and travel by sea is also invariably cheaper than by plane. I took ferries across the East China Sea from Tianjin to Kobe and then back to Shanghai via Osaka. Compared with the stormy ferry journey in Europe, these were pond-like voyages, the calm waters glassy and clear under violent blue skies as we passed through picturesque archipelagos of rocky green islets.
The other delight of travel in Japan lies in the vending machines. No country on earth does modern sophistication like the Japanese and the vending machine culture represents the peak of this innovation. Icy cold or piping hot drinks and tasty snacks are available 24x7 wherever you go, so you need never be hungry or thirsty as long as you have small change in your pocket.
Everything works in Japan and even the toilets have to be seen to be believed. The Japanese have turned their technological skills to that most basic of human functions. Loos have inbuilt bidet and warm-air bum-driers that lead to intriguing (and often surprising) experiences for foreigners when first confronted with the complicated electronic control panels (in Japanese). Slow travel in Japan isn’t cheap, but it’s definitely classy and clean.
(Ed Gillespie is the creative director and co-founder of the London-based Futerra Sustainability Communications. His partner Fiona also works in communications/PR in the UK charity sector.)
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