Skip Flying (Even Without Volcano Fears) And Really See The World

Train entering a Circum-Baikal tunnel west of ...
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Loved this op-ed in The New York Times:

Airplanes are a means of ignoring the spaces in between your point of origin and your destination. By contrast, a surface journey allows you to look out on those spaces — at eye level and on a human scale, not peering down through breaks in the clouds from 35,000 feet above — from the observation car of a rolling train or the deck of a gently bobbing ship. Surface transport can be contemplative, picturesque and even enchanting in a way that air travel never will be.

My girlfriend and I recently set out to circumnavigate the globe without the aid of any aircraft. Along the way, we took the Trans-Siberian Railway across the wilds of Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok, and drove a car through the empty doomlands of the Australian outback. These journeys take less than half a day if you go by plane. Each lasts nearly a week when you stick to the ground. But taking to the air means simply boarding, enduring the flight and getting off at another airport. Going our way meant sharing bread and cheese with kindly Russians in a shared train cabin, and drinking beers with Australian jackaroos (we’d call them cowboys) at a lonely desert roadhouse. These are warm, vivid memories that will stay with us forever.

Think of the trans-Atlantic flights you may have taken. Do you remember anything about them? (Turbulence, bad in-flight movies and screaming children don’t count.) Because flying is an empty, soulless way to traverse the planet, the best flights are in fact the ones you forget immediately after hitting the tarmac.

Now, imagine floating across the Atlantic on a ship. Do you think you might enjoy those days of transit — the joys of a starry night in the middle of the ocean, or a round of drinks with new friends as you look out across the stern railing at the glimmering water — and hold them in your memories well after your vessel made landfall?

Fellow True Slant writer D.D. Cook wrote, back in January, about  his cross-country train trip.

I’m pretty evangelical about travel — my Mom and I share the fantasy of true wealth being a deep drawer filled with pre-chosen tickets to places we haven’t even thought of into which you’d dip your bored hand, then go! — and especially about non-airplane locomotion. I love trains. My Dad loves buses. I once dragged my horrified high-end sweetie onto a series of buses in Mexico (we all know how horrid much bus service is in the U.S.) and showed him the deluxe travel, complete with movies and clean comfortable seats, first-class carriers offer there.

(Although, and we have a the photo to prove it, we were less amused when each bus showed a video, sort of like pre-flight announcements on a plane, showed a bus rolling over and crashing and telling us what to do. Hmmm, pray?!)

I recall most of my non-flying moments vividly:

A 2.5 hours bobbing under a blazing sun traveling by boat from southern Thailand to Ko Phi Phi, tropical paradise.

Five fragrant days traveling across northern Corsica on a mo-ped — inhaling the smells of sun-warmed maquis — which I wrote about for The Wall Street Journal.

Gabi and me jumping into the back of a pickup truck in Jaji, Venezuela to attend a local dance, so high in the mountains we were literally shrouded by the occasional cloud.

Eight days in a truck with Pierre, the French trucker who spoke no English and let me share his cab from Perpignan to Istanbul, no showers along the way; cops confiscated my film in Bulgaria and thieves siphoned gas from the tank while we slept in the cab in (what was then still) Yugoslavia.

What has been your best non-airplane journey?

17 thoughts on “Skip Flying (Even Without Volcano Fears) And Really See The World

  1. geekysarah

    Probably my favorite non-plane trip was traveling down the length of Japan on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Himeji-jo (Himeji Castle not too far from Kyoto). The best part of that train ride was the socialization. A friend of my family, Ryoko-obachan, was traveling back down to Kobe from Tokyo on the same Shinkansen. It was the first time I’d seen her in her native country, and it was fun. She speaks English well, and I like to think I’m not too shabby at Japanese, so we spent the ~2 hour trip talking and sharing side dishes from the bento boxes we had purchased from the Shinjuku kiosk.

    The defining moment from that train ride came when she pointed out the window and asked me what I saw through the fog. At that exact moment, I saw Mt. Fuji rising up through the mist with the sun behind it on a beautiful July day. I still have the picture I took, and I look at it occasionally. Makes me want to count down the days till I can take that train again.

  2. Ethan Epstein

    The funny thing is – you and Stevenson seem to forget that there is an entire class of people who actually enjoy flying, and see it as a highlight of their travels.

    I’m one of them. (We mostly gather here:

    Stevenson speaks in absolutist terms – flying is “soulless” – without even considering that there are other people who don’t see things that way.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    Sarah, what a cool memory. As someone who loves Japanese art and design, I look forward to the day I finally visit the country. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Ethan, flying can be very pleasant if: 1) you have plenty of legroom 2) a decent hot meal or several 3) great in-flight service….most of which are pretty unlikely unless you’re flying business or first class (very costly.) I love to travel and count the minutes until I do it again, but too often the actual flight is a freaking nightmare. I love planes and pilots and the smell of jet fuel. I remember very well how terrific it was to fly when I was younger, even a transatlantic British Airways flight on Christmas Eve with decorations in the cabin. But today? Hah.

    I will happily and lavishly praise Open Skies for the single best flight of my life, NY to Paris. It far exceeded every previous measure (and there aren’t many when you fly economy) I had experienced.

    I know Tyler Brule loves ANA and others enjoy Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. I’m happy to hear any and all recommendations you want to make.

  5. citifieddoug

    I’m with you, trains are great for travel, at least where they run. They’re not as good where they don’t.

    Buses in much of Latin America are great fun but you’ll want your affairs in order. They don’t tend to brake for s-curves or oncoming traffic.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    Doug, I lived in Mexico and have traveled in Latin America so know this drill. You do have to pray a lot — they also don’t have guard-rails on most (any?) roads and it’s a long, long way down — where you can always admire the rusted hulks of the ones that didn’t make it. Who needs roller coasters?

  7. Colin Horgan

    I also love trains – think the best one I took was from Venice to Zurich, up through the Alps… it was late April, sun was shining and all the alpine meadows, lakes, and chalets looked extra tantalizing. Unfortunately, I was due to make a flight from Zurich to London (speaking of planes), so I couldn’t get out and enjoy it.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    Colin, that sounds gorgeous — I haven’t yet made it to Switzerland. My favorite train trip (for sheer weirdness) was overnight from Paris to Copenhagen…the train goes inside a ferry (!) and you wake up in Scandinavia.

  9. john

    When I was younger I lived in Istanbul and Prague. From Istanbul, cruises south along the Aegean Sea and Med are simply stunning. So one of my favorite non-plane trips is any sort of boat from Istanbul to say a place like Bodrum. From Prague, I recall many train trips to throughout Europe, but my favorite has to be the line between Prague and Vienna. It’s not as sexy as say riding the ICE Trains flying all over germany, but it’s quaint in its own way and thus kind of romantic to me. I can never stop staring out the window you see, watching the world go bye.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    Yum! Loved Istanbul so much and have been dying to return ever since my very brief 3 day visit — the end point of my French trucker odyssey. I have a huge desire to sail aboard a gulet and swim the coasts of Turkey where there are so many ancient artifacts in the water.

    I have not been to Prague and would love to re-visit Vienna, so you’ve inspired me to build in that journey.

  11. john

    If you got yourself to Prague and did the trip to Vienna, well then you’re all set. There are many ways to get to Istanbul by train from there and all are far more comfortable than your trip with Pierre. I spent roughly 15 months in the city and I have to say it was one of the times of my life. The sailing would be amazing as soon as you got a little south. From Ephesus to Bodrum would take me years. I’m not sure I would ever leave if I got back to that part of the world.

  12. Caitlin Kelly

    Ah, but my trip with Pierre remains one of the best adventures (no, not in the French sense of the word!) of my life. He was a lovely man, with a truck full of great music, and somehow didn’t mind the huge clouds of feathers that erupted every time I moved inside my crappy little sleeping bag. We had a blast.

    I feel the way you do about the Turkish coast about Corsica. I want to live there and I cried so hard when the plane flew back to Nice the poor flight attendant thought I was having a heart attack or something. Few places have so touched me as Corsica.

  13. When I was a kid, we went places like the Grand Canyon, Alaska, Washington DC, and even England. Of course we had to fly to get to the UK, but once we were there, and on all the other trips, we drove to and from. I’ll never forget the side trips and the scenery. It’s just not the same in a plane. To this day, I hate flying because you just can’t see anything, and if you do, you can’t stop to get out and take a closer look.

  14. Caitlin Kelly

    Road trips are one of my favorite things. I’ve gone from Montreal to Charleston, which was a haul, but a lot of fun. If you’ve never driven across the Great Dismal Swamp, it really suits its name…

  15. dalina

    Ferries in Washington, buses in Latin America and most recently a car ride through the Navajo Nation have all taken my breath away. As simple as they may be, they’ve allowed me to explore at a different level and talk to the people in the area and hear what that particular place means to them.

    I don’t mind flying, really. Sometimes I want to be left alone with my book or talk to the person next to me about who will be waiting for them at baggage claim. Traveling is all what you make of it I guess.

  16. Caitlin Kelly

    Those LatAm buses are really a trip in themselves. I was told, when we lived in Mexico, that there were usually two drivers — so if there was an accident, the first could head for the hills and the second one take over.

    I’ve flown alone so many times I think I prefer other modes of travel when possible. Turbulence reduces me to shreds.

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