Saturday, March 5, 2011

The journey

'No man is an Iland,' wrote the metaphysical, can't-spell-for-toffee poet John Donne.

Taiwan is an island though, and sounds a bit like 'no man' if you're deaf and have a speech impediment and are mad, so this unfortunately required me to break my 'sacred' 'no flights' 'rule' to get in and out of the ROC. A self-imposed principle that I've previously upheld to the letter, only breaking it in the rarest and direst of circumstances as you'll see here and here. Oh, and here. And here.

I'm the Captain Kirk of the East; disregarding sensible precautions where'er I visit and corrupting their women. I also have ace sideburns.

But even when I took flights rather than other, better, greener, more interesting forms of transport, it was always as a last resort - either due to distance, border restrictions or simply a lack of alternatives. But now that I'm back on the mighty Eurasiafrican continent, and country boundaries are mostly political rather than geological, I have the opportunity to travel more authentically, experience the changing landscape and pay ridiculously cheap local prices. Flying is rubbish.

Here are some of the most notable journeys I've made so far.

Italy to Greece by ferry

This is why I used the word 'notable' rather than 'favourite,' as this really wasn't that enjoyable. I even wrote a fatigued and uncharacteristically angry memo in my notebook, amidst the maps and ill-fated attempts to learn Greek, stating: 'FERRIES ARE ANNOYING. SPENDING MORE THAN 24 HOURS TRAVELLING IS SHIT.'

The ferry was annoying, but that was all down to my fellow passengers - hogging every available space (more than they physically required) with their sleeping bags and too-much-stuff. Almost like it was an omen of the excellent treatment I could expect in Greece, which won't be showing up in any top 10 lists I compile out of boredom/nostalgia when I have enough material.

But when land was ho and I visualised the satellite image in my head of the two countries and the gulf I'd just crossed (having already conquered Italy by train), it felt good. It really felt like a journey. Albeit one that was marginally less comfortable than it would have been on those tightly-packed 18th century slave ships - now there were some guys who respected the economy of space-saving! (If I meant all the offensive things I wrote in this blog, I would gladly shoot myself).

Israel to Egypt by minibus

Road sign gives up in Israel

Apart from the major delays, devious drivers, a tense border crossing and a painfully potholed Egyptian side of the drive (switching off the lights so we could get some sleep was a thoughtful but futile gesture), this was a pretty enjoyable journey through the desert. The wide-eyed boy from Crewe had never seen desert before, and it was a moving experience. Literally.

Into Giza by camel

One of the most unashamedly tourist activities I've indulged in (along with the hot air balloon ride), the camel ride into the Giza Necropolis was worth every frustratingly haggled Egyptian pound.

Okay, the animal probably didn't enjoy it much, but seeing Khafra's Pyramid slowly fade into view was a defining experience. The ride wasn't even uncomfortable, and the mysogynyous guide was pretty funny (that guy shouldn't be allowed one wife, let alone four).

Down the Nile (and up again) by train

Ancient Egyptian civilisation naturally flourished along the fertile banks of the Nile, so it's incredibly easy to pass through many of the country's most fascinating historical sites simply by taking the local trains that head south down the east bank, mostly right alongside the surprisingly narrow river, and getting off at the conveniently English- and Arabic-labelled stops.

So why do so many people still shell out for expensive coach tours - travelling up and down the country in the same luxury as a first class local train coach, but for (probably) many, many times the price?

I see you, in your matching yellow baseball caps, following the smiling tour guide with the flag (of course he's smiling, he's got a coachload of suckers for the week), sacrificing any shred of independence or control over your own holiday by letting some company hold your hand through every sanitised experience, just so you don't have to deal with Arabs. I hate you! Even though you are, at best, exaggerated and at worst libellously misrepresented people just trying to enjoy a holiday without the hassle.

My real point is that it really isn't tough to get around Egypt on your own wits, and you'll save a fortune. (Though if you're a woman travelling alone, it can unfortunately be a different story). The best part was when we approached Luxor at night and I couldn't work out what the eerie thing I was looking at in the distance was - it turned out to be the Valley of the Kings illuminated in green, but could have just as easily been the evil lair of Mumm-Ra or something.

Thai trains

I've only made a few journeys on the Southern Line so far, but I've been totally impressed by Thailand's railway system - even if they could teach the Italians a thing or two about delays.

Not only is the scenery great (it promises to be even better when I hit the Jungle Railway - wow! The wide-eyed boy from Crewe has never seen jungle before), but if the prices were any cheaper, the State Railway would be paying you to travel.

Tuk tuk ride in Bangkok.

The driver had some 'interesting' ideas for diversions that definitely weren't for me - but if you're perverted and enjoy funding the mistreatment and trafficking of poor women, go for it

Of course, while trains, buses and boats are the acceptable options for long-distance journeys, I get even stricter when it comes to local trips, and only use metros, buses or taxis under time pressure, or if the blisters on my feet have become just a bit too painful to manage the five-mile walk back to the hostel. I don't get a feel for a place unless I've spent a couple of days getting lost, but now I could happily return to pretty much any place I've been with a working knowledge of how to get around. Except the streets of Cairo, which were built on some sort of space-time schism and defy all reason.

Now I'm on the mainland and spoiled for choice with land and sea border crossings, I'm looking forward to experiencing every centimetre of my journey (sleeper trains excepted), without the cheating spatial displacement of a flight. Well, at least until I get infatuated with a girl from Japan or Fiji or something and follow her home, but when has that sort of thing ever happened before?

Hmm... I'd better book the flights now, just in case there's a discount.


  1. What is it about John Donne at the moment? First no one in the world ever mentions him in their whole lives, now you and the last two books I've read talk about him. What's going on?

  2. Why are the last three books I read all coincidentally about rabbits (ro some degree)? In the Chinese Year of the Rabbit?? What's going on???