As a, shall we say, ‘seasoned ‘ traveller, I am well aware that leaving the comfort of your living room to explore the highways and byways of Planet Earth can be a double-edged sword.
As well as the usual accoutrements – passport, camera, doorstop novels, iPod, sunblock etc – you also need to equip yourself mentally for the hazards of the road – misdirected luggage, seemingly interminable waits in airport departure lounges, the joint-wracking tedium of long-haul flights, nit-picking foreign bureaucracy – and all of that just to get you to the point where you are set to emerge from the belly of the Arrivals whale into a totally new culture, climate and time-zone, where the hard facts in your guidebook suddenly start to look like inspired guesses.
Travel, particularly long-haul travel, requires the assumption of a particular mindset, where you steel yourself for the process and hope to arrive at your destination with your faculties and luggage in reasonably good order. If you do, then you can take a deep breath before launching yourself on to the next stage of your travels.
These days, of course, it’s a damned sight easier than it used to be – in principle anyway. I noticed this on my recent trip to India. What had seemed – back in 1989 when I first went there – like a huge adventure, was now just over half a day of tedium between Birmingham and Kochi, enlivened by the excellent service provided by Emirates’ flight crews and spritzed up with a two-hour stopover in the retail Eden of Dubai’s airport. First time out, I flew with Pan American and lived every long minute from Heathrow to Delhi, this time I flew from my local airport – just a 25-minute cab-ride away – and needed only concern myself with which of 170 movies to watch first as Europe unravelled some 37,000 feet below.
Part of this is obviously down to the fact that I have, over the years, spent an unfeasible amount of time on aeroplanes, whizzing off to far-flung parts of the globe – most recently to Kochi. It’s sobering to reflect that when there, we were treading in the footsteps of Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese navigator who pioneered the sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope. His first voyage to what is now the modern Indian state of Kerala took nearly 11 months and we had done the same journey (albeit by a more direct route) in around 14 hours.
Vasco da Gama: now there was a proper traveller
We all know how it goes; first of all there was exploration, closely followed by adventure. Once things had calmed down a bit, there was travel, but these days, there’s just tourism. Even worse, the post-Uni ‘Gap Yah’ trail staggers off via the Full Moon Beach Parties of Thailand, tubes down the river in Vang Vieng in Laos before collapsing into the fleshpots of Queensland’s Gold Coast. It’s so heavily frequented these days that they might just as well put up those blue motorway signs (sponsored by Facebook) directing British youth to their next chundering session. It’s a miracle some of them can remember anything of their travels at all.
The world has shrunk, it seems, due in no small part to the internet. Before we flew to Kochi, I was able to plot our onward journey from this very keyboard. The flights were booked, the train timetable from Aluva to Alleppey consulted, the hotel in Alleppey was booked and a deposit paid in advance, possibilities for other hotels in Fort Cochin later in the trip duly noted. I was able to look at videos of a kettuvallam houseboat on YouTube, review a selection of possible day-trips we could take once we got to Fort Cochin and read up-to-date reviews of most of Alleppey’s restaurants. It was almost like being there, except without being there, if you know what I mean.
The ladies at the Poste Restante in Cairo
There’s enough of the romantic buried inside me somewhere to deplore all this. Inside me, a small and ever-diminishing voice can faintly be heard crying out that this is all wrong and that it was all a lot more fun when you just turned up and invented your itinerary on the fly. The voice laments the days when news from home meant calling at the Post Office in a new town to see if anyone had written to you c/o Poste Restante. In Alleppey one evening, I settled down by the hotel pool and rang my Dad, who sounded as though he was sat next to me. We talked quite calmly for about 5 minutes about the weather and his garden and the cricket as though it was no big thing at all. Anyone under 40 reading that last sentence will by now probably be thinking “Yeah, so, and your point is?”
On the other hand, the ‘tour organiser’ inside me was actually grateful that I could check so much of this stuff in advance. When travelling with a couple of India ‘virgins’ like the Princess and her boyfriend, excited to be there, but also crabby and hot after the flight, creating the impression that there is actually some method in your madness is no bad thing. So, in the end, the pragmatist tends to win out over the romantic, which is sad but probably inevitable.
Hassle-free travel to and through and home from India would have sounded like a Science Fiction concept back in 1989. We still got around, jumped on and off trains and planes and saw what we wanted to, but it was often problematical and time-consuming. However, in some respects, there was a degree of serendipity that seemed to come to our aid when we were least expecting it.
We were in Jaipur, planning on returning to Delhi and then flying up to Kashmir – still accessible to western tourists in those days. The Partner had got herself embroiled in the usual carpet-buying shenanigans with a local dealer and we had to go to his shop one morning to close the deal. It was clear from the outset that this wasn’t going to be a quick process, but we had plenty of time until our bus left for Delhi in the afternoon, so what the hell….
For the first hour or more, the guy hardly mentioned carpets at all, particularly once he found out that Kashmir was next on our itinerary. It just so happened that he had some cousin/brothers up in Srinagar who owned some deluxe houseboats on Nagin Lake and he just happened to have a photo album of said houseboats taken from every conceivable vantage point, both internal and external. One quick phone call and we were not only booked in but his cousin/brothers were going to meet us from the airport and take us directly to the boat. The arrangements worked perfectly, the houseboat we stayed on (the ‘Washington’) was magnificent – everyone was happy. Part of our pleasure at all of this stemmed from the sheer implausibility of it all. The seeming chaos of India surely legislated against such happy chances, so when, against all the odds, everything panned out as smooth as silk, we could barely believe our luck. Surely the Gods of Travel were smiling down on us from on high?
Nagin Lake in Kashmir; every bit as idyllic as it looks….
Anyway, a couple of recent discoveries on the Net have made such chancing of one’s arm in the Dark Incontinent (or elsewhere) something that is unlikely to tax us for too much longer. As someone who loves travel for its own sake, I consume travel books by the likes of Paul Theroux with massive enthusiasm. I am also aware that there are many ‘great journeys’ to be taken – by road, by river, by sea, by rail and even on foot – and that for a variety of reasons, I am unlikely to take more than a fraction of them in my three-score-and-ten or however long I’ve got. I know that travelling the Pan- American Highway from Alaska to Ushaia in Patagonia is a journey I would like to do, but probably never will. I know that people follow the Pilgrim’s Way on foot to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, but I can assure you that I will not be joining them anytime soon. The Great Ocean Road in Victoria looks spectacular in the extreme, but as I have absolutely no desire to visit Australia, this is another trip I am unlikely to take.
However, the Net has now taken us to the juncture where you can take journeys like this without ever stepping out of your door. Two of the world’s most spectacular and dramatic voyages can now be experienced from your desktop.
The first one I discovered is the so-called ‘Norwegian Coastal Voyage’ from Bergen in Western Norway up the coast and across the Arctic Circle, then ’round the corner’ at North Cape and eastwards along Finnmark’s wild coast to the remote outpost of Kirkenes on the Russian border. In June of this year, the Norwegian state broadcaster, NRK, presented this trip as a continuous live feed of 134 hours, filmed largely from the bridge of M/S ‘Nordnorge’, one of the fleet of modern ships that travel this route 365 days a year.
Screenshot from NRK’s ‘Hurtigruten: minutt for minutt’
The ‘Hurtigruten’ (Express Route) ships used to be the only link to the wider world for many of the more remote communities in Norway’s Arctic north. They carried livestock, mail, food, vehicles – anything really. I have even seen a coffin loaded on board at a remote spot in northern Finnmark and just left out on the deck as though it was a bale of hay. North of Harstad, I have seen sheep offloaded from a flotilla of small rowing boats on to the ship because the island where they had spent their entire lives lacked an anchorage deep enough for the ship to get to the quay. I have been serenaded by a church choir as the ship came in to dock at Stamsund in the beautiful Lofoten Islands. The marketing spiel refers to it as ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage’ and I would find it hard to disagree, providing you get lucky with the weather.
From the 1970’s onwards, with the oil money flowing in Norway, many small communities in the North were funded by the state to build (or expand) airports to make them capable of handling medium-sized jets. That had a profound effect on the Hurtigrute’s core business and the diminishing volumes of freight sent north or south on the ships could have seen it scuppered, at least as a twice- daily (one northbound, one southbound) service, but they reinvented themselves for overseas tourists, reasoning with some justification that Norway’s craggy landscape is often best viewed from the sea. Heading north from Bergen, the ships follow the skipsleia (roughly, shipping lane) that runs along much of Norway’s west coast. This is a deep-water channel that has been used since Viking times and varies in width from about 50 metres to several miles. On the ‘landward’ side is the main coastline of Norway. To the ‘seaward’ side is a constantly shifting network of islands and skerries that shields shipping from the worst of the Atlantic storms. Only once the ships turn eastwards along the northern coast of Finnmark are they truly exposed to the wrath of the waves and the wind.
A narrow section of the ‘skipsleia’ on Norway’s west coast
Anyway, NRK chose June of this year to broadcast their live feed, mainly because the weather tends to be better then and once you start heading north in midsummer, you’re going to get 24 hour daylight. The ‘show’ was screened on Norwegian television and though there is only intermittent dialogue with presenters interviewing travellers, crew and onlookers, it was a huge and unexpected success. There are lengthy sections where the ship moves in a stately fashion through the most glorious landscapes and I have to say that it is totally mesmerising. Nothing really happens and yet it is just totally engrossing.
Having been on various Hurtigrute ships quite a few times, I can tell you that nothing can really compete with the experience of actually ‘being there’, but if you are thinking of booking a trip on the Hurtigrute or would like to get a taste of what the journey is actually like, you could do worse than dip into this stuff, which, happily is available on the Net. The following link will take you to an English-language page on the NRK website, from which point you can explore the 134 hours of archived video. Happy trails….
Even longer than the Hurtigruten stream is one put together by those awfully nice people at Google and the Russian railways. This covers another ‘iconic’ journey; this time the 5,753 mile Trans-Siberian Rail link between Moscow and Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast. The journey is presented from a single perspective – the camera points diagonally ahead out of one of the carriage windows, thereby aiming to replicate what you would see were you there yourself. The filming took place in Summer 2009, with two crews taking 30 days to cover the entire route in daylight.
A screenshot from Google’s Trans-Siberian marathon
There is no ‘natural’ soundtrack to the film, but you can opt to add in a recording of a train rattling along and passing over points from time to time or you can enhance your Trans-Siberian experience with readings from the greats of Russian literature (in Russian) , sickly balalaika music or contemporary Russian pop. Hmm…. Personally, I stuck with the train noises, though it is a bit disconcerting when the train pulls into Krasnoyarsk Station in eastern Siberia but the recording of the train noise just rattles relentlessly on.
As for the landscape, well, there were a few surprises. One is that Siberia – at least those bits close to the railway line – isn’t the empty wilderness of forest and steppe that I had imagined. There no doubt are huge tracts of virgin forest to be seen out there, but not too many of them are visible from the train. Obviously, the railway is a bit of a magnet for people in Siberia, so it’s perhaps to be expected that the settlements are more regular and frequent along the line than you might find 100 miles north or south.
The next surprise is how flat Russia is….even the Urals don’t seem terribly imposing and there are few hills of any consequence to be seen from the train.
One of the high-spots of the video is the footage shot along the southern shores of Lake Baikal, which I seem to recall is the deepest lake in the world. But there’s the thing, you see. Baikal is beautiful and they filmed it on a beautiful day, but it is (after all) just a lake. It’s like a wider version of Norway’s Hardangerfjord or Scotland’s Loch Ness. Even so, on this journey, it’s a highlight because it’s the only large stretch of open water you see; that is, except for the rivers…. Now they truly are impressive and huge; the train crosses the Amur in eastern Siberia (stupendous), the Volga (at Nizhni Novgorod, just east of Moscow – also impressive) as well as the Yenisei and the Ob. All of them make English rivers look pretty insignificant.
In the end, probably the most impressive thing about the journey is the sheer scale of Russia itself. For hour after hour, the train rattles along through a uniform landscape of trees and small settlements, periodically stopping at a larger town or city. Notable features – like Baikal or the steppes to the east of Novosibirsk – are actually quite rare – that’s what probably makes them seem more remarkable than they actually are when you finally get to see them.
Journey’s end: the magnificent exterior of Vladivostok Station
In truth, the video reveals that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Years ago, I remember taking a 20-hour train trip from Istanbul to eastern Turkey. Somewhere beyond Ankara, we began to run into an area where the principal crop was – clearly – sunflowers. Field after field of them turned their yellow faces to the train as we passed. To begin with, we were delighted; this was a crop we never saw at home, but after half an hour of pretty much unbroken sunflowers, we were bored and after another half-hour, we barely noticed them at all. The Trans-Siberian train video is like that, except to the power of at least 10.
This was one of those trips that I always thought I’d like to do, but having dipped in and out of the video for about an hour, I’m not so sure. In his epic 1965 movie ‘Dr Zhivago’, David Lean attempts to show us the vastness of Russia. In ‘Zhivago’s’ predecessor, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, he had already used the tactic of placing small figures in huge landscapes and it’s something he uses again here, showing Omar Sharif’s tragic character lost in the heart of Mother Russia as he attempts – unsuccessfully – to reconcile the conflicts set up by his love for two different women. Sharif staggers through colossal snowfields and seemingly endless forests in an effort to get home. Being the master craftsman that he was, Lean manages to invest these massive landscapes with meaning and significance but I think even he might have struggled with the footage shot from the Trans-Siberian Express.
Back in 2010, Alla Zabrovskaya, who worked on the project for Google Russia, described the Trans-Siberian route as ‘Russia’s unique calling card’. That may be the case, but I suspect that what will stay with people after the trip is over will be the sheer scale of it all, the vastness of Russia, stretching away into the East. That is, indeed, impressive, but, to be honest, the reality of the 6-day trip and the 150 hours of video is of occasional high-points punctuated by hours of tedium. Anyway, judge for yourself – here’s a link: