Head in the clouds vs. feet on the ground: best ways to travel

Anyone who knows me well, or at all, really, will attest to the fact I am a great traveller. I don’t mean to boast; I use ‘great’ in reference to the degree of my enthusiasm. I mean that I have a huge urge to be often on the move, and regularly struggle hard to keep still for extended periods of time. I relish the excitement of travel and long to just go.

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Travelling across Northwest China, 2015

I am happiest when in transit. I can be quite content to wait in an airport, sit in a bus terminal, queue in a train station for hours, and to take the cheapest flights, slowest buses, and most rickety, meandering trains, so long as I know I am going.

I have both travelled in style and, far more commonly, in the least possible style available. I have endless crazy tales about journeys: from thirty-six-hour trains through Chinese paddy fields to altitude sickness-inducing bus rides along winding roads, from cross-Europe hitchhiking to midnight mountain climbing to island-hopping on a kayak. I do have moderately insane stories of airports, including 15-hour layovers, strange dreams, overnighting on metal benches, and losing my passport in an x-ray machine to everyone’s utter discombobulation. But flying doesn’t usually make the best stories.

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Hitchhiking in Northern France, 2010

So, sitting in Hong Kong International airport as I wrote this first draft, building up my travel karma (a late flight and short layover caused me a four hour delay in getting home to my own bed, but the compensation voucher got me quiche, coffee and a chocolate brownie), I looked back over the month I have been away, and wondered at myself. Quite unheard of for me, I took 9 flights in 30 days.

I dislike flying too often. Not for the flying part itself. I relish the stomach-drop feeling of takeoff, quite like the chance to lounge around reading the Economist and watching movies, and don’t mind the lottery that is food quality of airline meals. I’m generally a lucky flier and have the patience to deal with the odd dab of misfortune. Despite the convenience, I prefer not flying when I can help it, in order to reduce my carbon footprint. But my biggest pet peeve with flying is how detaching it is. You take off in Beijing, don’t see anything but blue sky and clouds for a few hours, and then BAM! you’re in Hong Kong, or Bangkok, or London. You have been effortlessly detached from one landscape and dropped in another, with no relationship to that new place.

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A friend and I went trekking in Burma, 2015

I love exploring. The more spontaneous the better. I find the pre-determination of booking a ticket on flights and buses and trains painfully restrictive (though I am good at complying with the rules where necessary). I am happiest when I have the freedom to just jump on my bicycle, climb into a kayak or hop onto a motorbike, and the space to change the plan as I ride (or set out with no plan whatsoever).

I’ve simply got to be at one with the road / sea / air / grass, or as close as feasibly possible. Put me at the mercy of the elements and I am complete.

Robert Persig, in explaining his aversion to traveling by car (preferring to ride a motorcycle), gets at the heart of what I feel at this moment in time:

“In a car [bus, plane, train] you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realise that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving boringly by you in a frame.”

(Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance)

Often the most convenient methods of transport utterly cut you off from the world outside, the world most travellers are purportedly ‘out there’ to experience. Yes, it can be uncomfortable, sometimes, to take your sweet time getting around. Not just because of the hard work you have to put in, but – the curse of the 21st century tight schedule – it’s painful to see time wasted on ‘getting there’. But personally, I would choose almost any other method of transport over flying any day.

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A Chinese worker monitoring the trains

There are exceptions.

An hour-long domestic flight in Western Sichuan only just took my mother and I high enough to skim over the mountaintops. I first glimpsed the Himalayas as their jagged peaks rose through streaky white clouds as we flew between them, coming in to land at a little town called Kangding, where Tibetan culture creeps East to meet Chinese. Flying out of Mandalay, I watched the flooded Irrawaddy delta fold out below me in its entirety. The sun streamed down upon the rainy season waterways highlighting the little hamlets and fishing villages dotted between rushing rivers. Coming in to land at Kuala Lumpur just after 12am on 8th February this year, I watched fireworks light up the city, exploding at random in technicolour like flashing LED fairy lights strung across the city in celebration of Chinese New Year. Those are sights that will never leave me, and I would never have seen them if I weren’t flying overhead.

But those will remain exceptions for a reason. Most of the time it’s rain and turbulence when it comes to plane travel, with an increasing amount of troublesome bureaucracy to deal with, it seems. Perhaps my air-bound luck is running low, but maybe these contain some useful hints for next time:

Dragonair lost my bag in Hong Kong, during a transfer between Beijing and Yangon, on the first day of my month away. Though I was impressed by their “we’ll bring it to your hotel” policy (and relieved they stapled my contact card to the flimsy form), it took them another 36 hours to get it to me, at which point I was wearing a brand new set of clothing, thanks to the World Nomads insurance policy.

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A young Cambodian saleswoman on her bike

My flight from Myeik to Yangon, the only domestic flight I have taken in Burma thus far, seemed a necessity when the alternative was a 24-hour bus back along roads I had already travelled (and knew to be a patchwork of ancient concrete, brand new tarmac and workers yielding barrels of smoking hot tar). I wept at the Myanmar Airlines office when I found out about the discriminatory price difference; 71,000 kyat ($58) for a local or $106 for a foreigner. (But they gave me a coffee, and my tears dissipated as I remembered the hope that the new government brings.) I was required to pay in USD, despite them having to send out for the change. The flight itself was fine. On arrival in Yangon, they dumped the baggage unceremoniously on the ground at the doorway, not a conveyor belt in sight.

Despite an explosive end to my flight out of Yangon, my layover in Kuala Lumpur was problematic. AirAsia was not prepared to transfer my baggage through to the next flight (damn those low prices!), and I had to go out through Malaysia immigration (where I asked for – and got – the passport stamp on the page I wanted it) in order to collect it at the squeaky conveyor belt. The whole thing took less than thirty minutes, leaving me four hours to lie flat-backed on a metal bench, set hourly alarms to check my passport in pocket and baggage beneath me, and dream about bath-bound mermaids. Checking in for the AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Manila, I learned that all in-bound tourists must prove they have onward travel plans (I simply showed the nice lady an e-ticket itinerary email) before they are able to check in. I’d heard this might be a China-Philippines-relations thing, but it’s better to be on the safe side. The Philippines ain’t taking no freeloaders.

Domestic flights (AirAsia, again) in both directions between Manila and Bohol were off-schedule. The outbound left an hour and a half late. The returning flight left fifteen minutes early. At Bohol airport, we were charged 300 pesos per person as a “terminal fee”, which, I am told, is a normal occurrence in all Philippine airports (I wasn’t asked to pay it when leaving Manila).

Finally, departure of my Dragonair flight from Manila to Hong Kong was delayed by over 90 minutes, eventually landing a little over an hour late, causing me to miss my connection. I wasn’t the only one. I was given a voucher for 75 Hong Kong dollars to spend at airport eateries and a smiley woman at a specific desk to come back to in two hours time. I carved out a space and a chunk of that time for writing, then I was back in a queue, back on a plane, and back to Beijing without further ado.

If I’ve learned anything from taking so many flights in such a short time, it’s that airport boarding lounges are the best place to do catch-up instagramming… which is the only kind I do.

One thought on “Head in the clouds vs. feet on the ground: best ways to travel”

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