When you travel long term you have plenty of time to ponder the big questions. Maybe that’s why philosophy and travel go so well together. You finally have the time to really think about what the hell Confucius and Plato were trying to get at.. Maybe that’s why for any form of long distance travel, I’ll choose to go by rail.
Above all other forms of long distance transport, trains are my favourite.
I’m comfortably sitting, watching a frozen landscape of farmland, forests and tiny villages fly by my window. Drifts of snow rise and fall like endless frozen waves as skeletal trees scratch at the sky across the distance, disappearing over the horizon, as the sun sets in a radiant arc of crimson fire.
The world is bare, open, exciting to watch and above all else, interesting and full of wonder. This is what should make train rides important to travellers.
Modern conveniences like email, smartphones and supermarkets have made life more efficient than ever before but in doing so something’s been lost. Don’t get me wrong, 2013 is the best time to be alive (ever!), but I do think we all could learn to appreciate ‘the journey’ a little more than we do.
In modern life the journey has taken a definitive backseat to the destination.
I put long distance train travel in roughly the same category as calligraphy, wax seals, orchestras and Shakespearean English. There may be more efficient, easier and faster ways to accomplish writing, making music or talking but the ‘romance of the journey’ make these endeavours both interesting and valuable.
The difference is not taking the journey for an inconvenience that’s in the way of getting somewhere but rather in enjoying the journey for what it is.
Flying is obviously more efficient in regards to time, but for all the advantages it has in efficiency it lacks in journey aesthetics. Taking a commercial flight really doesn’t allow for much appreciation for a country’s’ aesthetics (unless you count Virgins air hostesses!).
Another downside to flying is that planes are cramped, much like being a sardine in a can (only with less vegetable oil). There’s also the fact that you’re hurtling through the open sky at 800kph in a hulking 500 ton death machine made of metal and plastic, powered by dinosaur bones and explosions. – Maybe you can tell that I’m not a fan of flying.
What about buses for long distance travel? Buses unfortunately are a necessary evil in the same way that McDonalds is a necessary evil at 3:00am on Sunday morning. Buses, while often cheap offer neither efficiency or the journey experience and come a very distant third choice (as an added ‘bonus’ if you take a Greyhound in the US there’s a good chance you might sit next to Charles Mansion).
Railroads are quite often cut through remote wilderness far from highways and roads, giving you a sense of remoteness that’s hard to match with other forms of transport, perfect for moments of quiet contemplation and reflection; often amplified by the beautiful scenery.
There is also the comfort factor to consider. If you’re the butt of beanstalk jokes, or once while traveling through Asia you were almost harpooned by a local, journeying by rail allows for more leg and shoulder room than a bus and a flight combined!
The downside of rail is that generally it’s the most expensive of the three options. Ask anyone who’s recently bought a Euro-rail pass and watch their eyes glaze over as they imagine how many luxury yachts they could have purchased in retrospect if they’d only caught the bus.
To save on costs, book in advance and try to take advantage of specials and seasonal fares. Even on a tight budget I’ve managed to find acceptably priced train services in the past.
Despite the occasional higher price, rail remains my favourite method for long distance travel, so next time you’re planning a journey, between the flights, busses, tuk tuks and magic carpets, make room for a train ride and if you’re like me, you might never look back.