I recently reread Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, a travel novel in which he retraces the route he took 30 years previously in his seminal travel tome, The Great Railway Bazaar.
I was surprised to discover that his updated route (updated by necessity, as he was precluded from travelling to Iran and Pakistan due to political developments in the intervening years) took in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the ‘Stans. This is a route I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – overland from London to Tashkent, and – bar a short flight from the ‘Stans to Amritsar – onwards overland through India, Nepal and Sri Lanka – then to South East Asia (Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia).
It’s so hard to break out of conventionality, especially when one is entrenched in everyday life in London – a comfortable social and work life, a job you are satisfied with, a flat you like. I want to take this trip – I will take it, and maybe onwards, across that great expanse – the Pacific Ocean – to South America (Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and even up further, to Ecuador and Columbia).
Ghost Train is an enjoyable and eminently quotable book in places. One of my favourite lines in it is the following:
“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.”
Theroux alludes to this – the importance of long-term travel, in two other quotable passages:
“The best travel was not a simple train trip or even a whole collection of them, but something lengthier and more complex an experience of the fourth dimension, with stops and starts and longueurs, spells of illness and recovery, dawdling and hurrying and having to wait, with the sudden phenomenon of happiness as an episodic reward.”
“I’d come to see that travel for me was no longer a fun-seeking interlude, not even the roundabout detour of heading home, but a way of living my life: a trip without an end where the only destination was darkness. The beauty of it was that I was doing it in the simplest way, as a homeless person with a small bag and a briefcase of papers, rubbing across the world, travelling light.”
I feel at my most relaxed when I’m travelling, living out of a backpack, seeing the landscape drift by on bus rides and train journeys. I feel healthier being out of the city, both mentally and physically. The urge to go is balanced by the comforts of home, and the logistical and financial barriers involved in uprooting life at a time when conventionality says you should be putting down roots (as you approach thirty). Many people travel at this time of their lives I guess – what is called a “gap year” when you are 18 / 19 is called a “career break” when you are 28 / 29. But I don’t like these phrases – they don’t sit comfortably with my idea of travel as some kind of mental paradigm shift away from what you do and the way that you think when you are at home. They make it sound like it slots in with jobs and is just another line on the CV – rather than a fundamentally different way of living, for however long.
I will do this journey – I’m not sure when. Until I do, there is the dream of travel – the anticipation – and that is part of the joy of travel in itself.