26 October 2008

To Beijing and back by train: why bother?

Why did I just travel to Beijing and back? By train? Via Athens? I have, by now, several well-rehearsed short answers to this question. Climate change. Curiosity. A need to escape the internet. A book project to work on. None of these quite captures the whoLinkle picture, but each carries a grain of truth. First things first, though, I simply needed to go to both places for work – the Asia Europe People’s Forum (www.aepf.info) in Beijing, and an anti-corruption conference in Athens. So why not travel over land? ‘It seems a waste of time’ is the most obvious comeback – but it isn’t as if you enter a state of suspended animation as soon as the train door slams shut, as this blog will hopefully explain. Nor is , it just a ‘tourist outing’. There are many pleasurable ways, I’m sure, to do this trip touristically, but non-stop is unlikely to be the best of them. In fact, the Trans-Manchurian trains themselves are distinctly tourist-free, at this time of year at least: on the 13 carriages (give or take the odd attachment and detachment) that travelled from Beijing to Moscow, a grand total of three people – including myself – were not Russian or Chinese.

To start with the obvious: if you work on climate change, you should try not to fly. This is true, but trite. In spending any time tracking global processes, you are likely to end up with a hypocritically large carbon footprint (this is probably not the occasion for me to discuss how many ineffectual air miles are chalked up in maintaining a ‘global civil society’) and the best way to mitigate this is simply to think carefully what trips you really need to take, and which can easily be skipped. Having a sense of your own replaceability can definitely help too. But in the end, that still leaves an unhealthily large share of travelling – which, if you consider that a collective effort is necessary to achieve structural changes, hopefully outweighs the negatives of individual practice. Beyond that, I feel strongly that flying shouldn’t be the default instinct – as it is still is for many ‘activists’, even on short European trips. There are several ways to travel over land or sea, and www.seat61.com is an indispensable starting point for these (although I am still looking for advice on how to cross the Atlantic cheaply without breaking the bank).

The other reasons – writing, escape, meetings – I’ll come to as this story progresses. The one I keep coming back to, though, is to gain a sense of perspective. Travelling across Europe, then through the world’s largest country and on to the capital of the world’s most populous one, gives a sense of scale that no A to B tin-can hop from airport to airport can match.

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