It was early evening, one day last August, when I found myself standing on a rocky buttress, cheering the sudden onset of clouds. A fresh weather-front was barrelling in over the Altai massif, and now the clouds were pluming at the mountaintops, draping columns of rain. By now, after four days in the mountains, I understood what this foreshadowed. Soon, the cloud-cover would fracture the dusk light, and sunbeams would daub chiaroscuro patterns on the land, transmuting the grasslands into prairies of gold. Far away, on the valley floor, smoke coiled from yurt chimneys; a pair of boy-herders chivvied their sheep alongside a stream. But these were pin-pricks of humanity on a floodplain big enough to swallow Manhattan. Up here, I felt certain, the only sentient beings sharing this vantage were the snow leopards padding unseen on the ridgelines, and the raptors wheeling in the sky.
A life devoid of this? Instinctively, I admit, the prospect still feels unconscionable. For much of my adult life I’ve lived in pursuit of moments like those I experienced in West Mongolia’s Chigertai Valley last summer. Over the last decade or so, during which time I’ve scratched a living from writing about foreign people and places, the weeks that I spend abroad have become my go-to source of stimulation but also self-actualization. That’s how indispensable travel can become to those of us who let it. In an era in which spirituality has in many ways been supplanted by a quest for temporal experience, to venture abroad — and in so doing escape the routine and familiarity of home — is to accrue evidence that we are making the best of our short time on earth. Bask in the afterglow of the last adventure, count down to the next.
At least, that is how it used to be. Now, the borders have closed, and the skies have emptied. The cruise ships have all docked, and the hotels are shuttered. Suddenly, millions of us find ourselves living in a strange limbo, lavished with a surfeit of time, yet deprived of the liberty to take advantage.
In the days since the coronavirus outbreak precipitated a series of lockdowns that have seen a third of the global population placed under quarantine, many of us have sought distraction, even enchantment, in photographs of the newly empty human world. Among these, tourist attractions can seem among the most poignant and uncanny, for it is rare that we get to see these places without the milling crowds of visitors that usually populate them. It is interesting to consider what our response to these photos suggests about travel today.
Of course, there is longing. Images of famous plazas like Milan’s Piazza del Duomo or London’s Trafalgar Square, absent people and traffic, evoke a Sartresian Utopia — travel, just without other people — that only accentuates their enticement. But alongside this desire, for me, at least, there is also melancholy, for the break from normalcy cannot help but highlight normalcy’s problems. It is impossible to witness the changes wrought by virus lockdown without feeling a tinge of regret for what travel has become. In the same way that some of us are now finding a misanthropic thrill in apocryphal tales of dolphins swimming up a Venice canal, or satellite images of pollution dissipating over China, the serenity of the paused planet reinforces an uncomfortable truth for people who profess to be in love with seeing as much of it as possible: that travel has needed to change for a long time.
Recently, I’d marked a decade of travel-writing feeling uneasy about the nature of modern tourism. In part, my idea of foreign places had become infected by the unavoidable backdrop you read about in other sections of the newspaper — of an angrier, less stable world. And while millions still jumped on planes for leisure, I couldn’t shake the creeping sense that so much of what we call travel is exploitative, the commodification of someone else’s sunshine, culture and photogenic views. In my most misanthropic moments, I had started to see travel as something monstrous, a vector of humanity’s infestation. A symptom of consumerism that has evolved out of all proportion with what the planet can sustain. I guess I’d become jaded with the cynicism of the selfie-snapping, bucket-list age.
Last summer, while I watched cloudscapes coalesce over Mongolian vales, the world’s most celebrated sights and cities were inundated like never before. Regions once off-limits to all but the most intrepid now teemed with rubberneckers from every corner of the world. Those tourists brought with them a litany of collateral issues from environmental damage and consumer inflation to cultural insensitivity and urban displacement. In May, there were snaking queues beneath the summit of Mount Everest. Behemoth cruise ships jostled for space at the Venice quayside, that in the months when the city wasn’t experiencing record-breaking floods.
Behind it all loomed the climate crisis, the subject that amplified my own disquiet into a relentless gnaw of guilt and self-interrogation. If you are a regular reader of these pages, you will have encountered the same stark facts that I have. You will know that tourism, along every stage of the supply-chain, accounts for 8% of all global carbon emissions. You will know that a seat on a return flight from London to New York emits as much CO2 as the citizens of many developing nations produce in a year — I recently calculated that, over the last decade, my flights alone have melted a tennis-court-sized chunk of polar ice. And you will know that, in the absence of radical and discriminatory policies such as punitive flight taxes and a new age of cultural protectionism, all of these problems are destined to get worse. Before coronavirus interrupted the trajectory, the UN forecasted that global tourist arrivals will grow 30%, to around two billion per year, by the end of 2030.
A few months later, a global pandemic was supercharged by this same hyper-mobility, as a novel virus hitched a ride from its epicentre in China’s Hubei Province and spread to every corner of the world. Inevitably, the travel industry was the first of our freedoms to feel the pinch. The plight of that industry, prominent at the outset as governments scrabbled to stifle movement in a futile effort to halt the pandemic’s transmission, has now subsided behind the infinitely more urgent effort to keep people healthy and alive. But if, as many people have been tempted to postulate, this virus can be seen as a karmic distress-signal — an envoy from the future betraying the fragility of our unregulated, globalized society — the question lingers: Should we be preparing for a life less-mobile?
Five years ago, when concerns over travel’s collateral damage were easier to mute, I would have scoffed at such a proposition. What would the flight-shame lobby have us do? Instead of numinous lightshows over mountain ridgelines stalked by snow-leopards, make do with [looks outside] spring showers over [considers environs] the local woodland stalked by, I don’t know? Badgers?
Yet another, more meditative, train of thought offers a road-map for how a less itinerant life need not necessarily be a more boring one. One of the curious things about spending a lot of time on the road is that you eventually reach a stage where the magic wears thin. You can only see your first Equatorial sunset, first wild elephant, or first Himalayan peak, once. After that, as you tend to push further and further afield in pursuit of that increasingly fugitive taste of awe and stimulation, it’s sometimes tempting to question the legitimacy of your itinerant urges. You start to wonder whether perhaps travel is an act of diminishing returns. Profound questions begin to surface. How can we justify regular trips abroad if in doing so we are contributing towards the ruination of the planet we profess to covet? Do we really need to cross the world in order to sate our curiosity? Aren’t badgers pretty cool, after all?
In the weeks that I have spent in isolation with my family, going out sparingly, leavening the boredom with books and home improvements, camping with the kids in the garden, I’ve found myself wondering whether I have often turned to travel as a quick-fix, a shortcut to intellectual and spiritual replenishment that I am now seeking, and finding, in quotidian things.
The buds on my clematis swell day by day. Blue tits are nesting in the ivy smothering an adjacent wall. A morning washing the car brings conversations with concerned neighbours. The tired smile on the face of the nurse next door when I mow her lawn holds offers more self-validation than a hundred passport stamps. I won’t pretend that this longueur isn’t punctuated with anxiety and frustration, or that I don’t rue the trips it has compelled me to cancel and postpone. But I’m also perversely grateful for the space it has afforded, in which I have found myself cherishing the familiarity that liberalism, in its self-criticism and fear of chauvinistic impulses, has accidentally taught some of us to loathe.
That local woodland, once disdained, has become a vital source of natural respite as, in my determination to uphold social distancing measures, I’ve found myself burrowing off-trail. Through dense stands and undisturbed glades, I explore, now, astounded by my past incuriosity. I can’t believe I’ve never appreciated how beautiful this place is before.
I keep thinking about that famous line from Proust’s ‘A Remembrance of Things Past’: “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Nowadays, you are most likely to encounter these words emblazoned onto a littoral sunset on an inspirational quotes’ meme. But this bucket-list idiom misses the intended meaning, which is that a thirst for novelty and beauty is as likely to be slaked in reassessing places you already know as in the objects of your most exotic hankerings.
In forcing us to stop moving, lockdown has coerced us into a small taste of what ascetics have long prescribed: that fulfilment does not depend on plenty and variety. Thoreau didn’t need to traverse the globe to enjoy “the tonic of wildness”. A waterhole two miles from his hometown served just as well.
“Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you,” Thoreau writes in ‘Walden’, “opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”
At this stage, it is impossible to forecast in what form or health the travel industry will rebound. Certainly, it seems possible that the lifting of travel restrictions will lead to an explosion of holiday bookings, as people celebrate their emancipation by attempting to get as far from home as possible. For the sake of the industry, and for our collective sanity, it is vital that they do. Travel is a pillar of liberal freedom, a massive global employer, and a priceless engine of cultural empathy and exchange. It remains my fervent hope that, miraculous technological advances will mean that it can be part of a sustainable future.
However, those of us who emerge from the crisis mercifully unscathed, and desperate to reconnect with the wider world, would do well to remember the quiet suggestion of this cursed spring. To crave and appreciate the freedom to travel, yes. But also to ask whether, in our restless pursuit of novelty for its own sake, maybe we’ve been doing this all wrong.