The World at 40mph

Returning to this space now after many months away travelling, I wanted to engage with a couple of things that came up over this period but I first want to address the character of my trip in general; for while I did not set out with the intention of creating some esoteric exercise to report on (but instead simply desired to “see” and “explore” the world), it wasn’t long before it began to take on such a quality as it evolved alongside my other interests and concerns at the time.

Since I began studying architecture, I had always planned on making something of a pilgrimage to the Far East, particularly to China and Japan. Not just with the intention of understanding their specific architectural history but also that of their culture in general – one that contrasts so distinctly with that of the West. Yet, it wasn’t until much later, following a number of years spent living in large western capitals, that I began to seriously scrutinise how I would do it. I had seen what tourism looked like on the receiving end and had begun to think very critically about its practice. Suffice to say, I wanted well away from the culture of “selfie sticks” and “tourist buses” but also well away from the paradigm of tourism in general – one that is defined by the process of air travel. I wanted to travel in a way that brought me closer to the transgressions of cultures and landscapes, not in a way that obscured them almost entirely. I wanted to see one world bleed into the next. To be glued to the train window as it chugged across country and continent, perceiving and processing that which is impossible at 35,000ft and 570mph. In response, I decided to make the 13,000-mile (20,000km) journey from my home in Barcelona to Hong Kong, almost entirely by land. A four-month trip that took me across 13 different countries, through 30 different cities and all at an average speed of 40mph.

 Map showing the extent of my travels between January & May 2017. The solid line indicates a flight taken between Tokyo and Shanghai.

Map showing the extent of my travels between January & May 2017. The solid line indicates a flight taken between Tokyo and Shanghai.

Since returning home there have been a couple of things that have occurred to me about this particular experience. The first, is that it gave me a greater appreciation for the dynamic between adjoining countries. Those that in reality share much more than simple geometric division and in many cases are the sum of similar landscapes, cultures and races. A perspective that I feel is often lost sight of in a world conditioned by inherently reductive cultural processes. The second, is in reference to the idea that air travel (and with that, globalisation in general) makes the world a smaller place by bringing its “parts” closer together. A notion, which I feel fails to do justice to the extent that this process also abstracts the world and thereby simultaneously distances it from itself as well. A good model for this is cinematic montage. A process which, by bringing together disparate elements of narrative in successive scenes, on one hand shortens the temporal “distance” between them but on the other disrupts their natural continuity and connection. The same can be said for the process of air travel: by arriving at a nondescript location at the edge of a city and entering a uniform white tube that travels at such altitude and velocity that our faculties of perception are rendered virtually useless in relation to the ground, the continuity between our place of departure and arrival is practically shattered. You might as well be landing on the moon or in a different dimension, such is the extent to which the natural relationship between these two places is missing. However, I found when travelling more slowly, at a pace and level that grants more opportunity to feel the presence of the world, you acquire a much firmer sense of proximity to different countries and cultures despite the greater distance between you, in terms of time.

 The view from the train passing between Moscow and Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The view from the train passing between Moscow and Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian Railway.