Thoughts about travel on a train

Dawn view from Tent


These are thoughts from my diary entry written in the early morning on the train from Shanghai to Lanzhou. If you find them a bit deep and rambling, they are published verbatim without being edited as a blog post, don’t worry normal service will resume soon : ) If you haven’t read this blog for a while find out why I was returning from Dublin here.

I studied French for one year at college. I made the mistake of choosing advanced French, relishing the challenge of biting off more than  I could chew after 7 years in the intellectual doldrums working in the food an wine industry. Unfortunately, it was a bridge too far and despite my extensive culinary and viniferous lexicon I was befuddled by the high demands for appropriate syntax and Grammar, regularly scoring zeros in the weekly verb tests, confounded by past anterior, pluperfect, and future conditional. That summer I was relieved to discover I was dyslexic, rather than retarded, and decided that perhaps languages weren’t my forte, so moved on to academic pastures new. 

That year wasn’t a total waste, aside from the dry mechanics of the language I learned alot about french culture and Philosophy. I also got a kick out of learning new words for familiar feelings and occurrences. The french seem to have specific words for the oddest of things, and with an outsiders perspective learning a new word, illuminates the familiar.

One word that sticks in my mind is dépaysement which I think literally translated means de-countrified- although given the opening paragraph I’ll be forgiven for not being 100% certain- ant franco phonistes reading feel free to correct.

Still the sentiment of this piece still holds true if it doesn’t so please, read on. In English it roughly means culture shock. To me it suggests the feeling of having the cultural rug pulled from under you, to be spat into a new milieu, and assaulted with unfamiliar visual, aural, oral and olfactory sensations.

Modern travel is great at delivering a grand dose of dépaysement, with metal tubes either airborne, mounted on rails, or following roads, sucking you up in one part of the world, holding you in a static environment where temperature and light and surfaces are constant, then spitting you out in a different place in no time at all. It can be a place with a different climate, landscape and culture. And the journey, with its sudden jarring from start place to end, with no gradation, does little to prepare for the change. Thus you are, until you adjust your thinking- until you tell your mind and body not to expect the sensations from the place where you came, and that the sensations of where you are now are normal- in a liminal place-less place- shocked from the new and strange, decountrified briefly.

Cycling with its gradual slow pace, and intimate contact with the between bits from start to end place doesn’t deliver such drastic shocks, nor serve up a shocking de-countrified experience. On the contrary, moving at the speed of life in constant contact with the worlds you pass through, the cyclist can often miss big changes, coming as they do in gradation.

So, here i find myself on a high speed train heading to central China from the coast. yesterday i was in Shanghai 2,000km South East, the day before Dublin. It took me ten months to cycle this far on bicycle. Two days by  modern  transport. When I arrived in Lanzhou the first time, I complained about the homogeneity of China of its unchanging, dull landscape. However, travelling by train at 150km an hour, I can see it changing rapidly outside my window. I notice the landscape morphology and its natural form change dramatically.

The tight texture of Shanghai, compact newly built grey apartments and factories, highways and power lines, gave way to dense humid pastoral lands, thickly foliaged with peach trees, and rice paddies. then Night fell. In the morning I woke to steep, sharply walled granite river valleys with clear rushing streams and polished rocks. Then the plains around Xi’an rolled past, open and vast planted with corn an rice. Mountains then loomed, grass covered hills at first, then grass covered towering mountains ,then sandy terraces covering crumbling hillsides, with muddy wide rivers flowing slowly in at their bases.

It strikes me that I haven’t been paying attention, in my career as a cyclist I have not been following due diligence. Its not like I have much else to do, cycle and look around, in my working day. I didn’t notice things spreading out as distances between towns stretched and the country side became less populated. Well, its not that i didn’t notice, more that I wasn’t excited by it, it didn’t make me purr like it did originally or its doing now.

So, how does one travel slowly and still and retain the ability to be de-countrified? In today’s world of on demand and short attention span, is it possible to stay bewitched for long? Is it possible to retain the fascination with the strange and new, or am I culturally programmed to need constant spectical and stimulus to stay amused and interested?


This Post was scheduled before we entered XinJiang Province. Find out why here


7 thoughts on “Thoughts about travel on a train

  1. Surprisingly articulate and thoughtful for someone dumb enough to be sat on a bike for years on end! 😉
    Would you mind if I blogged some of this on my own site?

  2. Fearghal – really enjoyed reading this piece and your other blogs. Having ridden from Le Harve to Marseille and Lisbon to Barcelona, I can definitely identify with the contrasts of travelling by bike and high speed transport. I always find it unnerving after a week touring on the bike to suddenly be in a car again…it never feels right!

    I’ve been checking your website every day since you left in November last year and it has given great pleasure to follow your and Si’s journey. Please pass on my best to Si – I’m sure he’ll remember me from our adventures in Cambridge.

  3. well ferg,
    nice blog – maybe you should consider doing the whole trip again by train when you’re finished and see what you’ve missed ? Does this mean your days of bicycle exploration are coming to an end in favour of a more rapid transport? good luck in XinJiang


  5. Pingback: Revolution Cycle - first irish circumnavigation of the world by bicycle - blog » Blog Archive » Update from Kyrgyzstan: Distance Since Greystones - 15,555km

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