Better, faster: Has the modern age spoiled the romance of travel?

Have you ever pondered what it must have been like travelling across the world more than a century ago?

 When there were no aeroplanes, let alone long-distance flights or high-speed trains or even the ability to experience a faraway place through cinema, television or Google Streetview?

Take for instance a trip from London to Mandalay, Burma.

If you lived in Central London you’d take a cab, or catch the tube or take the Heathrow express to the airport.  Maybe it would take you 40 minutes. You’d check in, spend an hour or two perusing duty free, stocking up on magazines, flight remedies and sweets and then you’d be off.

Your Thai Airways flight departs just after midday on a Wednesday. After a stopover in Bangkok, where you have time for an overpriced green curry and a Chang beer, you board the plane again and touch down in Rangoon (Yangon) on Thursday around 9am.

 Its 700 kilometres north on the expressway to Mandalay.

You feel brave and a bit adventurous so you hire a car. En route you stop to visit an ancient pagoda and to take in the Shan hills in the distance. You arrive at your hotel in Mandalay just before 7pm.

It’s taken you a little more than a day and half to travel 11,000kms. You kick off your shoes, order a meal from room service, jet lag sets in and you drift off to sleep dreaming of pagodas, the London tube and football.

Rewind 126 years.

 It’s 1886.

A London piano tuner named Edgar Drake sets out from London to a remote town in the Shan Hills of Eastern Burma to repair a piano belonging to surgeon-major and rogue British officer Anthony Carroll.

 The British empire is fighting for control of Burma.

Drake’s journey from London to the wilds of Burma begins on the 26 November.

A horse-drawn carriage picks him up in the early hours of the morning from his elegant terraced home in Fitzroy Square, Central London, a home he shares with his dutiful wife Katherine, not far from Regents Park.

The carriage drives him east to Royal Albert Dock (now London’s Docklands) on the Thames, a journey of about 11 kilometres.

Here he boards a waiting steam ship, belching smoke from its stack, which sets off up the Thames at about 17 knots (30 km/hr).

It travels all the way along the Thames until it reaches the Thames Estuary – a journey of about 60kms with Essex to the North and Kent to the South and then enters the cold North Sea.

It heads south through the English Channel and arrives in Calais, France a few hours later.

From here Drake takes a train 292 kilometres south to Paris, but he has no time to stroll the famous boulevards of the French capital as he boards another train for a 770 kilometre journey further south to the port city of Marseille on the Mediterranean coast of France.

It’s 1886 so the train travels around 100 km/hr at top speed reaching Marseille eight hours later.

In Marseille he boards another ship and heads across the Mediterranean telling Katherine in a letter: “How I wish you could see the beauty of these waters! They are a blue like none that I have seen before.”

The ship passes through the Strait of Bonifacio, which runs between the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, where Drake gets his first view of the Italian coastline. He passes Palermo and then Malta and arrives in Alexandria, Egypt five days after he left London. A blind Arab man called “the man with one story” tells a fantastical tale of being ship-wrecked in the desert, of tribes and tents and feasts.

The ship docks for a few hours and then heads east along the Egyptian coast to Port Said, where it enters the Suez Canal and travels south to the Red Sea

 Edgar Drake’s ship passes what is now the western shore of Saudi Arabia, crosses the straits of Bab al Mandab and drops anchor at Aden, a harbour “full of steamers destined for all over the world, in whose shadows tin Arab dhows darted beneath lateen sails”.

 Two days later, he passes the island of Elephanta, where the Hindu worship an “Elephant with Many Arms” and into the teeming harbour of Bombay (now Mumbai) where vessels of every size and description bob about. A carriage takes him to the railways station and to platforms full of people, “crowds such as he has never seen in London”.

The train takes him north east into the Indian interior. He passes Nashik, Bhusawal and Jabalpur – the names growing “stranger and more melodic”

When the train stops vendors descend at “wind-beaten, lonely stations” and thrust “pungent plates of curried meats, the sour smell of lime and betel, jewellery, fans, picture postcards of castles…”

Vendors hang onto the train as leaves until prised off by a policeman’s baton.

The train passes the holy city of Varanasi and they arrive in Calcutta, in West Bengal after three days, a journey of 2,200 kilometres.

Here he boards a ship for Rangoon (Yangon), travelling along the “muddly outflow of the Ganges and into the Bay of Bengal.

 Three days later the ship gets its first sighting of Burma, via a “lighthouse perched on a tall red stone tower” which guards against the reef, a graveyard for many passing ships; they pass buoys and head up the Rangoon River.

The ship winds its way around sandbanks and sharp bends, where Edgar gets his first sighting of the gold-painted Schwedagon pagoda capping a distant hill. Rising 99 metres into the air, it is the epicentre of Rangoon.

 He is a delayed in Rangoon for four days by British military bureaucracy – he goes hunting in the jungle with officers. There is an incident. A young Burmese villager is shot by mistake.

A few days later Edgar boards a teak ship to Prome (Pyay), and travels up the Rangoon River, a journey of around 350 kilometres passing the Pegu Hills –  a range of low mountains before the dense foliage changes to “thorny trees and toddy palms”

Here he goes sightseeing to the ruins of Pagan, the ancient capital of a kingdom that had ruled Burma for years.

 Up a dusty path he walks until he gets the “finest view in all Pagan”:

 “…a vast field of pagodas that stretch away from the river to the distant mountains, floating in the dust and smoke of burning rice fields”

 “What are those mountains?” Edgar asks a soldier

 “The Shan Hills, Mr Drake. Finally we can see them.”

 The next morning they arrive in Mandalay.

Delayed for many days in Mandalay because the town of Mae Lwin – his final destination – is under attack, he writes to Katherine:

 “I spend hours looking out at the Shan hills, trying to decide how to describe them for you…I wander the markets, following the flow of ox-carts and parasols along the rutted roads, or I sit by the river watching the fishermen, waiting for the steamer for Rangoon that would bring news of my departure or bring me home.”

 And here we leave piano tuner Edgar Drake, who will eventually journey through the jungle and hinterland of Burma to an uncertain fate, travelling first by elephant and then on foot.

You see Mae Lwin, does not really exist, nor does Edgar Drake.

 Both are a creation of Daniel Mason in his novel “The Piano Tuner”.

 But the journey itself is accurate.

 It is taken Drake and any other English gentlemen of that time many weeks from closing the front door of a London terrace to waking up in the pungent air of Mandalay, where woman have painted faces, called Thanaka that runs down their cheeks.

 It has been a journey of horse-drawn coaches, steamships, trains and river boats.

 He has seen many strange and wondrous things, watched the world change in front of his eyes.

And today, we hop on a plane, watch a movie, close our eyes, order another wine if we can’t sleep and wake up in a new world with all that is  it in between the start and the finish missed out.

To experience the world, we must slow ourselves down. Choose a slower mode of transport. Allow ourselves time.

But who has time to spare these days – even if we hold the latest iphone in our hand?

One thought on “Better, faster: Has the modern age spoiled the romance of travel?

  1. This was a wonderful post! I really found myself interested in the next step of “Edgar Drake’s” journey. While the romance of travelling my have decreased over time, the possibilities of travel have increased. What used to be the province of the wealthy (or those financed by the wealthy) is now accessible to nearly everyone.

    But I do agree we must slow down. The journey itself is as important (if not more) than the destination.


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