by Tobias Thornes
I have now, in the course of some twenty-one instalments, related to you most of the adventures that awaited me on setting out, so many years ago now it seems like another Age, in the spring of 2018 on my long journey of Slow Travel. Many miles I ventured by foot or boat or train, but always keeping to the living surface of the Earth I held so dear, so as to see as I passed its many peoples, problems and proposed solutions; to bear witness to the damage then being done by a humanity that didn’t seem to know what it was doing to itself.
You have learned now, if you have followed my tale, about the black holes of Indian coal mines; the terrifying towers of Eastern cities; the beautiful landscapes from warm Iran to frozen Canada; the islands made of plastic or holding out as havens of socialist optimism. Everywhere I looked I saw the world shifting under the strain of global industrialisation, to which were rapidly falling victim both human cultures and splendours of nature, now long-since scattered into the dust of forgetting – lost in a great extinction that was then only just at its beginning. But now, I beg to pause in my train of recollections of that great journey, for the passage through Mongolia that I have just related has reminded me of an even earlier adventure, one whose cataloguing here might explain to you an outstanding quandary that may have crossed your mind. Namely, how was it that I could set off on so long a travel, eschewing the aeroplane that was the ordinary long-distance means of transportation in those days, and trust that I could nonetheless cross the world without so much as any mobile means of communication?
The answer is that I had done it before – a shorter trip, though no less enlightening while it lasted – for one hot summer fortnight in 2017. I had been summoned, for reasons I have not space to relate, to the far-Eastern city of Singapore, and given an outbound plane ticket to boot. But knowing the great environmental cost of those ill-advised flying machines, belching plumes of pollution as they do into just the place where it can do the most damage; and reflecting on my own ignorance of the colossal continent of Asia, I decided that I had little choice but to organise my own way back over land. And fortunate indeed did my decision prove, for the fourteen hours ordeal I endured in that prison of the sky on my way eastwards I would, with hindsight, willingly swap for many times the fourteen days I spent travelling back westwards by slower means.
The city-state of Singapore in 2017 would have been to any of that city’s inhabitants of but a few decades before utterly unrecognisable. Indeed, there I discovered, somewhat depressingly, a country so addicted to change that without constantly constructing new tower-blocks and tunnels, I feared, its economy would have entirely collapsed. To satisfy its huge appetite for building projects sufficient to keep its people employed, the small island was even in the process of physically enlarging itself by 25%, dredging up land to ‘reclaim’ from the seas. And many of its people not employed in wasting voluminous resources on this task of ultimately purposeless construction – for with a declining birth rate and strict controls on immigration the islanders’ need for living-space was likely to go only down – were kept busy by equally unsustainable industries. Big-money banking, shopping malls that filled labyrinth-like underground streets, an army that held nearly a fifth of the five-million-strong population in reserve, and hedonistic hotels such as a huge ship-like edifice erected by an American billionaire were hardly the sorts of endeavours conducive to any lasting legacy short of copious quantities of squandered resources and greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet somehow my discomfort at all this was alleviated by some small but meaningful measures that showed that Singapore might at least be awakening to the need for change. Nowhere else have I known such careful consideration regarding the use of water – a commodity that was already in short supply – nor such willingness on the part of a people to sacrifice pointless small individual liberties in pursuit of the freedom to live in a healthier society. Chewing gum was banned; cars were taxed so heavily they cost more than houses; those living near their parents were rewarded with lower rents in government-owned housing to thank them for providing social care. And the people were proud to call Singapore the ‘city within a garden’, with numerous trees planted to partly compensate the huge Heat Island effect and a large patch of pristine forest still extant.
The tidiness of Singapore, in public attitude as well as visual aspect, was conspicuously absent when I crossed the narrow road-bridge into its much bigger and messier sister, Malaysia. The timing of my journey was, in retrospect, ill, for I had chosen a weekend of holiday in Malaysia, and at the border bus station in Singapore I found myself alone amidst a sea of ethnic Malaysians on their way to visit relatives or shop for cheap goods and chewing gum. Coach after coach for these travellers came rattling past us in that underground space, clogging up the road and our lungs, before the long-awaited public bus at last battled its way through. I was lucky to get to Johor Bahru in time for my train.
But it was worth the effort, for now I came to one of the most pleasant parts of my Singapore to Oxford journey: a long ride on the slow train to Gemas in the hot morning sun. The guard hadn’t bothered to close the doors, in spite of signs warning of a thousand Ringgit fine for opening them while the train was in motion, so I stood at the doorway while the fresh Malaysian air – and the occasional earthy smell of dung used as fertiliser – wafted over me. The train jolted and screeched down the rusty single track, through lofty palm plantations and snatches of forest they’ve largely replaced. Gemas seemed a ghost town, deserted in the afternoon heat; there, alas, I had to swap my aged branch-line loco for the illness-inducing air-conditioned capsule of a modern electric train. Now, televisions in every carriage bore adverts for ‘magic flour’ of the just-add-water variety and other imported western poisons, while an automated announcement described what to do in an emergency in a creamy American accent above soppy saxophone music more suited to a call-centre that had put you on hold.
Meanwhile outside showery rain was falling, and Malaysia passed by seen but no longer smelt – shut off behind the tightly sealed glass. I shivered, and not just because of the absurdly-set air conditioning. On simply crossing between platforms I’d felt first-hand one of the many sad shifts being parcelled out as ‘progress’ here. To me, it felt more like suffocation.