by Tobias Thornes
How curious it is, my friends, that my memories should remain so vivid of the far distant journeys that I made so many decades ago. I have now recalled to you that first happy adventure I had, in the long-ago summer of 2017, which so piqued my yearning for exploration and magnified my fears about the short-sighted ways in which the world was then engaged. Before that brief digression, I was explaining to you the course of my longer Slow Travel excursion that that first trip incited: when, in the spring of 2018 I set out, by slow but steady means, to discover the reality at the root of rumours then circulating about a changing world and catastrophe to come. How naïve we were, in those heady, Halcyon days! How proud the strut before this bitter fall! Perhaps you find my tale incredible, so difficult is it now after the long march of years to comprehend such stupidity, such ravaging and waste! So priceless an ornament, of which you and I can now only dream, we held then in our hands, but scarcely saw its beauty before it was irreparably shattered, crushed by the grip of greedy fingers.
I shall resume my tale where I left it, a year into my long Slow Travel journey, at the beginning of April, 2019, in Ulaanbaatar. For a traveller coming south by rail and foot from Russia, there is only one way onwards through Mongolia: down into the Gobi desert, and back into China, through which I had travelled but a few months before. We pulled into the Chinese border-town of Erenhot in the mid-morning, for the customary stopover while the wheels were changed from Russian to Chinese gauge. I was glad to be there at that time of the year, which presented a happy medium between extremes in a barren desert climate that plunged to twenty degrees Celsius below zero in January and climbed well above thirty on a typical day in July. Now, in spring, the desolate plains and bare mountains were at, I suppose, their least bleak, for a land where little rain ever falls and little vegetation ever tries to brave the dusty, salty soil. I was surprised that some hundred thousand inhabitants managed to survive in this desert settlement, but the population had proliferated fifty-fold in a quarter of the century before, brought in to facilitate trade after the easing of restrictions when the USSR fell.
More interesting to me than this dusty town was the story of what some of the Chinese were attempting nearby, at the fringes of the desert. The Great Green Wall, a project that already had a forty year history when I visited in 2019, was a vain and desperate government-sponsored attempt to hold back the encroaching wilderness from the pasture-land beyond, over a thousand square miles of which were already being lost every year. The reason for this desertification was clear: decades of logging to convert sparse forest to flat grassland had opened the Gobi borders to bitter winds that stirred up dust storms, destroying the remaining vegetation. Now, the Chinese aimed to increase forest cover from five to fifteen percent, hoping that a new Great Wall of trees would break the storms, secure the soil and hold back an invasion just as frightening as that of the barbarian hordes their ancestors were desperate to repel.
What I saw was not encouraging. Acre after acre of monoculture trees that offered little to local wildlife; the two-thousand, eight-hundred mile stretch still far from finished; and ugly grey, empty trunks – like spectres of the winter still haunting the spring – that occupied vast patches where the hastily-planted trees had simply died. These trees were not designed for this desert, nor were its few native animal inhabitants likely to benefit from this alien sort of forest. I would not have been surprised, had I been told then that the venture would prove ultimately unsuccessful, and indeed the Gobi did keep growing, whatever man might do. We were arroganthubristic in those days. We thought we could control the world, or at least predict how our actions would change it. Only subsequent events have proven just how wrong we were.
It was time to move on from Asia. I was told that there was another Great Green Wall taking shape with more success in the Sahara, and my mind soon turned to that first human continent, the northern stretches of which that largest of deserts dominates. But I had now seen all that I could stomach, for now, of the Northern Hemisphere, where up until then I had spent my entire life. There were boats from Beijing, I found, that would take me to the more southerly stretches of the still mysterious giant triangle in the middle of the map: it was time to sail south at last, into Africa.
Another lengthy voyage awaited me, as I boarded the huge European cargo ship making its months-long journey home via southern Africa, even though I was to be disembarking at the first port of call after Asia. The sea-sickness that would previously plague me after even a few hours on a mirror-smooth sea had fortunately already been cured by the weeks spent boating to Hawaii from Japan, yet still the prospect didn’t please me, as a lover of land and of roaming far on foot. I had one of only half a dozen passenger cabins – this sort of slow travel was not a popular undertaking – and ate my meals with the crew but otherwise was left alone to read, to write, to ponder and to miss the sight of land.
Nevertheless, the journey was surprisingly pleasant. I found again, on that unending trip, a tranquillity that cannot be obtained except on long sea voyages. For days on end, there was nothing but the endless, rolling waves of the warm Indian Ocean, stretching interminably in all directions as the sun sailed slowly between two empty horizons, from utter east to farthest west. I had no means of communication even to tempt me to contact the wider world, which might as well have ceased entirely to exist. This was what it was, I reasoned, to pioneer the unmapped seas of old, cresting the blue-green wilderness as flotsam on the waves, not knowing what – if anything – awaited on the farther shore of this gigantic lake. The world now seemed wide again – wide and wild, beyond the bounds of human habitation. Home and ground were alien, like an ambrosial dream or fantasy that ceased to be reality in a world composed of water, their only inhabitants the seldom-passing other ships and strange sea creatures dancing on the surf. This experience was at once imprisonment and escape, inspiration and despair. For those who manned humanity’s thousands of long-haul freighters, it was a day-to-day normality all seasons of the year. For me, it was an utter strangeness, an enforced span of contemplation that has left its mark on the remainder of my life.