“A new luxury resort just opened in Tanzania!”
“Hi Helen, fancy checking out the ski scene in Uzbekistan?”
“Costa Rica wants to welcome you in 2020, Ms Coffey.”
And so it begins. Regret. Frustration. And the most acute form of FOMO I’ve ever experienced.
I’m only five minutes into my year of no-flying and already I’m wondering if I’ve made a huge mistake. I don’t know whether travel companies are secretly trolling me or if I’m only noticing the onslaught of opportunities now because I’m forced to turn them all down – but every exciting long-haul destination I’ve ever dreamed of touching down in is inviting me on the trip of a lifetime. And I have to say, “No, thank you. Ask me again in 365 days?” to every single one.
Or maybe I don’t. I start frantically entering searches into The Man in Seat 61, the pre-eminent train travel site that tells you, in painstaking detail, how to work the tracks all the way from London to Vladivostok (and everywhere else in between). OK, east Africa and Central America are temporarily out, but what about Uzbekistan? Surely a two-day hop?
Hmm, not quite. (Considering I’m a travel writer, geography’s never been my strong suit.) First up it’s 48 hours onboard a comfortable sleeper train from Paris – so far, so good – and then…Oh. Then three nights on the service from Moscow to Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, before even getting to the mountains. That’s around five days spent on trains on the outbound journey – so 10 days round trip, then. Plus the three days or so I would actually want to spend skiing.
Right. It’s possible, yes – but suddenly I’m looking down the barrel of a fortnight out of the office (sure to go down well) and at least eight nights sleeping on trains. I feel a bit overwhelmed just thinking about it. That’s before even tackling the issue of expense: first the Eurostar to Paris, at a minimum of £58 return; then Paris to Moscow, priced at €313 (£266) one-way, €626 (£532) return; and, finally, Moscow to Tashkent, from around £130 one-way (third-class, of course), or £260 return. That’s – oh boy – £850. Without adding on the exorbitant price of a Russian transit visa (£101), which is sadistically time-consuming and complicated to fill out.
All that, for three days of skiing.
It’s an eye-opening exercise. Buoyed up by the romance of the idea of roaming the rails, exchanging life stories with my fellow sultry European passengers a la Before Sunrise while my hair blows softly in the breeze, I sort of forgot to factor in the reality of my flight-free year ahead. A year in which I am effectively and permanently grounded. Every trip I take will be a trade-off between time, money and distance. Every excursion will require immense planning, from wading through rail websites in different languages to ensuring I make connections and figuring out how to get online while on the move.
Somehow I’d convinced myself that, because it was new and exciting, it would also be easy. Not so much, as it turns out.
But being slapped with the real-life ramifications also helps focus the mind a bit. Alright, the ’Stans might be a stretch – so maybe closer to home is the way to kick things off? I’ve always wanted to see the Scottish Highlands; and the newly revamped Caledonian Sleeper service can whizz me there from London overnight for £45 one-way. I keep hearing about how the Spanish coastal city of Valencia’s gastronomy scene is on the up; turns out I can get there for just under £100 and in under 24 hours. And Rijeka in Croatia is a European Capital of Culture for 2020; the journey involves one overnight stop in Munich, arriving by evening the next day, all for around £107 each way.
Yes, flying would be cheaper and quicker – but not flying is doable. More than that, there’s something genuinely thrilling about it, in a way there isn’t when blandly entering your bank details into the easyJet website. Researching potential journeys (which in truth feel more like adventures), I sense something a little like butterflies flitting around my gut. Because, let’s face it, there’s nothing that racy about jumping on the Gatwick Express, getting herded onto a winged metal box and being spat out of a faceless airport some hours later. But spending two days traversing five countries on four trains? That’s something to write home about.