No I haven’t joined the Judean People’s Front, but what with a new year being a new slate, perhaps it is time to start 2016 with a confession…
You see at the end of 2015 I got on a plane and flew via Istanbul, to Hong Kong and back.
Yes that’s right, having circumnavigated the world by land and sea, and having not been on a plane since 2012 and not even flown long haul since 2008, I decided that I felt like a short break in Hong Kong, and as I didn’t have a spare 7 months to get there this time, I would instead elect to do the journey 6 months and 29 days quicker, (and roughly 30,000 ft higher)…
Well, the first bit is easier to answer, I should be starting a new job imminently, so I was seeking to take the opportunity to have a final adventure before I have to start worrying about things like annual leave allowances. And Hong Kong appealed, not only as a place I found myself reluctant to leave the first time round, but also one where I seem to have found myself an ever-expanding circle of friends and fellow travellers with which I thought it would be cool to catch up with, and well… affairs of the heart and what not…
As for the second part… Having spent much of the last two years going on about how much better overland travel is, has the experience of flying changed my mind? Did it challenge my preconceptions? Is this whole blog built on a lie? Should I change its name to FlyTripping.com?
Before I get on to how I found the journey, here are the main details of it.
I flew with Turkish Airlines, flying from Heathrow Terminal 2, to Hong Kong, via Istanbul Attaturk airport. I flew back the same way, only I landed at Gatwick rather than Heathrow. (For the real geeks, A330-300 from Heathrow to Istanbul, 777-900ER for the legs to and from Hong Kong and a 737-900ER from Istanbul to Gatwick).
I won’t comment much on Gatwick seeing as all I did at the airport was leave it, except to say that, thank god for electronic passport gates which allowed me to bypass the rather daunting looking queue at immigration, and to say that the airport does appear to be in need of a bit of TLC…
Istanbul’s Ataturk airport though, was rather a dump. No free wi-fi, looking slightly worn out, it was none the less, speedily efficient, even the process on the return flight of having to re-go through security checks when transferring planes was super quick, with pretty much all of the scanners in operation even though it was only 4am. To be honest, throw in some free wi-fi there and I would probably forget that it looks a bit rough around the edges. If you can hack waiting for trains in random out of the way cities in China, you don’t tend to be that fussy really.
Before I get onto the actual airplane bit of air travel, I can’t go further with this post unless I spend a bit of time talking about magic and why I think airports seem so imbued with the stuff…
I always used to think, and in fact I probably still do, that flying is rather like reaching your destination by means of a magic trick, as if the whole thing is achieved through sleight of hand as it were. I think this is why I have sometimes characterised it as cheating. You just sort of get into a magical tube and then hours later emerge at your destination, where-ever that maybe. Ok there is normally a flight tracker option on the inflight entertainment system, but otherwise you seem very divorced from the actual idea that you are moving and travelling from one place to the other. Even if you are in a window seat you are unlikely to see much during the day except cloud and at night of course you might as well be anywhere.
The thrill of flying?
Well I say flying itself is rather unmagical, but there are at least two points in every journey where, unless you are such a frequent flyer as to have not a hint of childhood wonder in you, or you drank so much in the airport that you’ve already passed out, where there is an unescapable rush of excitement. Take-off and landing. First there is the concept of going from being on the ground to being airborne to get your head around, then there is sheer feeling of the g-forces as you either speed down the runway to take off speed, or brake rapidly as you touch down for landing. Then if you are me, there is in addition, the tensing up that comes from knowing that as a general rule, this is about the most likely time for your journey to end in a fiery explosion of death.
A new addition since I last flew, and one which seemed to add to the excitement/terror in equal measure, is the ability to view through the inflight entertainment system cameras at the front of the aircraft looking down the runway. This was very cool in my view, much like being in the front carriage of a rollercoaster, although I guess a less exciting way of putting it would be to suggest that it has the effect of turning the whole thing into some sort of really souped up version of Microsoft Flight Simulator.
As the majority of my flights were at night however and I was generally sat nowhere near a window, there was not much else of interest in the flight itself, with little to do except watch movies, eat, and sleep.
Food, glorious food
Ok I have literally no way of comparing Turkish Airlines offerings here as I haven’t eaten an inflight meal for 8 years, but top marks to Turkish Airlines catering department. The food, generally Turkish/Mediterranean in style, but with some more Asia choices on the flight to and from Hong Kong, was awesome. Perhaps this was down to the fact that each flight genuinely appeared to have a chef in full whites on the plane. I’m not sure if, from a safety/peace of mind point of view, I’m entirely cool with the idea of there being an actual kitchen on the same plane as me, although one imagines they don’t exactly use it to deep fry stuff, but from a tasty food point of view, it was tops. Next time I fly I will be genuinely looking to see if Turkish Airlines is an option based almost solely on catering. As another nice random food related touch, they hand out turkish delight to all the passengers just after take off so you can get your trip off to a sweet start.
Sleeping on a plane is not so much fun. There was an acceptable amount of legroom, but the seats and head rests just didn’t seem to allow me to get into a position where I might grab some decent sleep. I managed a few hours though, and hey, I guess tiredness is fine, that’s what they invented coffee for after all.
I was aware at the time, and I am now even more so, that one of the great things about travelling overland is the inability to confuse your body clock by suddenly telling it that it’s actually 8 hours later than it thinks it is. Whilst I actually found getting my sleeping pattern to broadly match up with local time pretty easily, I’m fairly certain that it was the general tiredness and confusion of my body clock that was the cause of me feeling rather under the weather for a day or two, including seemingly completely losing my appetite. During my round the world jaunt, outside of catching a cold and one 24 hour bout of food poisoning I was pretty much fighting fit for 18 months straight so my failure to hit these high standards in the space of a 10 day break I therefore lay at the feet of air travel.
NoFlyTripping.com = Flytripping.com?
So, conclusions? Well there is no denying that flying is rather more convenient than overland travel. Even if I travelled direct from London overland, Hong Kong is still 10 full days travel. (Although interestingly if you discount metro connections, from London St Pancras station it actually only involves changing train 3 times…)
But for all the possibilities an airport offers, there seems to be little denying that the actual journey (cracking food apart) is more something to be endured rather than savoured. The time taken means the two things are really in no way comparable, but in terms of comfort, freedom of movement, and sheer window gazing excitement, long distance train travel has aircraft beat. (The trans-continental USA journeys in particular).
The world is a wonderful place to explore and if you are limited on time, the aircraft is a great enabler of that exploration, but beyond arguments about time saved versus comfort/glamour etc there is one last reason why I will always be an advocate for overland travel. Getting from A to C overland requires you travel through B. You might have had no desire to visit B, but necessity dictates you must. And in B you might meet amazing people, see wonderful sights and have a thoroughly fantastic time. Fly though, and as you pass high above B the best you can hope for is a few fitful hours sleep and a small complimentary sweet.
But these is perhaps one last postscript to write. On my final flight, from Istanbul back home to London Gatwick, I finally got myself a window seat, and for the first time the flight pretty much took place exclusively in daylight hours. At first I will confess I fell into my same routine from the previous flights of finding distraction on the inflight entertainment to pass the time, but then…
Suddenly I took the time to properly look out of the window. To see outside the sun glinting of the wings, the red winglet standing out against the clear blue sky beyond whilst below… Below great fluffy white clouds were parting like cotton wool to reveal, 30,000 feet below us, the snow-capped mountains of the Alps. And in a flash the tedium of the flight disappeared, and I felt like I first did 15 years ago when as a cadet, a flying instructor took me up in a small two seat aircraft and tried to make me do a loop the loop. (we just ended up flying upside down…) There is a part of air travel I will always find frightening, I feel rather trapped, and as a result, so much less in control, but gazing out at the scene below me it was as though the mental bonds of this small metal tube were broken, and for a time at least, it was difficult to think how I could feel more free.