Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

#FlightFree2020: About The Time I Travelled The World Flight-Free For 4 Years (And Nobody Cared)

My Flight Free 2020 pledge hasn’t come out of nowhere. Call it a rekindling of a long-forgotten conviction that the example I set might actually matter.

Because we are all participants, now, in this huge and never-ending conversation we call global society. Our impact is measured in terms of the number of people paying attention when we open our mouths – or our laptops – to say something.

As my audience has grown over 13 years as a blogger and traveller, my influence has increased proportionally. I can no longer ignore the consequences of my words and actions.

This wasn’t always the case.

Back in 2007, a scant handful of my very longest-serving readers will remember that I embarked on a mission to cycle round the world.

In Montreux, Switzerland, a passer-by offered to take our picture. It turned out he was a professional photographer. This remains the best team photo we have.

What they probably don’t remember is that I had pledged to do so without flying. I would cross the oceans under sail, by cargo ship, or whatever it took. My wheels, I proclaimed, would never leave the surface of the Earth.

Incidentally, I had also decided to film interviews along the way with people affected by climate change and global warming. There was an air of indignant environmental posturing about the whole thing – the rite of passage of the privileged young white male with a useful passport, an untempered ego and a lot of existential angst to work through.

It turned out that nobody was paying any attention, because they’d heard it all before.

This was predictable, and in retrospect quite cringeworthy. At the risk of heaping additional mockery upon myself, may I present Exhibit A, a long-vanished video of my and my two friends’ departure on the expedition we’d called “Ride Earth”, way back in June 2007.


That haircut!

Anyway. Within a few months of departure, the team disbanded, I rebranded my blog “Tom’s Bike Trip”, and, as I set out to Ride the Earth alone, the environmental bolt-ons fell by the wayside.

All apart from one:

For the next 3½ years of bicycle adventuring on three continents, I did not take a single flight.

Nor, I should mention, did I ride every inch of the 35 or so countries I passed through.

Just as I had originally envisaged, boats were frequently used – some a simple enough process, such as the ferry from the UK to Holland; others not so much, such as the dhow on which I hitched from Djibouti to Yemen with 300 cows.

This did sometimes stretch my patience and resourcefulness. (It took me five days of sleeping rough in Djibouti to find a captain who would agree to take me across the Gulf of Aden.)

Because I was so busy filming, this is my only photo of crossing the Gulf of Aden.

Epic overland journeys by train and bus also broke my big bike trip into so many shorter ones.

The standout example here is the journey I made in 2010 from Yerevan in Armenia to the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, which you may be surprised to hear was not served by a direct rail connection. (In Soviet times, with a daily train from Yerevan to Moscow, it would actually have been much easier.)

To reach this far-off destination, I took a sleeper train to Tbilisi in neighbouring Georgia, then another to Batumi, followed by a ferry across the Black Sea to Sochi, then a two-day sleeper train to Moscow, where I stopped for the weekend to meet my riding partner Andrew and register my very expensive business visa.

From Moscow, we then took a four-day sleeper train to Ulan Ude, where we picked our Mongolian visas and discovered that jet lag is not restricted to flying.

The voyage ended with a long-distance bus ride to Ulan Bator – all the while carrying, in cardboard bike boxes and oversized drybags, two expedition bikes, two Extrawheel cargo trailers, and a full set of expedition gear and supplies for two months of self-supported wilderness biking in Mongolia itself.

Boarding the Trans-Siberian Railway in Moscow
Boarding the train in Moscow en route to Ulan Ude in Buryatia, Siberia
We spent 4 days in dormitory wagons completing this leg of the two-week journey.
A brief stopover at a provincial Siberian rail hub whose exact name now eludes me.

Just getting to the start of this stage of my cycling expedition took the best part of a fortnight, during which I saw a cross-section of Russia and became intimately acquainted with life in 3rd-class platzkartny on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

And a couple of months later, having mountain-biked across Mongolia, I had to make the same journey in reverse to get back to Yerevan!

But while this kind of thing started as a chore – two weeks just to get to the start line! – I soon realised that travelling by land was in fact an integral part of the adventure, rather than something to be endured.

This tiny shift in perspective changed my experience of flight-free travel completely.

And, as a result, my younger self’s dedication to flight-free travel knew no bounds.

A month before I got married, for example, I decided to visit my grandmother, as she was too old and frail to come to the wedding.

The only problem was that I was getting married in Armenia, and she lived in Northamptonshire, England.

I’d just finished cycling a loop of the Middle East and north Africa, so I had no money; therefore, according to my own ruthless logic, I would have to cross West Asia and the whole of Europe by hitch-hiking and sleeping rough.

Just to make things interesting, I decided to do it with nothing more than a folding backpack containing a pocket knife, a toothbrush, my debit card and a poncho. I didn’t even pack a sleeping bag. Or a can of deodorant. (I later had to buy one.)

And I got as far as Verdun in France – an honourable attempt, I thought – before a bout of midnight food poisoning had me alone and hallucinating in a hostel bed with a fever so high I plunged myself, out of mortal desperation, into a freezing cold bath.

At the railway station the next day, so verging upon death did I look that the clerk photocopied his staff ID and gave it to me – alongside a free first-class Eurostar ticket to London.

Turkey was perhaps the easiest hitch of my life, taking 36 hours to cover 2,000km.
Western Europe, by comparison, was a tough place to thumb a ride.
Having arrived at the Gare du Nord without dying, I decided to push the limits of my Sony Ericsson W850i phone’s 2-megapixel camera. (This was 2009.)

I arrived at my gran’s place 10 days after leaving Yerevan.

After seeing her, I went to my GP for a checkup, who took some samples and later called to ask for a list of all the places in Europe I’d eaten so he could issue some kind of international health alert regarding my infection.

Then I hitched back to Armenia to actually get married.

These stories seem absurd only because there exists a vastly more convenient way of getting around the planet, which is to fly.

And I suspect that it is – when it boils down to it – the sheer convenience of flying that presents the greatest hurdle to reducing the aviation component of our personal emissions today.

For all it has done to help unify our species, globalisation has also created a world in which long-distance mobility is necessary for many of us to feel connected – and that mobility has to fit the pace and schedule of modern life. This is both the cause and the effect of flying’s popularity.

Even if all other obstacles are eventually broken down – the high cost of ground transport, the complexities of booking tickets across borders, the gaps in the actual infrastructure – it would still remain to make the most difficult change, which is the cultural one.

This is the part where we make that same tiny shift in perspective as a whole society, and, as a result, start to change the pace and schedule of modern life to make longer journeys by land the default choice, flying only when there is no other way.

And how do you initiate cultural change?

Articulate an alternative future.

In the case of flight-free travel, this has been happening for years, if not decades, culminating with the flygskam trend of 2019.

Yes – it seems that society at large is finally starting to listen.

Have you signed up for Flight Free 2020 yet? If not, have you considered having yourself a Flight Free 2021?


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