WALKING IS BEST

The Big Question: for travel writer Colin Thubron, travelling on foot frees the mind 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2014

The choice to travel on foot is a transforming one. The unhurried pace brings a sense of things restored to their natural proportions. Time slows down and geography stretches out. The details of the land—its small topographical changes, its chance noises and scents—become more potent and absorbing. Some of the finest works of travel, from the sagas of George Borrow two centuries ago, to those of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin, were achieved on foot.

Many people have remarked on the curious relationship between walking and thinking. The rhythm of the body seems to free the mind, just as the rhythm of a mother's walk (it is imagined) puts at rest her babe-in-arms. Solvitur ambulando, declared the ancients: "it is solved by walking". Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move, as did John Clare. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical discoveries while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote that "I have walked myself into my best thoughts."

In an age when time is precious, walking has become a luxury. But of course it is among the earliest human desires (one-year-olds cannot stop). It is no surprise that pilgrims travelled on foot, and still do. The body purges the mind, and its primal contact with the ground reminds the pilgrim that we are dust. A few years ago the Chinese talked of building a road around Mount Kailash in Tibet: a mountain too sacred ever to have been climbed. In the end the idea of a pilgrimage by car was so bizarre that even the Chinese began to relent.

To walk in the world's poorer countries is to enter the orbit of their inhabitants. An attachment to the earth—to the vital soil or rock underfoot—is still the lot of most of the world's population. I have walked most happily in small countries—Cyprus, Lebanon, Kyrgystan—where the regional changes are close and intimate. The footpaths and goat-tracks thread a network of sites—villages, fields, wells—whose genesis belongs to a time before tarmac. Sometimes they give you the pleasing sense of walking through the ancient character of the land. Shorn of the steel straitjacket of aeroplane or car, this might be called "deep travelling" if only your feet were less transient on the track.

What's the best way to travel? Vote here in our online poll

Jonathan Raban thinks sailing is the best; Joanna Kavenna thinks its overland skiingRichard Holmes prefers the hot-air balloonEmma Duncan the bicycle, and Oliver August the bus.

Colin Thubron is an award-winning travel writer and the president of the Royal Society of Literature

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