Long reads


Essay by Mia Kankimäki: One hundred questions about ecological travel

In writer Mia Kankimäki’s book ‘The Women I Think About at Night’, the explorers travelled by camel, ate local food and supported local livelihoods by staying in ecological accommodation in tribal villages. Should we return to these slow and complicated but sustainable means of travelling again? In her essay, Kankimäki ponders how to travel ecologically in today’s world. The essay precedes the autumn’s grant call, in which we will look for solutions for ecological travelling.

Whoosh to Brussels in 2 hours 30 minutes. Whoosh to Rome in 3 hours 30 minutes. Whoosh to Tokyo in 9 hours. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh to Cape Town – with one stop – in 15 hours. Quick, efficient and horrifically unecological.

In the 19th century, explorers travelled in a completely different way, as I found out when I was writing my book, The Women I Think About at Night. When Mary Kingsley went from Liverpool to the Canary Islands in 1892, she travelled by boat and the journey took seven days. When Austrian traveller and author Ida Pfeiffer wanted to visit South America a few decades earlier, she had to get through a ten-week journey on a sailing ship from Hamburg. In order to get from England to Japan, Isabella Bird needed to travel for almost two months – first by steamer to New York, then by train across the American continent and finally by ship to Yokohama. And the further we look back in time, the slower travelling becomes. In the 1550s, Sofonisba Anguissola’s journey from Genoa to Rome meant sitting in a carriage for three weeks and when, in the 10th century, Sei Shōnagon left Kyoto in her oxcart to head for the nearest temple mountain, the journey was so painstakingly slow and cumbersome that it would probably have been quicker to crawl there.

Although travelling was slow, it was not entirely without a carbon footprint, particularly when steam ships and trains were involved. But, in other regards, the journeys made by these women could be characterised as eco-conscious acts. Mary Kingsley canoed down the jungle rivers of West Africa by her own hand, Isabella Bird made her way through the mountain ranges of Japan on horseback or sedan chair carried by people, and Ida Pfeiffer travelled by camel through the desert and on foot in the jungle. They ate local organic food, such as beetle shells or snakes they had snared, supported local livelihoods by staying in ecological accommodation in tribal villages and by hiring local interpreters and bearers as guides. On their Atlantic crossing by sailing ship, they took their own potatoes and a goat from the local farm, and they certainly did not pollute the sea with plastic waste, because plastic had not yet been invented. When they set off, they were prepared to be travelling for months or even years. At the fastest pace – if you were in a real hurry – it was possible to circumnavigate the globe in 72 days: this was proven by Nellie Bly in 1890.

The enormous carbon footprint caused by flying forces us to consider whether we should return to these slow and complicated means of travelling. The subject is an emotive one: the concept of flight shame was recently invented in Sweden, some people think we should stop travelling altogether, and it does not help the case that the available information is highly contradictory. I try to calculate how much more ecological it would be to travel from Finland to Japan first by train across Siberia and then by ship across the Sea of Japan. Or should we, in fact, travel only on foot or by bicycle? After all, travelling by ship is no more ecological than flying, according to the latest information. Will I ever have it in me to cycle from Helsinki to Vladivostok and swim the rest? And does it reduce the relative carbon footprint if I spend a long time in my destination? Should we always set aside a year – or three years – for each trip, as the explorers of the 19th century did?

A respectable 19th-century woman could not just up and leave – there needed to be an acceptable reason for every journey, such as her husband’s work, missionary work or a pilgrimage. Now that travelling is no longer considered ’decent behaviour’ we have to consider whether we have sufficiently acceptable reasons for our trips before we Google the prices of flights. Who is entitled to travel? For example, is “work” an acceptable reason to travel? If so, what type of work? Is flying more acceptable if the passenger is travelling to negotiate on behalf of her company, a flying doctor going to help earthquake victims or a sportsperson travelling to the Olympics, rather than a student setting out for a year on exchange or – heaven forbid – an ordinary person going on a holiday. Is it more acceptable for a cancer researcher to travel to a conference than a visual artist to travel to an exhibition or an author to a residency? Is it acceptable to travel to meet relatives, for recreation, self-education, hobbies or study? And how about health reasons, the most typical smokescreen used by women who travelled in the 19th century? Collecting plant samples? Sheer curiosity?

Do any of us have an acceptable reason that could entitle us to board an aeroplane? Naturally, humans should not be the only ones denied frivolous flight: tomatoes, dresses from online stores and airmail should also be limited. It makes no difference whether I cycle to Japan if I am burdening the environment when I eat every day.

So what should extremely ecological travel be like if there is no longer a list of acceptable reasons?

Should we be more like Petri Riikonen, who has switched to virtual tourism and travels the globe using Google Maps’ mapping and street view functions? Here is how: decide to drive across the American content during your summer holiday, plan the route, see how each day will pan out, choose where you will eat lunch and sleep every night, stop off at service stations, museums and tourist attractions – all of this from your own home via the internet. Reportedly, the experience can be surprisingly authentic and diverse.

Or is it reading books, enabling you to sit in your armchair and travel to worlds and realities that someone else has experienced or imagined?

Or will it become a reality thanks to a technological innovation we have dreamed of that will enable us to hire a surrogate traveller and experience the four corners of the world using a virtual headset?

Or will we, one day, witness the discovery of an ecological way of flying?

I hope so, because I do not believe that we can stop travelling entirely. These travellers, citizens of the world on their way from one corner of the world to another, each travelling with their own purpose – some trips important, some less so – are impossible to stop.

Nor should they be stopped.

For travel broadens the mind. It means expanding our horizons, searching for a connection with people, cultures, habits and world views. It is networking, seeking shared solutions, promoting spiritual closeness, accepting differences, avoiding the echo chamber, being inspired by the new, seeing the unbearable beauty and vulnerability of this world – perceiving how different living conditions and environments tangibly affect people’s lives.

This connection is one of the most important things that we have, and I do not believe that the world can have a future without it.

To preserve this connection, I am willing to do the following:

1) Foot the bill (for example, in the form of indulgence payments to compensate for my carbon footprint) and demand technological solutions, which must be effectively implemented.

2) Favour slow travel and spend a long time travelling.

3) Live and stay in the local, small-scale way when I travel, eat honest local food cooked by locals, suffer the cold in the winter and the hot in the summer because becoming hardier is underrated and air conditioning unnecessary (according to my landlady).

And if this is not enough, I am also willing

4) to begin training for an 8,000-kilometre bike ride to Kyoto and maybe even

5) spend weeks travelling in the hull of a sailing ship with a goat, if that is what it takes.

My request: more means of travelling ecologically, please!


Mia Kankimäki

Mia Kankimäki’s book ‘The Women I Think About at Night’ was published in September 2019. Kone Foundation has supported completing the book.