0. A world without magic

What is it worth, a world without fairy tales?
Li Mei Fan. The dragons of Bei Xi.

The last time it was possible to travel for real was before the invention of the telegraph. An explorer with a horse or a sailship was the fastest information carrier. After robbing a bank, seducing a girl from Khan's harem, or telling tall tales to naive locals, you could ride into sunset, knowing that in the next town nobody would know anything. In some places people used homing pigeons, but only for special occasions.

Of course, such isolation had its disadvantages. You often had to spend years circling the globe in a stinky caravel, feeding on rotten meat and rats, never getting any news from home. If a war began, you didn't even know until in some god-forsaken port you got thrown into a dungeon for espionage.

As telegraph and telephone appeared, moving around became more mundane. Then the Internet squeezed the last drops of adventure from the business of travel. In less than twenty years, getting away from home became virtually impossible.

Nowadays, if you are waiting for a bus somewhere in Tierra del Fuego, Outer Mongolia or Central Borneo, the best way to kill time is to go to an Internet cafe and chat with your friends. It is disgustingly cheap, and it makes geographical distance totally irrelevant. Travel is now the process of paying airlines for a few hours of watching clouds from an uncomfortable plane seat. The place where you land looks exactly the same as the place you took off from. There are still some differences between rich and poor countries, but otherwise the world is getting standardized ad nauseum.

The more boring it is, the more popular it gets. Two hundred years ago travel for fun was a rare mental disorder. Now it is practiced by hundreds of millions of people. Every year they spend hard-earned money to fly halfway around the world, settle in a hotel where architecture, food, and habits of their home country are laboriously recreated, and waste a week getting fried on hot sand near urine-filled sea. They return home with diarrhea, gonorrhea, extra layers of fat, skin cancer, credit card debts, or all of the above.

Some fanatics despise "beach tourism". They are ready to spend three days in a suffocatingly hot, overcrowded bus to have a look at 9th century whorehouse ruins. Or to follow a quietly cursing guide across miles of malaria-infested swamp to see a tiny rare bird. Or to collect pounds of roadside dust, hitchhiking across continents for no reason at all. Every one of them is closely chased by a long-fanged black shadow - the inevitable understanding of the futility of their quest.

Everything has already been discovered and described in guidebooks. A mysterious ancient temple has been explored by local kids. These kids are no longer illiterate natives you could ignore: each one has an email account and a website. Rare birds have been counted by a local schoolteacher, who has installed a webcam into their nest, so you can watch their private life without ever getting off your couch. Jails in the remotest places have special cells for visiting hitchhikers - the main source of entertainment for the police there.

The only solace is that it's going to get even worse. The world is being rapidly paved. If I was born forty years later, I'd have to commit suicide by the age of fifteen, because I belong to the miserable kind who cannot survive without travel.

Somewhere in my crooked DNA is a mutant gene which condemns some mammals to endless migration. My fellow mutants were the first to walk out of Africa, cross the Bering Strait and discover all islands in all oceans. When I see a rat climbing an anchor chain, or a roadkill opossum on a six-lane freeway, I know it is one of us. Volcanoes and lakes are named after us, mountain passes and river rapids are fertilized by our corpses. Now we are about to become extinct.

In my case the pathology is particularly acute, but it also has some advantages. I am not just a very crazed traveler, but also a very good one. My talent and fixation allowed me to join the small circle of experts who still manage to stay a few steps ahead of the road roller. To find the last non-commercialized places. To walk trails not yet converted into numbered routes. But it gets more and more difficult.

I don't know if I'll manage to die before the world becomes totally boring. I had to give up the habit of re-visiting the places I'd liked the most. Returning there causes nothing but depression. The sounds of engines and modems behind my back get louder every day. The smells of diesel fuel and sunblock get stronger. The words "chainsaw" and "ecotourism" cause nervous twitches. The word "safety" makes me want to sign up as a mercenary or take brakes off my car. Every morning my pillow is wet. It's not from tears and not from drooling. It's my body getting rid of testosterone and adrenaline that our species doesn't need anymore.

And once again, like a mangy mammoth with worn tusks, I leave my herd, happily fattening itself on a lush meadow, and slowly walk towards distant glaciers in a desperate search for a non-existing path to an unknown land.

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