Laura Bannister was living and working in the busy world of PR in London. But, with competing ambitions and restlessness kicking in, she decided to strike out solo for a once-in-a-lifetime journey on the Trans-Mongolian Railway route.
The experience led Laura to live, study and work in Bangkok, before coming back to the UK and taking an entirely new direction. Finding opportunity in the pandemic, she created The Holiday in a Box Co, enabling guests to explore the world from their own homes.
In this interview Laura talks about the decisions that led to her adventure, the incredible kindness of the people she met in Russia, readjusting to life back at home, and how she has built an adventurous new life direction in the pandemic.
What was your life situation before you decided to take time out to travel?
By 2018, I’d been working in a succession of positions since graduating in 2015. Unlike many of my peers, I never quite felt like I had found my fit, and I didn’t know where to go or what to do with my passions and ambitions.
After a few years of trial and error, I was working in travel PR which I really enjoyed, but I felt restless as there was so much else I wanted to do. I felt trapped, overwhelmed, and like my time was slipping away. I just couldn’t see how I was going to make any headway on my apparently contradictory ambitions.
What inspired you to take a break and embark on an adventure?
At first, I started a job in a different industry, thinking that was all the change I needed. I was so far off from figuring everything out (including having sufficient savings), I felt like I didn’t have the option to do anything I actually wanted.
As it turned out, I was completely miserable in the new job and simply wasn’t succeeding. The same summer, one of my closest friends got married, and once my ‘duties’ as maid of honour were complete, I felt free to make some major life changes.
“I had a sketchpad on which I traced out my entire route and added all the destinations to my itinerary. I still feel excited even thinking about it now.”
My family helped seal the deal. I remember talking to my Mum on the phone after one particularly awful work day and she reminded me of the travel ambitions I’d always held. “If you don’t do it now, when will you?”
Of course, back then we had no idea how true that would end up being, as I returned from said travels about eight weeks before the pandemic grounded everybody.
What were the biggest challenges in preparing for your journey?
Money was a huge one, but it turned out to be more of a psychological block (‘it’s not there in my account’) rather than a practical one. Once I’d made the decision to go, things came together fairly quickly.
I sold my furniture and moved home to save the final couple of months’ salaries, which made a huge difference. I was booking hostels that cost me in the region of £2–£5 a night, and a lot of nights were spent on the train, so it was amazing to realise how far the money could go.
I secured some freelance writing jobs that I could do from anywhere, and this also gave me a sense of moving towards something I was passionate about, and that possibilities were out there.
I suppose the other challenge was the nature of the journey I was taking. I had decided to fulfil my lifelong dream of taking the Trans-Mongolian train route through Russia to Beijing, via Ulaanbaatar, then exploring China. This meant I had to get a lot of complicated visas in a short space of time, and because I had a very specific idea of what I wanted to do, organising all the many (and quite obscure!) legs of my journey took some effort.
I had a sketchpad on which I traced out my entire route and added all the destinations to my itinerary. I still feel excited even thinking about it now.
How did the people in your life react to your decision?
I’m very lucky in that my immediate family are very supportive and are adventurous travellers themselves. My friends also sent some lovely gifts to help me on my way: a beautiful eye mask set and a necklace with a pendant on it to symbolise protection for travellers. I used these items almost every day and they were a source of comfort and joy.
“I’ve never met with more kindness than when I was in Russia.”
There are always naysayers, though, and in my wider circles the reaction was less to do with the fact I was going travelling, and more to do with where (Russia in particular raised some eyebrows).
I was disappointed and saddened to encounter this. I appreciate that not everyone is a confident traveller and not everyone is intrigued by the same places, but the level of alienation between our nations, even on a person-to-person level, was a shock to me.
What were the biggest highlights and life lessons of your travel experiences?
There are probably too many to list, so I will go into the most important one: I’ve never met with more kindness than when I was in Russia. And I lived in the ‘Land of Smiles’ for a year afterwards, so that is saying a lot!
The camaraderie of travellers, especially on the long-distance trains, was incomparable. I sincerely hope I get to be that person for somebody else one day.
“My encounters in Russia brought home the importance of travel for cultural diplomacy.”
There was the grandmotherly Babushka who wordlessly insisted on zipping up my coat for me as I wrestled with my backpack to head out onto the platform; the elderly gentleman on a bus who gently interrupted a conversation to point out the rainbow that had formed over the fields after two days of rain; my Kupe (compartment) compatriots who deftly took charge of this English-speaking oddity and made sure I understood all the regimented workings of the train; the train’s cook, who held up a succession of ingredients for my approval as we laughingly tried to navigate a barely-verbal breakfast order; the cardiologist who’d been amongst the first students to stay in Britain after the Cold War, and who wanted to chat with me about Dostoevsky and Dickens; the lady visiting family who shared her bag of plums, freshly plucked from her mother-in-law’s garden; and our neighbour, the former soldier who was so excited when I showed him the extent of my intended journey that he stood up with a roar of approval to shake my hand, before being shot daggers by the provodnitsa (the all-powerful carriage attendant) and we all stifled laughter like a group of unruly schoolchildren in the face of an overzealous teacher.
On a more serious note, people seemed genuinely touched that I had enough interest – and trust – in their country to wish to visit, let alone for a full month and explore beyond the major cities, as they felt that the world has turned its back on them.
These experiences were echoed by the (rare) fellow travellers from western Europe whom I met along the way.
How have your travel experiences influenced your lifestyle and career path since?
Ultimately, I’ve come full circle, but with a renewed sense of purpose and a much deeper direction.
My encounters in Russia brought home the importance of travel for cultural diplomacy, and the importance of interpersonal exchange. This was probably the first real ‘homecoming’ for me in terms of my career.
Originally I had felt guilty about working in an industry that I saw, however much I loved it really, as a ‘nice-to-have’ when there are so many challenges in the world. But I increasingly realised that these exchanges can be the first and last defence against big-picture events that seek to divide us.
A few months into my adventures, I found a job in Bangkok working for a travel company, first as a content writer, and then I took on their PR efforts. During this time, I also found a distance-learning MSc run by SOAS, University of London, in sustainable development, which has probably shaped my next stage more than anything.
Together, these experiences combined to inspire me to return to Europe at the start of 2020 to found my own rail specialist tour operator.
What inspired you to begin your own enterprise?
The Holiday in a Box Co began life as a pandemic-pivot. It was born of my love for the world as well as from my frustration of being cut off from it during the pandemic!
The idea is that each ‘holiday in a box’ gives you a multi-dimensional travel experience (physical products, virtual tours and themed activities), so you can both holiday from home and plan your future adventures (they’re highly detailed).
They’ve been really popular as gifts, and I’ve been approached by several travel companies about potential future avenues. Long-term, I see an opportunity to help the travel industry transform part of its business model.
Bringing an increasing number of visitors to spend an increasing amount of money in a destination is simply untenable. I have a vision for how an evolution of our product offering could help travel providers share their stories and develop an income stream that’s not reliant on unsustainable footfall.
What effect did the pandemic have on your plans and your lifestyle in general?
It affected absolutely everything. The original plan was to return to Europe and work on a handful of freelance retainer clients to give myself an income while I built up The Odyssey Collection (my rail-specialist luxury travel company).
In my final few months in Thailand I had been working around the clock (balancing studies, a full-time job, freelance work and my own life) to give myself this possibility.
When the pandemic hit, my freelance work all but dried up overnight, the rail travel company naturally needed to be put on hold (and its future still isn’t clear), and on top of that, Brexit finally shuddered into reality midway through, and for me that was a personal low point of grief and worry about how on earth I’m going to make the next step happen.
Overall, however, I feel that my travels have given me the confidence and resilience to roll with life’s changes and trust in the detours.
What have been the biggest challenges in adjusting to life back in the UK after your travel experiences?
People don’t talk enough about reverse culture shock. The first time I moved abroad (to Austria as part of my undergraduate studies), I found it extremely hard to settle back into what I felt was the ‘humdrum’ of daily life in the UK after the excitement of having a new adventure every day, and I perceived so many differences in the overall quality of life here.
This time was different. At first, I was honestly just enjoying being home and seeing friends and family (until you-know-what happened!) and I always saw the UK as a stepping stone to my next stage. Ultimately, though, I didn’t expect to be here this long, and that has been a shock.
“Whatever obstacles you think are in your way: they are not.”
I’m starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, though. I’m researching the areas I’m interested in moving to (hopefully next year), and I’m getting my head around what will be required of me now that we Brits need formal visas to live and work in the EU.
This all feels positive and constructive, and I feel like I can finally start dreaming again after 18 months of making the best of a situation.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering taking a break from their career to travel?
I wouldn’t have any hesitations whatsoever in encouraging them to just go for it. Whatever obstacles you think are in your way: they are not. You have everything to gain by going, and frankly, a lot to lose by keeping yourself stuck.
I would say, however, to be judicious about how you spend your time, and which companies you engage with along the way. Whether taking a short holiday or making travel more of a lifestyle, the same rules of responsible travel apply.