Round the World without flying?

Friday, March 13th 2020


For most of his working life, and certainly for all his married life, Robert had planned that he would retire at 55. As a teacher, that should ideally coincide with the end of a term, so this would mean retiring at the end of the autumn term in December 2019.

Robert had always intended that he would travel as extensively as he could with his wife, Matilda, when they retired.

With this retirement date in mind, he therefore felt that 2020 was the year to plan the first really big trip for Travelling Herd. [Regular readers will be aware that he actually retired before he turned 55, but this is the reason that 2020 became such a focal point.]

So as the endgame approached he looked for interesting travel opportunities. As many of you know he is keen on his train travel, so why not do the longest train journey in the world – the Trans-Siberian Railway?

Research led to the travel blog of Matthew Woodward and his several trips on the Trans-Siberian. The other go-to website for world wide train travel is The Man in Seat Sixty One. There are in fact three different routes that are referred to as the Trans-Siberian. The classic route joins Moscow to Vladivostock. There is also a route that travels through Russia and China, ending up in Beijing, which is called the Trans-Manchurian. Finally, there is a route from Moscow to Beijing that goes via Mongolia, called the Trans-Mongolian. The most interesting of these, in terms of locations en-route seemed to be the Trans-Mongolian. The Trans-Mongolian railway covers 4,735 miles and takes six days and nights in total.

This route led to the germ of an idea.

It is easy to get to Moscow from London by train, but with the current environmental concerns about the impact of airplane emissions, and in part inspired by the adventures of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg, Robert wondered whether it would be possible to continue on, around the world, without flying?

Well, you can travel across Canada or the USA by train. There are also a few transatlantic cruises and the regular transatlantic liners operated by Cunard, the Queen Mary II and the Queen Victoria. So the next question was how to get from Beijing to Canada/USA without flying?

Searching around on the internet over a period of several weeks, in June 2017, Robert eventually found that there was one cruise company, Silversea, that operates a cruise across the Pacific from Osaka in Japan to Seward in Alaska and then an onward cruise from Seward to Vancouver. These cruises were running in May 2019, a year too early. But maybe they would run the same cruises the following year. Japan has an extensive railway network, including the famous 186mph Shinkansen “Bullet” trains. A little further research identified a ferry from China to South Korea and then a ferry from South Korea to Japan.

Sorted: it was possible to travel from London, to London, around the world, without flying.

So, Robert checked the Silversea website on a regular basis to look for a 2020 version of the Tokyo to Vancouver cruise. In June 2018 the cruise appeared on their website for May 2020. A phone call to Silversea, a 10% early booking discount and the cruise was booked and paid for in June 2018. No more arrangements could be booked at this time because it was too far in the future: train timetables are often revised annually and tickets usually go on sale only three or sometimes four months in advance.

But with the cruise booked, it was now possible to plan out the route timings to and from the cruise.

At the end of July 2018 we received a phone call from Silversea to say that they were cancelling the cruise, not because of poor sales, but because they had taken a single booking from a company for the whole ship. Although we received a full refund, after an extensive search on the internet, it was not possible to find another company offering an equivalent cruise. It would seem that the cruise ships tend to operate in a particular region, the Mediterranean, for instance. Occasionally they relocate the ships from one region to another, and it was one of these relocations that we were looking for.

Eventually in August 2018, Viking announced a 22 day cruise from Tokyo to Vancouver. Another phone call and this cruise was booked, with a 10% early booking discount and the deposit paid.

So the next stage is to plan out the rest of the tour. Where will we stay? What will we do, which boats and trains will we catch? How do we buy tickets? Timetables? We need a spreadsheet!

By December 2019 the plans were finalised. Starting at the beginning of April we would first visit Greenwich, to stand astride the Meridian line. Then travel by Eurostar, through the Channel Tunnel to Brussels, where we would change onto a train to our first stopover in Hanover. From there we would travel by train stopping overnight in Warsaw ending in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

An overnight train from Minsk would take us to Moscow for the start of the Trans-Mongolian Railway to Beijing. The Trans-Mongolian takes six days and nights if you travel on it continuously, we however planned to stop off along the route to spend time in Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk and Ulan Bator before arriving in Beijing.

From Beijing we need to travel to South Korea. Unfortunately, the land route from China to South Korea passes through North Korea. Although trains do run along this route, we felt that we would miss North Korea out, so instead the plan is to travel by train from Beijing to the port of Qingdao where you can catch an overnight ferry to the South Korean port of Incheon.

Following a stop in Seoul we would then catch a train to the port of Busan where you can get a high speed ferry across to Hakata in Japan.

Two weeks travelling on the high speed trains through Japan would take us to the capital Tokyo via various well-known places including Nagasaki and Hiroshima, famous for having nuclear bombs dropped on them in WWII as well as the tourist sites of Himeji, Nara and Hakone.

At the port of Yokohama we would pick up our 22 day cruise ship to Sapparo in the north of Japan, up to the tip of Russia and across to Vancouver via the coast of Alaska.

From Vancouver we would drop down to Seattle and Portland on day trains, before a two day sleeper train through the Rockies across to St Paul, Milwaukee and Chicago.

Our planned route across the Atlantic was the Cunard Transatlantic liner the Queen Mary II. Checking and then booking the dates meant we had a week and a half to fill between Chicago and New York. The one place Matilda most wanted to visit in USA was New Orleans … and there was a seven day paddle-steamer river cruise available from Memphis to New Orleans down the Mississippi, so why not?

We had a complete route. The booking/paying process now starts. With some of the trains bookable four months in advance the process would start in December 2019. Oh, and yes we will need visas, vaccinations, etc.

That’s it for this post. In the next one we will start to document the booking process but you know it is not going to go smoothly.


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