Travel News

An Around-the-World Voyage … Without a Plane

Locations in this article:  Beijing, China Los Angeles, CA Moscow, Russia San Francisco, CA Tokyo, Japan

globe.jpgLet’s say that right about now you’re feeling far too tied down and you’re ready for a decisive break with the routines of everyday life.

Let’s say you’re looking to take a trip that will give you a long time away from the daily grind, that’ll give you something to tell the grandkids about, that will rival that backpacking trip you took when you were 19 and hadn’t yet forgotten what a cool place the world really is.

So why not take the plunge and embark on a trip around the world?

We’ve got a unique, practical travel itinerary will take you across three continents and return you to where you started in about 90 days. The itinerary does not use airplanes. Instead, you’ll traverse the globe by ocean freighter, train, bus, and ferry.

These days, it’s just too easy. Modern air travel has delivered us to an age in which traversing the globe is as easy as whipping out your credit card and booking your flights online. But why not take a journey into the unknown? See the world the hard way, the slow way, the old way.

On the ocean, you’ll experience the vast distance that separates the continents in the same way explorers did hundreds of years ago. On land, you’ll travel through modern and post-modern cities, across vast, untouched grasslands, through deserts and mountains and forests and valleys and plains. You’ll cross borders; you’ll watch Asia turn slowly to Europe, and you’ll have the chance to directly interact with an incredibly diverse cross-section of the world’s cultures.

Getting Prepared

Zipper packing bagsFirst things first: Since you’re going to be gone for a few months, you’ll want to make sure your real-world obligations are taken care of so that they don’t come back to haunt you when you least want them there. Place a hold on your utilities, put your investments on autopilot, and entrust some blank checks to a lucky friend so that whatever bills arrive can be handled with minimum fuss.

To follow the itinerary below, you will need to secure Chinese and Russian visas ahead of time.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, you might have some additional red tape to wade through, so be sure to check out the specifics with each country’s embassy.

Remember that it always takes time to navigate bureaucracy, so start the visa application process a couple months in advance if you can.

From the West Coast to the Far East

Docked FreighterThe trip begins with a journey across the Pacific on an ocean freighter. Did you know you can still travel this way?

Such vessels were once the preferred method for making ocean crossings, and while they can’t match planes for convenience or cruise ships for luxury, they have their advantages: a sense of adventure, a connection with the past, a chance to meet interesting and unusual people you’d never otherwise run into.

You’ll eat your meals with the ship’s crew, and you’ll likely be one of only a small number of paying guests. Click here for more information on traveling by freight ship.

This particular journey will take you across the Pacific on the Niederelbe Schiffahrtsgesellschaft Buxtehude (that’s a mouthful!), a German-operated ship that leaves from Los Angeles and hits San Francisco before its first stop in the Far East: Tokyo. (Even if you decide not to travel aboard the Niederelbe Schiffahrtsgesellschaft Buxtehude, you’ll have plenty of other options for getting across the Atlantic.)

The journey from L.A. to Tokyo takes 13 days. What will you do during those 13 days? It’s all up to you. You can carouse with the crew, knit a sweater, watch for dolphins, or work on that novel you’ve been meaning to start.
When you reach dry land in Japan, the real adventure begins …

From Asia to Europe

This itinerary takes you to Tokyo because it’s an amazing city. You may wish to spend a day or two pushing through the crowds, gawking at the neon lights and admiring what have to be some of the cleanest city streets in the world.

Tokyo has too many attractions to really even begin to mention them here. Be sure to wander; it’ll be rewarding.

If you want more ideas for traveling in Tokyo, check out Off the Brochure: Tokyo for insight into the city’s hidden gems.

When this overwhelming metropolis has totally exhausted you, hop on a train to Kobe, a friendly port city about 270 miles from Tokyo. The journey takes about three and a half hours by the fastest available combination of trains. To plan the trip out exactly, check out the Japanese Train Route Finder site.

Once in Kobe, make your way via subway to Port Terminal Station. From there, you’ll board the weekly ferry to Tianjin, China. Check this website for details on departures.

great-wall.jpgAlthough it’s a full-blown metropolis with a population of around 10 million, Tianjin is less touristed than its next-door neighbor, Beijing. Take some time and look around. You’ll probably find any preconceptions about the similarities between China and Japan are quickly shattered. This is a loud, rough, smelly city, and though you may not find much information about it in your guidebook, it’s worth a bit of your time.

The train trip from Tianjin to Beijing is a quick one, and you should be able to obtain tickets upon arrival. Travel agency China Highlights hosts a convenient train schedule.

You’re in the area, so why not take a side trip to the Great Wall? You can explore Beijing’s historic hutong neighborhoods by bicycle if you’re so inclined, or you can pay your respects at Mao’s tomb. Click here for more travel information on Beijing.

Be sure to stock up on delicious, inexpensive Chinese snacks before boarding the train to Mongolia.

mongolia yakYou don’t have to stop in Ulan Bator (aka- “Ulaanbaatar”) on your way to Moscow, but why not?

The Mongolian capital may not be a stunningly beautiful place, but it has a rich history and the people are friendly—plus, you’ll be able to brag to your friends about having visited a country that redefines “desolate.” The city has an official website in English.

It’s time for another lengthy train trip, this one to Moscow. It takes about four days to get there from Ulan Bator. Expect a truly international mixture of western European, Russian, Polish, and Chinese passengers aboard the train. You’ll have plenty of time to socialize and to absorb the stunning scenery. During day three, you’ll cross from Asia into Europe.

You’ve now traversed two continental boundaries. In previous times, only a very few human beings ever managed this feat. It’s still a pretty neat accomplishment. Congratulations!

In Part Two of Around the World Without a Plane, we’ll tell you how to travel from Europe back to Asia and back to Europe again … and how you can finally get yourself back home!

By Mike Day for

Moscow’s more than just Red Square and the Kremlin. Find out what you’re missing in Moscow: Off the Brochure.

Did you know it’s possible to travel cheap in Japan? Click here to find out how.

Don’t forget: for more info on your stay in Tokyo or Beijing, check out the Off the Brochure Travel Guide to Tokyo, Japan as well as the Off the Brochure Travel Guide to Beijing, China.

Of course, if you do want to travel by plane, don’t miss this article on Cheap, “Secret” International Flights to Asia, Europe and America.