Joe’s “Eurasia Odyssey”

Here’s a little trip I’m planning for August:


If you’re asking “why,” “how” or “I wanna go, too,” more after the jump.

Why I’m doing this
My father came from Ireland to the US shortly before I was born, a quarter century ago. He supported the family by working as an aircraft mechanic. Actually, if it wasn’t for the fact that I could fly really cheaply, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Japan as an exchange student in high school (and I DEFINITELY wouldn’t have gone first class).

Around this time last year, while I was working and going to night classes in Tokyo, I realized that I hadn’t seen my (rather huge) Irish family since middle school, and decided that I should go back in the near future. But this posed something of a conflict, since the bar exam would be coming up, and then I would either be going back to Japan or entering a big US firm, and facing a hectic schedule either way. And in any event, there were so many other places in the world that I still wanted to see.

So I began putting together a plan to go from Ireland to Japan by land. This would (a) allow my family’s DNA to effectively circumnavigate the globe, (b) let me see my Irish family and go back to Tokyo in one fell swoop, (c) give me a much-needed vacation after months of studying for the bar, and (d) give me lots of fun stories and bragging rights. Since I haven’t been east of Germany or west of China, the trip would also let me see half of the world that I haven’t gotten around to yet, and the opportunity to do it during one of my last big stretches of free time for a while.

How the trip is set up
This is not the easiest way to get from Ireland to Japan by land. The easiest way is to take the trans-Siberian through Russia. I was considering that plan until Curzon pointed out that I would just be spending a week on a dilapidated Soviet train, and not seeing very much en route. So I switched to a tougher but far more interesting southern route, modifying it a bit over time as I had more chances to read other people’s travelogues.

Most of the voyage is by train (the black lines on the map). There are a few stretches where no trains are available, so I plan to either go by bus/car (brown lines) or ferry (blue lines). If everything connected together ideally, this could be done in 2-3 weeks, but since I know everything won’t connect together ideally (and don’t want to rush the trip anyway), I’m setting aside the month of August.

The total budget for the mapped trip (train/bus/boat fares, visas, lodging, food, and cushioning for souvenirs/bribes/exchange rate fluctuations) is $3,000 US. It’s possible to make the trip for much less, but since I know the central Asian part will not be fast or comfortable, I elected to take options that were reasonably fast and comfortable on either end. So the budget assumes high-speed rail from London to Paris and through Korea and Japan (even though cheaper buses are also available) as well as mid-range rail accommodation through Europe, soft sleepers in China, and bunks instead of floor space on the Tianjin-Seoul ferry.

I haven’t included airfare in the budget, because I don’t know whether I will go back to the US after arriving in Tokyo, and in any event I’ll still be taking advantage of standby fares through my airline industry parents (thanks, guys!)

So do you want to come along?
As interesting as this trip seems, it’s not something I want to do entirely by myself, since there will be a number of lengthy stretches through vast portions of countries where I don’t speak the language. So I’m looking for co-conspirators who would like to travel with me, either for the whole journey or just for part of it. (If the price tag seems scary to you, rest assured that it comes down dramatically if you knock off the portions in developed countries on either end)

Naturally, if you’re a reader of this blog based in one of the highlighted waypoints, I would love to drop in and pay a visit–just let me know.

31 thoughts on “Joe’s “Eurasia Odyssey””

  1. Impressive. While I won’t be able to join you, it’s the sort of semi-insane trip I’ve wanted to do for years (but as you say, not alone). I do hope however that you give us a nice thorough and nitty-gritty travelogue at the end (or even as you do it). That would be very interesting. All the little things, like how to bribe officials (and how often), local toilets, how often you get the runs, how easy it is to sleep on a swaying train full of noisy Chinese (or noisier tourists), how easy or hard it is to find hotels and good food, that sort of thing.

    Just a little recommendation. I don’t know how set in stone your itinerary is, but it’s well worth detouring to Prague in the Vienna-Munich leg. Prague is astounding. Of course everyone is probably going to have their own “you HAVE to see XXX!” so if you don’t draw the line somewhere (like on your map) you’ll end up spending a year instead of a month, and $30,000 instead of $3,000.

  2. I’ve done part of it in reverse: boat from Osaka to Shanghai, trains across China to Urumqi, bus to Almaty. I would love to join you for the whole thing, but I don’t know if that time period will be practical for me.

  3. Oh yeah, and I have to say, when you are going across China, DEFINITELY stop in Xi’an between Lanzhou and Shanghai. After all, you’ll be passing it on that train anyway so it’s not even going out of your way.

  4. MF–Not going to Shanghai. That was the original plan, but I adjusted it since visiting Shanghal back in November. (I’d rather cover uncharted territory.)

  5. I was considering that plan until Curzon pointed out that I would just be spending a week on a dilapidated Soviet train, and not seeing very much en route.

    Define “August.” The issue remains: unless you take a good 3 months to do this, you’ll just be watching the scenery pass you by. My one month across Vietnam and China was too short, and you’re doing more than three times the distance. Frankly, if you are just going to do the trip in less than 2 months, I would definitely do the TransSiberian.

    And MF is right: see Xi’an. You will pass it.

  6. Curzon is right: even if you don’t tack on anything else (like Xi’an), 2-3 weeks is not going to cut it. You’ve got over 20 stops not including your arrival and departure countries. And even if you don’t tack on, you want the ability to say “Wow. This place is a gazillion times cooler than I imagined, and it took x days, y miles and z dollars to get here. I wanna stay an extra couple of days” at least twice.

    Personally, I think it’s a great map, and I’d find a way to block out July and/or September as well.

  7. I may end up blocking off a good part of September to make this a 5-6 week trip (pending resolution of my employment situation). The pace is fast compared to Curzon’s trip, but that’s because I have a pretty short attention span when it comes to travel. Even big cities only keep me amused for 2 days or so, so spending 3 months rambling around is not particularly appealing to me. Though I could be proven wrong…

  8. You will be proven very wrong.

    Forget big cities — what about smaller towns, distant smaller towns, far-flung outposts, historical monuments, and much more. Frankly, even if you did do this trip in three months, you will still only have the time for two days per stop anyway. I wasn’t impressed by Shanghai either, but I could have spent a month in Xin’jiang.

    Personally, I wouldn’t consider a trip of this depth without some serious “introductory” overland travel first. I mean that. Start with a trip from Beijing to Almaty overland and tell me how you feel. That would give you a wake-up call into what this kind of travel is all about, and let you know more about yourself, such as how you cope on a 48 hours train ride with no room to lie down?

    Also, I don’t think you’ve realistically examined how long it will take to travel, and all the factors you need to consider, i.e. what happens when your bus breaks down between Almaty and Urumqi, or if you miss the weekly ferry from Baku to Turkmenistan and have to wait another week, or any other chaos factor in the realm of “developing world transportation.”

  9. I spent three weeks doing Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. My plan beforehand was to see far much more than I actually managed. I see that you may try to extend it up to a six week course. I do hope you can.

    Plus, even if you depart alone, you will meet people en route. It’s what I did during my trek and have made friends of a lifetime.

  10. I’m with Curzon on this – if this is indeed your very first megatransit, then you may well be biting off more than you can chew. How long did Saru Ganseki take to do a similar trip? There is also the issue of information overload, where so many new sights, sounds, and experiences can be overwhelming and you just need a mental break. In fact the more I look at this the more it seems far too ambitious for just four weeks. I took three weeks just in a part of Europe last time, and wasn’t remotely dawdling (three or four nights per stop – it adds up. And if there isn’t enough in a stop to see for that long then you probably shouldn’t bother, unless it’s something that really only does have one thing worth seeing. Which even Shanghai doesn’t. So unless you want to travel JTB-style, five-cities-in-three-days, then you will need to think again. And with about 25 stops you are seriously looking at one night in each. Add in travelling time, and you will have even less free time than Phineas Fogg…. Talking of which, have you read any of Michael Palin’s travel reports (available online on his website)? They could be of interest: he’s done a lot of similar stuff to this, and things almost never work out the way they’re planned.

  11. Joe, congratulations, this looks like an incredible trip! I see your point about not doing the Trans-Siberian, but I wanted to make a little comment in its defense. I took it years ago, and at least at that time Chinese and Russian trains alternated on the route. I was on a Chinese train, and it was very nice. We saw an incredible amount–watching the scenery turn from the rolling hills of Northern China with the Great Wall snaking through them to the flatter-than-flat Gobi Desert to Siberia to the outskirts of Moscow dotted with Russian-style churches… was amazing.
    You might need to factor in bribes for the Central Asia part of the journey.

  12. Unless Joe expands this to a 2 month+ trip or cuts back HEAVILY on the number of stops, there is no way he’s going to have time for sight seeing, much less blogging!

  13. Joe: “I have a pretty short attention span when it comes to travel. Even big cities only keep me amused for 2 days or so”
    One wonders just how much you enjoy travelling, really. Either you are the type who tours the Louvre on the run simply to see the Moaning Lisa and the Venus of Milo in half an hour, or you find very little of interest in any given city. If the latter, then you might as well save the money and fly, or save some hassle and take the Trans-Siberian. A route such as this is not one to be rushed, especially as it’s not one undertaken idly: you want to make sure that you get back and think “I’ve seen Eurasia” rather than be constantly finding major, major sights you skipped over.

    You should post up a more detailed itinerary so we can see how much time you intend to stay in each place and what you intend to see/do.

  14. I’d probably end up starting with the same plan and after 2 months, I’d only have gotten as far as Fukuoka….

  15. I don’t see anything wrong with Joe’s travel style (though I unfortunately can’t join him) — I’d probably rather see more places than spend 3 days at the Uzbek version of the Louvre. And of course if there’s something awesome that he needs to see, I’m sure he can stay an extra night or 10.

  16. Ace – I know people that I can stay with at stops along the way. I’m also very experienced (been to every prefecture on a shoestring) at finding inexpensive hotels / ryokan, etc. I’d kinda like to walk along the Tokaido, come to think of it.

  17. The most shoestring travel in Japan is still going to be a good deal more expensive than backpacker style in almost any non-European country. Staying with friends is of course cheating.

  18. I often hear about people who want to or have walked the Tokaido. I can never quite figure out why. Much of it is along Route One, the most heavily urbanised and industrialised strip of Japan. The disconnect with the Tokaido of Hiroshige would be extreme. Just mile after mile of trucks, cars, exhaust fumes, factories, konbini, Juscos, McDonalds, fami-res, banks, and whatnot. True, there are a few bits, like near Hakone, where the old road exists and is even somewhat preserved, but far and few between. It would not be a pleasant walk. Something like the 88 shrines of Shikoku might be nicer. As would the old Nakasendo (I once heard a Japanese girl on TV refer to it as “ichi-nichi yama michi: 旧中仙道) which in the Nagiso area at least is still very nice. Or even following Basho’s Narrow Roads to the Deep North. For the Tokaido, I’m not even convinced of the historical merit of walking it now. Sure it was the main road in the Edo period, a favourite of art and travel literature of the time, well-trafficked, and all, but the modern experience would be so totally different that the only thing in common would be the walking part and the passing of various post towns – now usually part of the megalopolis sprawl. I think it would end up as frankly a rather depressing walk. And ruin your lungs with all that exhaust….

  19. I appreciate all the comments on this. I know it’s overly ambitious, but that was the most fun part of putting it together. Hopefully I’ll be able to realize it this summer–I just want to find a conspirator or two beforehand.

    I’ve also been charting out a couple of voyages within Japan, which I would feel more comfortable doing on my own since it’s more familiar territory. In particular, I want to do longish trips around Shikoku and Kyushu in the near future. I’m not so concerned with scheduling those in advance, since then it’s only a matter of getting a couple of weeks off of work, which is not quite as difficult as pulling a month or two to cross two continents.

    Walking the Tokaido doesn’t sound that appealing to me, either. I would consider a few points, though: walking the Tokaido in the mountains through Hakone would not be bad at all. Walking the Chuo Main Line route (i.e., Tokyo to Matsumoto, then back down from the mountains to Nagoya) could also be nice. Or possibly the Kii or Boso Peninsula coast (Wakayama/Mie and Chiba respectively).

  20. Depressing urbanization is one of my favorite features of Japan! A friend of mine took a bike trip up the Tokaido and he wasn’t disappointed at all. It was great exercise and he met a lot of nice people at the ryokans he stayed at. Though if you are looking for history and beautiful scenery the 88 shrines in Shikoku might be a better choice. I remember reading about a 15 year old Japanese-American kid from Hawaii who made the trip and ended up getting a 40 year old woman arrested after he had an affair with her.

  21. “The most shoestring travel in Japan is still going to be a good deal more expensive than backpacker style in almost any non-European country.”

    True. However, I study Japan and want to see lots of “normal stuff”. In Europe, I would want to go posh or not go.

    As for the Tokaido – I didn’t say anything about tradition or Hiroshige (although I would take along my book with comparisons of how the Tokaido stops looked then and now) – it is the most populated area in Japan, plenty of interesting stuff to see and plenty of Bookoffs to hit along the way. I’ve probably done about 300 km on foot around Kyoto (over a dozen trips) and although the city is butt ugly, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

  22. Why are you bypassing Mongolia,Joe.It’s a nice country.
    Mongolians used to purchase Mercedes from Germany and drove them all the way through Eurasia in convoy to Mongolia.This business in now gone,since Pakistanis are bringing in used Japanese cars from Japan.But I would very much like to drive all the way westward from Ulaanbaatar to Budapest in landcruiser.when I retire of course.

  23. I’ve seen a few comparo before-and-after shots of the Tokaido 53 Stages, and usually the only thing that hasn’t changed beyond recognition is Mt Fuji. To be honest, much as I am a Japan specialist, I’d prefer a walking tour through Europe – the UK perhaps – where there are still loads of lovely villages that haven’t changed since Charlemagne. Or at least not for some time….

    I don’t think going budget in Europe is that bad, depending on what you mean by budget. I stayed in Paris for less than 40 euros a night in a small but perfectly serviceable hotel (quiet, polite, good location). Would not want a dorm or anything, but since all you do in hotels is sleep and perhaps eat stuff you bought from local shops to keep your budget down then it’s more than adequate.

    Driving across Eurasia would be a big adventure. Hard in China I think, as Chinese don’t allow International Licences, and there may be no-go areas they’d want to make sure you stayed out of.

    Actually as Adamu suggests, a bike (you mean pedal rather than motor I assume) tour could be interesting. See much the same stuff with the same freedom, but move a bit faster. And can carry more and leave the shoulders free.

  24. Fun fact: When you register a car in Japan, you can ask for them to make the license plates in romaji so that you can drive the car overseas. I’ve considered doing this just because it would make the car so much easier to find in the parking lot.

  25. I’ve heard that it is illegal for foreigners to drive at all in China outside of metropolitan zones, but it would not be too unrealistic to hire a car and driver if you have a moderate budget. We did it for just a few days in Xinjiang to see some places more off the beaten path, and with car, driver, and guide/interpreter still wasn’t too bad. And I’m sure if you know Chinese you could bargain directly with a driver for a better price (and maybe skip the second hire entirely).

    I’m sure China is far from the only country on that route which would be a pain to drive your private car into.

  26. I believe it is legal to drive outside the cities in China. Research time….
    Hmmm. suggests that from this year Intl Licences will be allowed.
    Hard to find much relevant stuff. However it seems as if the restrictions on no-go areas are enforced in a couple of ways – for example, you as a foreigner cannot buy a bus (etc) ticket to go there. Or, once there under your own power, you will not be permitted to stay in a hotel. I can find nothing on not being allowed to drive per se, though each 省 may have its own rules.

    Just for fun, here are some pics I found of Chinese driving:

    Weird about the romaji plates….

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