You might be wondering how I chose my route around the world. It might seem that there are infinite possibilities, but in fact the number of options is confined by geography and geopolitics. Here is my thought process.
The Pacific Ocean
Traveling by ship across the Pacific Ocean is not something that tourist normally endeavor to do, so options are limited. Some cruise ships will sail the route, but normally only once per year as they relocate from the summer Alaska route to the winter Asia circuit. Cargo ships, on the other hand, ply the waters all year round.
Passenger-carrying container ships depart from many ports on the Pacific coast of North America, including Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles. I chose to leave from Vancouver because that’s my home. Ports of call could include various locations in Japan, South Korea, and China. Within the desired date range of this trip there was no direct route to Japan, so I’m getting off in Korea and taking a fast ferry to Japan.
There are many countries on the western border of the Pacific Ocean that could serve as my first stop in Asia. However, a glance at a world map makes it clear that China is the only viable choice. From China there are many options radiating outward, from India in the south to Russia in the north. Despite the apparent abundance of route options, the mercurial geopolitics of that part of the world severely limited my options.
The northern route – The Trans-Siberian Railway
No doubt the easiest way to cross Asia is through Mongolia and Russia on the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, a favorite of the over-65 crowd. A ticket on this well-travelled route can be bought as a complete package from a travel agent, making the trip from Beijing to Moscow easy and carefree. This seemed like a rather dull way to travel, however, given the many other exciting options. Besides, circumnavigating the globe at such a high latitude seems like cheating, however, given the considerably-reduced distances involved at high latitude.
Let’s also not forget Ukraine and Georgia. If Russia attacks any more neighbours, there might not be a safe land route out of Russia.
The southern route – Southern Asia
The route south of China, beginning in Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, seems at first to be a lovely option. These destinations are well established on the “banana pancake” backpacker route, so travel through this region would be easy. Moving onward, however, would require travel through only recently-opened Myanmar and questionable Bangladesh. A slightly more northern route, through a combination of Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal, also presents problems. China does not like foreign tourists to visit its Western region, making it difficult to obtain a visa.
The real trouble begins at India’s western border. Pakistan is the only way forward here, and given that India and it are archenemies, crossing the border between them is not a challenge I would relish. Pakistan’s border with Iran is generally closed, leaving only the northern border… to Afghanistan.
The sweet spot – Central Asia
With Southern Asia too dangerous and Northern Asia too dull, that leaves Central Asia, mainly consisting of the former Soviet “Stan” republics. These countries are known for their Byzantine bureaucracy, difficult borders, and corrupt practices – rather sanguine, really, compared to the threat of a beheading in North Waziristan.
There are many viable routes through Central Asia. I chose to enter Kyrgyzstan simply because Canadians do not require a visa, simplifying the process. Next is Uzbekistan because I managed to find an organized tour there at the appropriate time (this was meant to simplify the visa application process). A ferry across the Caspian Sea from Khazakstan to Azerbaijan, and onward over land through Georgia or Armenia, was an option, but the three neighbours have a tetchy relationship that makes crossing the border risky or impossible. Over land from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan and into Iran is therefore the only reasonable option.
Iran, though difficult to get a visa for (especially for Americans, Canadians, and Brits), is actually quite safe, so I chose a route there from Uzbekistan through Turkmenistan (which will grudgingly grant three-day transit visas). There is no way to exit Iran in the south over the Persian Gulf, and the leaving via the western border with Iraq seems ill-advised, leaving the north-western border with Turkey as the only option.
Once in Turkey, the cultural bridge between Europe and Asia, the route possibilities become endless. Ferry to Greece? Easy. Bulgaria and Romania? Not an issue. The sapphire coast of Croatia? Practically there already. Kosovo and Serbia? Surprisingly fine. Trains, ferries, and busses crisscross Europe, and there is no reason to plan a route too far in advance. And all of it is visa-free.
The Atlantic Ocean
Getting across the Atlantic is comparably easy. A cargo ship is again an option, as are smaller pleasure-craft sailing between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean and in need of young, pliant, cheap crew. But after thousands upon thousands of travel at breakneck speed, wouldn’t it be nice to cross in style? Cunard’s Queen Mary II is the last surviving ocean liner plying the classic transatlantic route between London and New York. So near the end of my trip, I will trade my grubby clothes and boots for a three-piece suit and patent leather shoes. Champagne, anyone?
The last leg of the journey, from New York back to Vancouver, does not need much planning. A train across the entire continent can be taken without much forethought. Renting or buying a car or taking the Greyhound are also perfectly viable and safe options. No need to fuss over this part.