Around the world in 80 days

I quite enjoyed this series on BBC1, which reached its conclusion last night.  It’s been a take on the Jules Verne/ Michael Palin journeys, but with the additional twist that it has been a relay, with six pairs of celebrities (or, rather, ‘celebrities’, for the most part) undertaking different legs of the journey.

I haven’t enjoyed all the episodes equally.  Last week’s was something of a drag, partly because it involved John Barrowman – a man so obviously fake he infuriates me – but also because the attempts to make getting across about 2/3 of America by road look difficult were ludicrously contrived (‘don’t just use a car, use a battery-powered car that there are almost no recharging points for!’).  I probably enjoyed the third episode most, and not just because, in a meeting that ought to have launched a thousand slash tributes, Matt Baker encountered a slightly star-struck, wonderfully effeminate and ludicrously pretty British gap-year traveller alone and bored on an overnight train somewhere in Central Asia…  (Actually, Baker’s website seems to have been written by a slash writer as it is – especially the bit of his biography that talks admiringly of his ‘exceptional physical prowess’…)

The main problem with the show, though, for me has been with the central conceit, which suggests that getting round the globe in 80 days using all forms of modern transport except flying is something that’s difficult to achieve.  I know they made it look difficult (and only achieved their goal thanks to a daring mid-sea change of boats on the last day), but for the most part that’s because they followed a completely illogical route – they went to Turkey for absolutely no reason, for example.  The truth is, you could travel round the world in a lot less than 80 days.  And now, with all the pedantic exhaustiveness you’ve come to know and love despise tolerate me for, I’m going to prove it.

First leg London to Moscow (day 1 to day 3).

You could start this with an early lunch in London, before getting a train from St Pancras International to Brussels (is it just me, or is it still really exciting that you can get a train that goes under the sea, and all the way to Abroad?).  A late-afternoon change of trains in Brussels (be sure to wave a cheery hand or angry fist, depending on political preference, at all those Eurocrats as you pass), travelling onwards to Cologne.  There’s time for a leisurely dinner in Cologne, before boarding a sleeper service to Moscow.  You have a night, a day, and another night on this train, before arriving in Moscow at mid-morning on day 3.

Second leg Moscow to Vladivostok (day 3 to day 10).

Yes, that’s 7 days on one train – I’m a big fan of train travel, but I would guess that even I would have had enough by the time it got to…say…15.25 on day 4.  To be fair, it does involve travelling more than 6,100 miles, and by the end of it you’ve crossed from Europe into Asia, and have made it all the way across that continent to the Pacific.  Even without all the other bits that made up the USSR, Russia is still an extraordinarily big country.

Third leg Vladivostok to Pusan (South Korea) (day 10 to day 13).

Ok, so the details on this are a little hazy, mainly because I can’t read Korean or Russian, online translation services are a bit rubbish, and in any case come unstuck when crucial information is only available as part of an image file.  But, from what I can gather (and what I remember from Bill Turnbull and Louise Minchin’s experiences on the TV show), it’s a night in Vladivostok, then 2 nights on a ferry from Vladivostok to somewhere in South Korea, and finally part of the day crossing South Korea to Pusan.

Fourth leg Pusan to Long Beach, California (day 13 to day 22).

This involves being a passenger onboard a cargo vessel, almost certainly a container ship.  Given that there is nothing but a large amount of saltwater between Asia and the Americas, there’s not really a huge amount of choice.  And yes, that is 9 days on board a ship with you, the crew, possibly a couple of other passengers (but quite probably not), and a lot of big metal boxes.  Although, actually, the whole thing sounds rather appealing to me, especially if I could figure out net access from the middle of the sea.  Yes, I know, I’m an odd person.

Fifth leg Long Beach, California to Wilmington, North Carolina (day 22 to day 25).

This involves travelling on a series of the famous Greyhound busses – somewhat unexpectedly, going by coach is several days quicker than going by train (and also neither Long Beach nor Wilmington have a railway station).  In real life, you might choose the train anyway (or at least to break your coach journey somewhere), because three days on a bus with no layover longer than two hours (and hence no bed, or shower) would be fairly likely to result in death by deep vein thrombosis and/or suicide.  But assuming that speed was the only concern, you would get on your first bus in Long Beach, arriving 50 minutes later in Los Angeles.  At LA you would board another bus, and would stay with this one for an afternoon, a night, a day, and another night, arriving in Memphis just after eight in the morning.  You would have a whole 50 minutes to absorb the atmosphere in this famous city before getting on your next bus, which would bring you to Knoxville, Tennessee for the early evening.  Here you would have time to do little more than draw breath before boarding your next coach to Charlotte, North Carolina.  You would arrive here at midnight, and this is the point at which you get to enjoy a whole two hours off the bus – yes, this has been cunningly timed to coincide with a point at which everything will be shut.  Anyway, at 2am you would board your last coach, arriving in Wilmington nearly nine hours later, sore of leg and, I imagine, filled with enormous hatred for the concept of transcontinental coach travel.

Sixth leg – Wilmington to London (day 25 to day 36…sort-of).

This starts with another trip on a container ship, this one crossing from Wilmington to Antwerp (Belgium), and taking 11 days.  Yes, it is odd that you can’t travel straight from America to the UK – there are ships that do it, but they are travelling from further afield, and don’t take passengers who only want to go the ‘short hop’ across the Atlantic.  Anyway, having arrived in Antwerp, you catch a train from there to Brussels.  Technically, this would be the point at which you more-than-complete your round-the-world journey, as you join back onto your original route here (and it would therefore, I guess, make sense to make Brussels the official start point for the journey).  But, anyway, since your journey started in London, you would change trains at Brussels, taking the Eurostar back to St Pancras International.  If you are a really pedantic pedant (and I am…) then, since you arrive back at St Pancras in mid-evening, and you left in early afternoon, your arrival would occur in the 37th 24-hour-period, and therefore it’s slightly inaccurate to say that the trip would take 36 days.

In any case, it’s not going to work out as neatly as I’ve suggested here.  Most of the different modes of transport are scheduled passenger services, but the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic parts of the route are on container ships, and these don’t stick to a timetable.  While you could schedule your journey to arrive in Pusan at approximately the right time to meet the ship travelling to Long Beach, you couldn’t also guarantee that your arrival at Wilmington would coincide with the availability of a ship to take you across the Atlantic.  Given all of this, it’s likely that you’d have at least a couple of days kicking your heels in South Korea, and potentially a lot longer to hang around in America.

This means you couldn’t actually make it around the world in 37 days, and doing it in 40 days would also be highly unlikely.  Still, 80 days is massively longer than necessary.  No, I reckon if you wanted to have a target that was testing but within the realm of the possible, you’d need to call the programme Around the World in 50 days.  It would be a pretty dull 50 days, mind you – you’d have precious little time for sightseeing, or, indeed, anything other than sitting on a succession of trains and boats and busses – but if what matters is the racing, then that would be the timescale to be looking at, I think.

Or, of course, you could fly it in three legs – London to Tokyo, Tokyo to LA, LA to London – in less than a day and a half.  But where would the fun be in that…?

As an aside, looking at all these websites has given me a mild dose of wanderlust.  Especially as it seems as though, even with my tendency to have a great big cry-baby fit at the slightest thought of getting on a plane, places like America and Canada and New Zealand aren’t permanently out of reach, as I’d more or less assumed they were.  No, they’re just out of reach in practical terms, since it takes getting on for 2 months and more than £5,000 to get to the southern hemisphere and the same to get back, and if I didn’t have a (well-paid) job I couldn’t afford it, and if I did have a job, I wouldn’t have the time.  But, still, a boy old man can dream…

As a second aside, Wilmington, NC might want to re-think the ‘Getting Here’ section of their website.  The site tells you that there are only two ways of getting to this community of 100,000 people – flying or driving.  I know the idea of public transport is less popular in the United States than it is over here, because, as far as I can tell, most Americans seem to feel that failing to drive around in a vehicle of your own is as unpatriotic as setting fire to Old Glory.  But still, failing to refer even in passing to the fact that there is a Greyhound Bus Station in your city seems fairly extraordinary.  It’s like they don’t want people to go and visit them.

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10 Responses to Around the world in 80 days

  1. My partner and I wanted to do the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostock or the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Beijing, stopping at a few places along the way. Unfortunately now we have a dog it’s unlikely to happen as we’d need to put her in Kennels for ages.

    It is true that the American’s don’t do public transport except flight. Greyhound is for tourists or social misfits. My friends took Greyhound busses around a lot of the US for their honeymoon and found they were usually on the bus with a few tourists, a couple of druggies and a prostitute or two.

  2. Katherine says:

    In agreement with the above comment, I can assure you that Wilmington just doesn’t want the people who take the greyhound bus to visit Wilmington. Ah, Knoxville to Charlotte to Wilmington – on that route you’ll pass through most of my former stomping grounds. It was fun to see that pop up in an itinerary for a round-the-world trip.

    However, I am pretty sure that Wilmington is not your only port option in that part of the US. One should be able to get a cargo ship from Charleston, SC. When my family moved here, that’s how our furniture followed us and most recently I sent some of my books here via Charleston. To get to Charleston, you can change bus lines in Knoxville for Greenville and thence to Charleston (if memory serves). Alternatively, Amtrak do go to Charleston from Los Angeles via Chicago and DC in a mere 79 hours and 21 minutes.

    “Is it just me, or is it still really exciting that you can get a train that goes under the sea, and all the way to Abroad?”

    It is not just you. I still feel a little thrill about the boat train to Amsterdam every time I’m in Liverpool Street Station, which is not nearly as exciting as the Eurostar.

  3. Lucy McGough says:

    Yes, the fact that there is a train that goes under the sea is totally awesome.

  4. Kate says:

    That was a great post. You had me right there on that trip. If word of this gets out, you might find yourself head-hunted by the tourist industry. ;)

  5. actionreplay says:

    the bus is faster than the train in the US as no-one takes Amtrak who is in a hurry. It’s mainly tourists who are taking the train to see the countryside. And the trains are slow as the track is mostly owned by freigt companies and so not suitable for high-speed rail. 50mphtops.

  6. actionreplay – when did you change from being Dee?

  7. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    intothesystem – they both sound like they’d be interesting journeys, i think. Do you have any friends/ relatives you could ‘lend’ the dog to for the duration? Should be a cheaper option than kennels – and nicer for the dog too, of course. :o)

    Katherine – i was thinking as i was writing about the US leg that it was going fairly close to what was your neck of the woods, although i had it in mind for some reason that you were South Carolina, rather than North Carolina. Anyway, it must be quite odd to think that your quiet little corner of the world was part of a global superhighway… ;o)

    I’m sure you’re right about other port options, although it is, of course, dependant on the freight companies being prepared to carry passengers, which i dare say some aren’t. TBH, having found the one website that listed quite a few crossings, i stuck with it, rather than researching further.

    Oh, and speaking of the boat train to Amsterdam – i did that once. It was quite good, apart from the return leg, when the train from Amsterdam to the Dutch port was suddenly diverted away, meaning that i had to change trains at Rotterdam. Luckily literally everyone in the Netherlands speaks at least some English, but it was still a fairly scary experience, listening to loads of announcements in Dutch and wondering what they meant. (Although, really, it was my fault – i should have learned to speak Dutch!)

    Lucy McGough – ah, glad i’m not alone in that. :o)

    Kate – thanks. But i think it’ll be a while before anyone hunts this head… ;o)

    actionreplay – i’m sure going by train would make for a more pleasant travelling experience for tourists, and i would think the comparatively slow speeds would be part of that. It also doesn’t help the speed of crossing the country that you seem to have to go all the way north to Chicago, which is quite a detour if you really want to cross the bottom half of the country. Anyway, given a choice i’d go for the train over the bus any day – it has beds… ;o)

  8. Katherine says:

    Yep, good old I-40, US 19-23. Some very scary driving between Knoxville and Asheville, too. Heart-rendingly beautiful, though. (just a little homesick right now)

  9. intothesystem – it depends on whether I am using my LJ identity or my MN one. In this case I forgot to change it to DeeDee.

  10. Dee – fair enough. Just made a change that’s all!

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