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.