We flew. From Bangkok, Thailand to Kolkata, India. And then back again from Bangalore, India to Shanghai, China.
We'd come from California to Thailand by car, container ship, train, ferry, and bus. And then we were stuck. We had no way of getting from Thailand to South Asia, to see family in India, and to try to learn about the real impacts of climate change in Bangladesh. It was infuriating to be so close, and yet unable to get there by land or sea. Even as we were planning our trip, we'd known that this segment was a bit of an unknown, but we figured we'd find a route on the road. But none of our three options panned out (more on this below).
We'd challenged ourselves to try to circumnavigate the world plane-free, to help show that we could live without high-carbon aviation. We had a choice: we could either skip South Asia and keep going, or we could take a plane flight to see our family. In the end, we picked family. Anirvan's grandfather is 93 years old; we couldn't bring ourselves to lose a chance to see him to maintain idealogical purity to a self-imposed test. George Monbiot calls these love miles, the planet-killing air travel we do to see the ones we love. When it comes to family, ecological logic shuts down.
Before we started this trip, we weren't thinking about all the different factors that help shape how people move in the world. Stepping out of our aviation-powered comfort zone has given us a glimpse at what we were missing.
Why couldn't we get from East or Southeast Asia to South Asia without flying? We investigated three options:
The most direct route from Thailand to South Asia is by train through Myanmar (Burma), which we couldn't do for ethical reasons. Burma's democratic opposition has a long-standing call for an international boycott on all tourism in Burma, though this has been challenged over the past few years. Some people do this route (which involves a mess of permits from Myanmar and India), but we chose not to. Boycotts or engagement? Environment or human rights? I hope we made the right choice. As Tourism Concern says:
"[M]oney earned from tourism helps to prop up one of the most brutal military regimes in the world. Increasing revenues (over $100 million a year) from tourism has not brought local people benefits but has helped the Junta retain control...That tourism is an important source of revenue for the illegal military junta has been highlighted time and time again. Our campaign endeavoured to stress that tourism does not just fail to benefit local people but is also linked directly to their suffering."
The other obvious route would be to take a ship from East/Southeast Asia to India. We contacted booking agents and shipping lines, but couldn't find a single ship doing the route at the time and willing to accept passengers. We suspected that it might have something to do with Indian port security, but Joycene Deel, our agent at Freighter World, suggests the global economy may be to blame:
"The economy has affected everything including the freighters. A colleague sent me a picture of a lot of freighters anchored outside a port awaiting jobs with cargo. It has slowed down so much that I had to lay off both of my employees in December 2008 and it has not picked up enough for me to rehire them. The freighters run on cargo requirements and things are just really slow at this time and it is not a matter or port security issues or insurance issues. Everything has slowed down."
The craziest idea we'd hatched up was to backtrack to China, take a train to Tibet, then take a bus or train to Nepal, and finally India. But traveling the Himalayas in winter wasn't the wisest option. Our friend Livleen Kahlon, an expert on all things Himalayan, explained why:
"About the Himalayas, I have always reminded people that in their entire stretch of about three thousand kilometers, there is really only one road that traverses across them: and that is the highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu, built mostly by the Chinese initiative. By the time this highway enters Nepal, it has already done its most rigorous journey across extremely high plateau land, almost 15000 feet high, and crossed passes above 17000 feet. In winters, the extreme cold and snow/ice etc. over long stretches of the high plateau land probably defy even the Chinese ability and enthusiasm to keep the highway open. I am sure this is a challenge for the Chinese and they would love to solve it: It'll be a while though. And no, even the traditional traders to and from Tibet and India/Nepal could not travel across the Himalayas in winters: these are very high and frozen lands. Actually my issue is more that there is really only one 'road' across the 3000km length of the Himalayas! Pity, you had to take this flight."
Here's our route so far. We flew to get to India, but things look achievable from here on out. Next up is the long train ride from China to Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway.
- car from Berkeley (USA) to Seattle
- container ship to Yokohama (Japan)
- metro to Tokyo
- bullet/normal trains to Kyoto, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Beppu, Osaka
- passenger ferry to Shanghai (China)
- train to Hanoi (Vietnam), Saigon
- bus to Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Siam Reap, Kep, Bangkok (Thailand)
- plane to Kolkata (India)
- bus to Dhaka (Bangladesh), Noakhali, Chittagong
- train to Dhaka
- bus to Kolkata (India)
- train to Hyderabad, Bangalore
- bus to Mysore
- train to Madurai
- bus to Kanyakumari
- train to Bangalore
- plane to Shanghai (China)
- train to Xi'an, Beijing