The Long Way Home
In early 2006, James Heneghan was holed up in Fukuoka eyeing up his options as his time in Japan dwindled to an end. Uninspired by the usual beach-hopping journey home favored by his fellow JETs, the Fukuoka-based photography enthusiast began to lay plans for a journey that would put all others in the shade.
"Originally my plan was to travel overland to London from Japan," he tells us from the comfort of his London studio. "Taking a ferry from Osaka to China, I could jump the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian from Beijing all the way to Moscow, before making my way back to London." Ever the intrepid explorer, however, Heneghan decided he needed more of a challenge. "I had over six weeks to kill and I wanted to do something a little more worldly, so I took out my atlas and looked over the possibilities. From that moment on there was only one possible city from which I could start my journey: Singapore. You can’t get further away from London than that without crossing vast stretches of ocean.
"I had a time limit – I was to leave Japan at the end of July and I had to be back in the UK by mid-September to enroll on the course I was due to start. But over three months of careful organization, I planned the entire journey right down to the hour, so that I would arrive in London precisely on time to make my deadline. Any mistake along the way – any missed connection – would endanger my chances of finishing the journey on schedule."
Singapore is one of the most racially diverse countries in the world, making it a fascinating place to visit. This was to be my starting point: after months of planning and preparation, my long overland journey back to London was about to begin. I had my visas, I had my reading material, I had my cameras… ahead of me lay a 16,000km overland trek through fifteen countries.
The train journey from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur was simple and painless. If every section of the journey were as quick and easy as this one, this would’ve been one very quick Long Trip Home.
The Jungle Line
Despite the uncomfortable nature of the trains, the scenery in Malaysia was at times breathtaking. I took the lesser-known Jungle Line route up the east coast towards the Thai border. The journey took 16 hours and my carriage had no lights, so the last five hours were completed in total darkness.
Sungai Kolok to Bangkok
The 23-hour train journey from Sungai Kolok to Bangkok set off at 11:30, the hottest part of the day. By 20:00, everyone in the carriage had started drinking and the scene was one of utter carnage. This guy took me under his wing, and with that began a night of extreme torture. Speaking only a smattering of English, he made me his new best friend and began bombarding me with gifts. Every time a food seller stepped onto the train at a station, he would buy whatever it was they were selling and try and give it to me. After a while, it got hard to turn him down. In the space of twelve hours he managed to drink two whole bottles of rancid Thai whiskey. He wasn’t sane.
Twenty-four hours of hell on the Vientiane to Laos "deathbus", packed to the gills with people, cargo, produce, bed quilts, sugar, beer, rice, straw and heaven knows what else. There was nowhere to put your feet and the aisle was full of sleeping people since the bus was so overcrowded. The scenery was amazing, of course, but the winding mountain roads and two hundred meter drops near the Laos-Vietnam border didn’t do my mood much good.
Scooters are everywhere in Vietnam. It’s quite normal to see two or three people sharing one, and sometimes even four. However, five people on a scooter is another thing entirely, so you can imagine how long I had to wait to get this photo. Anyone know who’s driving?
Hanoi to Beijing
The longest stage of my journey so far, a mammoth 32 hours, was actually pretty comfortable. We left Hanoi in the early evening in an old and battered Vietnamese sleeper which took us the six hours to the Vietnam-China border. After a mere two hours of customs we were ready to leave again. Thankfully, while crossing the border the old Vietnamese wagons were replaced by infinitely superior Chinese ones. I shared a cabin with three Vietnamese students from Hanoi, all fluent in Mandarin, who were more than happy to teach me a little of the lingo to pass the time. Within an hour I had successfully learned and memorized wŏ tīngbudŏng (I don’t understand), duōshăo qián? (how much is it?), liang ping píjiŭ (two bottles of beer, please) and duōshăo qián liang ping píjiŭ? (how much are two bottles of beer, please?). Needless to say, armed with these useful phrases and the numbers one to ten, I was ready to take on China.
Eating grasshoppers in Beijing. How could I not try them? Very grassy indeed.
They say China is overpopulated, but at times there was nobody to be seen.
Finally, I was on the Trans-Mongolian, one of the great railway services of the world today. Although I was a little sad to leave Beijing after only two days, the thirty-hour trek across the Gobi Desert to Mongolia promised wonderful things. With wide expanses of barren land, rolling hills and the occasional ger (traditional Mongolian felt tents) punctuating the horizon, Mongolia was a vision to behold.
5am in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Ten seconds after dangling my head and camera out of the window to take this picture, I was scolded by the carriage attendant: opening the windows in the desert is forbidden due to high levels of dust and sand entering the train. Having spent three years in Japan, naturally I apologized profusely.
This young lad in Ulaanbaatar was absolutely fascinated by my camera. He had clearly never seen anything like it before and was more than happy to pose for a few photographs. When he saw the images on the LCD screen, his face was a picture in itself!
Irkutsk to Moscow
Whoever coined the phrase “it’s a small world” was brutally wrong. I joined the Trans-Siberian Railway in Irkutsk and traveled west to Moscow, a grand total of 5185 km. It took almost three-and-a-half days and the train passed through six time zones. Russia really is a vast country. Long-distance trains there all operate on Moscow time, regardless of departure point or destination, so as soon as I stepped onto the Baikal at Irkutsk the clock went back five hours. Suffice to say that the first day was a very long one. Russia is probably the only country in the world where it’s possible to get jet lag in anything other than a plane. And it was real, too: it took me the whole three days to get used to the time shift, each morning waking up and having breakfast around 5am, Moscow-time, and then having lunch around 10am.
Every carriage on a Trans-Siberian train has a team of attendants, known as "Provodnitsas". They come in two kinds: frumpy old hags with scary drag queen-like hairdos, or young Russian beauties in criminally short skirts. Both kinds were a sight to behold.
After four days on a train, it was good just to be on "dry land" again. The women of Moscow were simply sensational. Never have I seen such mass beauty quite like it.
Until St. Petersburg, every section of my journey had gone according to plan. However, that all changed for me in Russia’s most beautiful city. I spent a whole day being sent all over the city in a bid to buy my onward ticket to Helsinki. I got completely soaked, my money ran out and my bank card wouldn’t work so I couldn’t afford to eat (although I myself was eaten alive by mosquitoes). The final straw came when the umbrella I’d carried all the way from Hong Kong broke. Thoroughly miserable.
St. Petersburg to Helsinki
I was glad to get on this train after my St. Petersburg nightmare. Russian border officials spent twenty minutes grilling me in a mixture of Russian and broken English whilst inspecting my passport and luggage. On the Finnish side, they merely took a quick glance at my EU passport and, in perfect English, wished me a pleasant onward journey. Beautiful! Welcome to the European Union!
In contrast to Japan, Finland appears to have no people in it. By all accounts, this is the Shibuya of Helsinki.
Taking a boat from Helsinki to Stockholm, I was almost out of money, so I was too poor to get a cabin. I slept overnight on the floor whilst drunken Swedish teenagers staggered around me before going off for some fun in the cabin. I was told that the best way to get a cabin myself was to strike it lucky with a young Swedish floozy, but despite my considerable charms this failed to materialize.
Upon arriving, I had a couple of days to relax in Stockholm before the final leg of my journey back to London. Unfortunately, due to time constraints I had to scrap my plans to visit Amsterdam and Brussels. There were far fewer buses out of Stockholm than I had expected and, since I wasn’t prepared to pay the higher prices for the train, my journey had been delayed by a few days. Strange that I could travel ahead of schedule all the way from Singapore to Helsinki, through some of the most difficult and awkward countries of Asia, yet only in efficient Europe did I encounter my first real setback.
43 days after leaving Japan and with thousands of kilometers behind me, I had finally arrived in the street where I grew up. Was anybody there to greet me? Family, friends, maybe my girlfriend? No, not a soul. Welcome home!
To read a blow-by-blow account of James’ journey as it happened, head to his blog at http://heneganov.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_heneganov_archive.html
Many more photos can be seen at
The Trans-Siberian Railway is a network of railways connecting the Russian Far East, Mongolia and China with Moscow and European Russia. There are several routes, many types of trains and numerous different types of tickets depending on your budget and the style in which you want to travel. The main line runs from Moscow to Vladivostok but several other lines branch off in different directions, the most popular being the Trans-Mongolian from Irkutsk to Beijing, via Ulaanbaatar. There is also a Trans-Manchurian line which connects Beijing to eastern Russia, avoiding Mongolia. There is no single ticket for the Trans-Siberian network – each individual journey requires a separate one. Tickets can be hard to come by in the peak summer months, so booking ahead is advisable. For information on planning your journey, the Lonely Planet has an excellent guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway, available in large Japanese book stores.
Depending on your nationality, you will need to arrange a number of visas before you leave Japan. This process is long and arduous: you should put things in motion at least three months before you want to depart. Everyone needs a visa for Russia, for which you must provide an official visa invitation from a registered Russian company or travel agent. Applications for the Russian visa are not accepted by mail – they must be made in person at the embassy in Tokyo or consulates in Osaka, Niigata or Sapporo. Similarly, visas usually need to be collected in person – the consulate in Osaka seems to be the only one which is happy to return your visa and passport by mail (if you provide them with an X-Pak A4 envelope). There are different visa fees depending on how quickly you want yours processed. See www.rusconsul.jp/hp/ for details.
Applications for the Mongolian visa also require a visa invitation (US citizens do not need a visa for Mongolia). The embassy in Tokyo does accept postal applications. Allow ten days. See www.mongemb-jp.com for details.
Visits to China and Vietnam will also require visas (postal applications accepted). You will also need a visa for Laos (and Cambodia, if you plan to go there), but these can be issued on arrival. Make sure you carry plenty of passport photographs with you (and plenty of American dollars).
This Man in Seat 61 website provides the most comprehensive collection of information on train travel, schedules, journey times and ticket prices for practically every country in the world. Essential viewing if you’re planning a long international journey.
A good resource for travel in Russia. Can also assist with hotel bookings, Trans-Siberian train tickets and visa invitation documents (US$29).
A good resource for tourism in Mongolia. Also offers a Mongolian visa invitation service (US$30).
Trying to sum up six weeks of traveling is quite difficult, so here are some no-nonsense statistics to do the job for me.
- Number of days on the road: 38
- Number of kilometers traveled: Approx 16,000
- Number of countries traversed: 15
- Northernmost latitude visited: Helsinki, 60 15 N
- Southernmost latitude visited: Singapore, 1 17 N
- Longest single journey (time): Irkutsk to Moscow, 77 hours
- Longest single journey (distance): Irkutsk to Moscow, 5185 km
- Most time spent in a single country: Russia, 8 days and three hours
- Least time spent in a single country: France, less than two and a half hours
- Most populous capital city visited: Beijing, China, 12.03 million
- Least populous capital city visited: Vientiane, Laos, 442,000
- Most expensive beer purchased on a night out: Moscow, 210 RUB (¥916) for a 350ml glass
- Least expensive beer purchased on a night out: Beijing, 2.5 RMB (¥37, yes, thirty-seven!!) for a 640 ml bottle
- Country where I was propositioned by prostitutes the most: Singapore
- Country where I felt safest: Finland
- Country where I felt the least safe: Mongolia
- Number of photographs taken on journey: 6069