17 June 2019

A Student's Sustainable guide to Trainscontinental Travelling

The summer holidays are basically here, and it has never been more easy or convenient to travel unsustainably. Nonetheless, there is a growing number of UU students and employees which are opting for more mindful alternatives, and Tiemen Wagenvoort is one of them!

How does one go from the Netherlands to Japan and back, while crossing countries like Russia, Mongolia, China, and South Korea, without taking a single flight? Read Tiemen’s story below to find out.

The flying pandemic

Flying is often the cheapest, most convenient, most taken-for-granted travel method, while also being the most polluting. While the impact of the average person’s flying habits might be lower than some of their other life choices, the impact of flying is proportional to the distance you fly (Source: The Hidden Impact, Babette Porcelijn). If you fly often, you may therefore be surprised by the proportion of your carbon footprint that is taken up by flying. To measure this, you can use the very handy Hidden Impact quiz (in Dutch).

Being an ecologist and simultaneously flying may be perceived by many as hypocritical, but it is also very hard to take travelling out of our modern lives. An easy solution would be to reduce your flights to a specific destination and simply spend more time when you are there. Alternatively, you can opt for more sustainable modes of travel. We know what you are thinking, and the answer is no, this doesn’t only apply to destinations like Berlin and Paris.

Open your mind

Although flying is sadly still the cheapest mode of travel, and may often be the only mode of travel to places outside of the continent, there are more alternatives than you realize. The trick is to open your mind.

To illustrate this, we would like to share with you the inspiring story of Tiemen Wagenvoort, the coordinator of our Circularity Commitee, whose gap year adventure across two continents will hopefully make your travel plans much more sustainably ambitious.

Heya Tiemen! So I heard a lot when you started here, about your very unusual trip during your gap year. Could you tell me what you did and where you went?

After I got my bachelor’s, I decided to take a gap year to lots of exciting travel destinations, like many people at this space of life. Unlike most people however, I was determined to avoid flying at all costs.

The first leg of my trip was therefore spent biking from the Netherlands to Berlin. Even though this took a long time, and one of my pedals broke on the way, I sort of thought “whatever” and soldiered on! From Berlin, I took a train to Moscow, and continued with another train cutting across the whole of Russia with the Trans-Siberian Express. It was only in that moment that I realized how huge Russia was. There are seven timezones between Moscow and Vladivostok. It was such a long distance but the world still felt very small because I was travelling by train.

Next, I stopped in Mongolia for 5 days. I spent some of the time in Ulan-Bataar, but I also went to a national park and stayed in a yurt… There was nothing there, which was really nice. No sounds, no people, no streets, nothing. You could even see the milky way in the sky.

After Mongolia I stopped in China for a whole month. One of the reasons I wanted to go there was because I am really interested in Eastern martial arts, and I practice Kung Fu. Going to China was therefore like going to the mecca of Eastern martial arts.

From China, I travelled by boat to Japan. I stayed in Tokyo for almost three weeks since I was always curious about what it’s like to live in such a huge city. I did a meditation retreat afterwards for almost two weeks, half of which I spent meditating and the other half of which I spent cooking and cleaning.

Lastly, I took a boat to South Korea, where I visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone, went sightseeing, and ate a lot of delicious food. I then started my trip back home. The whole trip was an amazing experience, and it took me four months in total.

I have never heard about anybody doing such a trip. What motivated you to not take any flights?

There were two main factors that encouraged me not to fly.

Sustainability

The first reason was of course sustainability. It’s crazy how high the carbon footprint of flying is, and I did not want to be a part of that.

The Gradient

The second factor was wanting to feel the transition between the different places I was visiting. I wanted to see the landscapes, cultures, people, and nature change before my eyes while travelling, instead of skipping over the whole gap by watching a movie in a plane, which devalues the whole experience. Before flights, travelling was like going through a gradient. Instead of flying to China and suddenly thinking “oh, I’m in China”, the immersion was more gradual. In the train from Berlin for example, I was in contact with Russian employees that were returning home, and I could share experiences with them during the long ride to Moscow.

Your experience sounds like such an adventure, but it must not have been easy. Could you tell me about some of the challenges or limitations for this way of travelling compared to flying?

Travelling by plane does have its advantages compared to the way I travelled, notable in three distinct ways.

Money

Counter-intuitive as it might seem, flying everywhere would have been cheaper than how I travelled. However, this is more of a systematic problem, than something inherent to flying. When we buy plane tickets, we are never paying for the full cost of the flight, because airlines are often heavily subsidized and lightly taxed. If we paid for our true impact when we fly, then it would be much more expensive.

Convenience

One thing which you tend to forget while flying, is that you are passing all these countries which you need a visa to enter. If you go through water and land though, you need to have a visa for every country that you cross through. Because I needed a visa for Belarus during my return, but I could only get my visa within three months of going there, I had to send my passport by post to my parents in the Netherlands, so that they could get the visa processed for me. This was a pretty scary experience, as you can imagine how it feels to be in a foreign country without a passport, on a time limit. I ended up getting my passport back a few days before my boat ride out of Japan though, so it all went well in the end.

Time

Since I had to make all my train rides and visas fit together in the same schedule, the trip also required a lot more planning in advance. It took me three months to plan everything.

Although the travelling itself did take a lot longer, it also felt a lot more smoothe, which I enjoyed.

When we buy plane tickets, we are never paying for the full cost of the flight, because airlines are often heavily subsidized and lightly taxed.

Do you think that more people should try to have a similar kind of journey?

For sure, but I don’t necessarily want my story to make people feel like they should do the exact same thing. People don’t have to feel like they have to give up flights all-together right away, as that might seem too intimidating. There are a lot of people visiting Thailand or Vietnam right now for example. If people going there would consider going by train there and flying back, that would already be much better.

There were complications during my trip, and lots of ups and downs... But at the end of the day, it was also just plain fun!

Websites suggested by Tiemen for Trainscontinental Travelling:

  1. Seat61: Best website ever. It has a list of all major and even smaller international train and boat services out there, including timetables, prices, links to other websites where you can book in advance.
  2. Embassy Pages.com: Provides a list of all embassies by all countries, along with rules of where you need a visa or not.
  3. Happycow.com: Provides an extensive list of vegetarian and vegan restaurants worldwide. If you want to maintain a vegetarian/vegan/plant-based diet while travelling, then you can use this website.

Green Office Utrecht (GOU) is Utrecht University’s central sustainability hub where fresh minds and hands come together to support Utrecht University’s sustainable development. Are you a UU student or employee and do you also have a sustainable travel story to share? We’d love to hear more about it. Contact us through greenoffice@uu.nl.