I’m doing it! I’m halfway through my round-the-world trip, maybe just a little more, and so far I’m surviving. Sometimes I’m even thriving! Sometimes not so much.
I left on May 13 and I’m writing and posting this sometime in late August/early September. (I’m was zipping through Russia on a train, on the longest leg of my Trans-Mongolian journey typing this out though I didn’t get it posted until Mongolia.) That means I’ve been on the road and away from home for 3.5 months. Right now, my tentative return date looks to be around mid-December, which means my RTW journey will have lasted 7 months in total.
Come November, I’ll be back in the US so it won’t be quite foreign territory. Still, it’s hard to believe both that I’ve been gone for so long and still have so much time left to explore. I know people move away from home all the time, are stationed abroad for much longer lengths of time than this, even travel for multiple years. I know a few people embarking on such journeys as I type.
Nonetheless, having lived with my family my entire life outside of college (when I was an hour away from home) this is an enormous adjustment and adventure. I thought I’d check in halfway to give you some updates on the original plan, the major changes to my itinerary, and the highlights and lowlights. So here goes!
On my original itinerary, I’d included 21 countries over the 7 months. Due to some clerical errors on my part, which I’ll get into in a minute, it looks like I’ll be hitting about 16. Which is still pretty hard to believe.
Three of these were just meant to be 2 or 3-day stop-throughs which I wanted to include because I’d intended to be passing through via train anyway. Three of these, Austria, Belarus, and China, were meant to be longer. I’d included visiting the Great Wall and the Avatar Mountains in China on my bucket list, planning to end my Trans-Mongolian journey in Beijing.
As it turns out, the visa process for Russia and China is a lot more complex that I naively thought. I’ve been privileged to be born with a U.S. passport which is super strong and requires visas for a very minimal number of countries, worldwide. I assumed the visa process was something you could do completely online. I was very wrong on this account.
The reality is that you have to fill out a host of forms, pay a large sum of money, and send your passport off to the embassy to be processed. I didn’t get started on this until I was in England, so I was extremely nervous about sending my passport off anywhere. If something went wrong and it was lost or stolen or who knows what, I would essentially be stranded.
A bigger, more pressing issue at the time was, in fact, the time. It took about 4 days to rush-process my visa for Russia and would have taken another week to do the same for China. I got started on this waaaay to late and had to rearrange my schedule a lot so I’d be in England long enough to pick my passport up and carry on my merry way. So that’s where several countries got nixed in Europe (sorry France, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Austria…I hope we meet someday in the future!)
I added in a few days each in Dover and Brighton, England so I could deal with all the visa issues. As luck would have it, (though I told the visa people several times throughout the process), I was informed you can’t apply for the China visa from the UK if you’re not a citizen of the UK. This of course was relayed after I’d purchased my non-refundable train ticket and flight in and out of China and booked (fortunately refundable) accommodations for each day of my anticipated trip there. I still think about those dollars sometimes…
Long story short, China got cut from the itinerary which meant I had to fly from Mongolia into South Korea. It was a debacle to decide whether or not to skip South Korea too, not knowing if I could afford another flight from SK to Japan after all the budget issues the visas brought. But I managed to swing a 2-week volunteer gig there which should make up for some of the costs.
Belarus got nixed when I started reading about theirvisa process. First, it seemed expensive. Secondly, it seemed complicated. Some places said you couldn’t enter the country by train unless you were an EU citizen, while others said you’d probably be fine. But getting stuck in Eastern Europe where I don’t speak the language and having probably pissed off the border officials didn’t seem like the kind of adventure I wanted.
Not wanting to buy another flight into Belarus just for a few days, I opted to fly straight from Poland into St. Petersburg, Russia. I figured it would be hard to mess up the border crossing into Russia from the airport – another place where I didn’t want to make a mistake. Luckily, I was right and it went smoothly enough.
I’d hoped to only fly from Chicago to Norway and then Japan to Canada on this trip. That fell apart with my flight out of Poland to St. P, and my flight from Mongolia to South Korea. The ferry situation from South Korea to Japan seemed precarious too. Since that’s where Christian is joining me, I didn’t want to risk missing any days so I booked a flight from South Korea to Japan too. And then another one within Japan to Okinawa and back to Tokyo, just because we really wanted to go.
So, a few less countries, a few more flights. Otherwise, things have gone mostly according to plan!
I’ve gotten to meet up with several people along the trip so far. Thank goodness too, because I start getting pretty bored of myself after a while. Walking around the city with no one to talk to gets a little lonely. I’ve found myself a weird mix of unsociable and lonely at times, not wanting anyone in the hostel to talk to me (or not being able to communicate with them) and wishing for some company of those I knew. Figures!
In the first month, I met up with a friend I’d met in Costa Rica on my first solo trip three years ago. Josef was from Norway, so when I found out I’d be in his city and reached out, I was excited to hear he was able to meet. I joined Josef and his girlfriend in Fredrikstad, Norway and spent the day having lunch, walking by the water, and enjoying some ice cream.
Later, in Copenhagen, I met up with Kelly whom I’d interviewed in my Woman of the Week series a while ago. I joined her beautiful family for an afternoon in the park, learning about expat life in Denmark and loving the chance to meet one of my “blog friends” in person. All this time in Scandinavia, I was joined with colleagues and friends from work with HOPE Mentoring, which was an absolute blast. Slightly more exciting than our weekly visits to rural Indiana where we mentor.
In England, my dear sissy came to join me for an adventure through the U.K. We had a fair share of budget issues and challenges as we tried to fit probablytoo many places in one trip. Still, I had an absolute blast with her and can’t wait to visit her in her new home (Las Vegas) in a few months. Two of her friends from college were in Scotland when we were there, so we spent a few evenings hiking and exploring the city with them too. It tickled me to see the four of us IU students out at a pub in Edinburgh, thousands of miles from home.
After Emily left, my solo stint really began and I had a month of dog-sitting, workaways, and adventuring before I saw my next familiar face. Tahvi, one of the Suitcase Six ladies, had a work conference in Amsterdam and agreed to catch a flight to see me in Berlin when she was done. We spent a quick but much needed weekend where I talked her head off and we caught up on everything we’d missed in each other’s lives since we’d seen each other last. I’ll be seeing her again in a few more months when I hit Seattle, as I work my way through visiting each of the Suitcase Six girls. Hopefully there will be some hiking to come (and less heat than we experienced during our time in Berlin).
My last visitors were Adam and Maya, (siblings) and friends of mine also from Indiana. We met up in Krakow, Poland and it was amazing to see them. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed the familiar faces after so many encounters with strangers and solitude. Though we had a serious trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau learning about and honoring those who lost their lives in the concentration camp there, we also had some lighthearted moments the rest of our time together. And most notably, we ate so much delicious food and snacks that I’ve thought about often as I’m eating fruit and noodles on the Russian trains.
I’ve had tons of fun on my adventures alone too. I’ve taken myself to a Russian ballet, visited the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, seen Da Vinci paintings and learned about WWII in museums, eaten scrumptious dumplings and pizzas, watched sunrises and sunsets, and walked countless miles through beautiful cities. I’ve crossed off all the items on my original trip bucket list so far, learned bits and pieces of languages throughout Europe, taken thousands of photos, and small-talked with lots of strangers.
But wouldn’t you know it, my favorite and most memorable moments of the trip so far have been with my travel partners or visitors. There’s just something magical about exploring a new city with an old friend. I love solo travel – I still do and I fully intend to have solo adventures through the rest of my life. But my friends and family are so SPECIAL and I feel more blessed for those in my life I’m not with at the moment through my time away. I’m grateful for the alone time that I’ve used to explore, assess my goals, and work hard for HOPE, Suitcase Six, and everything else. And I’m also grateful for the reminder that I have a hell of a lot of people in my life that love me and whom I love more than travel itself.
Now that I’ve gotten the sappiness out of the way, I have to share some of the misadventures on the trip so far. Fingers crossed I’ve gotten most of them out of the way.
- Liverpool City vs. Liverpool Station– Emily accidentally made this mistake, booking train tickets to Edinburgh from Liverpool city some hundreds of miles away, rather than the Liverpool Station in England. I approved the purchase of these tickets though when she sent them to me, so it was a mutual error. This required a bit of last minute, costly exchanges.
- Day/Month versus Month/Day – promptly after Emily’s goof, I goofed myself booking our ferry tickets from Scotland to Ireland on the wrong day. Same deal – last minute changes, costly exchanges. Don’t forget they put the date firstin Europe, not the other way around!
- Over-packed schedule– In general, I tried to cram too many places into Emily’s visit and insisted on taking the most sustainable form of transit each way (which was also the longest lasting). I take full responsibility for our mutual frustration with all things transit, and our exhaustion by the end of the trip. Next time, we’ve vowed to spend no less than 3 days in each city.
- Getting groped in Edinburgh– After a lovely night with our pub crawl group, we made it to our final stop and were having a great time dancing around with the crew. One misguided soul made the mistake of reaching under my shirt to grab my breasts. Surprised and highly irritated, I gave a calm but very direct lecture to the man asking why he thought his behavior was appropriate, asking that he never touch a woman without her consent like that again, and inquiring whether his girlfriend whom he’d mentioned a lot through the night would appreciate his behavior. Because I, for one, did not appreciate it. The icing on the cake was the tour guide, who couldn’t understand why I was bothered by the situation asking, “Well you’re traveling solo, right” as if solo-traveling women don’t have autonomy over their own boobs. WRONG.
- More bar drama – In Dublin, we met another group of men who were making small talk with us for mere moments before one asked where my boyfriend was. To which I replied the truth, that he was at home. To which hereplied, looking dead in my eyes, “Oh, well then he doesn’t really love you.” I found this more comical than offensive because I know my boyfriend and have no doubts of his love for me. But may God grant me the confidence of men like this someday. I promise to use this confidence for better purposes than uttering absurdly rude and unfounded claims at strangers in the bars.
- Not getting the correct train ticket in England– The metro system can be a bear sometimes and I thought I had the right ticket, but alas I didn’t. After an extra-long day where everything seemed to be frustrating and difficult, I was on the verge of tears when the ticket attendant confronted me. Seeing the absolute look of dread on my face, (and giant backpack indicating I was not a local,) he let me go with a warning. BLESS YOU KIND SIR.
- Navigating to the wrong housesitting address– with 1% of my phone battery left and no energy after traveling and walking miles and miles, I found myself at the vet office instead of the home where I was supposed to be dog-sitting. This was the same day as my train ticket incident, so I was just having a real time of it. After trekking back to a hotel up the way, I was lucky enough that the hotel staff let me use an outlet and their Wi-Fi password to contact my host, who picked a bedraggled version of me up a half hour later. Not a great first impression but I think we got past it alright.
- Visa Issues– As described above, this was a costly mistake that research could have prevented. But I’m mostly over it. Mostly.
- Lost items – I’m keeping a list at this point, but it includes everything from hygiene items to water bottles to my camera tripod I bought for this trip and am heartbroken to have lost. I even lost my phone for a few hours on a ferry, which was a whole drama of itself, before I was able to retrieve it. Thank heavens for that as well.
- Bed bugs– For the second time in my life (both times on solo trips – is this a sign?) I was plagued with bed bugs. Again, I had over 100 bites on my body. These cruel little suckers even got me several times on my index finger. My INDEX finger. If anyone has any idea how frustrating it is for that to itch for two weeks, I’m sorry you’ve felt my pain. If you haven’t, then may you never know.
- More strange men – There’s something about being a woman alone that just makes you an irresistible target to strange men who want to “get acquainted”. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak the same language at all, or if you have told them several times you have a boyfriend, or straight up that you just want to leave. I brought blogging business cards for the purpose of networking with women across my journey, but in reality, I’ve been using them as alternatives to giving my phone number. I just hand them my card, quickly make an exit, and decide whether I need the social media follower or need to block them when I get the request. (Is it the patriarchal bargain? Is it being passive aggressive? Is it a safety technique? Who’s to say. Probably all three.)
I’ve also had a few reality checks throughout this trip so far. The first is that working out is much harder than I thought when you’re abroad, especially with the yoga mat lost to the bed bugs. (I threw away so much for fear I wasn’t able to clean it properly). I had grand visions of exercising regularly and soaking up rays of sun all summer, coming back a tanned, fit, smoking version of myself. In reality, my only working out has come through the extreme distances I’ve walked with my backpack in tow. I’ve been in European cities where there are very limited sun-bathing opportunities, and it’s been hot as hell the entire summer so I’ve spent more time in cafés and malls with air-conditioning than outdoors getting tan. It’s just no fun to be hot and sweaty when your hostel doesn’t have air-conditioning and you know you’ll still be hot and sweaty hours from now.
Reliable Wi-Fi is also harder to come by than I would have imagined or hoped. Given I’m working remotely and also trying to blog, this has made my work/life balance rather difficult. Next week I even have a work meeting from 11pm-1am because of the time differences. Yay! In my mind, I would be a woman of boundless energy (the likes of which I’ve never been before) and I could sight see all day and work all night. Don’t ask me why I was this delusional, but you know as well as I do that this aspect of my travel hasn’t gone according to plan.
WHAT BUDGET GOALS? That’s over, it’s cancelled. I will not be “saving money” as I had dreamt before I left. Given the planning errors and schedule changes, I’ll probably be cutting into my savings instead. But you truly only live once and I can’t say when if ever I’ll be visiting Russia or Mongolia or wherever else again, so I’m trying to enjoy it while I can and not freak out too much.
WHAT’S COMING NEXT
I finished up the Trans-Mongolian railroad last month, ending up in Mongolia at the end of August. I was off the grid for a week on a tour of Mongolia with a small tour group, seeing the Gobi Desert, staying in a yurt with Mongolian nomads, riding horses – but I’ll share more on that in future posts as I’m still processing it all.
Next, I fly to South Korea. I’ll be spending two weeks there on the east coast at a hostel, volunteering my social media/photography/website skills however they’re needed. The hostel is a recycling project, built with donated materials from around South Korea, so it’s right up my alley with my sustainability focus. I’m excited to see what’s in store there.
In October, my love comes to visit me in Japan! I’ve been counting down essentially since I left. We’ll have three weeks together there and I could not be more excited for all of the adventures we’re going to have and sushi we’re going to eat.
From Japan I’m flying into Vancouver, Canada for about a week and a half. I might meet up with my momma and her hubby if they’re able to get away from work for a bit. It will be late October and pretty chilly by then, but I’m hoping to explore some of the great Canadian wilderness.
Finally, come November I’ll be back in the US working my way through the west. I’ll see Tahvi in Seattle, explore Oregon for a few days, then spend a couple weeks in California with a wedding Thanksgiving weekend. I’ll visit Marie afterward in LA, then work my way east to Phoenix to see Laura. Then head up to Vegas to see Emily, and then east to Chicago to see Anna and Melissa. FINALLY, I’ll head back to Indiana in early December.
That’s the plan today anyway. I’ll be sharing updates over the next months on Facebook, Instagram, and through my mailing list. When I’m back home and finally have my head on straight, I’ll do a final update post on how everything turned out.
Love and hugs to you all, and happy travels wherever you are!
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To read more from my travels so far, check out these posts next: