by James Arvantes
In early spring 2015, Joe and Embry Howell left their Cleveland Park home to embark on a four-month trip around the world. They took a boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and trains to travel thousands of miles across Europe, Central Asia, and China before returning on a container ship that took them across the Pacific Ocean and back to North America.
In the course of their journey, the Howells trekked more than 20,000 miles, visiting several countries and dozens of cities along the way to experience the cultures of Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Mongolia, China, and more.
And they did it all without taking a single flight. The Howells saw traveling by ship and train as a challenge, adding a sense of adventure to the trip. Like most travelers, the Howells loath having to go through airport security and abhor the delays and disruptions that can accompany air travel, factors that also convinced them not to fly.
During a Tuesday Talk at the Cleveland Park Library on Feb. 18, the Howells talked about their trip in detail, using a slide show to share pictures and perspectives of foreign cities and countries while revealing inside tips and surprises they encountered during their four-month excursion.
On the first leg of their journey, the Howells took a transition cruise, a cheaper mode of transportation than a traditional cruise ship, from the Caribbean to Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago off the Northwest coast of Africa. “It is on a volcano and very much worth the trip,” Joe (author of the acclaimed book, Hard Living on Clay Street) said of Madeira, “really quite gorgeous.”
The Howells then sailed to Spain, spending more than four weeks visiting Seville, Granada, Cartagena, Madrid, and lastly Valencia, where they had arranged a two-week housing exchange. From Spain, they trekked north, stopping in Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and Belarus before going on to Russia, Mongolia, and China. They returned home by traveling by container ship from Shanghai to Vancouver and taking more than 20 trains to cross the North American continent, finishing their around-the-world trip at Union Station in Washington, D.C.
Remembering the Great Patriotic War
The Howell’s trip coincided with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. They arrived in Moscow in time for a celebration and parade marking the end of World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia.
On the morning of the parade, people packed into the Howell’s hotel lobby, watching and listening to Russian President Vladimir Putin deliver a televised address to the nation.
“People were stone silent, listening like in a trance,” remembered Joe.
After Putin finished speaking, the parade began, and it swept by the front of the Howell’s hotel, giving them a front row seat as missiles, tanks, and soldiers paraded by while planes roared overhead. Thousands of people poured into the streets, marching in an orderly procession and carrying pictures and other memorabilia of loved ones lost during World War II.
The Howells took the Trans-Siberian Railroad, TSR, to Siberia next, stopping at Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, stretching 200 miles long, 40 miles wide, and a mile deep.
“If you drink out of a cup, the germs you are going to get come from the cup, not from Lake Baikal,” Joe quipped.
The Howells also paid a visit to Yekaterinburg, a city in the Urals, next to Siberia where Bolsheviks loyal to Vladimir Lenin executed Russian Czar Nicholas Romanov II and his family in 1918. In Siberia, there are many statues of Lenin, but none of Stalin who is not mentioned among the populace, Joe said.
After Siberia, the Howells again boarded the TSR, traveling to Mongolia, which Joe described as a “vast and beautiful gem between two giants,” Russia and China. Mongolia is four times the size of Germany, but has a population of about three million, approximately half the population of Washington, D.C., making it the least populated country in the world.
The Howells relied on tour guides to help them navigate some of the countries. The tour guide for the Mongolian leg of the trip stopped the train in the middle of the Gobi Desert at 5 a.m. one morning so the tourists could take photographs with camel herders who arrived with musical instruments, singing in “very deep but high voices,” said Embry.
In the Mongolian desert, Embry stayed in a yurt, a round tent-like structure pale white on the outside, colorful and beautifully painted on the inside. Even though it was the first week in May, the temperature dropped well below freezing after sunset, and although the yurt was equipped with a stove for heat, the stove fire usually burned out in the middle of the night, creating freezing conditions inside, remembered Embry.
On to China
China was the Howell’s next destination where they spent a month, visiting nine cities including Beijing, Chengdu, Xi’an, Wuhan, and Shanghai. Joe, who developed affordable housing before retiring several years ago, first visited China in 1986 as part of a housing delegation. Then, most Chinese drove bicycles, not cars, and there was very little electricity. By 2015, an abundance of both exemplify China’s dramatic transformation, Joe said.
The Howells were particularly impressed by the speed and efficiency of China’s bullet trains, which have a cruising speed of 220 to 230 miles-per-hour.
“China in 2015 is out of the Wizard of Oz,” Joe said. “It is just like the Emerald City.”
In China, there is great respect for the elderly. The older train stations are equipped with stairs, and whenever the Howells had to climb or walk down the steps to get to a train platform, a Chinese national would carry their heavy luggage. The luggage was waiting for them at the top or bottom of the stairs without fail, Joe said.
One of the highlights of the China leg was a boat ride down the Yangtze River, cruising past small villages amidst the spectacular and mystical Yellow Mountains. Joe pointed out that the melting snows in the Himalayas feed and sustain the Yangtze River. Without the snow, the Yangtze River would dry up, eliminating two-thirds of food production in China, a concern because of global warming.
Like the Russians, the Chinese also like Americans, a feeling reciprocated by the Howells.
“We had great affection for all the Chinese people we met,” said Joe.
Follow Your Dreams
Embry came up with the idea for the trip, describing it as a “fantasy.”
“I am sure all of us have had that,” said Embry, who worked for years at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. “Life is pretty hard, raising kids, and you are going to work, trying to keep life together. You think, ‘What will I do when I retire?’”
Embry’s original plan was to “bum around the world” to satisfy her desire to travel. Whenever she mentioned this to Joe, he shrugged. But then one day, Joe called Embry’s bluff, asking her, “Can I go too?”
The Howells decided to go around the world through the Northern Hemisphere because it had better ship and rail transportation than the Southern Hemisphere. The Howells hired two travel agents, one for the Atlantic and European portion of the trip and another for China.
The travel agents were particularly helpful with booking hotels and train tickets, which were not easy to obtain. Embry said the trip cost about $500 each day for the couple, pointing out they did not travel “in the most fancy way.”
The Howells defrayed costs by taking a transition cruise to cross the Atlantic and a container ship from China to the West Coast of Canada on their return. They stayed with friends in France, Germany, and Poland, and arranged the housing exchange in Valencia, Spain, making it possible for them to stay for two weeks without having to pay for a hotel.
Because they encountered freezing temperatures in Mongolia and 100-degree heat in China, “we had to take clothes for every season we have in D.C.,” Embry said.
Joe rated the food in Spain as perhaps the best in Europe. The Howells also described the Catholic Church as moribund in Western Europe but alive and thriving in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland.
Communist regimes in Poland suppressed the Catholic Church for decades, but that suppression only made the Church stronger, Joe said.
“One of the themes that comes through travelling in Europe is the heights and the depths,” said Joe. “All of these countries had great histories and dismal experiences, especially during World War II.”
The Howells took many train trips, traveling thousands of miles on railroad tracks and often spending the night on sleeper trains. The train trips gave the Howells an opportunity to meet and make friends with tourists from all over the world.
“We ate meals with different people every day so we really got to know them,” Joe said.
In some ways, the train trips reaffirmed the Howell’s faith in humanity. Joe showed pictures of tourists dancing and partying on the TSR as it sped from Mongolia to China. In one picture, four Israeli men are embracing four German men in an act of friendship.
“You know these Israeli men had relatives who died in the Holocaust,” Joe said.
Yet they became fast friends with the Germans.
“Isn’t this what our planet is supposed to be about?” Joe asked.