"I love to travel, but hate to arrive." — Albert Einstein
So you've visited the Kii Peninsula on Japan's Honshu Island. But did you arrive there after travelling by melody-making highway? You've been to remote Alaska shore towns, but were you camping on the top deck of a ferry the previous evening, your dog lying next to you, tongue wagging?
We're clearly simplifying Einstein's comments (bodies are constantly moving, in motion ad infinitum), but it's often true that the emphasis in travel is placed on visiting sites — the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu — rather than the beasts of burden, trains or footpaths used to arrive there. However, in many cases there's truth in the old cliche: It's about the journey, not the destination. As we hope you'll agree, the world's modes of transport, from Pakistan's vibrant buses to Lapland's reindeer sleighs, span the horizon.
Below you'll find some less typical options for transport gathered from around the globe. Have a lasting memory of an odd means of arrival? Post your transportation storieson the IndependentTraveler.com message boards!
On the ground
Japan's melody roads
Located in the central and northern parts of the country, the Japanese prefectures Wakayama, Hokkaido and Gunma feature short stretches of road that play "music" when driven over. The sound is created through grooves in the pavement — distance between grooves creates variation in pitch — and a "song" (one is a Japanese pop song, the others difficult to recognize) buzzes as you proceed. For a Japanese-language video clip of the roads in action, click here.
Signs warn drivers of the coming cacophony, and the music lasts about 30 seconds. The optimal speed is only 28 miles per hour, giving the interlude the dual function of confusing the driver and possibly deterring speeders. The idea is reminiscent of a Disney theme park idea floated years ago — slow speed plays terrifying tune ("It's a Small World"), deters park racers — but Disney scrapped the idea while the provincial Japanese government actually made reality out of a seemingly drug-fueled hypothetical.
Many of the buses, cabs and rickshaws used in Pakistan are adorned in a psychedelic rainbow, a mishmash of film stars, political heroes and Hindu gods; scenes from classical Greece; intricate Islamic patterns; dangling, jingling metallic "necklaces"; perched tin birds and butterflies; swaying flags and ruby-red flowers. An art snob might label such unrestrained opulence garish, but bus and cab owners call it necessity. In hopes of attracting customers, the drivers, or the companies that employ them, pay thousands for the work, which is completed over the course of weeks or even months by highly trained artisans.
The cabs and buses operate alongside a more traditional looking transport system, but given the option (and with costs being similar), why not go for the experience?
Reindeer sledding in Lapland
Insert your own Christmas joke here. Reindeer sledding is part of the cultural wool of the Sami people, a Nordic group who've made the transition into the modern era by balancing traditional life with providing tours for well-off travelers. The one-deer open sleigh, along with its slightly better-known relative, the dogsled, is one of the ways to get around Northern Baltic regions such as Lapland. Reindeer sledding is often included as part of snowy treks across Sami lands, getting you to the next winter lodge or campsite in a highly unusual way.
Crystal chandeliers hang from ornately carved vaulted ceilings. Rows of thick marble columns span the length of vast tunnels. Striking bronze figures — of everyman Soviet heroes with perfect posture — sit proudly, gazing at fire-red mosaics depicting the siege of Leningrad. Moscow's enormous metro system is distinguished by several palatial stations, including Komsomolskaya (probably the most opulent), Kropotkinskaya and Mayakovskaya. They were built between the late 1930's and the 1950's as a testament to Soviet greatness, their construction coinciding with a decidedly turbulent above-ground reality (the Great Purge, the state-sponsored gulag, the violence of the Second World War, the Cold War). The system has been well maintained, with about seven million passengers a day experiencing its blend of utility and marble.
In the air
Hot-air balloon animals
Whimsical, sure, but there's nothing particularly odd about traveling by hot-air balloon — except perhaps when the balloon is Van Gogh's painted head in all its homeliness, his wavy wrinkled face seeming to scowl at the other balloons sailing by. Sad clowns, laughing dragons, winking fish and other oddly shaped balloons make their way around the festival circuit, making major stops at events such as the Discovery Channel's annual festival in Bristol, England, or the Balloon Fiesta in Leipzig.
On a more cosmic scale, the idea of civilians travelling via spaceship was until recently seen as improbable, impractical and absurdly dangerous. While practicality and safety are still being debated, very wealthy people are now traveling to space. Adventure tour operator G.A.P. Adventures currently offers space travel as a vacation category; the privilege of experiencing weightlessness by traveling in a MIG fighter jet will cost you $27,500. Meanwhile, Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic has opened up the queue to fly into the stratosphere with Virgin Galactic, with the first flights scheduled for 2009. Virgin's tickets cost $200,000 at the moment, with a minimum deposit of $20,000.
The rub is that G.A.P.'s (60,000 feet up) and Virgin Galactic's (over 300,000 feet) flights are sub-orbital in nature. That means you ascend to a certain altitude, experience weightlessness for a few moments and return to earth. The Russian Space Agency, on the other hand, currently offers the only legitimate space vacation (flight, room and board rather than just flight), and charges about $20 million for orbital flights to the International Space Station, where you can stay for a week or more (booked through 2009).
RMS St. Helena
A combination passenger vessel/working cargo ship, the RMS St. Helena (RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship) services several British overseas territories in the South Atlantic, most notably the island of St. Helena (population: 4,000). In fact, it's the only commercial ship making stops at the incredibly remote island, which lies some 1,200 miles from the west coast of Africa and 1,800 miles east of Brazil. Apart from transporting everything from goats and sheep to furniture and auto parts, the ship has 128 berths, accommodating both adventurous world travelers and homecoming residents returning to their birthplace following years spent abroad. There's no theater or casino onboard, and time is typically spent chatting during the daily high tea, reading on the top deck, engaging in silly deck games or gazing ponderously out to sea.
Visiting the island itself is of course part and parcel of the journey. Discovered by the Portuguese, annexed by the Dutch, colonized by the English East India Company, and chosen as the location of Napolean's exile and death, St. Helena has a surprisingly rich history for such a completely out-of-the-way place. But time is running out on the RMS St. Helena. The tiny island will soon get its own airfield, rendering the RMS St. Helena obsolete by 2010 or 2011.
Alaska Marine Highway System
Alaska's Marine Highway is the Last Frontier's year-round ferry system, with about 10 ships (200-750 passengers) covering a route that connects 33 ports — from Bellingham in Washington State all the way up to Skagway and the Aleutians — over thousands of nautical miles. Established over 40 years ago, the "Blue Canoes" have cafeterias and cabins, but little else.
Many passengers — both locals and tourists — choose to bring their own food, and rough it in sleeping bags in the heated solariums or camp out on deck in the tent cities that appear nightly. Pets are also welcome.
No other Alaska option really allows for the opportunity of year-round travel. Winter sailings —where the temperatures may average in the teens or low 20's — provide the opportunity to witness the spectacular aurora borealis or attend the Iditarod.