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Photo: artberri

Round the world travel. Virtually, that is.

I’VE RIDDEN the Trans-Siberian rails. I’ve wolfed down the instant noodles, drank the crap Baltika beer, and suffered in platzkartny for 65 straight hours. So I have some mixed emotions about one of Google’s recent additions, a virtual tour along the ties between Moscow and Vladivostok.

…part of me feels ripped off, like when I hike up a mountain to find a car park at the top, or a crowd of people exiting a gondola.

Google provides video footage, as if looking out the window of a train car, separated into stages of the 9226 km long journey.

You can choose your starting point, such as Yekaterinburg, where it will faithfully tell you that you are 1751 km from Moscow and 7474 km from Vladivostok. The video starts with your train stopped at the platform, then slowly builds speed until the features start to blur.

While you’re watching this footage, you can select audio to listen to: the rumbles of the train over the tracks, Russian radio, even a reading of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (in Russian of course, for that truly authentic experience). A Google map appears below the video so you know exactly where you are, both in Satellite and Terrain modes.

That’s not all folks

As our friends at Wend magazine report, you can go skiing and snowboarding in your bathrobe, right from the comfort of your own couch (or, like me, from a painfully hard seat at Starbucks).

An article at The Guardian also points out that Google has teamed up with the National Trust in the UK to bring you offroad views of British landscapes, stony castles, and country cottages. This in addition to their pairing up with UNESCO to showcase street views of World Heritage sites.

One step further

An entrepreneurial tandem of brothers created the website Google Sightseeing, whose tagline is “Why bother seeing the world for real?”. Categorized into sights (flocking, a Canadian farm maze) and localities (Spain, Tennessee), each post has a satellite view and describes what you’re looking at.

From what I can tell, most of the content is submitted by readers, which leads me to believe that there are a lot of people spending hours scouring Google maps, rather than going outside.

The world from your computer

Sure, it’s nice to bring the world to those who can’t, or who just won’t, explore it a little. But part of me feels ripped off, like when I hike up a mountain to find a car park at the top, or a crowd of people exiting a gondola. Or when I hiked along the Great Ocean Walk with a 14 kg pack for four days and found out later that there are people who provide bag and food drops at hikers’ destinations.

Yes, writers have been bringing the world to armchair travelers for decades and centuries even. But at least there’s some work involved in that. You have to take the time and effort to read, to work your brain and your imagination.

But when Google lets you experience the sounds and motions of the Trans-Siberian, without having to deal with surly provodnistas or an annoying Russian who insists on turning up the communal radio full blast, that’s where I have to put my foot down.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION

If you wanna kick it old school, Sarah Menkedick absolutely nailed it in A Virtual Ride on a Chinese Train.

Virtual tools can also be used to help plan in-the-flesh travels. For more on that idea, read How to Use Google Maps for Trip Planning.

Trip Planning

 

About The Author

Carlo Alcos

Carlo is the Dean of Education at MatadorU and a Managing Editor at Matador. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He lives in Nelson, British Columbia.

  • http://www.thetraveleditor.com Kevin Evans

    Carlo,
    I can imagine many travellers feel the same frustrations you do. But we are hypocritical when we welcome Google Earth as a great travel planning tool, flickr to share our pics with the world and Twitter to have our friends with us (virtually), yet complain when Google has shot some Siberian Railway video.

    Like all technical advances that came before, this one will open people’s eyes and expose them to things they may not ever see in their lifetimes. Anything that broadens people’s world view and humanises foreign (sometimes read: ‘scary’, ‘weird’ or ‘inferior’) places can only be a good thing.

    I guess it comes down to this: why do we travel?

    If we travel for bragging rights (and c’mon, we all do), then yes google sightseeing allows posers entry into the travelling fraternity. On that note though,haven’t we all been travel posers at some time in our lives? I know I’ve made more of a trip than it actually was, just to impress a girl. Anyway, I veer.

    I posit we travel for ourselves. For enlightenment. For wisdom. For soul. For posterity. Only real travel achieves this. With this philosophy, who cares if there’s a bar at the top of Snowden, or a train that goes to Machu Picchu. I walked there. I have the blisters and bugbites and stories to tell my children.

    And, yes, I admit, a bit of smugness.

  • http://allisoptional.com All Is Optional

    I agree wholeheartedly with: “Anything that broadens people’s world view and humanises foreign (sometimes read: ’scary’, ‘weird’ or ‘inferior’) places can only be a good thing.”

    @Carlo: The question at the crux: why did you ride the Trans-Siberian rails or hike the Great Ocean Walk? For yourself, I hope. The experiences you had and lessons you gleaned from trips like these can’t be reciprocated through Google Tourism. Like you said yourself, the person experiencing this on a computer screen won’t deal with the surly provodnistas. Of course, bragging rights are nice, but I don’t think people go on trips like the one you mentioned because they want to sound cool to someone. That’s a lot of effort for a small reward.

    In terms of what Google Tourism might be able to do for those who can’t or won’t travel, I think the pay off is significant. Maybe watching the Trans-Siberian rails can give someone the confidence to take the extra step of taking the actual journey rather than the virtual tour. Or, it can plant the seed of wanderlust in enough people. They prioritize travel and the education that comes with it over a corporate job in a cubicle… or at the very least use that corporate job to finance trips that allow for cultural immersion and exchange.

  • Open your eyes

    I agree with Kevin. Those of us who do actually travel the world, rather than watching footage of it, get to experience things that no video could ever give someone. The smells, sights, sounds, feelings, and conversations we have with people all play a part in our traveling experience. By watching a video, people can get a glimpse of a place and maybe even some of the sounds, but in no way would this ever come even close to what actually being in a place is like. If you’re traveling for yourself, like Kevin mentioned, it shouldn’t matter that other people are watching video of the places you’ve been to. It’s all about your own experiences, growth, and knowledge, right? On the other hand, if you’re traveling for other reasons… just to be able to say you’ve traveled…I can see how the videos might bother you. The biggest negative aspect I see in the videos is that in no way could they ever give justice to the places they show. The world should be viewed and traveled in person, but for people who can’t do that, at least they can get an idea of what’s out there.

  • http://unearthingasia.com Nik

    I’m with Kevin on this one, but it doesn’t concern me too much actually. Ultimately, I believe there is a lot more to travel than seeing on a screen and hearing from the speaker.

    When you mentioned that “you can go skiing and snowboarding in your bathrobe, right from the comfort of your own couch”, I digress – what you can do instead is “see what the skier is supposed to see, and hear what the skier is supposed to hear”…

    That, to me, is a big difference than actually skiing in and of itself. Can you feel the cold freezing wind against your face? Can you feel the smooth powdery snow? Can you steer your body to wherever you feel like heading? Can you feel the adrenaline rush as you try to decide whether to make that jump, in fear of breaking your neck? It’s a big difference!

    Ultimately I feel that this is just another way to inspire people to travel. It’s the next generation of people sharing their travel photos on Flickr, and spreading the travel bug. It’s a good thing.

    Ah well, just my two cents.

  • http://travelerahoy.wordpress.com Alouise

    I gotta admit there’s part of me that finds this kinda cool. I already went “skiing” just a few minutes ago and I enjoy playing around on Google Earth. But I know walking down the streets of New York City on Google is completely different than experiencing it for myself in the real world. And I’m sure nothing can actually replace taking the Trans-Siberian Railway journey, not even a video on youtube.

    The internet is just a tool, it’s up to each of us to decide how we want to use it. Perhaps as the other posters have said, this could inspire someone to take their own trip. Even with a site like Matador, it’s great and wonderful to read about all these places, but I know it’s not the same as being there. As long as people understand that virtual travel can’t take the place of real travel, I say it’s all good.

    Besides how many travelers are going to say “yeah I was going to go to Stonehenge, but I already went with Google so I’m fine staying home.” Those who want to travel will find a way to do so. And those with no intention of leaving home, will stay where they’re at. Different strokes for different folks.

  • http://carlo-alcos.com Carlo

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I surely don’t travel for bragging rights and in fact shy away from most conversations starting with “so, where have you traveled?” I’ll admit, the reaction to ‘virtual tourism’ is probably my ego “looking for a fight” :)

    The real issue for me is how accessible things are becoming, for example cutting swaths of forest to make a gondola up a mountain so everyone can enjoy the views, or shuttle services up and down the Great Ocean Road providing food and bag drops for hikers who can’t be bothered to carry their own gear.

    I can understand it for physically disabled people, but most I’ve seen are just people with money too lazy to make the effort. The question is, should everything be easily accessible to everyone? Shouldn’t there be rewards for those willing to make that extra effort and put in the hard work?

    I do realize that things were a lot less accessible than now, and that I’m (we’re) the beneficiary of more and cheaper flights, previously uncut mountain trails, and new transport services. Not saying I’m a saint, but surely a line must be drawn somewhere?

  • http://milesofabbie.com Abbie

    I’d rather experience it for myself then through Google.

  • Tim

    “I do realize that things were a lot less accessible than now, and that I’m (we’re) the beneficiary of more and cheaper flights, previously uncut mountain trails, and new transport services. Not saying I’m a saint, but surely a line must be drawn somewhere?”

    I draw the line at airplanes! Back in my day it took 80 days to go around the world, now it can be done in 2! You kids today with your anti-malarial pills, GPS and immunizations! Feh!

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/vagabonderz Carlo Alcos

      Haha. Fair enough. I’m sure someone, somewhere, is drawing the line at shoes.

      • TimR

        Around the world barefoot? You might be on to something.

  • TimR

    What makes me queasy about it, is that it’s stripped of story. Most travel writing/photograph/video has at least some elements of story to it, so that you get the sights and sounds along with emotion. But the cold, hard world of Google has none of that. I was interested to hear Marissa Mayer in an interview once say she loves to read, but then disheartened as she explained she never reads fiction. What do you expect from a bunch of engineers I guess.

  • wherechugo

    I think it’s great.

    What a great tool for planning, for those of us who do travel. We know that there is no substitute for actually being there and that no given moment in any place will ever be experienced the same way twice. Viewing a place on a computer will never be a substitute for first-hand experience.

    For those who can’t or won’t travel, what a wonderful way to open up the world, dispel unfounded, preconceived notions and inspire curiosity to know more.

    I would however, choose a different tagline, than the “why bother…” it doesn’t have to be so negative.

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/vagabonderz Carlo Alcos

    I was thinking more about this, and I have to agree with TimR. Kevin Adams above calls us hypocrites, because we share pics on Flickr, shoot video, and blog. The difference, as TimR says, is the personal experience. My photos and posts are my experiences, done mainly for myself and my wife, secondary for readers/viewers. If I can bring the world to others or inspire through my personal experiences, that’s great, but it’s definitely different.

    And Nik said this: “Can you feel the cold freezing wind against your face? Can you feel the smooth powdery snow? Can you steer your body to wherever you feel like heading? Can you feel the adrenaline rush as you try to decide whether to make that jump, in fear of breaking your neck?”

    Maybe not now, but you can surely bet that with technology this will be possible. In Vancouver during the 2010 Games, you could go see a movie in 4D. You actually felt wind, bubbles, and water.

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