It might possibly be the mother of all challenges, travelling the longest overland route in a straight line. This epic journey spans two entire continents and cuts straight through some of the most complicated and dangerous places on Earth. Let me take you along to explain why no one has ever attempted it.
Before we dive into it, let’s have a look at some statistics. The world’s longest overland route in a straight line is entirely located on the Northern Hemisphere. It spans an epic 13,589 kms (8,443 miles), crosses 9 time zones and connects the Atlantic and North Pacific Ocean.
The line crosses a total of 18 countries and territories. It starts in Liberia, West Africa, at a tiny and remote beach settlement 250 km southeast of the capital Monrovia. Then it goes on into Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Burkina Faso again, Niger, Chad, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan again before finally reaching China. The line reaches the sea near an industrial village approx. 320 kilometers south of Shanghai.
What is truly unique about this route is that it stays clear of any major water bodies. There are obviously some rivers and small lakes to overcome but no oceans or seas. The only point of discussion could be the the Dead Sea, laying halfway the route in the Jordan valley. The name Dead Sea is misleading though, in reality it is a lake without a connection to any ocean.
Challenge 1: Visas
Getting the required visas for this overland route will be one of the hardest parts of the journey. The requirements to cross at a certain remote border are often difficult to obtain and they can change without notice. In many cases it is much easier to just fly from one capital to the other. Let’s have a look at a few challenging situations, assuming an eastward travel direction.
Tajikistan and China
There is only one overland border between Tajikistan and China. Located in one of the most remote places on Earth, it goes over the Kulma Pass at an altitude of 4,362 meters. Due to extreme winter conditions this border might not be open all year round and could sometimes be very hard to reach. Even with the right weather conditions and correct Chinese visa – which is very difficult to obtain – it remains a massive challenge to cross this border if you do not speak any Chinese.
So, if you stumble upon any issues here, you might have to spend several days traveling all the way back to an embassy to find a solution and try again.
The Stans: (former) visa jungle
The ‘Stan’ countries of Central Asia have always been notorious for their visa bureaucracy. Turkmenistan, sometimes referred to as the second North Korea, definitely tops the list. The easiest (or only) way to enter the country is to join an organised group tour. Transit visas do exist but can be a hit and miss.
Lately there have been improvements as visa rules in the other Stans have eased for many nationalities. Also eVisas are being introduced, which makes things a lot easier.
The Israeli stamp
Visiting Israel can be rather problematic if you have suspicious stamps in your passport, especially the Iranian and Lebanese stamp. I have been to Israel myself and I can tell from experience that they will raise some eyebrows.
The other way around though is much more problematic. If you are trying to enter Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan with an Israeli stamp in your passport, forget it.
The trick is to get the Israeli stamp on a separate piece of paper, which is actually common practice these days. There is however one other obstacle. When you leave Israel overland to Jordan and stamp your way in at the King Hussein bridge, it will expose that you actually came from the direction of Israel / Palestine. You could argue that you only visited Palestine, but that will be hard to prove. They might have a look at your stamps and will not be able to figure it out. The ultimate solution would be to get two passports.
Projecting the straight line in Google Maps
It is notoriously hard to accurately project the planet (or anything spherical) onto a flat surface. There are many different projection techniques invented but none of them are perfect. Google maps uses the popular Mercator projection but it is commonly known that this results in a distorted view of the world.With Google Maps, as you see above, our epic overland route does not look anywhere near a straight line. But be assured, there are ways to accurately project this straight line using software like Google Earth.
Challenge 2: Conflict & wars
Unfortunately the imposed line runs straight through some problematic and unstable regions.
Many years ago Libya was assumed to be Africa’s wealthiest nation. Less people lived below the poverty line than for example in The Netherlands. But after Gaddafi’s overthrow the country quickly became a failed state. Years of unrest followed with militia groups all vying for power. Knowing the risk of kidnapping, I would not suggest travelling deep into Libya’s southern territories.
Things are relatively stable in Iraq these days. In fact in 2021 I independently travelled there from north to south, even visiting the former ISIS capital of Mosul. Also in 2019 I explored almost the entire region of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north with much joy and safety.
Check it out: Backpacking independently for 11 days through north Iraq
Following decades of war and unrest, there are still some areas in the far west of Iraq that are not completely stable. And this is exactly where our line enters from Jordan to Iraq.
Vast areas of the African Sahara are a no man’s land of open desert outside government control. For years it has been providing a fertile environment for local militias, smuggler groups and terrorist organisations. Travelling through these areas is definitely not without any risks.
Challenge 3: Border problems
Chad – Libya
One major obstacle is the fact that there is no legal overland border crossing between Chad and Libya. The same goes for Niger and Libya. This basically means that there is no legal way to follow the straight line.
To make it work, some creativity will be needed. Luckily the area is along several key routes for migrant smuggling to Europe. You can try your luck this way but it would be rather unethical and irresponsible.
Libya – Egypt
The second obstacle also involves Libya, this time to try reach Egypt. The only official crossing can take place near the Mediterranean Sea at the Egyptian town Salloum (and Musaid in Libya). But since the start of unrest in Libya this border has been closed by Egypt.
That makes it that the only way to cross the border overland is to find a non-official way. For obvious reasons I would surely not recommend this, just wait for better days to come.
Tajikistan – Afghanistan – Tajikistan
One of the most complicated parts of the line is when it crosses through Tajikistan. As soon as it reaches the Pamir mountains it cuts briefly into the northern most part of Afghanistan.
This area seems very remote and I am not sure if it is even physically possible to reach it. That is besides the fact that a legal entry into Afghanistan is very complicated these days knowing the political situation.
West Africa is notoriously hard to travel, I can tell from experience. I spent several months travelling overland between 10 different countries and it was an adventure of a lifetime.
West Africa sees frequent military coups, local tribes are controlling border regions and border officials can be rather corrupt. Burkina Faso is among the least stable countries and twice on the itinerary. This makes it really complicated to travel through west Africa in a straight overland line.
There are many obstacles to travel the longest overland route in a straight line. This articles sums up just a few of them, there are certainly other ones not yet mentioned.
Read More: 12 Kick-Ass Route Ideas to Travel the World
Most likely this is also why there is (yet) no person in the world who has ever attempted to travel this route. Anyone planning to do so must be completely out of his mind, but it will surely result in getting listed in the Guinness book of world records! Who is up for the challenge?
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Small note: this article was first published in 2015. Following several geopolitical developments ever since, the content have been updated accordingly.