We have been doing a very similar route to the one you are planning (minus the India bit - though we're heading that way shortly). We left the UK in August 2006 by ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam and have arrived in New Zealand without having taken a flight. There is no doubt that flying is a cheaper option - some of the budget fares available in Asia are brilliant, but as Mell pointed out, flying gives you no idea of the scale of the world. So to answer your questions (based on our experiences)...
1. What is the best way of getting to China?
We took the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow having taken trains across Europe. Flying to Moscow from the UK would probably be cheaper but we liked the gradual dunking into less and less familiar territory. We stopped in Amsterdam, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow for four days each which gave us a time to recover from train journeys and see a bit of what they had to offer. If you book far enough ahead on the Deutsche Bahn
you can get some cheap(ish) fares for legs to and from Berlin/Germany and also (as far as I remember) from Warsaw to Moscow (remember to organise a transit visa for Belarus if you do this route).
Other routes I've heard of but couldn't really comment much on would be to take the Eurostar to Belgium and then get to Berlin from there. Or you can take a ferry from Newcastle (and I think also from various ports in Scotland) to Norway and then travel through Sweden and take a ferry to St Petersburg although I think this gets pretty expensive as much of Scandanavia is not exactly cheap.
A little aside note about Japan - it's not as expensive as you might think. I would say that (assuming you pre-purchase a Japan Rail train pass) it is comparable to travel in Australia or NZ. The crossing by ferry from Shanghai to Osaka is great fun and took 2 days. We stayed for three months and it has been one of the highlights of the trip (there is nowhere in the world quite like Japan!). For a cheap cultural immersion experience try WWOOFing
2. What is the best way to get to India from South-east China?
We're looking into doing this ourselves as we head back to China in September this year. My understanding is that you can take a train from Guangzhou to Chengdu and then pick up the Lhasa Express train from there. I don't know the timescale for this exactly but based on our experiences of crossing China by train I'm sure it would be a multi-day trip (maybe 48 hours...?). From Lhasa crossing to Nepal is a well trodden path by tourists, though there are no trains - this trip is by bus/jeep only.
Another way of doing it (and perhaps a little more interesting, though travel intensive) is to go from Guangzhou to Kunming, to Lijiang, to Zhongdian and then across the Tibetian plateau to Lhasa by bus. I know that the journey from Lijiang to Chengdu via this route takes about 5 days - but from what I've heard it can be an amazing experience.
A wee note on travelling from India to Vietnam - you're right: the only way is back through China unless you fly. Even at it's most stable, you cannot cross the Indian-Burmese border (legally).
3. Boats to Australia and NZ
I searched for ages looking for a way of getting by boat to Australia from Indonesia. It used to be possible to just pay a fisherman in Timor to drop you off, but the Australian authorities have cracked down on any shipping between Indonesia and their waters. As far as I'm aware, getting a lift with a local is no longer possible and there certainly isn't a ferry. There are three options from the research I have done. 1. Travel over land and sea to Timor and get a flight to Darwin. It's a short flight (2hrs or less) and the number of flights per week is limited - there is a website for the Australian company that runs it but I don't have the details to hand. 2 Option 2 is to chat up some yachties and see if they will take you. Private yachts can probably be picked up most easily around Bali and you may find someone who'll let you work your passage or if you're really lucky, feed you strawberries and champagne as you cruise to Oz. Unfortunately, my understanding is that for private vessels, Australian port authorities need three weeks notice of a boats intention to land in an Australian dock - which includes a list of all crew and passengers aboard - so you may need to organise your lift a bit in advance.
Option 3 is travel by container ship (this is the one we chose). Unfortunately, shipping routes are fairly well defined and as far as I'm aware do not include direct routes from Indonesian ports to Australian ones. The best option seems to be to travel from Singapore. The cost varies (depending on the company that owns the ship doing that route) but it usually works out at about 80 - 100 Euro's per day. To give you an indication, the crossing from Singapore to Brisbane was 9 days.
We spent three months in Australia before travelling by container ship to New Zealand - Adelaide to Auckland - which was 5 days of motion sickness at the same price as above.
If you don't mind/don't get sea sickness, I can highly recommend container ship travel - as one of only two or three passengers aboard you get treated like royalty and it is a fascinating experience from start to finish as you fairly much have the freedom to wander around the boat as you please (some of the ships even have gyms and swimming pools!)
Again, a flight from either Singapore to Australia or from Australia to NZ would be cheaper. Currently you can buy flights between Oz and NZ for less than NZ$200 (about £70) and if you fly by budget airlines like Tiger Airways or Jetstar you can get between Asia and Oz for about NZ$400 (about £170).
4. The boat to the America's
The next leg proved too much for our budget which is why we're biting the bullet and taking a flight back to Bangkok from Christchurch before heading back to the UK over land - taking in southern and western Asia and the middle-east. If we did have the funds then we'd probably have got a container ship to Tahiti and then across the Pacific to Panama. From there it is possible to either travel north overland to North America or take a boat south to Santiago and South America. (Currently crossing from Central America to South America by land is not advised as the Durian gap at the north of Colombia is know for its hostage taking gangs and drug warfare).
In terms of time, I would suggest giving yourself than a year if possible. I know it's perfectly feasible in less time but it's nice not to feel like you're racing to a deadline and having to rush or miss places out. We planned our trip as far as Japan. After that we have been free-wheeling, just picking up visas as they were required and fairly much letting the experiences of other travellers and a vague idea of our own wants determine where we ended up.
With regard to cost and the amount of money you should take - £10,000 for a year should be no problem at all if you aren't expecting too lavish a lifestyle (beer every night, swimming pools at your hotel and shopping til you drop). We treated ourselves to air conditioned rooms in much of South East Asia without our budget taking too much of a battering.
Being a bit of a nerd, I (Robbie) kept a record of every last bit of expenditure, so I can tell you without much difficulty what our expenditure per day was in each country (including everything - from a can of Sprite to visas, transport and accommodation to museum entries, books and clothes shopping). Obviously expenditure is a very personal thing but maybe it will give you a bit of an indication of how much you will relatively spend in each country:
(All costs are for 2 people per day)
Europe (including Trans-Mongolian) = £83.83*
China = £33.19
Japan = £46.38
Vietnam = £18.55
Cambodia = £20.89
Laos = £35.01**
Thailand = £29.71
Malaysia = £25.71
Singapore = £44.98
Australia = £65.97***
*(The cost of train travel pushed this up... that and a nice hotel in Amsterdam (to ease ourselves in to travelling!)
**(This one is for 3 people - not two)
***(We had car troubles which really pushed this up. It would have been £53.79 if all had gone well!)
If you need more information about anything feel free to contact us, but I would recommend a read of the following for a bit of inspiration:
- Dal and Ab
- Lowcarbon Travel
- The Man in Seat 61
- Mr Confused
Hope this helps, safe travels.
Robbie & Vikki