As the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep borders closed and travel restrictions in place, many wanderlusting folks can’t help but fill their social media feeds with nostalgic #throwback posts from a time when vacations were still a thing. This university student is no different, except that he’s not your average jet setter. In fact, no planes were involved in his overseas trip at all.
At 20 years old and fresh out of his mandatory two-year military service in 2018, Singaporean Ganesha Balakrishnan didn’t know what to do with all the free time he suddenly had. Then it hit him: with 10 months left before he starts university in Canada, why not go there without flying, and visit other cities along the way?
Balakrishnan’s desire to see the world goes back to a childhood spent watching travel shows on TV. Before enlisting in the military, he took a trip to Europe where he hitchhiked for the first time.
“I was forced to hitchhike because I was robbed in Amsterdam, the very first European city I visited [in the trip]. I only had a couple of euros left,” Balakrishnan, now 22 years old, told VICE. “I felt like it was a calling, as if it happened for a purpose. So, I hitchhiked and it was a very pleasant experience. I’ve been addicted to it ever since then.”
Though he did not plan it, that was like training for his 9-month trip from Singapore to Canada. Mere weeks after coming up with the idea, in November 2018, he packed a backpack with just his laptop, DSLR camera, and some clothes, before embarking on the journey — hitchhiking and couch-surfing from Singapore to Montreal.
“I really wanted to do something that not many people have done, or maybe even no one has done before,” he said.
“I really wanted to do something that not many people have done, or maybe even no one has done before.”
Flipping through his passport during a Zoom call, he recalled seeing a total of 23 countries from November 2018 to August 2019. He went to places like China, North Korea, Iran, and Germany, while only riding trains, buses, cars, and boats. It wasn’t an easy feat.
From Singapore, he went up to Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Across the Mekong River, he rode a boat. He went from China to North Korea, and back, then traveled across Central Asia, before making his way to Europe. When he reached Germany, he took a cargo ship across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. Finally, he met his parents in New York and drove all the way to Montreal. Just in time for school.
Balakrishnan said that he had a daily budget of SG$25 ($19) and had to rely on seeking hosts, through a couch-surfing website, who would let him stay at their place for free.
“Couch-surfing worked in most places but not all the time. There’s a bit of luck with it. ...There were times where I couldn’t find a host,” he said. “[If that happened], I’d go to a very cheap hostel. But if the hostel was a bit over my budget, then I’d pitch a tent at a park or beach. Sometimes, I slept at train stations if I was too lazy to set up the tent.”
He remembers a lot of standing under the scorching sun for hours and waiting for people on the road to stop and give him a ride.
Most of his couch-surfing experiences were enjoyable because it allowed him to make new friends that he’s still in touch with today. But he also remembers having to put up with unpleasant hosts. Sometimes, it was downright dangerous. Balakrishnan recalled how his host in Tajikistan seemed to be jealous after finding out that he was talking with and planning to meet another local. The host locked him in his room and turned off his mobile hotspot.
“This incident happened at around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. I don’t know how most people would react in this situation but I very calmly just went to bed. At around 2 a.m., I woke up and he [the host] was still sleeping. So, I packed my bag, opened the window, jumped out, and made an escape,” Balakrishnan said.
He recalled the incident as if it was just another part of the adventure, choosing to focus on the things he saw and learned about each country’s culture and people.
In Vietnam, he stayed with an English teacher whose students he toured the city of Huế with. He even helped them practice their English. When he had nowhere to stay in Beijing, he camped at the Great Wall in the dead of the winter. In Iran, he got a taste of the country’s underground party scene. And in Uzbekistan, he stayed at a caravanserai in Bukhara, one of the main cities on the ancient path of the Silk Road.
All this, without an itinerary. To Balakrishnan, that was the fun part.
“The beauty of traveling like that is that you will get lost. I know it sounds cliche, but when you get lost, you see a different side of the country you never expect to see. You get to meet people whom you would have otherwise not have met,” he said.
One of his favorite memories from the experience was meeting all the generous locals who hosted him.
“In Iran, although the country was going through an economic calamity of sorts, the people there went out of their way to cook very expensive meals for me and feed me three times a day,” he said. “When I visited Kyrgyz villages, every other shop owner would gift me biscuits and handkerchiefs.”
Throughout his journey to Montreal, Balakrishnan also discovered plenty of things about himself.
“Prior to this trip, I never really did anything interesting, or courageous, or brave. But during this trip, I pushed myself as much as possible. So, I learnt that the limits that I thought I had before this trip weren’t really there. If anything, it was me, myself, and my thinking that limited myself.”
“Prior to this trip, I never really did anything interesting, or courageous, or brave. But during this trip, I pushed myself as much as possible.”
Last year, Balakrishnan wrote a book about his experience titled The Long Direction: A flightless journey from Singapore to Canada. With plenty of photos from his adventures, he now shares them on his Instagram account and Facebook page.
After spending his winter break in Singapore, Balakrishnan is going back to school in Montreal to prepare for an exam. Despite his love for travel, he said he does not mind the restrictions in the new normal.
“But I am looking forward to the day when there are less restrictions and more open borders, and I have the ability to travel again. I really want to visit Cuba, North Africa, and West Africa. I would also really like to do an overland trip back to Singapore.”