Before Covid-19 travel restrictions kicked in, taking a trip before one entered university was not uncommon.
Those who just re-entered civilian life after National Service might think: I’ve spent two years serving the nation, so why not reward myself with a nice trip to Bali with my buddies?
However, in 2018, Selvaganeshamoorthi Balakrishnan, fresh out of National Service at age 20, had a completely different, and far more ambitious plan in mind.
He embarked on a nine month-long trip from Singapore to Montreal, Canada, with stops in places such as North Korea, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Russia in the process.
He hitchhiked and couchsurfed his way through Asia to Europe, and was almost kidnapped in the process.
When he finally reached Germany, he took a cargo ship to the U.S., before continuing on to Canada.
How much did he end up spending for this mind-boggling trip? A mere $10,000.
And if you’re wondering why the trip took this long, well, it is because he’d decided to do the entire trip without flying. Not even once.
The overland trip was his teenage dream
As a flight enthusiast myself, there was one burning question I had to ask Ganesha the moment I met him: why did he choose to travel over land exclusively? Surely, taking flights would have been cheaper, at least for certain segments?
Ganesha said that his decision was inspired by travel shows he watched since he was young, which often featured people travelling overland from Europe to Asia, and vice-versa.
“From my teenage years, I really wanted to travel from Singapore to London overland, and that was going to be the big trip of my life,” shared Ganesha.
While the classic Singapore to London overland route is already a fairly long one, he wanted even more of a challenge.
Since he was going to be studying in Montreal after his trip, he decided to extend his itinerary from London to Montreal, allowing him to arrive just in time for school after the conclusion of his trip (if everything went according to his plans).
While some of his peers may have complained about the travel time to NTU (also known affectionately by its students as “Pulau NTU”), Ganesha was about to make the typical journey to the west of Singapore feel like a heartbeat, as he embarked on a nine-month journey to his school.
In case you’re wondering, he made it to Montreal in time for the start of his school semester, with six days to spare.
The most important item to pack? A knife.
And what was the preparation process like? I reasoned that such a gargantuan trip, which saw Ganesha travel through a total of 28 countries, would require the most meticulous of plans.
In my head, I envisioned him scrupulously preparing a budget, mapping out different itineraries in case things went wrong, and having a plan in mind for every adverse situation.
As it turns out, I was completely wrong.
“I didn’t really do a lot of planning. In fact 80 to 90 per cent of the time, I was unsure about what to do a week later,” said Ganesha sheepishly.
In fact, he revealed that he only began packing for the trip two hours before his departure, despite reminders from his mother since weeks before.
What did he end up packing in those two hours?
Apart from the obligatory clothes, towels and laptop, Ganesha also packed a tent and a sleeping bag, although he comically lost the sleeping bag really early on in his trip, in Malaysia, and had to get a replacement in Vietnam.
He admitted that he did not do laundry as often as “he should have been doing”, and that at one point, he was wearing the same few sets of clothes for about three weeks.
“Thankfully, there’s this thing called deodorant, so I hope people didn’t really realise I wasn’t doing laundry often,” he said.
According to Ganesha, the most important item that he brought on his trip was a Swiss army knife, which he carried at all times for protection.
Although he never had to use it for self-defence, he said that it’s important to have it around to deter any potential threats.
He said that bringing pepper spray is another option for deterrence, although it’s banned in many countries, which makes carrying it around really difficult.
Ironically, the exact same knife got him into a spot of trouble in Xinjiang, China, when he was stopped at security checkpoint at a train station.
He recalled that that a security officer stopped him, and asked him a question in Chinese.
“As usual, whenever I’m confused, I just smile. So yeah, they thought I was trying to do something funny and before I knew it, there was like, an entire SWAT team around me,” recounted Ganesha, laughing at the memory.
“I was smiling at the SWAT team, and they were placing their fingers on the trigger of their rifles.”
Fortunately for him, a policemen who spoke English rushed to his aid and clarified with the SWAT team that Ganesha was simply a tourist, and wasn’t a threat.
And while he was fortunate to board the train that day with his life, he wasn’t quite able to save his knife, which was confiscated by the security officers.
Best way to hitchhike is to talk to people in petrol stations
In order to stick to his S$25 per day budget, Ganesha often relied on hitchhiking to get around.
But how does one actually get strangers to take you where you want to go, and for free?
According to Ganesha, there are three main ways.
The first is to simply hold up a sign with the name of your intended destination — apparently the most efficient way, as it filters out the drivers who are not heading the same way as you.
However, he warned that this could potentially be dangerous, as opportunistic criminals may lie about going to the same destination in order to rob you in a secluded area.
The second method is to put your thumb up, and then stand by the side of the road.
This method is less efficient as the first, as many drivers who stop may not be going in the same direction as you.
It is a safer method though, as you now have the opportunity to gauge how trustworthy the driver looks, since you haven’t committed to telling him or her where your destination is yet.
“If you think the driver is not a good match, or if he looks a bit suspicious, you can always back out by lying and saying that you’re going to another place,” explained Ganesha.
The third method — also the one Ganesha prefers — is to go into petrol stations and talk to the people inside, as it’s safer to scope out potential drivers in a sheltered environment.
This also allows you to chat with the drivers beforehand, and learn more about them, before committing to accepting a ride from them.
Fun fact: Ganesha actually speaks Russian, which allowed him to better converse with the drivers he met, especially in the many ex-Soviet states of Central Asia.
While he was notably humble about his Russian skills, claiming to only be able to “speak a bit”, he mentioned that his conversations with these drivers often went beyond basic pleasantries, as they would talk about “life and stuff like that”.
According to him, these conversations certainly helped pass the time, and made it a more memorable experience.
Couchsurf to save money — at your own risk
Another way Ganesha saved money on his trip was to couchsurf, relying on the kindness of local hosts in order to stay for free.
This was quite vital, as his limited budget did not even allow him to afford the cheapest hostels in certain cities.
Ganesha’s biggest couchsurfing tip is to check out the host’s reviews first, before asking to stay with them.
“Sometimes some hosts have very good reviews, but from the reviews you can tell that they only host a certain sex, whether it’s male or female. And that’s a very good indication that he or she is probably up to something,” he shared.
Indeed, Ganesha himself had a few close calls while couchsurfing.
For instance, in Tajikistan, he was held against his will — in other words, kidnapped — for half a day by a couchsurfing host, who Ganesha suspected was jealous that he had planned to meet another local in town.
Ganesha had to pack his bag in the middle of the night, open the window, and jump out of the window under the cover of darkness, in order to escape.
Interestingly enough, this incident was evidently no big deal to Ganesha, who continued couchsurfing as if nothing had happened, despite his narrow escape.
Don’t use ATMs too often
Ganesha also had to deal with a major logistical issue during his trip: how to carry cash safely?
Avoiding ATMs was key, to avoid exorbitant withdrawal fees. They were also not that common in certain areas.
For example, when Ganesha was in Iran, he was unable to access any kind of banking services due to international sanctions levied against the nation. This restricted his budget even further, as he was limited to whatever cash he had on hand when he entered the country.
Over the course of the entire trip, Ganesha only withdrew money three to four times, taking around S$2,500 worth of U.S. currency each time.
He then stashed the cash in an envelope, which he placed in a laundry bag hidden at the very bottom of his backpack.
“But what if they stole your entire bag?” I asked, as I recalled horror stories of my friends encountering snatch thieves overseas.
Turns out that that would be highly unlikely, given how heavy Ganesha’s backpack was, as everything he needed for the trip was kept in the same bag.
“If anyone tried to run with it, it would have been almost impossible,” said Ganesha simply.
Exchange your money at your destination for better rates
Here’s one money hack Ganesha has, especially in Central Asia: Consider exchanging your money at the destination itself, rather than exchanging it in Singapore.
In Turkmenistan, Ganesha explained that there are two official rates for converting money: the official rate, and the unofficial rate.
He also said that in many countries, locals were very keen to get their hands on major currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the Euro, given that their local currencies were constantly depreciating.
Exchanging at the official rate cost around six times more than the unofficial rate, which meant that his purchasing power was six times more as well.
“Officially, the government was trading at about 3.5 Turkmenistan manat to US$1, but in the black market, I got hold of 20 manat for only US$1”, said Ganesha.
So when he found someone willing to exchange money with him at the unofficial rate, Ganesha found himself living lavishly for once, dining in restaurants and ordering as much as he wanted — for just S$5 a day.
Ganesha’s method of finding someone to provide local currency at unofficial rates was also easier than one would expect.
“So in Turkmenistan, I walked into a bazzar, and within seconds, a lady held onto my arm, and she pulled me aside and opened her bag. I saw different denominations of the Turkmenistan manat,” explained Ganesha.
The lady left as quickly as she appeared, leaving even before he was even done counting the money.
Thankfully, she gave him the right amount.
The world out there isn’t as dangerous as it seems
Given that Ganesha has achieved such a major milestone so early on in his life, one has to wonder whether he can find enough interesting things to keep him going in the future.
With a grin, he revealed a simple goal for his next major trip: returning to Singapore from Montreal in the other direction, without taking any flights, of course.
“So I’ll head to the U.S. West Coast, and go across the Pacific Ocean. Then maybe I will disembark somewhere in Asia, and make my way overland to Singapore. Then I can finally say I have circumnavigated the globe without ever setting foot on a plane,” he shared.
Apart from that, Ganesha didn’t reveal any other plans — probably because he didn’t have any. It is a tip that he recommends, especially for those who want to really explore the world and experience the unexpected.
“When you travel, just go with an open mind and push the limits. You will be surprised where life takes you. Not to plan too much, because once you plan too much, you’re just going to see things that you wanted to see, and what you expect to see, and experience things you want to experience.
But when you go with the flow, when you meet someone alone and they take you somewhere, and that person passes you to a friend, you end up going to places you didn’t even know existed, and you’ll be able to see things you’ve never seen before.”
“Just go with the flow and take calculated risks. The world isn’t as dangerous as it seems,” he said wisely.
Apart from his hopes of travelling back to Singapore overland, he also expressed his wish to live “a pretty average life”, and continue with his studies.And what is he studying in Montreal, you may ask? Well, he’s studying to be a pilot.
Top image via Selvaganeshamoorthi Balakrishnan.