Neha’s Story: “Travelling from London to Singapore by train with my husband schooled us in life, love and patience”

By Lisa Twang, Aug 01, 2019

Varun and Neha spent their first two years of marriage as postgrad students in London. On the day of their second anniversary, they set off on an epic trip home from London to Singapore- without any flights. Instead, they backpacked home over land, riding trains like the Trans-Siberian Railway and China’s high-speed rail, and taking buses through Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.

Here, Neha recalls their personal and emotional journey across Europe and South-East Asia - the sights, the fights, and the memories they shared that would last a lifetime.

* * * *

Hi, I’m Neha and I’ve been married to Varun for six years now. Our son, Nikhil, turns two this year. I work in the civil service, and Varun is in the finance industry.

In the misty mountains of Kota Kinabalu on our most recent trip.

In the misty mountains of Kota Kinabalu on our most recent trip.

Phileas Fogg once travelled ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ in Jules Verne’s novel (and that movie starring Jackie Chan!). We went halfway around (covering Europe and South-East Asia) in 70 days. We traversed 19,000km, crossed 14 countries and took 12 train rides and 7 bus journeys. And we never got on a plane once!

We spent S$12,000 travelling from London to Singapore, coming in well under our planned budget of $20,000. It was - surprisingly - pretty affordable, given it would have cost roughly $1,600 each just for a one-way flight home.

We visited so many cities, but trains and buses are quite cheap, and we also skipped expensive restaurants. In Europe, we booked Airbnb accommodation, and in Asia, we stayed at low-budget hotels and hostels. Financing the trip wasn’t an issue: I had been working in London for a year, and we both had savings from our time working before our Masters.

Varun and I have always had a taste for adventure, and we’re generally lively people (or so we’ve been told). We met at the Debate Club in NUS as undergrads, and I guess you could say that sparks flew right from the start!

I remember our very first trip as a couple quite vividly: It was to Bintan, in a quiet area called Trikora Beach. We stayed in one of those beach shacks, which cost $30 or $40 a night. It was terrible accommodation, and not even air-conditioned! Still, we had a good time riding our rented scooter around the area. We were young, and had no expectations as such: We just wanted to enjoy the experience of being in a new place together.

Later, we also travelled to Turkey for a debate tournament. Over multiple holidays in Tioman, Varun scuba-dived while I lounged on the beach, and in Siem Reap, we admired the Angkor Wat and enjoyed $1 cocktails.

We got married in July 2013, and a month later, we packed up our lives in Singapore and moved to London for our Masters. It was an exciting time- getting married and living together for the first time, being students again, and relocating halfway across the world.

While in London, we took two big trips around Europe; one by train around the Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland and Denmark), and one by bike around Italy, cycling 100km from Pisa to Florence.

We’ve always preferred holidays that were off the beaten track, rather than hitting tourist spots to check off a to-do list.

The idea for an overland London to Singapore trip took a while to formulate, but we knew that we wanted to plan a meaningful graduation trip - something that we could look back on fondly in years to come.

Time wasn’t really a constraint as Varun had landed a job but his start date was months away from graduation, and I was still job-hunting. We figured it was our last chance for a really long trip, before we became “responsible working adults” back in the “real world.”

So we decided to backpack home the long way, without any flights. In doing so, we’d get to see unusual sights we wouldn’t otherwise experience, like the bohemian neighbourhood of Uzupio in Vilnius which had declared itself an independent republic, or the Curonian Spit sand dunes in Lithuania, or the dense and endless forest scenery of Siberia from a train window.

Chilling at the Curonian Spit - that’s Russia in the background.

Chilling at the Curonian Spit - that’s Russia in the background.

In terms of pre-planning for the trip, we had a rough list of cities in mind, but decided to keep our schedule free and easy so we could spend as much time as we wanted in each place. Whenever we disagreed about where to visit, we usually ended up extending the trip to squeeze in another city we just couldn’t bear to skip.

When we set off, all we’d booked in advance were our Trans-Siberian railway tickets from Moscow to Irkustk, because they tend to sell out very quickly. Everything else was planned on the fly (or on the land, pun intended!). If we missed a train, we’d just hop on the next one.

To chronicle our journey, we started a blog, From London to Singapore, which we took turns posting on throughout the journey. We’d bought international roaming data to stay connected, but we told our friends and family to check our blog to read about our adventures, because we didn’t want to be updating them constantly on WhatsApp or Facebook. This gave us the freedom to truly disconnect and soak in that feeling of being untethered.

With data roaming, we also had Google Maps most of the time (except in China!), so getting lost wasn’t much of an issue. And we could book our accommodation through our phones while on the move, too.

Our first stop was Paris - we took the Eurostar train from London. A particularly Parisian memory we both have was seeing a naked guy standing in the middle of the street near the Arc de Triomphe. He was chatting in French to passers-by, and it was amusing to see the French folks sitting in the outdoor cafes observe him, and after just a flash of discomfort, go back to their usual nonplussed selves.

We wrote jokingly on our blog that we wondered if we would end up murdering each other, after being on the road together 24/7 with no personal space. Realistically, murder wasn’t a valid concern; but we were definitely worried about trying to avoid big fights.

One disagreement we had early in the trip was in Berlin. Varun was very excited to go clubbing because the local scene is legendary, but when we went to one at 10pm, it was completely dead.

Since the club didn’t really get jumping until 3am, we decided to go home and take a nap before going back later. But I was really tired, and when our alarm went off at 3am, I cried out, “No way I’m getting up!” and went right back to bed.

Naturally, I woke up to a cranky husband that morning, because he’d been really looking forward to going clubbing in Berlin. He didn’t want to go without me, and he was disappointed that I’d backed out of my promise to go.

Beer and pretzels in Berlin…. But no clubs.

Beer and pretzels in Berlin…. But no clubs.

We had a talk about that, and I apologised. We agreed that we should be upfront with each other about what we were willing to do. I’d kind of given Varun false hope of some clubbing festivities, even though I wasn’t keen to wake up in the middle of the night (and realistically wouldn’t have). Instead, I should have been clear that my sleep mattered more, so that he wouldn’t end up feeling let down.

Once we agreed that we should be realistic and honest about what we wanted to do, the trip became a lot more peaceful.

Another area where differences arose is our general approach to schedules and plans. I’m more of a planner, while Varun is the opposite: He’s more spontaneous. I normally don’t like unplanned situations, but on this trip, I had to let go. Going on such a long backpacking trip meant living an untethered life, and that was definitely difficult for me at first.

For example, I missed my creature comforts like my hairdryer and hair straightener: Packing them was just impractical, because they’d take up too much space in my backpack. Instead, I made do with just three makeup items: Powdered foundation, eyeliner and lipstick, which I didn’t even end up using every day on the trip.

I was also worried about packing enough clothes to wear, but because we travelled in summer, I could pack light. I’d even left some space in my backpack for shopping, but to my surprise, I didn’t end up buying new clothes at all as I’d learned to make do with very little (and also didn’t want more laundry!).

Filling our tummies on the road wasn’t always easy. I’m vegetarian, so we learned how to say “I don’t eat meat” in the local language wherever we went. Western Europe and Russia were generally okay, as I could usually find bread, cheese and pizza. China was the hardest: Even when I said, “Bu yao rou (Don’t want meat)”, they’d suggest fish instead, and I’d have to repeat my request. Still, we got around it by getting backup meals at the local supermarket whenever I needed to.

Travelling from Moscow to Siberia on the Trans-Siberian was a surreal experience. Unlike our journey from Riga, Latvia to Moscow, where we’d taken a third-class sleeper, we’d booked a first-class cabin all to ourselves on the Trans-Siberian. The journey was over 5,000km, and took about 4 days. Exciting times!

Our private first-class cabin and backpacks.

Our private first-class cabin and backpacks.

Stretching our legs in between stops.

Stretching our legs in between stops.

Getting our rations at the local shops.

Getting our rations at the local shops.

The first two days were uneventful, and passed by quickly enough. We showered every alternate day in the shared cubicle in our carriage, but it wasn’t very clean and lacked hot water and proper water pressure.

This was the only point in the trip where we skipped a daily shower; we’d booked a private bathroom for all our other accommodation.

The train stopped often along the way, and most platforms had these small shops where one could buy cup noodles, fruit, snacks and drinks, which is what we subsisted on for 3 to 4 days. It wasn’t bad, it just got monotonous.

On the third day, we decided to be adventurous and buy pirozhki (something like a curry puff, but with bread and potatoes) from one of those local aunties on the platform. It was like the local equivalent of the curry puff syndicate we have back home. We thought, “Let’s just live a little -  what’s the worst that could happen?”

Well, we ended up getting food poisoning from that! Luckily it wasn’t too bad, and we were able to recover quickly.

By this point, time and space started playing tricks on us. Every 12 hours or so, we were supposedly in a different time zone. While our train displayed the official Moscow time, the restaurant car guy served meals according to local time. And because we were in really remote areas with no data signal, our phones didn’t automatically adjust to local time. So no one in the cabin knew what the local time was.

Soon, everyone in the compartment became a bunch of smelly, time-travelling zombies who woke up at 3am when the sun was blazing, couldn’t get breakfast yet because it wasn’t the right local time yet, and had eaten dinner just a couple of hours before.

I had also developed a mild fever from the food poisoning, so between the paracetamol, the beer, the time zones and the confinement, it was all really, really fuzzy and weird. I’m pretty sure I time-jumped a couple of times accidentally!

After travelling on a shoestring budget through Europe, we enjoyed some much-needed luxury in Mongolia. We went glamping in a ger tent, and enjoyed the gorgeous views and three-course meals every day. It was certainly one of the high points of the trip.

Our ger tent in the middle of the Mongolian steppes.

Our ger tent in the middle of the Mongolian steppes.

Horse-riding in the Jalman Meadows.

Horse-riding in the Jalman Meadows.

When we hit China and South-east Asia, we got really excited to be back in familiar territory. Suddenly we could eat rice again, and the surroundings started to look familiar. In Shanghai, we almost got scammed by some locals who tried to get us to go to a tea ceremony, where we would be overcharged. Luckily, our instincts told us to turn them down.

The Shanghai street corner where we almost got scammed.

The Shanghai street corner where we almost got scammed.

We blitzed through China thanks to its high-speed trains, and later took buses through Hanoi, Vientiane and Bangkok. We then caught a ferry to Koh Tao to enjoy the beaches for a few extra days.

Doing the obligatory travel jump shot in Koh Tao, Thailand.

Doing the obligatory travel jump shot in Koh Tao, Thailand.

To commemorate our trip, we collected magnets from each city we stopped in. We decided on magnets since they were small and light, and would be easy to carry in our backpacks. They’re now proudly displayed on our fridge.

From Koh Tao, we caught a ferry to Chumphon, crossed the Malaysian border in Butterworth, and finally took a coach home to Singapore. We’d made it home, after being on the road for over two months.

My advice to couples looking to do this kind of trip together is: Absolutely, do it! Now that we’re back in Singapore, and have a young kid, our holidays are very different. We look for four- or five-star resorts where we can park ourselves for a number of days, and we prioritise safety: There must always be a hospital with an English-speaking doctor nearby.

I think shared experiences, like travelling, are what make life worth living.

In relationships, you do stuff together, and you learn and grow with your partner. I think the trip gave us the opportunity to bond and talk about things we’d seen and done, knowing that no one else in the world had that shared experience we had. It also gave us opportunities to be patient with each other in new surroundings.

During the trip, we relied on each other more than we ever had before. We solved problems together, made decisions together, and enjoyed a complete sense of freedom.

I don’t know if we’ll ever experience that sort of freedom again, where we can leave work, life and parental responsibilities behind. But it was a time in our lives we’ll always remember. Even reliving the memories of it through this story has been wonderful, because we’ve been able to feel those emotions - the joy, the tension, the sense of wonder - all over again.

* * * *

We also spoke to Neha’s husband Varun for his own thoughts on the trip, and how he and Neha made the most of travelling together for months on end.

* * * *

Hi, I’m Varun, and Neha and I have been together for 11 years, and married for 4 years. The first time I saw her in NUS, with her dyed red hair, I thought she was so cute and full of spunk.

We got along so well, and we enjoyed going on couple adventures, like starting our married lives as postgrad students together in London.

When we planned our London to Singapore overland trip, we wanted it to be as fun and stress-free as possible. So we made a few ground rules before setting off, to minimise any conflict between us.

Neha and I both like to take the lead - which means there’s potential for us to clash when we each want to do things our way. We agreed that we would designate one person in charge of a situation at a time, and the other one would go along with that and support the leader’s actions.

This was put to the test when we once missed our train while waiting at Thai immigration. We’d gotten off our train earlier to go through immigration, and had our backpacks with us but left the rest of our things - including our Kindle, shoes and food items - on the train!

Our train to the Thai-Malaysian border, which we missed.

Our train to the Thai-Malaysian border, which we missed.

That was definitely a stressful situation, especially when we weren’t sure when the next train was, and whether we would be able to get some of our stuff back. I took the lead and figured out our next best transport option, and eventually we were able to enter Malaysia smoothly. We even managed to get our stuff back - when we arrived in Butterworth, the station staff handed us our belongings. Crisis averted!

I’ve found that patience is the key to getting along with your partner on a long trip. There will always be daily frictions from travel, but it helps to be really patient with each other, and give yourself plenty of time to enjoy a new city.

To practice patience, remove the stressors, and make sure everyone is comfortable: Well-fed, not thirsty, too hot or cold. Try to use neutral language (e.g. “Let’s move fast so we’ll be on time” instead of “Hurry, you’re making us late”), and listen to each other non-judgmentally.

Also, signpost a lot - use your words to let the other person know where the conversation is going. For example, you could say: “Let’s discuss this issue for 5 minutes, before talking about solutions.”

Recognising each other’s triggers was also important so we could maintain peace. For example, I don’t always need to eat breakfast, but I know that if Neha don’t get a good breakfast in the morning, she gets really cranky and hangry. So we made sure we always had food on hand; buns, protein bars, and so on.

Our new rule when we go travelling is to spend enough time in a place to get bored. If you feel like you’ve seen everything there is to see, and still have time to spare, it means you maxed out the experience.

It’s so normal to feel like you’re rushing for time, but we saw the value in giving yourself the time and space to truly relax.

One thing we really enjoyed on our trip was seeing dubbed or subtitled Hollywood movies together - not what you’d usually do on holiday. For example, we saw ‘Selfless’ at a mall in Latvia, which was such a local experience because the dialogue was completely in the local language.

We also had fun spotting Minions posters and memorabilia during the trip in local languages.

Minions in Paris…

Minions in Paris…

Latvia…

Latvia…

... and Thailand, in the form of snacks!

... and Thailand, in the form of snacks!

I think Neha and I both saw different sides to each other on this trip. We’ve both been in Singapore for so long that we’ve accepted its values: Working hard, getting a corporate job and joining the rat race. We think, “Oh my God, this is so important. If I don’t achieve these things, I’m a failure.”

But when we travelled through small towns, we saw so many different ways to live: A man who owned a tiny little shop, and was so content and happy. A woman who loved yoga and became an instructor, so she could do yoga all day. We’re now a little bit more open in our career choices, and we know that satisfaction from work doesn’t just come from linear progression.

We met some other incredible people on our trip. In Vilnius, Lithuania, Neha made friends with some local folks, thanks to her superb social skills and non-threatening appearance. We went bar-hopping with them, enjoying beers at just €1 a pint (that’s just S$1.50)!

Once in Riga, Latvia, we walked by a blues bar and two old Russian Latvian guys saw us and frantically waved at us, trying to get us to enter. There were also two biker dudes in there with motorcycle jackets - and I’d just watched Sons Of Anarchy, so I was a bit fearful of getting my fingers chopped off - but we tentatively walked in.

The two Russian guys ended up being really nice: We chatted with them during the set break, and one of them owned his own copy shop, and he showed us a picture of him with the goalie of the Russian ice hockey team from the 80s. I guess we learned to be brave, and step out of our comfort zones.

I don’t like to think that our best travel days are behind us, and we’re just going to grow old and die now. We’re already dreaming about our next epic trip: Maybe we’ll rent a caravan and explore the States or Australia with Nikhil for a few months, once he’s a bit older. Or maybe we’ll do something similar in our 50s, where we’ll go and explore wine countries. We could be in different phases of our lives, but we’ll still find it exciting.

We don’t know when we’ll be on the road next (this time with a kid in tow!), but we can’t wait to discover more about the world - and ourselves - all over again.

Writer’s note:

To read more about Neha and Varun’s travel adventures, check out their blog at http://fromlondontosingapore.com/blog

Pictures provided by Neha.

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