Walking a Nation: an 8 hour urban hike across Singapore
1.3521° N, 103.8198° E
I’ll admit: I wasn’t thrilled to be in Singapore.
Having hoped I'd be able to skip across the Malacca Strait from Dumai, half way up Sumatra, I'd planned on entering Eurasia from further north on the Malay Peninsular.
My failure to make it all the way overland (and sea) to Dumai was both my own fault and an act of chance. I'd left it too late, needing a completely smooth run from Jakarta. Inevitably, something went wrong, and my hand was forced.
I felt disappointed to have flown from Jakarta, but was pleased to finally be out of Indonesia. I was also thrilled by the prospect that I’d soon be crossing the Strait of Johor to really start this overland odyssey, and to check out Malaysia - a country that had never piqued my interest, and was a complete blank spot in my mind.
My arrival in Singapore was typically streamlined. Just 20 minutes after a bumpy Lion Air touchdown at Changi, I was negotiating the train lines to find my hostel in Little India.
As I poured over the map, I made a sudden realisation.
My hostel was only a short walk from the Singapore Strait, to the south of the island-nation. The checkpoint to Malaysia was at its opposite end, just 23 kilometers to the north.
I’d never crossed a country by foot.
Digesting my options, I had a quiet night in Little India, gorging on cheap Indian delicacies and expensive Singaporean beer. My sleep was restless, encumbered by rationed air conditioning and a busy dorm room occupied by noisy long-term-tenants.
Not particularly fresh, I woke up the next morning with a firm plan to walk the height of a nation.
The last country I'd crossed south to north was Australia. It took 10 days and 3927 kilometers of hard, monotonous driving across vast empty deserts.
In contrast, walking Singapore would be a cinch. And I felt like, perhaps, it would make make up for compromising my overland ideals in Indonesia. Crossing an entire nation by foot, I reasoned, would be a worthy penance to pay for that indiscretion - a self-flaggetory act of contrition to make amends for my sin of flying.
A Quiet Sunday Morning Stroll
I left my hostel with gusto on a cool and overcast Sunday morning. My route was to be improvised - after setting my sights on the southern coast, I'd inch my way north along whatever path looked the most inviting.
This time round, Singapore had been a pleasant surprise: my previous sojourn to the city in 2012 left me bored. It is, after all, just a big city: South East Asia for beginners. And after a traveling a while - to quote Paul Kelly - every fucking city feels the same.
I can imagine it's a great place to live and work - but it's hardly the most exciting locale. But Little India has its charms: street side Indian and Chinese restaurants selling incredible, unbelievably cheap food, and a bustle that makes you feel like you're actually in this part of the world.
Strolling towards the southern coast, I received some curious looks from a well-to-do American woman. She asked me what on earth I was doing. We struck up a brief conversation about Singapore: “there are a lot of rules” I said, as we waited for the passenger crossing to change, both not daring to jaywalk.
“I know!”, she replied. “The whole ‘no-gun’ thing really threw me!”.
Two weeks prior, her nation’s opposing viewpoint had arguably resulted in the massacre of 17 school kids 600 miles from her hometown of Atlanta. I'd have thought her experience of a violence-free Singapore might have made her see the benefits of a citizenry who don’t carry weapons of war . But, alas, she was from Georgia - a state that in 2014 passed a bill nicknamed the ‘guns everywhere law', lauded by the NRA as “the most comprehensive pro-gun reform bill in state history”.
By 10 am I’d reached my starting line, with the Marina Bay Sands in sight. I bought water and watched Sunday morning high-school hockey in the shadows of downtown skyscrapers.
Departing from downtown, I inched my way north, through leafy, wealthy suburbs towards Singapore’s botanic gardens, where I paused for an overpriced iced latte and to tend to my blossoming blisters.
The first half of the walk was rich and interesting: wide green spaces, beautiful cultural buildings and universities, embassies and bustling cafes. But in truth, much of my route was dull: after the botanic gardens, I meandered beside pedestrian-free highways and into more affluent suburbs, but beyond that, the city becomes painfully repetitive.
By the afternoon, I was fatiguing. I had 15 kilograms on my back, and had walked over 15 kilometers. The rain started to fall and my surroundings became more dour.
The colonial and modern charms of Southern Singapore had rapidly given way to relatively banal and industrial landscapes to the city’s north. These communities are largely empty of any cultural interests, at least on the surface. They harbour little more than a sprawling collection of modern tower blocks that house the hundreds of thousands of workers that keep Singapore ticking.
The afternoon grew old and my thirst piqued. Past Railway Market, there are few shops en route to Woodlands. Nearing the Strait of Johor, I was relieved to find a Chinese restaurant nestled amongst the apartment blocks. Parched, I raced to the entrance and asked for water. They didn't understand me, but my plight was self-evident. After a brief wait they gracefully offered a can of Sprite and an Ice Tea on the house - enough to tide me over for the final 5 kilometer push to the Woodlands checkpoint.
Nearing the border, the footpath dissipated and I was forced to make the final 500 meters to Woodlands via a local bus. I was really annoyed: I'd wanted to go coast to coast by foot - every inch, but it was effectively not possible via the route I’d chosen.
I was even waved away by police as I walked along the main bridge to Malaysia just to get a glimpse of the coast.
By 6pm, I was passing immigration and en route to Malaysia. It was a thrilling moment - I’d covered an entire nation - albeit one of earth’s smallest - by foot, and in just under a day.
The walk had done little to stoke any interest in Singapore. It's a nice city, it is. No one could complain about its aesthetics, its clean streets, its high standard of living, its low crime rate. But in the end, it just feels too much like home.
Just 26 hours after entering the country, the exit couldn’t come soon enough.
First Steps in Eurasia
Crossing the Johor Strait was a surprisingly powerful moment: a real milestone for this trip. I'd made it across the most challenging section of this overland odyssey: the scattered archipelago of Indonesia and Timor Leste. Now, I was getting my very first taste of this great Eurasian landmass - an enormous unbroken stretch of earth that links Johor to Calais, Vladivostok to Gibraltar, Muscat to Murmansk, and harbours 70 per cent of our human population.
This was, in a sense, the real beginning of this overland trip. There is simply no geographical barrier stopping me crossing from Johor Strait to the English Channel. The oceans are behind me, the path ahead is clear. The only barriers to come are bureaucratic border crossings, a dwindling budget, and the relentless passage of time.
I crossed into Malaysia at 7pm, 10 hours after leaving my hostel. Greeted by the call to prayer after passing Malaysian customs, I flagged a taxi to my modest hostel for a brief stay in Johor, before a welcome departure from this utilitarian border town the following day.
Malacca was next - where I'm writing from - before I keep trekking north, towards Kuala Lumpur, and over eastern Malaysia and before continuing to the Thai border.