Welcome to Switzerland

From Munich we caught a bus to Konstanz which, surprise surprise, is on Lake Constance. En route we came across Surprise Ferry Crossing #3. You’d think we would have stopped being surprised by now. But no, when the bus pulled up to a ferry loading zone we looked at each other. “No way. Not again. Surely not.” Surprise! The bus drove onto the ferry and we had a pleasant journey across a calm Lake Constance.

Our bus just drove right on

Konstanz is in Germany, but it is oh so close to Switzerland. After getting off the bus we very quickly crossed the border. It was a bit of a non-event but slightly more noticeable than other border crossings we’ve done, there was still a border control building but it is no longer in use now that Switzerland is part of the Schengen zone.

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Crossing the border from Finland to Germany

“Wait a second” you say, “Finland and Germany don’t share a border”. You are correct. However there is a ferry service that runs a daily 28 hour crossing from Helsinki in Finland to Travemunde in Germany. Overland travel for the win.

It was a bit hard to find information about the ferry crossing since it seems to mostly be popular with truckers and families in camper vans. Two groups that don’t typically write travel blogs as much as backpackers do. I think most backpackers would just fly, it would be much quicker and probably also cheaper. Thanks to our self-imposed overland travel rules we didn’t have a choice but we managed to get tickets for about 100€ each (~NZ$155) which we thought was pretty reasonable.

To get to the ferry terminal we caught the metro to Vuosaari/Nordsjo and connected to bus 90 which took us right up to the terminal. We were the only people checking in. Well, the only foot passengers. There were a tonne of cars and trucks queued up. Check-in was open from 3.5 hours to 2 hours before our departure at 5pm. Bang on 3pm we were shepherded into a van which then proceeded to lead all the cars to the boat. We felt pretty important in the van right at the head of a long trail of vehicles weaving through the container shipping port.

Helsinki container port

 

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Crossing the border from Russia to Finland

We had a final breakfast of pancakes with bananas, nutella and chocolate sauce. Oh man they were good. Then we were ready to leave Russia.

Trains for Helsinki leave from the ‘Finlyandskiy’ train station. We showed up nice and early and sat in the waiting hall. When they announced that our train was boarding we were the only ones that stood up and tried to board. The check in woman told us we had to go around to the ‘Express Hall’. We tried to ‘go around’ and were still a bit confused so we went to the information desk. Before we even opened our mouths the woman there held up a sign in English saying that the ‘Express Hall’ was out of the building and around on the side street.

Unrelated but pretty photo from St Petersburg

We followed instructions and found it pretty easily. The place was heaving with people. The hall we had sat in was much nicer. To check in we just showed our passports and put our bags through security. Easy.

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Crossing the border from Mongolia to Russia

Stocked up with a huge bag of snacks we boarded our train in Ulaan Baatar for an 8:30pm departure. We were in a cabin with two Thai guys who were pretty friendly.

The first night was pretty uneventful but the next morning we were woken at 7am by the carriage attendant saying “toilet – station, toilet – station”. You’re not allowed to use the train toilet while it’s stopped and we were at the Mongolian border point. I decided to wait for a bit and in the meantime a man came down the corridor offering to exchange money. We only had 70 tugrik (~NZ$0.04) left. He was pretty unimpressed. So I offered it to him for 1 rouble (~NZD$0.02) and he took it off my hands.

I was stoked that we had so neatly used up all of our Mongolian money until I realised that we needed to pay for the toilet. One of the Thai guys kindly gave me the 200 tugrik (~NZ$0.12) that I needed. I got off the train and turned out that our carriage was all alone at the station. We had obviously been attached to a domestic Mongolian train for the first part of the trip and were going to be attached to a Russian domestic train for the second part. In the meantime we were all alone.

Our solo train carriage

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Border crossing from China to Mongolia

We awoke to blue skies on our final day in China. Trust Beijing’s smog to clear just as we leave. Making our way to the Beijing Train Station was pretty straightforward, although there was chaos and a tonne of people right around the station. Once we passed through ticket/passport check and secuirity we easily found our waiting room. It was surprisingly fancy – look at the chandeliers and the detail on the ceiling:

Beijing Station waiting room

Fancy waiting room ceiling

We boarded the train and our carriage attendant showed us to our cabin. It turned out the train was pretty much empty, our whole carriage only had a couple of other people in it and we had a cabin to ourselves which was pretty luxurious. We promptly spread all of our stuff out and tucked into our many bags of snacks. I’m pretty sure Andy was aiming to have a hot drink on the hour, every hour, rotating between coffee, tea and hot chocolate.

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Border crossing from Hong Kong to China

Before leaving for China we had to do some planning of where we actually wanted to go in China. Trust us to leave it until the last minute. The only fixed points were Yangshuo (to visit Fran) and Beijing (to get Mongolian visas and catch the Trans-Mongolian Railway). Reflecting on our trip so far we were both pretty keen to focus on places where we could go walking and avoid visiting cities with no real purpose. Neither of us are super into cultural tourism attractions such as temples and museums, although we are keen on seeing some of those things.

Initially we wanted to go to Tiger Leaping Gorge or Jiuzhaigou which is a national park that mum had told us about. Both are pretty far west and once we looked into it further the travel times just looked too long. We could take a few overnight trains but we didn’t want to lose too many days to hours and hours of travel. When you search for ‘best hiking in China’ a lot of the results are to the west and in Tibet, so maybe that could be a future trip. For now with our overland travel goal we have cut back on the distances we want to travel and have planned a route approximately up the centre-right of the country, from Yangshuo/Guilin up to Xi’an then across to Beijing.

Andy and Tomi

Saying goodbye to Tomi

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Crossing the border from China to Hong Kong

Crossing from China to Hong Kong is kind of like changing countries but also technically not. It was slightly intimidating for us because we were both planning to switch passports at the border. Andy is a NZ/British citizen and I am a NZ/Canadian citizen so we each have two passports. While in Hong Kong we want to post our New Zealand passports back to NZ to get our Russian visas because it seems like this is the best (maybe only) option. Then we will travel to the Philippines on our second passports. This will give us a nice window of almost a month to get our visas back.

We caught the metro to Guangzhou East Railway Station then found our way to the desk selling tickets to Kowloon in Hong Kong. This was all remarkably easy, the person at the desk even spoke English. Based on a sample size of about 18 hours there seems to be more English spoken in Guangzhou than Nanning. Definitely more tourists pass through there.

Steps in Guangzhou East Station

I loved how encouraging these steps were

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Crossing the border from Vietnam to China

The plan was to catch the overnight train from Hanoi to Nanning. By the time we got to Hanoi this train was booked out for our preferred date and also the days before and after. It was getting pretty close to Chinese New Year after all. Our hostel offered to book us on a bus instead so we figured we should just go for it, we didn’t want to spend time shopping around and then find out that no tickets were available anywhere.

The tickets cost us 700,000 dong (~NZ$43) each. I asked the guy (his name was Smith) if it was one bus that went the whole way through and he told me yes. About ten minutes later he told us that actually after the border there would be an electric car. This didn’t make a lot of sense although I had read that you can pay for an electric golf cart to take you across the border. I later asked where in Nanning we would get dropped off and Smith said we could ask the bus driver.

All in all there were a few warning signs that this might not be the smoothest border crossing of all time. Did I mention that we didn’t even get tickets?

Flower arrangements

I have no appropriate photo so here are some pretty flowers sold in preparation for the Lunar New Year, known as Tet in Vietnam

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Crossing the border from Cambodia to Vietnam

We picked up our visas from the Lucky Lucky Motorcycle Company (I love that name) with no worries at all. Which was important because we had already booked our bus to Vietnam for the next morning. We had chosen to go with the Giant Ibis bus company (“affordable luxury”) because I had read good things and hoped that might translate to a better driver and smoother border crossing experience.

This totally turned out to be the case. The ‘luxury’ part was getting water and a pastry. They also checked our passports for visas when we boarded. The bus trip passed quickly thanks to multiple podcasts.

Leaving Cambodia was super quick. The bus stopped, we got out and waited in a short queue, then got back on. We were asked to give our passports to the bus conductor which is always sort of worrying but I had read that this is how it works.

Next up we drove through no-man’s land (probably still part of Cambodia) and got dropped at a restaurant/duty free shop. I was pretty dubious about the restaurant but it was actually not bad food and the prices were fine. Still in US dollars, no dong required as yet.

Duty free shop

Duty free shop at the border

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Crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia

Initially we had planned to cross into Cambodia using a Thai train to the border and then a bus, which is what I had done in reverse in the past. After a bit of research online, we discovered that there is now a Thai Government bus direct from Bangkok to Siem Reap which seemed perfect.

This was actually one of easiest border crossings and travel days. I have prepared a blow-by-blow account so that you can follow along.

6:45am Wake up in Bangkok

7:15am Catch a (metered) taxi to Mo Chit Bus Station – only 150 baht and 10 minutes on the toll highway

7:30am Arrive Mo Chit, exchange our printed out tickets (we booked online) for new pieces of paper

7:45am Eat noodle soup after some kind Thai girls helped us order from the roadside stall with no menu

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Crossing the border from Malaysia to Thailand

As our next step after Penang Island we decided to head into Thailand. In a few days’ time we had a booking at a resort on Ko Phi Phi, but in the meantime we were aiming for Krabi. We hadn’t booked anything and figured we would just see how far we could get. Turned out this would require lots of different forms of transport. We left our hostel at about 9:45am.

Ferry

First we caught the ferry from Georgetown to Butterworth on the mainland. This is the way we should have arrived in Penang, it took much longer to go to the Penang bus station then get a public bus into Georgetown.

The best thing was that the ferry is free in this direction!

View of Penang Island from ferry

Looking back at Penang Island from the ferry

 

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