Hitchhiking and cycling across the globe? Sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood plot, but not for Marsha Jean! This 21-year-old Chinese girl has been travelling and working around the world for three years, mostly on the back of a bicycle seat or courtesy of a car that stops to give her a ride.
Having travelled to almost 40 countries, Jean caught our eye for her solo female travel to countries such as Pakistan (which holds a special place in her heart), Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Couchsurfing, knocking on the doors of locals, sticking a thumb out on the side of a road: this style of travel is nostalgic of a different socio-political climate. A time when the Hippie Trail was alive and well. When the countries ending in “stan” were a hotbed for tourism, a good time and enlightenment.
We simply had to hear about what sparked Jean’s journey. While it may sound like the trip of a lifetime, Jean’s story has a sad beginning, and although travel helped her find purpose and meaning again, it came with a cost.
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You’re living the kind of life of which most only dream, how do you make it possible?
MJ: First, I learned to travel on a budget and work as a waitress. Second, I’m very lucky to hold an Australian and UK passport – so I can work freely in Australia and Europe. Back in the day, it was really easy for citizens of Hong Kong to apply for immigration. My mother’s family had gotten Australian citizenship and my father’s family has British citizenship, so I’m very fortunate to have inherited them.
Second, and perhaps the biggest thing of all, I make it possible. I want to be happy and live life my way. I didn’t always have the confidence to do that, but I’ve worked on that in steps.
Confidence is the accumulation of small changes you make within yourself. One step could be deciding to talk to a stranger, another could be to take a dance class. A baby step could be to tell yourself not to care about what others think of you, and working on that every day. After all, no one really cares about you except yourself. No one is judging you, you are.
I grew up in Hong Kong. Back home, people are so career-driven and the idea of travelling instead of getting an education is their idea of failing. But I won’t live life by the standards of others, so I needed to become confident in setting my own standards.
What made you take the first step to embark on your incredible journey?
MJ: I took this first step because I wanted to die. Yep. Sounds pretty bad right? I come from an abusive home. I grew up with a father who told me women are worthless. Just the sight of him abusing my mother and seeing her taking it and being in denial was damaging enough. My father still abuses my older sister even though she’s an adult.
At the age of 18, I was so depressed and knew I would never be happy with my parents. I wanted to leave but thought by leaving home, I’d starve to death! That even if I worked as a waitress, I wouldn’t make enough money to survive. Everything I knew about the world then was what my parents and community had told me. My mind was brainwashed to the point where I really believed leaving the family would only lead to ruin.
I lived in a household and society that taught us our lives are only useful if we spend it becoming a slave to money. In my family, success is when you have a full-time job in a big prestigious company and spend your life making money. I was taught to judge people by their job titles and bank statements. My own parents told tried to convince me that I’d become a prostitute if I didn’t get a degree from a reputable university and job in a good corporation.
After years of saving up my pocket money for years and Chinese New Year money, and doing things like walking instead of taking the bus, I booked a one-way ticket to Australia. I had been saving pocket money all my life knowing one day I’d like to leave home to travel. I had enough money for two months of travelling in Australia and had figured I would simply end it all after the money ran out.
I was 18, felt very lost and like there was no other way out. I didn’t want to go to university — as I was only allowed to go to one university to study specific subjects — that I thought would ultimately lead to a soulless life. So I wanted to take one opportunity to enjoy life before committing suicide.
However, within the first week of travelling, I changed my mind. My entire perspective of the world and life shifted. For the first time in my life, I was seeing people (mostly Europeans) taking gap years and working on farms or in hospitality in order to travel the world. It was shocking to me.
They didn’t have any worries or cares about following the path that most people from Hong Kong follow. I didn’t realise that life could be so easy without a fancy degree from a top university. That life could be so satisfying and incredible. I didn’t know travelling could be so affordable. I had lived my life thinking happiness is about money and success and the only way to attain that was by climbing a corporate ladder. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I realised how easy it would be for me to find a job, how inexpensive travelling can be, I loved exploring the world and no longer wanted to part with it, and it just went on from there.
First, it dawned on me that I could make money to keep funding my travelling. Second, I discovered that travel is as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be. I met people that travel on a budget of $100 USD a month. They would hitchhike, camp, couch surf or get invited by random families to stay.
Third, I never knew my life could be so full of joy. Exploring new cultures and beautiful landscapes gave me a reason to live. But my real source of joy came from people. When you’re travelling, you get to meet all sorts from around the world. Most of them know how to live their life, as they are following their own dream of travelling.
When it comes to travel, how can people get out of their own way?
MJ: By overcoming their fears and travelling to destinations you’re not familiar with! Once you try something different, fear is instantly overcome. Everyone has different comfort zones. Doing anything that scares you is a good idea.
I was afraid of so many things: staying in hostels, speaking to people, asking for help, getting lost, camping, couch surfing, hitchhiking, but the moment I took up the courage to just try, the rest became history. A lot of people underestimate their own ability to take care of themselves and overcome difficult situations.
Modern mainstream society tells us we should be afraid of other cultures and travelling, as tragedies and accidents do happen, but accidents can happen back at home too. The world is painted as a dangerous place. The media shares mostly bad stories and tragedies. For example, news about backpackers being murdered are reported on much more than the other thousands of backpackers who travel safely. The world isn’t perfect, but it is full of good people who want to help you.
Any unexpected lessons you’ve learnt along the way that you really want people to know?
MJ: I’ve learned about the importance of caring for our planet. I really wish more people knew the detrimental impact their lifestyles have. Every single place I have been to in the last 3 and a half years, the locals have told me how the weather has changed and impacted the quality of their land.
I’ve also learned how to love myself more. A lot of the time, people misread self-love as selfishness.
What are the pros and cons of this type of lifestyle?
MJ: From what I have heard from other travellers, being a Chinese female having lighter skin, means I get treated differently. I get more respect and people have an easier time trusting me. For example, families are more likely to invite me to their homes, I have less trouble at police checkpoints, people treat me with gifts and food, and I get better prices when bargaining! There are cons to this too! In some places, people fetishize me and I get verbally or physically harassed more just for being a Chinese woman.
Have you ever felt scared while on the road?
MJ: Yes. For many reasons. Sometimes when hitchhiking, I worry about finding a ride and where to sleep that night. But it usually turns out alright in the end.
When I first decided to bicycle through Central Asia on my own, I was terrified. Even though I’d just hitchhiked from Iran to France! I knew nothing about Central Asia. People had told me it was remote, which left me thinking that any driver could just attack me! but after landing in Bishkek, and speaking to other travellers who had just done the Pamir Highway, I realised how wrong I was. There are always risks associated with travel, but the stakes weren’t as high as I’d initially imagined. Most locals are extremely friendly. I never faced any major problems that I couldn’t handle myself.
How do you decide who to trust, especially as a solo female traveller?
MJ: As a woman, I do have second thoughts and have my guard up, but you learn how to feel and trust your gut with experience. Simple rule, if you feel weird — even if you don’t understand why — leave the situation. Every time I ignored my gut, I ended up with people who are not trustworthy. Judge the situation. Do you feel really safe around this lovely lady who invited you to her house for chai? Are you in an area where locals are famous for their hospitality? If you don’t feel comfortable, just walk away. But, don’t embrace blind fear. I have met people who never take opportunities just because they are so afraid. Open your heart and mind, and accept the good things that come to you (because they do).
What challenges have you faced while travelling that led to a positive experience?
MJ: One example would be looking for accommodation. When I’m somewhere populated with people and villages, I sometimes don’t feel safe camping alone. So I need to knock at houses or ask friendly locals for a safe place to camp. Usually, they end up inviting me to stay with their families. It’s always an amazing experience.
What are your top tips for people that want to hitchhike?
MJ: Do it at a gas station. They are the easiest places to grab a ride. You get to spend time speaking to people and getting to know if they are trustworthy. The most important thing to remember is if you stand on the side of the road, there isn’t always enough time for people to think about stopping for you. When you are at a gas station, families get time to decide whether to take you or not. It’s sometimes dangerous to pick up hitchhikers!
Finally, if you could take a tour anywhere in the world, where would you go and what would you do?
MJ: I would like to cycle across South America especially Argentina. Someday, I would love to sail across the world too. And also do a motorbike trip.