Marsha Jean is an off-the-beaten-path traveller and travel photographer who has embarked on a series of solo adventures since leaving her native Hong Kong at the age of just 18.
The now 24-year-old overcame initial self-doubt to explore some of the world’s most isolated and spectacular regions, including hitchhiking from Iran to France, cycling across Central Asia, and renting a donkey to trek through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor.
An advocate of slow and sustainable travel, Marsha runs a fascinating and insightful blog about her experiences. She spoke to battleface about staying safe and the advantages of being a woman when travelling in some parts of the world.
What’s the appeal of off-the-beaten-path travel as opposed to visiting more conventional destinations?
I think the number one appeal is the people. With comparison with other more touristy places I’ve been to, in places that are off the beaten path the people are friendlier, more authentic, more genuine. They want to get to know me and show me hospitality. They’re not necessarily trying to sell me something or to get me to stay in a hotel. There’s a more genuine curiosity to get to know each other.
You’ve travelled in some countries that could be considered risky. What’s your general experience been like as a solo female traveller in places like Afghanistan or Pakistan?
In these regions, I’m treated as a third gender. Which means I’m not like a local woman and I get to have much more rights than local women. And I’ve had incredible times everywhere. It’s one of the reasons I especially love travelling around Central Asia and South Asia, because of the culture there. The hospitality is insane and people really do pride themselves in how they treat their guests. And I think especially because I’m a woman, people find me less intimidating. They’re much more open to invite me into their home. And they perhaps think I need protection so they’re extra friendly to me. Absolutely not what I expected before.
You’re all about positivity but, of course, there are times you’ve faced unpleasant situations on the road. Is there one particular situation that sticks out?
There was one particular time I was cycling in northern Pakistan and on this day, I wanted to leave Skardu towards India and to see how far I could cycle. And three men on two motorcycles began to follow me in the morning and they were, not aggressive, but they were trying to let me know that they were following me. They would smile or laugh at me and make some dog noises, like barking sounds. And at one point I confronted them and said ‘Stop following me, it’s not funny’. I couldn’t speak Urdu, so I’m not sure they could understand me fully, but I think they got that I was not happy. So, they went back behind me to show me that they were leaving. I kept on cycling and all of a sudden, they drove towards me. It was in the rural area. They must have found another way to get in front, to make fun of me, to show me ‘Oh we’re still going to be around here’.
I kept going and occasionally they’d pop up here and there, until around sunset when I arrived at the village. I didn’t feel safe to camp alone if these guys were following me, so I went into the village and a family took me in and hosted me. The next day, I woke up and started vomiting. And that’s when I realised I was in a lot of shock.
In all my travels, I’ve never had any near-death or really violent experiences, but I feel that that was the closest one. It taught me that I really need to listen to my gut next time. And to be easier on myself. If I don’t feel comfortable doing something, I need to stop and let myself take a break.
Are there any additional precautions you have to take as a solo female traveller?
Even when I’m not travelling, for example, I would dress like local women and try to learn some customs before I go. I would not give men a hug because I know that would be rude and would give off the wrong messages. And also I would not go outside at night.
When I’m camping I always carry a little alarm with me that if the pin gets unplugged from the alarm, it would start ringing. So I would put it by the door, attached to my bike so if someone tries to get in or tries to steal my bike, it would ring. So that’s a little precaution I have.
You make clear on your blog that you don’t give ‘travel advice’ per se, but what about general tips for people who may want to embark on more ambitious journeys but don’t know where to start?
My general advice is you’re much more capable than you think you are. When I first started travelling I went to Australia. And even though Australia is such a safe place, I really thought I was going to die. I really thought that as an 18-year-old. And so, this world is not as dangerous as you think. And most importantly, you’re much more capable than you think. You can start off my going to much easier destinations – places where you speak the language or places where they get a lot of tourists and there is lots of information online. But if it’s something that you want to do, go for it. You only regret the chances you didn’t take.
To follow Marsha’s continuing journeys, check out her Instagram account.