Every now and then, we like to run a wee little featurette on The Broke Backpacker – prominent adventurers in our international community that embrace the traveller spirit. In part, we interview them to inspire ourselves. But even more so, we do it to inspire all of our readers to break the mould and go adventuring!
Marsha Jean is the epitome of a badass traveller who got given a few lemons in her life. But when life gave Marsha lemons, she said – nah, I don’t want no stinkin’ lemonade. I want to ride a bike across Central Asia and go to Afghanistan.
Marsha is passionate about using travel to push your boundaries and proving the stereotypes wrong. She knows that her experience as a solo female traveller who was born in Hong Kong is going to be very different than most others. But that’s the point. You’re never going to experience the world in the same way as anyone else, but you shouldn’t let that stop you experiencing it all the same.
For anyone sitting on the fence about travel, read on! Prepare to have your mind blown by the truly one-of-a-kind Ms Marsha Jean.
*Interview edited for clarity.
Right, let’s start with the introductions: who IS Marsha Jean, and what has she done?
I am a 24-year-old from Hong Kong. I have been working in hospitality and travelling to over 40 countries around the world – with the “Broke Backpacker spirit”, of course.
When I was 18, I left an abusive home and haven’t looked back.
When I was 19, I started a hitchhiking adventure from Iran to France (through Iraqi Kurdistan).
When I was 21, I cycled across Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Northern Pakistan. That same year, I rented a donkey to trek 19 days across the Wakhan in Afghanistan (with the donkey owner).
I’m a slow traveller. For example, I spent a total of 6 months travelling Pakistan, 7 weeks backpacking Afghanistan, and 1 month in Iran. Life is meant to be lived slowly.
These were all solo adventures, and I spent 90% of my time staying with locals or camping while in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Dayum! That leads to the next obvious question then: Why? Why did you leave in search of adventure, and what’s kept you on the road for so long?
I initially left home and went to Australia to spend all the money I had. Truthfully, I had intentions to commit suicide.
Through leaving and travel, however, I found out that everything I knew about the world and my own worth was wrong. Travel changed me. And that’s addictive.
Ever since I was a child, I have daydreamed about adventuring through the most inaccessible places in the world. This is just the beginning of my quest.
Travelling has become an obsession – it’s the challenge that keeps me on the road. I am obsessed with exploring places far off the beaten trail that we understand the least.
I am also obsessed with proving people wrong – especially those who say it’s too dangerous for girls like me to go on adventures alone.
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At 19 years old, you hitchhiked from Iran to France. What was your experience like? Did you face any challenges travelling as a young solo woman through the Middle East?
Hitchhiking in the Middle East alone as a woman is definitely a special experience. At times, it’s extremely smooth and easy. For example, the police came to help me hitchhike in Iran twice.
But then, one time I was detained and deported by officials in Turkey.
Also, because of the cultural differences, I was propositioned to by many men in the process. The hardest country to hitchhike in was Iraqi Kurdistan. Many people mistook me as a prostitute.
And cycling across Central Asia into Pakistan – nice one! We’re fans of Pakistan at The Broke Backpacker! What was that experience like, and what challenges did you face?
That trip made me fall in love with both Central Asia and with Pakistan. The nature and cultural diversity here is UNREAL. The hospitality you experience is mind-blowing. By travelling slowly by bike you get to appreciate it so much more too.
I ended up travelling around Pakistan for 6 months because there was so much to explore, so much hospitality, and no reason for me to leave.
The cycle tour had two major challenges:
- Physical challenge: As it was a totally spontaneous decision to buy a bicycle in Kyrgyzstan and start cycling, I had no prior training! It was very difficult at times. I went through the Pamir Highway where the altitude was as high as 4655m above sea level. The route also goes through many high mountain passes.
- Safety: I love the saying, “There’s a very fine line between courage and stupidity”. It was difficult in the beginning to know which side I was on. I went through many remote areas, where it would have been a piece of cake to attack me. No amount of pepper spray or Krav Maga would have saved me if things really decided to go downhill.
Luckily, I was alright. I was on the ‘courage’ side of the line. The worst thing that happened to me was when three guys followed me around in Pakistan for a day.
I don’t like to give travel advice as I can only speak about my experience. However, as a solo female traveller, I don’t think it’s safer to cycle-tour Europe than it is to cycle-tour Central Asia or Northern Pakistan. You’re statistically more likely to be assaulted by someone you know, so whether the strangers are European or Central Asian, it’s just as (un)safe as staying home.
Did you stack it much? Any wicked injury stories?
In 4 years of travelling, I never took out any travel insurance except for when I went to Afghanistan. But I really wouldn’t recommend not purchasing travel insurance: I just got lucky.
The worst injury I had happened on the second day of starting my bike trip. It was quite funny actually. Due to inexperience, I flew downhill too fast and crashed. The handlebar was twisted in ways I didn’t know was possible. I really thought my trip was over then.
I had a couple of bruises on my legs and a small scar I now have on my left arm.
A group of European male cycle tourers passed by and helped me out. However, they also mocked me at the same time. They told me I wouldn’t be physically strong enough to survive the climb and the cold.
Look at me now!
One of the primary tenets of The Broke Backpacker is to face the challenges of raw, offbeat travel with good humour: growth begins at the edge of your comfort zone. Is that part of your personal philosophy?
Oh definitely. I am a big preacher in facing your fears and getting out of your comfort zone in order to evolve. Perhaps my obsession with exploring stems from the challenges I get to face.
The immense satisfaction from overcoming my fears or pushing myself outside of my comfort zone just that little bit more is what makes me feel alive. It makes me feel like I am living – and living fully.
What is your ideology for tackling challenges, and what do you do on the days where you just think, “Fuck it. I’d rather be on a couch with Netflix and ice cream.”?
I have those days once a month. (Ladies will understand!)
When it comes, I am kind to myself and just take it easy! We all need a day off every now and then to avoid travel burnout.
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Back to your Pakistan adventures: you spent 6 months there… blimey! That’s almost as much as Will! What called you to spend so much time there?
I arrived assuming I’d just get to use my 45-day visa to cycle the north of Pakistan. I ended up extending my visa again and again because Pakistan will never run out of places to explore and reasons to travel it.
Moreover, I got crazy opportunities thanks to the hospitable culture. For example:
- The Pakistan Air Force invited me to participate in the International Ski Competition even though I couldn’t ski.
- Mallam Jabba – a famous ski resort – invited me on a tour for free.
- Zor Club – an off-road racing club – invited me out for the Cholistan Desert Rally.
- I crashed at least five weddings and went on countless road trips with locals I became friends with.
There’s also always someone with a spare room I could crash with!
Between the many incredible hiking trails in Pakistan, untouched locales, and far away slow-tempo villages, it’s somewhere you can get lost for a while. But out of everywhere I’ve been, my favourite places in Pakistan are:
- Hingol National Park – It’s like Mars on earth! You can really go off-road into the wilderness with a 4×4. However, I’d recommend going with locals, as some areas are susceptible to political unrest.
- Peshawar – The Pashtun code of honor makes the locals here possibly the most hospitable and fascinating people in all of Pakistan!
- Gilgit Baltistan – The nature is just stunning, and compared to the rest of the country, this is the most solo female-friendly place I went in Pakistan.
- Karachi – I met so many special young people in this city. The city is wild! It’s like no other city I’ve been before!
- Azad Kashmir – I feel because it had been closed to foreigners for such a long time, the people were extra friendly to me. I was even offered a piece of land to build my own house and live with a family there! (However, be prepared for the ISI – Pakistan’s central intelligence agency – to follow your every move.)
ALSO! I have to add that I am realistically considered a ‘third gender’ in Pakistan. I am not a man, nor am I a local woman. My experience is unique to me.
Other foreign women will likely experience something similar, in that while it is an oppressive country to live in as a local woman, a travelling woman has considerably more freedom.
And what’s your perspective of Pakistan as a travel destination? What would you say to prospective travellers that might be interested but are scared to take the dive into truly offbeat travel experiences?
Pakistan is a place that takes research and experience to enjoy, especially for women travelling there. If it’s your first time ever travelling independently to a country with a very different culture, I probably wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point.
If you love travelling in places off the beaten path, have an open mind, and are willing to adapt to the culture, you seriously will have the best time of your life.
If you go with a professional tour company, I think there’s absolutely no reason to hesitate! Travelling to Pakistan is not as safe as Australia, for example, but I personally think it’s safer than India and Thailand.
Now, for the real goodies: you’ve been to Afghanistan. TWICE! Fucking ballsy! Tell us about Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a place that has been on my mind since I was a child. I always thought the whole country was a war zone and that it’d be suicide to even try to go. Then, I started reading in forums and blogs of travellers who have visited independently (without a tour company). I instantly knew that it was a country I could handle on my own.
The first time, I went to the Wakhan Corridor. I rented a donkey and trekked for 19 days. In total, I spent a whole month there.
The second time, I went to Kabul, Bamiyan, Band-e Amir National Park, and Kandahar. I couchsurfed in Kandahar, stayed with a local friend in Kabul, stayed at a homestay in Band-e Amir, and stayed in guest houses in Bamiyan. I spent a total of 3 weeks in Afghanistan.
Both visits have been truly eye-opening experiences. My entire worldview has changed. I experienced nothing but kindness.
Trekking across the Wakhan Corridor – that’s hardcore. What was that journey like, and how did you do it? Tell us something about the region that you won’t find in Lonely Planet.
There’s quite a lot of information online in forums of people who have gone independently. I may be one of the very few women who went alone without hiring a tour guide. It used to be the safest place in Afghanistan.
Now that the Taliban has started to consolidate power again in Afghanistan, this is no longer the case.
When I visited, I didn’t hire a tour guide, because it was too expensive for me. Moreover, in my opinion, tour guides often shape your experience of a place that makes it not as authentic anymore. A lot of things are staged for you and you end up seeing the place through the guide’s lens. However, next time I go, I’d hire a translator in order to have a deeper understanding of local life.
After entering overland via Tajikistan, I took shared taxis to reach where I wanted to start trekking. I was hosted by locals for free when I had to spend a night in a village en route. I then rented a donkey (his name was Merzouka!).
The donkey owner came with me along for the trek to take care of the animal. He charged me 7 USD per day for everything (I paid him A LOT more in the end). I made my own plans and decided where I wanted to camp or stay.
I specifically trekked through the Little Pamir, where many semi-nomadic Kyrgyz communities still live. I was often invited by the communities to stay overnight without charge.
The coolest thing was because I trekked for so long, I went really deep into the Wakhan to communities where they rarely see foreign trekkers. So the hospitality was more genuine. Also, because I was a woman, I was allowed in many exclusive spaces. I also had no fear of offending the locals by walking around the communities (it’d be very disrespectful for a man to do so!).
Amongst all the trekking, camping, bikepacking, and adventuring, what pieces of gear have you found the MOST indispensable?
- A high quality backpacking tent.
- A menstrual cup (for people who menstruate).
- Personal safety alarms. (I attach this alarm to my bike and tent at night, so if someone tries to steal my bike or enter my tent, it would ring as loud as a car alarm. It’s also great to have in your hand while walking alone in the city at night.)
- A good down sleeping bag.
- A travel headlamp with the option of a red light (to avoid insects).
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Now back to that couchsurfing you mentioned… What was your experience of the local life and Afghani hospitality like? And… it has to be asked because Afghanistan… What was your experience as a solo woman like?
Afghani hospitality is very similar to that of Pakistan and Iran. Honestly, it makes me feel ashamed that I wasn’t taught to be so kind and generous to guests. In the Wakhan, one village slaughtered a baby goat for me! It’s very expensive to do so, and they don’t usually do so unless there’s a very special event.
Local life in Afghanistan is very different depending on where you are. In Kabul, it was the most liberal. I connected with young Kabulians via mutual friends and was invited to crazy private parties. In Kandahar, I had to cover myself completely, including my face, in order to go outside. My Couchsurfing host never allowed me out of the house for more than 2 hours per day.
In the Wakhan, it was a rural area, so local life was very relaxing and easy.
As a solo woman, I really enjoy how I have access to the female world. I also feel people are less afraid of me, so it was easier to interact with people and take photographs.
However, it did make other things harder. Even though I already have a lot more privileges than a local woman, there are still many things I can’t do or places I can’t access. Secondly, I always had to be aware of my body language and speech to avoid men misunderstanding my friendliness.
I have heard of foreign women running into trouble with some men in Afghanistan, including in the usually peaceful Wakhan Corridor. However, nothing major happened to me. Except for the staring and catcalling in some public places.
Outta curiosity… have you gotten many marriage propositions over the years of travelling all the far-out places?
Oh boy. Yes, of course! Ladies, if you need a confidence boost or an actual husband – travel to Pakistan!
Jokes aside. In cultures where there’s no dating, it’s common for people to easily throw marriage proposals up in the air.
Keep an open mind! Don’t be surprised if the man is already married too. It’s okay to have four wives (theoretically).
Before venturing out to Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iran – the alleged ‘no-go zones’ – did you have any concerns or fears? How did you mediate those feelings, and were they founded?
I decided to bite the bullet when I met some travellers in Nepal who knew people who had been to the Middle East and had a good time.
I’m all for proving people wrong and seeking the truth. I get rid of my fears and concerns by just going for it! The moment you realise those fears are unnecessary, you immediately overcome them. Travel is about redefining who you are and what you believe.
What is your perspective as a decorated offbeat traveller on the ethics of visiting countries deemed to be morally questionable? What would you say to some who said to you, “You shouldn’t travel to Afghanistan. You shouldn’t support them.”?
Those perspectives are absolute BS. Paying taxes in the USA and to NATO in Europe is supporting potential war crimes. Shopping for fast fashion products is supporting child labour.
I do not know many governments in the world, whereby in giving them money, you are not indirectly supporting some kind of atrocity.
Should I just end up never visiting anywhere? Of course not. Because the games of governments do not mean you should avoid a place. Isolation doesn’t solve world problems.
However, if a tourist goes to Pakistan and says that the society there is very open-minded and treats women fairly, I would also say that’s wrong. That’s propaganda too. There is a fine line between being realistic about a country’s politics, and trying to fudge the truth to make places sound better.
I try to always emphasize that when I travelled in Central Asia and Afghanistan, I was a ‘third gender’. This is to highlight the difference between me and a local woman. We are treated very differently.
Now that the Taliban is in control of Afghanistan again, this question may have a different meaning. However, I still would visit Afghanistan again if given the chance.
I suppose this is something of a personal question; in my travels to some of the ‘darker’ parts of the world, the things I’ve witnessed have often challenged me. Even broken me at times and led to a necessary reshaping of my worldview. The reality of the world can be a confronting thing when you step outside the more pristine parts of the world. At least, that’s what I’ve found.
I’m wondering if this similarly resonates with you? Have you been confronted in your travels? Where did it lead you, how did you face it, and how did you grow from it?
The first time I experienced this was when I spent a month in Iraqi Kurdistan as a lost teenager. I was in utter disappointment with myself and the world. I had never before directly learned of so many stories of human suffering.
One of my hosts took me to a Yazidi refugee camp and a Syrian refugee camp. I thought I was absolutely worthless to travel instead of donating all my resources to help people who suffer so much more than me.
The deep sadness and questioning of existence that followed these experiences did stay with me for some time. I don’t exactly remember when I got over it. It was a gradual process.
I now am grateful for the resources and opportunities I have. I accepted the reality that just because many people suffer, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to enjoy the abundance of resources and opportunities available to me. When I can, I pay it forward.
Now, finally, the first of two things close to your heart: solo female travel. Inspire our female readers!
What tips and advice would you have for female travellers? Particularly, the newbies, and particularly, the ladies who want to explore the kind of destinations you’ve chosen.
If you want to know how to be ready for your first solo trip, the truth is there’s nothing you can do. Just book the ticket and go. There’s no amount of preparation or planning for a trip you can do to finally feel ready for it. Most people never feel ready, and therefore they never go.
Start with an easier destination – somewhere more touristy and easy to research. You are more ready than you think you are; the world isn’t as scary as you imagined. Most importantly, you are much more capable than you think.
There are two things you need to stay safe:
- Trust Your Gut.
- Be Blunt
The only times I ever get into trouble is when I ignore my gut feelings. “Oh well, I’m just being paranoid.”
No, those are your gut feelings. No matter how strange or out of the blue those feelings come – listen to them. It’s the golden rule of travel safety.
Before travelling, I was one of those girls who was too polite and found it hard to refuse people. These days, I actively practise being BLUNT.
Just say no to people that you don’t want to hang out with or things you don’t want to participate in. Don’t be too shy to say no.
(Travelling made me become one of the bluntest and most honest people I know. My friends both love and hate me for it.)
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And number two: the experience of Asian travellers.
As a born and raised Hongkonger, I know this is another component that has caused challenges in your travels, and I know it’s something you feel very strongly about. I don’t have a specific question here; I’d just like to give you the floor to speak. 🙂
There’s not enough awareness that people will have utterly different travel experiences because of their race.
There are both pros and cons of travelling as a Hong-Kongese woman, and it depends on where I am. For example, I experienced a lot of racism while travelling through Europe, Australia, and Japan.
Just a few months ago, I was cussed at and refused to stay in a guesthouse (French-owned) in Spain because of my race. I get racial slurs thrown at me in almost every country I have been to. Lately, there’s been more.
There are indeed some ‘advantages’. For example, I experienced less sexual harassment in the Middle East and South Asia in comparison with Caucasian travellers.
One last thing is that I want to raise awareness of how the way society perceives Asian travellers hinders my experience.
“Wow! I didn’t expect you to be so badass.”
“You are so brave. I rarely see Asians travelling like you.”
These are all backhanded compliments at best.
Mostly they are put-downs because no matter what, people still expect little from me. People tend to perceive me with the ‘Asian tourist’ stereotype.
As for the classic traveller question: in all the journeys, adventures, epic highs, and devastating lows, what is the single greatest lesson you’ve learnt?
Fear is the only thing stopping us from living life to the fullest. It’s not just the fear of venturing into the unknown though. More importantly, it’s the fear of what others think about you.
Now, Marsha Jean, the final question. And possibly the most difficult of all… What’s next?
My bicycle is still in Pakistan right now. If the pandemic didn’t happen, I’d have gone back to continue riding until I reached Tibet. I was going to visit Afghanistan again this winter, but we all know what’s happened there.
Saudi Arabia is a place I’m going to as soon as it’s possible again. I’d love to attempt an epic cycle tour across the country. East Africa intrigues me so much too, so I’d probably continue riding there.
Overlanding all over the Arabian peninsula in one trip would be awesome, too.
I’m learning filmmaking right now. So, I’d like to be making films.
Thank you for having me!
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