ART OF TRAVEL: One Girl, her Backpack & 30 Countries in 180 Days

“I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Setting foot in sunny Singapore for the first time in six months, Jean Liu, 31, has just returned from what many would consider a truly epic travel adventure. Earlier this year, the then-Aerospace Manager, decided to give up her dream job to finally take that round-the-world (RTW) trip she’d been saving for since university.

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Jean pictured with the San people in Botswana.

First bitten by the travel bug while studying in the U.S., Jean always knew that travel would be a big part of her life. “When I discovered the possibility of accumulating enough frequent flyer miles to redeem a free RTW air ticket, I was set on getting my hands on one,” she explains. She spent years chocking up miles via personal and business trips, as well as credit card expenditures. She eventually did it, but in 2017, life threw an ultimatum at her: Jean’s miles were expiring soon, so it was now or never.

“It was one of the toughest decisions of my life, but I left my job…

This RTW trip was a dream of mine,” she shares. And with that, she packed her trusty Osprey backpack and took off. Although a self-professed adventurer, this trip was one with many ‘firsts’ for Jean: “I flew eastwards around the whole world and visited a total of 30 countries in six months. I went abseiling down Table Mountain in South Africa, cycled down the infamous ‘Death Road’ in Bolivia, hiked a volcano in Hawaii to see molten lava, went sand boarding in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and trekked the Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan and in Nepal’s Himalayas to reach Everest Base Camp,” explains Jean.

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Jean, at the Everest Base Camp in Nepal.

We catch up with Jean, as she talks about how this trip impacted her as a person, the challenges she faced, and her top tips for aspiring solo female travellers.

Wow, did you really cover 30 countries?

Yes! I spent a week in Hawaii (U.S.), a month in South America (Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil), a month in Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe), almost two months in Europe (Germany, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Greece), a month in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia), 1.5 weeks in China, a week in North Korea, and three weeks in Nepal.

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Jean, sand boarding in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

Was this your first solo trip?

No, I had been travelling solo for quite a few years now, albeit mainly short trips when I was studying abroad and on overseas business trips.  I find that solo travel is very enriching!

Many would say it’s dangerous for a young woman to be roaming foreign countries alone. What were some of your initial concerns?

I thank my lucky stars that everything went smoothly on this trip, and I was not in any danger at any point whatsoever (at least not one that I was aware of)!

My main considerations for this RTW trip were

  • How to keep myself as safe as I possibly can while out alone in a foreign country
  • How to assure my family that they could always trace where I was, and where I’m heading to next during my trip (in case I should somehow lose contact with them)
  • How to travel light without a check-in luggage—I did not want to lose time queuing at airports, or risk losing all my belongings
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Jean in Cape Town, South Africa, abseiling down Table Mountain.

What were some challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

As a woman walking alone on the streets in some countries, inevitably there were cat-calling and men trying to chat me up. I had to make a conscious effort to dress modestly, avoiding revealing clothes. The less attention I received, the better. When they approached me, I usually just looked confused like I didn’t understand their language and kept on walking.

Another one: Taking public taxis alone in some areas was dangerous, but sometimes also the only way to get back to my hotel. To minimize the danger, I usually chose Uber (or similar apps)—at least there is some record of where I was picked up and by which car.

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What are some tips you’d give another woman who is planning an upcoming solo holiday?

  1. Pack only the essentials, and in a backpack, not a luggage with wheels. This enables you to be a lot more mobile, which helps if you need to sprint for the bus, train, and/or plane, and also for walking across all kinds of terrain. Just bring some travel clothes detergent to wash your laundry on the go.
  2. Do your research beforehand to collate a list of important contacts. This should include
    • addresses and numbers of your country’s embassies/ consulates/ high commissions and in each country that you are visiting
    • emergency numbers (ambulance/ fire etc) for each country that you’re visiting
    • numbers of family/ friends.
      Phone batteries die, so keep a hard copy list with you, with a scanned copy of your passport.
  3. Pack a safety gadget, like a small alarm device. Typically, you would just need to tug onto it to sound a loud alarm that can attract the attention of the public and/or scare off the assailant.
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Jean, seen here playing with the local children at the Song Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan.

How did this experience change you as a person?

I embarked on it hoping it would broaden my horizons, and expose me to different cultures, political situations, and landscapes in the world. Going alone, I also wanted to learn to be more sociable; to open up and make friends.

This eye-opening trip did all that and more. It made me really appreciate the people and things I have in my life. Meeting people from different walks of life, I realised that one can lead a happy life even if it’s a simple one.

“Everything I gained from this trip is invaluable—the experience, knowledge, and life skills. I have absolutely no regrets.”

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Image credits: Jean Liu