Posted April 16, 2013 by Steve McDonald in Backpackology 101

Guest Blogger Emily Chappell: Woman On The Road

Today I’m going to introduce you to one of the most fearless adventurers I have ever met, but first I need to give you an exciting post-Kickstarter update!


I’m sorry I’ve been slow to resume posting. However, I’m happy to inform you that Backpackology is on the precipice of some potentially massive changes. I can’t go into further detail until later this summer, but I can tell you that I have temporarily returned to the good, ole’ U.S. of A and have been frantically working on a very exciting, new project. This project requires me to fly to Chicago next week, and then Tokyo the week after that, during which time I wont have time to write new stories. But I promise as soon as I return to Bangkok on May 2nd, all of your prizes will be shipped, your dares will be filmed, and the blog will officially resume with more whimsical tales of self-endangerment.

In the meantime, while I’m toiling away on this mystery project, the incredibly adventurous Ms. Emily Chappell has taken time out of her busy schedule of speaking engagements and adventure-preparations to enrich you with a bit of her unconventional wisdom.

Emily’s story is similar to mine in that she is attempting an epic odyssey—except instead of Asia, she’s circumnavigating the entire globe, and instead of taking public transport, she is doing the entire thing on a fucking bicycle.

When I first met Emily, she had just pedaled across the Iranian border into Pakistan, joyriding through the Taliban stronghold of Balochistan surrounded by an armed police convoy. When she very casually told me that her next plan was to pedal over the Karakoram mountains and then attempt to illegally ascend into Tibet, I realized that Emily was not your typical traveler. To hear more about her wild cycling adventures, I recommend checking out her blog, That Emily Chappell, in which she regularly makes Lance Armstrong look like a delicate cupcake.

I’ve asked Emily to speak to you about an important issue. I occasionally receive e-mails from female readers who disagree with my stance on  solo travel, stating that it’s dangerous for women to wander into misogynistic developing nations. I typically don’t know how to respond, as I lack experience traveling as a solo woman, so I figured I’d ask Emily what difficulties she has faced while cycling through the chauvinist underbelly of Asia.

So without further prattling, allow me to present one of the most intrepid, insightful adventurers I know, that audacious Ms. Emily Chappell.

I’ll be back on May 7th.


Do you want to know the secret about travelling alone as a woman? It’s really not that hard. In fact, it’s easier, safer and more fun that you could ever possibly have imagined, unless you’ve done it yourself. I don’t know where we got the idea that it’s so dangerous.

Believe it or not, I’m an incorrigible pessimist. Before I set off to cycle round the world I invested a lot of energy in imagining all the difficult, traumatic and frightening things that were going to happen to me along the way, reasoning that this would at least remove the element of surprise when they inevitably occurred. Gloomily, but with a certain amount of relish, I pictured myself trembling with exhaustion and heatstroke in a broken-down tent, chronically weakened by diarrhoea, listening to the sound of a gun being cocked outside and longing helplessly for the comfort and security of the life I’d left behind. I knew that cycling round the world would be the most difficult thing I’d ever attempted, that I’d be constantly on my guard, and that (if I survived) I’d limp home, years hence, with a veritable treasure-trove of mental and physical scars.

Of course, I was completely wrong. The disasters that have befallen me have all been minor, self-inflicted and faintly comical (accidentally stabbing myself with my Leatherman; breaking my nose in Tokyo, whilst attempting to cycle through rush-hour traffic with a bike box strapped to my back) and the majority of my experience has been almost tediously heartwarming.

Day after day, I roll into a new town or village, and am instantly hailed, greeted, befriended, and dragged off to someone’s house to be introduced to their family, quizzed about mine over endless cups of tea, fed, put to bed, and reluctantly sent on my way the following morning. This has happened just as much in supposedly ‘reserved’ countries like Japan and Belgium as it has in famously hospitable Islamic countries like Iran and Pakistan, and I’m convinced that it has something to do with my being a women and travelling alone. Not only am I less of a threat – I’m also a curiosity, and I inspire people’s protective instincts.

The vulnerability of solo women is a fairly universal delusion, and one I constantly benefit from. Last winter in Turkey I spent a few days riding about 30km ahead of a pair of male Dutch cyclists. When they finally caught up with me we discovered that I’d spent every single night being taken in by concerned locals, while they had camped in sub-zero temperatures, and in one case even been moved on halfway through the night. If this is male privilege, they’re welcome to it.

But apart from this, cycling across continents is an almost identical experience for men and women. The major challenges (hills, headwinds, punctures, visa deadlines) don’t discriminate on the basis of gender. We all have arms and legs, which will grow muscles if we exercise regularly enough. We’re all capable of learning to build and fix a bike, even if some of us will always be slightly more patronized by male mechanics. We’re all irresistible to dogs and mosquitoes. True, women also have to deal with menstruation and sexual harassment, but let’s face it, we’d have to deal with them anyway, even if we stayed at home. We should be used to it by now.

In the grand scheme of things, my gender is actually a fairly minor handicap. I realized this when a reader of my blog contacted me, to ask if I thought it would be possible to travel through Western China with a gluten allergy. I had no idea, but was instantly dismayed by the thought of how annoying and inconvenient it would be, three times a day (and more often if you’re a cyclist), to have to seek out something you could safely eat, explain your condition to someone who didn’t speak your language, and then trust that they had understood you, and weren’t lying when they assured you that this particular dish was free of wheat, or nuts, or meat, or whatever else your health and principles forbade you from eating. When I’m on the road, whole days go by where I don’t have to consider my gender at all. Cycling, eating and sleeping are easily accomplished with or without a Y chromosome.

I spent three weeks this autumn cycling from Fukuoka to Tokyo with two female friends. It was fun travelling as a group – more convenient in some ways, more frustrating in others – but I didn’t feel more or less safe than I had before. Then I waved them goodbye and set out on my own again. And remembered that, wonderful and reassuring as other people’s company can occasionally be, it’s when you’re on your own that the magic happens. I slept soundly on the floors of people I’d only just met. One snowy night a man flagged me down and handed me a hamburger, for some mysterious reason that he was unable to explain and I was unable to understand. Another man stopped me and gave me enough money to keep me going for a week. I was amicably kidnapped by a pair of Japanese comedians, and bought lunch by an old lady who spotted me sitting outside a convenience store. (I’d already eaten one lunch, but I’ve learned never to turn down a free meal.)

And this time last year I was in Lahore, happily ensconced with a family who took me in eagerly and spontaneously, and kept me for almost a month. Every time I tried to leave, concerned that I was outstaying my welcome, they protested that there was a wedding that weekend, and I was invited, or that yet another cousin was dying to meet me. When I think of them, and of Pakistan, my heart swells with unashamed love and longing, and my cynicism fails me. I was never afraid there – I knew I’d always be welcome, and I was. I’m so glad I went, and I know I’ll be back one day. Travel alone, I entreat you, especially if you’re female. Throw yourself on the world’s mercy, and it will take care of you. And you’ll have a wonderful time.


To hear more from Emily, head on over to her wonderful travel blog, That Emily Chappell.

To read my solo travel manifesto, plus an easy, three-step guide to ‘Finding Yourself,’ check out, “Life On The Lonely Road.”

For another enlightening guest post on female travel, check out “The Surrounded Lady Traveler

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Steve McDonald

Writer and photographer. Adventurer and didactic prick. Guru of globetrotting, sensei of savings. PhD in ADHD. Staunch opponent of the mundane. Avid fan of sunrises, playing with fire, and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Casual existentialist. Bus stop gypsy. Dirty jeans, plastic sunglasses, whimsical death wish. Rudyard Kipling on mushrooms. Smells of goat.