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Traveling with no strings
By Tan Weiyun

Traveling alone for women doesn’t mean traveling lonely. For some, it’s an exhilarating, independent adventure that touches the soul and enriches the mind.

More Chinese women are joining the ranks of people who like the freedom and spirit of traveling by themselves.

They continue a proud heritage dating back centuries, when women like Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) and Freya Stark (1893-1993) defied conventional wisdom and set out to explore the world on their own.

Price, food and safety are the three factors Chinese women consider when embarking on solo trips, according to a report by TripAdvisor released in April.

It found that 43 percent of Chinese women have made trips alone, slightly above the world average of 41 percent. The survey covered 10,000 women in 10 countries.

And contrary to what might be a natural conclusion these solo women travelers are out for just a shopping spree, the survey found that only 30 percent of Chinese women choose to shop when they travel alone.

Safety, of course, is a principal concern when women travel without escorts. In that, Chinese women are apparently more cautious than others. The survey found 23 percent of Chinese women think traveling alone is not safe, compared with only 2 percent of women from all countries.

Nearly half of Chinese women who said they have traveled alone described the experience as life-enriching.

So who are these solo travelers? Shanghai Daily interviewed four women and asked them to share their experiences.


Friday Li, 34, businesswoman

Q: What made you decide to travel alone?

A: I was forced to travel alone because my boyfriend was too busy to travel with me. I felt pathetic at first, especially when I had to drag heavy luggage around and learned to read maps in a strange country.

Q: What’s your most memorable trip?

A: My first trip alone to the United States in 2011 was mixed with horror and excitement. Without making many travel plans, my first stop in Sacramento was a total disaster.

After landing there, I tried to book an air ticket to Los Angeles, but the website wouldn’t accept my Chinese credit card. I had to rent a car and drive to LA. Making things even worse, the GPS in the car broke down several times on the trip.

As I neared LA, it was dark and the GPS broke down again. I didn’t know where to go, but I told myself to remain calm. I simply drove toward lights amid desolate country.

Despite such a frustrated beginning, my trip in the US turned out to be a happy one. Once I arrived in LA, everything started to work out.

I met a nice Chinese tour guide, a law student at the University of California, who kindly shared a dorm room. Later I found a Chinese doctor on the Internet and we traveled together to San Diego, sharing expenses.


Q: What have you learned from traveling alone?

A: My attitude toward life changed. Traveling alone made me believe God was watching over me. I think good people have the same aura and they attract each other. One good turn deserves another.

Q: Does safety worry you?

A: Yes, of course. I try to be nice to everyone, but I also know how to protect myself in a strange place. When I was driving alone in the US, I always kept my car doors locked. I never went alone to places like casinos, rundown districts or train stations. I went to pubs several times in foreign countries, but only in the company of friends I met en route.

Q: Any tips to share with women who want to travel alone?

A: Rule No. 1: There is no free lunch. Don’t take advantage of people. Of course, you have to share things on the road, but you have to remain in control. For example, if you rent a car or book a room, you should be the one to find a person to share the expenses. Another important thing is always to book accommodation in advance. And remember to keep in touch with your family and friends back in China.

Julia Zha, 33, freelance writer

Q: What made you decide to travel alone?

A: As a freelancer, I mostly work alone and have learned how to entertain myself. It’s not that I don’t like traveling with my friends, but their free time is more regimented and mine is not.


Q: What’s your most memorable trip?

A: Last year I traveled in South Korea for 10 days without any advance plans. I stayed in a nice hostel for women only, which was clean and safe.

When I landed in Seoul, I couldn’t find my hostel at first. I turned to a local girl for help, and she was so kind. She spent more than 40 minutes helping me find the place. That is so different from Shanghai, where people always keep their distance from strangers.

On the train to the coastal city of Jeongdongjin, I met a Korean boy who was also traveling alone. We shared food and different cultural experiences, and he helped translate Korean into English for me. Today we still email each other.

Q: What have you learned from traveling on your own?

A: Making new friends and starting to believe it’s a good world.

When I was in South Korea, strangers would often come up to me in Metro stations and ask if they could help carry my heavy luggage upstairs. I tell myself that I should learn to help others just as others have helped me.

I don’t like making travel plans. Going freestyle is always my keyword to travel. I want to be open for every possibility, including serendipity.

I missed the flight to South Korea the first day of my trip, but I met two girls from Zhejiang Province who were as careless as me and missed the same flight. So we all changed to the same flight and traveled together for two days in Seoul. Today, we still keep in touch.


Q: Any tips to share with women who want to travel alone?

A: If you want travel, go! Don’t wait for your friends and possibly miss a chance to travel.

Second, don’t be chained to travel books or tips from others. You don’t need to visit every scenic spot everyone else has visited or eat every dish they have tasted. You don’t have to copy others. Widen your scope. Be brave and do things that you want to do.

Liu Qi, 37, newspaper editor

Q: What made you decide to travel alone?

A: I didn’t want to have to compromise as part of a team. Also, I prefer destinations that are off the beaten track — not the popular scenic spots that Chinese always want to visit.

Q: How many countries have you visited on your own? What’s your next destination?

A: I’ve been to Bulgaria, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany, among many others. I’m planning my next trip to South America or Serbia.

Q: What’s your most memorable trip when traveling alone?

A: The trip to Cambodia five years ago was unforgettable. The shrine I planned to visit, called Preah Vihear Temple, was located in the small town of Anlong Veng near the border with Thailand — an area that has been enduring a local civil war for some time.

The temple was on the top of the mountain, but there was no transport and the road there was in shambles. So I hired a motorbike driver from downtown and also paid him for the ride, one night’s accommodation and breakfast.

We set off at 6am and reached the mountain near noon. The motorbike ride was dreadful. I was covered with dust from head to toe. My thighs were bruised. But when I finally got to the top and stepped off, I felt the trip was all worth it.


Q: Do you worry about your personal safety?

A: I’m not that worried. As a veteran solo traveler, I know how to protect myself. I have had several bad experiences that taught me valuable lessons.

I was kind of “robbed” of 200 euros in Barcelona several years ago. It was partly my fault. I was buying some flowers from a street vendor. Because I was not familiar with the currency, I told the woman to pick the notes from my wallet. Later I found she had taken 200 euros!

Another unpleasant trip was in Bulgaria. I was taking a long-distance bus trip. Two Europeans, who were apparently drunk, kept throwing wads of paper at me. I told them to stop but they didn’t listen.

It was obviously harassment, but there was nothing I could do.

Q: What’s the biggest difference between traveling alone and with friends?

A: I don’t see much difference except that I can’t share food. When I’m faced with so many foreign delicacies, I eat only a small part of them. What a pity!

Q: Any tips to share with women who want to travel alone?

A: Do some homework before you hit the road. You don’t need to make a detailed plan, but you have to get a general picture of your trip — what you want to see, where you will stay and what you want to eat.

Don’t be too freestyle, otherwise you may end up wasting valuable travel time and get lost in a foreign country.

Yan Wang, 34, assistant policy analyst and doctoral fellow; based in Los Angeles, US

Q: What made you decide to travel alone?

A: I cannot find the right travel partners. I am a person of bad timing and self-indulgence. So I choose to travel alone.


Q: What’s your most memorable trip when traveling alone?

A: Last summer I got married, and my husband sent me a bank credit card as a wedding gift. He said, “You can buy yourself a diamond ring.” But I gave up the ring, took the card, packed my bags and traveled to Japan for half a month alone. My husband was very supportive of my decision.

As a matter of fact, I knew nothing about Japan. So I read up on everything about the country. When I was in Japan, I skipped most of the famous sites and just walked around Kyoto, exploring the old city brick-by-brick.

Q: How many countries have you been alone so far? What’s your next stop?

A: I’ve been to the UK, the Czech Republic and Japan. My next stop is Spain.

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Q: What’s the biggest difference between traveling alone and with friends?

A: You can go at your own pace without rushing or compromising. I like making travel plans, but I am always willing to abandon those plans if I get a new idea on the road. Of course, the bad thing is having to take your bags to the restroom because you can’t leave them alone in a dining room.

Q: What have you learned from traveling alone?

A: Independence. Flexibility. Tolerance.

Q: Any tips to share with women who want to travel alone?

A: “Roving free” is not as fancy as it sounds. You need to be prepared physically and mentally. Travelling alone, in some sense, makes me withdraw into myself for a period of time, stretching my imagination and making me seeing the different possibilities of life.


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