Old road leads to new beginning for young Greenpeace activist

Caryn Yap

Curiosity got the better of Erinyes Chow Chung-wah when she was 26. With $40,000 in hand, the former Greenpeace China activist quit her job to spend a year travelling around the world.

'I wanted to travel and thought it would be best to do it before I settled into a career,' said Ms Chow. 'After 9/11 in the US, I was keen to learn about Islam as there seemed to be a lot of misunderstanding about the religion, so I based a large part of my journey along the ancient Silk Road,' she said.

She started her adventure in Canada as a volunteer with the Forest Action Network. Although she was no novice when it came to environmental protection, nothing in Hong Kong had prepared her for 'roughing it'.

'I didn't shower for 10 days while we were on a fishing boat as we had no fresh water. I had never been so dirty before and I smelled by the end of it,' she said.

She then embarked on a whirlwind visit to Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, Amsterdam, England, Greece and Turkey from November to March before tackling the Silk Road.

Although transport took up more than half her budget, she saved on accommodation as many local families invited her to stay with them.

'I was surprised by how hospitable people could be,' she said. 'When you are on the road, you develop a sense of who you can trust. During my travels, I paired up with all kinds of people.

'In places like southern Pakistan and Iran, I felt really uncomfortable being a single woman as women weren't seen on the streets in the daytime, and at night they completely disappeared. Iran was a bit better, but all the women were completely covered up.'

Her morals also sometimes disagreed with local customs. At the immigration point in Georgia, she noticed other people bribing the customs officer.

'I saw an Iranian man I'd met at immigration pay US$6 under the table but I refused to do the same - it wasn't that I cared about the money, I just couldn't get used to the practice of bribery. After three hours of arguing, my new Iranian friend paid for me as we were at a stalemate.'

They arrived in Tbilisi after midnight and the taxi drivers thought she was joking when she asked to be taken to the only open hotels - the five-star ones.

With no other options apart from sleeping on the streets, she stayed at her new friend's home. 'I was in the living room, but was too scared to sleep even though the man had been a gentleman. In the morning, I thanked him and left for the bus station.'

In Xinjiang , she learned about discrimination from the Uygur who took her in. 'They told me about the Han Chinese who took most of the important jobs in the community. They felt like second-class citizens in their own region.'

After she returned home, Ms Chow decided to publish her experiences. A Journey Begins at the End of the Silk Road (only available in Chinese) was launched last month.