Photograph by Matthieu Paley
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Two women wait for their rides outside the train station in Shache, historically known as Yarkand, one of the biggest cities in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley
TravelTraveler Magazine

Three by land: Life-changing tales from female travelers

How to find the thrill of adventure in China, Belgium, and Colombia.

Women & Adventure: National Geographic is celebrating women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries in science, photography, exploration, and beyond. Here is a trio of tales from female adventurers who explore all ends of the earth—and what they learned along the way. Then check out these three adventures by sea.

China: Touring the Silk Road by rail

I’d been warned not to travel to China’s northwest Xinjiang Province. According to China’s state-run press, it was far too dangerous for foreigners, due to unrest. Despite warnings, I had no other way to continue by rail from mainland China through Kazakhstan and Russia, partly along the old Silk Route, then eventually back to my home in London. And I was determined not to let anything stop me.

Within hours of my arrival in the city of Turfan, I found the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uygur community gentle and welcoming, inviting me into their family-run cafés to try bone broth that glistened, fat chewy noodles, and mutton skewers cooked on sidewalk grills. Chinese soldiers roamed the streets. From the closed-circuit cameras placed on mosques and the enforced restriction on beards and headscarves to the patrolling tanks, a feeling of unease permeated the city.

Saddened to leave Turfan, I boarded the new high-speed service to Urumqi, which connects the two cities in just over an hour, and found a distinct absence on board of Uygur passengers, most of whom were forbidden from traveling freely within the region.

Finding an empty table, I sat down just as a Buddhist nun with a shaved head ran up to me, laughing. Flummoxed, I strained to catch a few words from her stream of chatter and eventually extracted “Indian.” A fellow passenger translated, explaining that she was curious as to whether or not I was Indian, and I confirmed that I was indeed of Indian ethnicity. Thrilled, the nun clapped, slapped her thighs, and sat down, swinging her feet like a child. I learned that the nun was excited to meet someone of my origin, as India had come to the rescue of the Dalai Lama and she was grateful. The nun had fled Tibet, and unable ever to return, she had made her home near Urumqi.

Joyfully, the nun pored over my photos from the Potala Palace in Lhasa, scrolling through each one with concentration before realizing her stop was approaching. Pulling out a gold iPhone, she gestured for me to add her as a contact on WeChat, the multipurpose, ubiquitous Chinese messaging app.

Unsure what to do, I handed over my phone and she showed me how to scan her QR code. As the train slowed into the station, she tied a thin red string around my wrist, wrapped herself in robes, and picked up her bag, waving as she jumped down the steps. When the train began to roll away from the platform, I felt a vibration in my hand and looked down to see a message from the nun: a GIF of a laughing Buddha exploding in light.

Lesson learned: Political divisions you read about in the news don’t define your interactions with people on the ground. —Monisha Rajesh

Belgium: Spinning through Ghent by bike

“I bought a bike and started cycling” was the response veteran Irish traveler Dervla Murphy gave when she was asked how she planned her odyssey across India that would become the beloved travelogue Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle. It’s proof that adventure can start with a simple push of the pedal.

Ghent, in the northern Flemish region of Belgium, may not be India, but it has a long love affair with the bike. The city has the largest pedestrian zone in Europe, with more than 120 hectares of car-free space to roam. Sandwiched between the capital, Brussels, and the fairytale city of Bruges, Ghent delights in being the underdog, but the city is far from being the ugly duckling of the trio. French novelist Victor Hugo described Ghent as “a kind of Venice of the North,” thanks to the pretty, medieval twist of streets that cluster around swan-patrolled canals.

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The medieval guild houses on the Graslei embankment are just some of the urban draws in Ghent, Belgium, best explored by bike or foot.

Ghent isn’t sleepy in the least though. For 10 days in July, close to two million people turn up to enjoy a riot of free concerts and street theater known as the Gentse Feesten. And the green credentials extend further, too. Ghent is dubbed a vegetarian capital, and every Thursday is a meat-free day with restaurants and cafés dishing up veggie options for all.

Ghent is a city to be explored with legs and stomach. So after dipping into Sint-Baafskathedraal to see the famous 15th-century polyptych Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bump across the cobblestones and turn down onto Graslei quay. The city’s first commercial port, it’s lined with ancient guild houses and students cooling their ankles in the water. Then it’s on to Groentenmarkt, home to Tierenteyn-Verlent, a 229-year-old delicatessen known for its homemade mustard doled out of wooden barrels, and stalls selling cuberdons—local cone-shaped purple candy also known as neuzekes (little noses).

Dreupelkot is a slip of a café serving shots of jenever (a gin-like liquor made from malt wine) in flavors ranging from garlic to grapefruit. Patershol was once a working-class district, home to brothels and dingy drinking dens; it was gentrified in the ’80s and now conceals some of the most exciting (and exclusive) restaurants in the city.

End the day at local bar ‘t Velootje, with its wacky decor so crammed with old bikes you can barely get in the door. Bearded owner Lieven de Vos has run this cherished spot for more than a quarter of a century.

Biking trumps other modes of transport because you don’t just see the city, you feel it. The cobblestones judder your bones, the wind streaks your hair, scents surround you, and then you can park right in front of your destination.

Lesson learned: Travel doesn’t have to be difficult. Take a spin wherever you are and let the day unfold. —Emma Thomson

Colombia: Finding community on the coast

Palomino, Colombia, is the type of place where soul-searching European expats with dreadlocks come to find their tribe. It’s the type of place I tend to avoid. On our way into town, our taxi driver tells us it used to be quiet around here, a home for indigenous people, but in the last few years travelers came flocking for the beachy vibe and nearby Sierra Nevada range. Developers came next, bringing yoga studios, vegan restaurants, and juice bars.

After checking into our hotel, we head straight to the beach and spread out on the sand. Sean buys roasted nuts in an oil-stained brown paper bag from an elderly man. There are vendors everywhere. They sell arepas, fresh fruit, woven bags, and those patterned friendship bracelets seemingly everyone brings home from trips. A dark-skinned woman walks by holding up a binder full of images of Kim Kardashian wearing “Bo Derek” and “boxer” braids, claiming she can replicate the look for “50 mil pesos.”

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The formerly sleepy beach town of Palomino has become a popular stop for visitors discovering Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

A few feet away I see a woman squeezing oil from what looks like an old bottle of dishwashing liquid onto a man’s sunburned shoulders. She’s crouched down on a small stool and her firm brown hands are working on his back, kneading and slapping and pounding.

She notices me watching and shouts, “You next, mami!

When she’s done with the guy, she makes her way over to me. We introduce ourselves. Brenda nods toward the image of a dark-skinned black woman with a big, juicy afro that’s printed on my tote bag. She peels back her sun hat to reveal a puff of thick coily hair and gives me a thumbs up.

I knew we—Black people—were here in Colombia, and I’d been hoping that somewhere along this journey I’d have a moment for this type of fellowship. So often when I’m traveling, my hair, skin, and body are what set me apart. When I can connect my diasporic dots in the midst of it, I feel a strengthened sense of self; no matter where I am in the world, I’m at home.

Brenda proceeds to bend, crack, and snap my body into alignment. We’re mostly quiet throughout, but when I flip onto my stomach, she taps my butt playfully and laughs “mismo, mismo!” same, same! And we start cackling all over again. She repeats this word when massaging my scalp, her hands deep in my afro. “Mismo,” she says, and then, “linda,” beautiful. She whispers it over and over, “linda, linda, linda.”

When she’s finished, I pass Brenda 50 mil, plus 20 more in respect for her hustle. She tucks the rolled-up bills into her bra.

We sit together for a while. My Spanish isn’t great and neither is her English, but we make do. I learn she’s actually from Venezuela but left six months ago to earn money to send back to her children, who stayed behind. Brenda is one of more than four million Venezuelans who’ve had to flee due to the country’s ongoing political and economic crisis; food is scarce, the dollar is hyperinflated, and death tolls are rising.

“Colombia es beautiful, pero Venezuela … ” Brenda sighs. “Venezuela es … sweet,” she says, kissing her fingers to her lips. I look at her, thinking this town might be a little strange for the both of us, but in this moment we’ve found a sweet familiarity in each other. Sean and I had set off to Colombia in search of thrills, but, as I’m constantly reminded on each of my journeys, adventures don’t have to be about adrenaline and increased heart rate. They can be about the bravery it takes to reach across cultural divides and find commonalities.

Brenda pulls a small Nokia from her fanny pack; the screen is slicked with massage oil. “Mi hija,” she says, pointing to a photo of a smiling brown girl on the home screen.

“Linda,” I say. “Que linda.”

Lesson learned: Not speaking the local language is not a barrier to making meaningful connections. —Glynn Pogue

A version of this story ran in the October/November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler.