x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Around the world in 118 days

Our new 'On the Road' columnist Ismat Abidi embarks on a solo nomadic odyssey across the continents.

Ismat Abidi says growing up in Abu Dhabi gave her an appreciation for variety: 'I was exposed to a multitude of cultures in my friends' living rooms.'
Ismat Abidi says growing up in Abu Dhabi gave her an appreciation for variety: 'I was exposed to a multitude of cultures in my friends' living rooms.'

Our new 'On the Road' columnist Ismat Abidi embarks on a solo nomadic odyssey across the continents Last summer a friend and I travelled for just under 48 hours by jet, propeller plane, bus, jeep and foot to reach Asia's highest village in a remote valley 4,500 metres deep in the Himalayas. Spiti Valley was a world away from anything we could relate to, and our culture was equally alien to their community. There was no electricity or running water, yet it was one of the most enjoyable and memorable times of my life. Every night, we shared meals with the locals in their kitchen, exchanging stories and collapsing in fits of laughter into the early hours. Despite huge barriers of language, race, religion and culture, we all found a way to connect and communicate. It's moments like this that I want to continue to experience and this is why I am travelling around the world.

Growing up in Abu Dhabi, I was surrounded by people from all around the world and exposed to a multitude of cultures in my friends' living rooms. My personal cultural nuances are a mixture of Middle Eastern, English and Pakistani, and these influences have given me an appreciation for variety. My enthusiasm for an extra dimension or a different perspective gradually filtered into every aspect of my post-high-school years, whether it was choosing to combine my law degree with social anthropology, travelling to a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas to build a greenhouse or ditching my digital camera for a Polaroid. Discovering an alternative way of doing things never tires me; neither does the challenge of finding out how or why.

It's impossible to pin down one single reason why I'm taking this journey. It's less a question of "why", more a question of "why not?". Sensible decisions, such as completing a degree, landing my first job and getting some savings together, seemed to get in the way of turning a dream into reality. Many of my friends had taken gap years between school and university or university and their first jobs while I had industriously ploughed on with work.

After I completed law school in 2008, I was offered a training contract (a two-year contract required to qualify as a UK solicitor) in the UK with the international law firm Eversheds. My training was due to begin two years later in the UK, in September this year. In the meantime I was offered 18 months in the firm's Abu Dhabi office as a paralegal: I was in the fortunate position of having a six-month gap in my calendar between April and September 2010 and when I saw this window of opportunity I grabbed it. It was time to make a decision - use my first earnings to put down a deposit on my first property - or buy a round-the-world ticket for the adventure of a lifetime. I opened up my old student atlas, grabbed a pen and began writing down destinations, cultural heritage sites and wonders of the worlds I had always dreamt about visiting.

As much as I attempted to narrow down my plans to a continent, my appetite to explore had become too large. My wallet, however, was still the same size. A turning point was when I came across the price of a round-the-world ticket, which combined a series of up to 16 one-way, continent-hopping flights for between US$1,360 (Dh5,000) and $2,177 (Dh8,000). I decided to plan a round-the-world trip which would give me lots of experiences in different countries with a view to one day revisiting the regions that really made an impression on me. I began looking at possible routes, weather patterns, rainfall predictions and local festival dates.

My world map was now covered with so many dotted lines that I could barely make out countries, but I had finally decided on a one-way route that would take me across five continents and to more than a dozen countries. There were a few natural wonders and cultural heritage sites, such as the Great Wall, Grand Canyon and the bays of Vietnam, which I knew I wanted to see. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was also on this list. These were my main points marked on the map - I then researched the countries in between and planned my route accordingly.

I flew first to San Francisco, to travel along the Pacific coast of the US, eventually flying out of Los Angeles two weeks later. This would be a very relaxing and unchallenging start to my travels. Next, I will continue west and fly across the date line into Sydney, where I'll be climbing the Harbour Bridge at sunset, before heading to Melbourne to explore the various independent local art galleries it has to offer.

From Australia I'll be making my way north-west to Indochina and exploring the rich cultures and Buddhist history of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I feel fortunate to be able to visit these nations that were cut off to outsiders just a few generations ago. Then I'll head north to Japan and ride bullet trains between Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. I will also be trekking Mount Fuji as practice for a much bigger trek in Tanzania. I'll then travel across to Hong Kong and from there overland to Beijing, via the towers of Shanghai and the terracotta warriors of Xian. China and Japan will be particularly exciting as I yo-yo between cities ancient and modern.

After visiting the gates of the Forbidden City and journeying along the Great Wall, I will make a quick stop in Abu Dhabi to do some laundry, pack for a different kind of trip and pick up my climbing partner. Leaving from Dubai, I'll fly to Tanzania and embark on a seven-day hike to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. We will be raising money for a local charity promoting sustainable growth and women's education in Tanzania. We plan to recover from the trek on the world-famous white beaches of Zanzibar.

In a complete cultural contrast to the start of my journey, I then hope to round off my trip with a visit with my family to Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest Islamic site on Earth. I plan to visit Mecca and learn more about Islam. One hurdle I had to clear before booking my trip is something which I'm sure many young people in the region, particularly females, can relate to - parental concern. When I first told my parents of my plans to embark on this solo nomadic adventure around the world, their reaction was a combination of disapproval, surprise and plenty of questions on the details my trip, the answers to which I didn't quite have yet.

Their reaction didn't surprise me and I cannot blame them for being fearful for the safety of their only daughter. However, I persisted with the idea and was convinced that if I demonstrated meticulous organisation and budgeting they would see this was a well-thought-out personal goal rather than a temporary flight of fancy. Fast-forward a few, occasionally tense, months and I now have a great amount of support that was crucial for me; they are even somewhat proud that I am the first child in our extended family embarking on a journey like this. I also hope I have paved a path for my younger sibling and cousins should they wish to embark on adventures of their own. It was fundamental for me to win my parents' support and, with the numerous travel books scattered around the house, my father is now thinking about taking a similar trip post-retirement.

After months of indecision over my route and constantly talking about the trip, I finally booked my ticket. I couldn't be happier with my route and the places I will visit, given my time and budget constraints. Having grown up in an international environment, I'm fortunate enough to have friends in all corners of the globe. I sent out my itinerary and instantly generated plenty of interest from friends wanting to join me on various legs of the journey for one or two weeks. I'm glad I planned this trip alone as I've chosen the route according to my interests but equally I am looking forward to having friends hopping on and off over the majority of my adventure.

Budgeting was another big task. I put together a spreadsheet and filled in a country-by-country column with estimates of average accommodation prices and so on. As this is not a trip that will involve luxury hotels or fine dining, I based prices on student travel recommendations. My budget for this trip worked out at $14,700 (Dh54,000), inclusive of flights, accommodation, vaccinations, visas, tours, activities, food, telephone calls, a mountain trek and even an allowance for souvenirs. I overestimated a few costs, so staying within budget shouldn't be a problem.

Although my route is mapped, I don't have a checklist or a fixed day-by-day itinerary. I prefer to keep my plans fluid to encourage spontaneity and adventure. However, I do expect a great deal of self-discovery as I confront personal, physical and mental challenges on the trip. There will be many occasions when I will be pushed out of my comfort zone or spend time on my own in a brand new place with new people. I also hope to continue to gain a wider perspective on the world in which we live and a greater appreciation for cultural diversity. It's easy for me to become cynical about the world and the direction in which humanity is heading when news channels are filled with political, religious and social conflict or crime. I hope to meet people and have experiences that stave off disenchantment. I'll return to a flat, a job and loved ones and don't expect any of these to change while I am away. However, I may come back having embraced an even deeper appreciation of these parts of my life and a wider outlook on the world.

Whatever happens, I look forward to sharing my ups, downs, thoughts and photographs of my adventure every week with my family, friends and readers of The National on Saturday. travel@thenational.ae Follow Ismat's adventures around the world in her 'On the road' column starting next week.