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I Explored Asia Over Land at 20: Traveling Young Gave Me Purpose

July 22, 2014

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Robbie Sokolowsky, on the Pamir Highway, in Gorno Badakshan, Tajikistan (Photo: Robbie Sokolowsky)

Who: Robbie Sokolowsky, who has been traveling solo since he was 18-years old. When he was 20, he traveled across Asia over land (and sea) from China to Egypt in a life-changing adventure that took him through the jungles of Laos and India, the soaring Himalayas of Tibet and Pakistan, Central Asia, and the Middle East during Ramadan. Since then he has produced documentaries in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. 

Where: Across Asia

Why: To see everything

Robbie’s Backstory: At 18, while most of my high school friends had left for college, I was stuck in my hometown in the suburbs of Boston attending a pitiful community college and questioning my own banal existence.

Up to that point I had been young and naive about traveling. Being influenced solely by the local bookstore’s travel section, I had always assumed you picked one or two countries and invested the time and money for them

I soon quit college. A soul-searching trip to Israel led to nothing but a job as a busboy in bustling Tel Aviv. The live/work abroad deal wasn’t glamorous but it beat wasting hours away with the other slackers that never left town and enlightened me to opportunities elsewhere in the world. 

At Potala Palace, in Lhasa, Tibet (Photo: Robbie Sokolowsky)

The Day I Met My Inspiration: At 19, I traveled to the Javanese jungle of Indonesia and found myself in a small hotel at the foot of Borobuder. At sunset as I was sipping on lemon tea and chain-smoking Kretek cigarettes, I saw a six-foot bronzed man dripping of sweat enter the main room with a backpack and a bicycle. I asked where he was coming from. “Germany” he said. Thinking he must have misunderstood the question, I rephrased it: “Where are you coming from on the bike?” “Germany,” he answered again. He had been on the road for 15 months, and nothing but the muscle of his legs and his willpower got him to the place he was standing. Meeting Yann changed my travel philosophy and my life trajectory.

That night at a candlelit dinner of nasi goreng in the small shack of a hotel, this Marco Polo-slash-Lance Armstrong brought out his map and showed me his route. I gazed in awe at these lines drawn in red marker that crisscrossed the entire Asian continent.

“Iran took me three months. Riding through the desert was challenging,” Yann muttered in a thick accent. I was fascinated and jealous. Would I ever have three months to wander through Iran on a bicycle? Would I have three months to go anywhere like that? Was I even ALLOWED to go to a place like Iran? My mind was spinning. All I kept thinking was that the next time I traveled, I was going to see everything at once, “Next trip, Asia over land.”

My Bible: I was back home in Boston no more than two weeks later to start planning my trip. It was at Borders Books & Music in Chestnut Hill that I came upon “Asia Overland,” by Mark Elliot and Wil Klass. This book was something different: every single country in Asia condensed into brief 10-page chapters, every map hand-drawn, plus anecdotes and insider jokes that only the fiercest of travelers could decode. The humor and wit in this book was so hilarious, I questioned how it was ever published. Nonetheless, I took every word as gospel and “Asia Overland” became my bible for my next odyssey.

Scaling a pyramid in Giza, Egypt (Photo: Robbie Sokolowsky)

My Itinerary: So at 20-years old, with $8,000 saved and a plane ticket and book in hand, I left home for the greatest adventure I had ever set out on. With all my research and calculations, I figured I could last about one year and made a rough guestimate on where to go and how long to stay. My trip went like this: two months in China, a month in Tibet, two months in India, a month in Pakistan, two months in Central Asia and the Caucauses, and the final month traveling through the Middle East. Having that much freedom and the world at my fingertips made me feel like a king. 

What I Learned: Seeing every culture and every language bleed into the next as I crossed over 15 borders gave me a surreal feeling. I felt the actual curve of the earth under my feet, from the Great Wall to the Great Pyramids and everything in between. I proved to myself that the world is conquerable.

How I Changed: The challenges I faced in my journey helped define me as a person. Suffering typhoid fever in India. Getting robbed and detained in Uzbekistan. Being welcomed into the home of Chechnyan refugees. Shooting a machine gun in the tribal regions between the Pak-Afghan border with Afridi Pashtuns. Celebrating the beginning of Ramadan in Damascus. Meeting a family I would later film in my first documentary in the remote Aral Sea region. All of these experiences have carved out the person I am today.

Shooting a gun in the Khyber Region, on the Pak-Afghan Border (Photo: Robbie Sokolowsky)

For anyone with an inkling on taking a year off and wandering, I offer this advice:

Follow Your Inspiration: If you are inspired by something or someone and have a similar passion to experience it yourself, follow the feeling. Don’t think twice. If I hadn’t seen that German cyclist’s map, I would never have had that vision.

See Everything at Once! Don’t go to India thinking you will see Rajasthan “Next time you are in India.” Spend a few extra days there and go see Rajasthan. There may not be a next time.  

Don’t Overplan: The best way to travel is to leave your trip flexible. I had to go around Iran because I could not get a visa the first time I tried, thus, I ended spending two months traveling through central Asia, experiencing some of the weirdest and wildest offerings on my entire trip.

By the Tomb of Hafez, in Shiraz, Iran (Photo: Robbie Sokolowsky)

Cut Ties: Going on a long journey requires difficult goodbyes. I know how sad and scared my mother was when I left, but I knew I would be ok and I would be back.

Ignore Those Who Judge — They are Ignorant or Jealous: As you should with everything in life, if I had a dollar for every time someone told me I was crazy for going to Iran or Pakistan or Syria I would have a few hundred dollars. That’s a month’s worth of meals in India.

If It’s Not Available, You Don’t Need it There: On the road there are a lot of distractions. I traveled across Asia before smartphones and wifi existed and had a jolly old time. You will have as need in these places.  I have seen entitled travellers complain at the lack of the most frivolous things. They should stay home.

And Finally: Trust yourself. Listen to yourself. 

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