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Juvena Huang first fell in love with Vespas when she was on holiday in Vietnam at the age of 19. The higgledy-piggledy lines of colourful bikes that decorated the streets immediately caught her attention. She loved the fact that these mini workhorses gave their owners freedom and the chance to roam. She longed to go on such an adventure herself.
But it wasn’t until her friend passed away a few years later she realised how short and uncertain life is. “My life had been on a single track – getting a good education, getting a good job… I knew that I had to do something more with my life,” says the former medical researcher. Her friend Lawrence Tan had been planning to ride a motorbike from Singapore to the border of China and then he lost his life in a car crash, whilst driving a van. Huang and her friends decided to make these plans come to fruition and go on a motorbike adventure from Singapore.
So for the next three years, Huang started saving hard and preparing for the ride. She went on practise runs to Malaysia and Thailand to get used to spending a long time in the saddle. But as time went on, her three friends who were going to ride with her, were having difficulty agreeing to a date to leave as their work and life priorities were changing. “I was mentally preparing myself that I may have to go on my own. I had saved enough money and I said that my deadline was May 2015 – if they weren’t ready, I would have to go without them,” says Huang.
When it came to May, it was clear that she was now going on her own. But this solo ride, meant that she could now choose her own route. “We spoke about riding through South America, but I no longer had to compromise and think about others. It was now my trip so I could do whatever I wanted,” says Huang. So she decided to ride from Singapore to Europe and take in places that were seen as off-the-beaten track.
When the day came, Huang admits she was apprehensive. “On the day when everything was packed on my bike and I was about to go, I was really scared. I wasn’t sure what would happen. I kept asking myself ‘what the people would be like?’ and ‘Would I be in danger?’ There was a lot of unknowns,” admits Huang. However, there was no going back – not only had she resigned from her job, but family, friends and local MP Pritam Singh had gathered to wave her off so she couldn’t change her mind.
The first part of her ride took Huang from Singapore through Malaysia to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town in Penang. It wasn’t a smooth ride, and her 20-year-old Vespa limped to her accommodation. “When I had my bike looked at in Singapore before I set off, I don’t think the mechanic knew how far I was going to take it. I think he thought I would just be riding it around town,” says Huang. When she reached Malaysia, a group of local motorcycle riders helped her get her bike back on the road and she was able to ride on to Bangkok where a mechanic was able to give the engine a complete overhaul.
From here, the 27-year-old Singaporean rode through Myanmar and on to India. It was here that she had one of the most memorable moments of her journey. She had heard about the village of Nongriat, which is famous for its living bridges that they make out of tree roots. She was keen to see this for herself. It meant leaving her scooter in Cherrapunji and taking a bus to the village. She knew that there was a guesthouse, but she had to chance her luck and hope that they had a room, as the hotel didn’t have any internet. “When I arrived, the guy who runs the guest house said that he didn’t take reservations. But he wouldn’t turn anyone away, he would just refer them to his neighbours,” she explained.
The government said that they would build a road to the village, but the villagers told Huang that they didn’t want one. “They said that they don’t want it because once a road is built, the traffic will increase and the village will lose its personality. It will also disrupt the ecosystem as they won’t have enough water and food to feed the visitors,” Huang says.
Huang got her first taste of jackfruit curry, which she said was delicious. And the city girl was also shown how less is definitely more. “In the city, you are always worrying about money – you need money to pay your rent, money to buy food, but this village life seemed to be stress free,” says Huang. “The owner of the homestay told me that he used to live in the city, but he preferred living in the village, because there is much more human connection. And he hopes that when his children grow up they will know what is more important and stay in the village.”
From here Huang rode on to Nepal, Pakistan and Iran. She only planned to travel for eight months, but it was clear that this adventure was going to turn into a longer journey. “It wasn’t every day that I rode. If I arrived in a place and I liked the vibe I would park up my bike and stay there for a few days,” says Huang.
With roads like the Karakoram highway in Pakistan, it’s not hard to see why Huang was enticed to keep moving forward. “It’s named the eight marvel of the world. Every turn of the corner was amazing,” says Huang. “I was treated to views of majestic peaks, snow-capped mountains and the water was so blue. It looked like it had been photoshopped.”
It was in Pakistan that Huang met Mohammed Yaqoob. “He wasn’t educated, but he was a very enlightened person. He runs a hotel in Gilgit, Pakistan. He decided to open the hotel when he noticed that a lot of young people were being Talibanised during the Afghan Civil War. He said that he wanted to bring the world together as it is always segregation that causes misunderstanding,” says Huang. “He said if people don’t have a job or food they will decide to fight, so he gave them a job and food and opportunity to get exposed to foreigners and different cultures.”
Huang had many great days on her journey. She also had tough ones too. She was propositioned, her bike broke down in a village where there were no mechanics, and she was almost driven off the road. She picked up a toe infection on her journey through India, which meant that she would have to visit the hospital every day.
However, even on the toughest days, Huang managed to stay motivated. “Ever since I’ve started travelling I’ve learnt that everything is temporary. I am going to get through it. I’ve stopped panicking. It’s not going to be raining tomorrow. And if the bike breaks down, I will just try and fix it as best that I can,” says Huang.
Fellow riders motorcycle riders were also there to make her journey as comfortable as possible. When riders from Guwahati in India found out she was in hospital, they rode down to visit her. And when she was about to take on one of the most dangerous roads in the world – the treacherous Tusheti road in Georgia, a team of motorcycle riders from Georgia and Switzerland invited them to join their guided tour for free.
Huang had enough funds to last the whole trip, but family and friends would show their support by gifting her a tank of petrol, a hot meal, a night’s stay or a pair of tyres through Paypal on her site. On occasion Huang would also volunteer for a free stay a hostel.
She wouldn’t ride every day. During the winter months, for instance she decided to stay put in Serbia rather than ride through the snow.
After spending two years on the road, visiting 25 countries and clocking up 44,000 kilometre, Huang decided to finish her journey. Her family were missing her dreadfully and persuaded her to go home. She put her bike in storage as a friend’s house in the Czech Republic as her family flew out to holiday with her in Prague. “When I put the bike in storage, I cried. I was very emotional. I wasn’t ready to stop. But my mum had been through a lot – having a daughter going away for so long.”
Huang says that the biggest surprise on her journey were the people. “I realised that the world is not that bad. Not like the media tells you,” Huang smile. “I spent four and a half months in Pakistan, three months in Iran… the people there were awesome. When I was in Pakistan I hardly stayed in a hotel. I stayed with at least 10 different families and they refused to take any money, because I was their guest.”
Huang is now back in Singapore, and hasn’t forgotten about her love of the road. She recently joined a team of Vespa sidecar riders for a record-breaking journey from Singapore to Penang. “At the moment, I am enjoying spending time with my family, says Huang. “However, one day I intend to go and pick up my bike and continue my journey through Europe.”
Photography: Juvena Huang
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