Travel Spotlight: Zahariz from Malaysian Nomad
Zahariz Khuzaimah is such an inspiring traveler who sees everything in a beautiful light. Having this interview with him over teh tarik was a good opportunity to get to know him better, to understand how he travels and the reason behind this amazing adventure. I’ve read about his stories prior to the interview but did not know that he has been in town for some time, his travel documentary being aired recently in the local TV station Al-Hijrah before his next cycling adventure from Mongolia to Spain. A Malaysian Nomad, he dreams of discovering the seven continents of the world and aspire everyone for peace and humanity.
I would personally like to thank Dian from Danywhere & The Wanderlust Theories for the introduction and to Zahariz for taking some time out for this impromptu chat. We wish you all the best in your adventure!
How do you plan or prepare yourself for these trips?
I plan for the route and see how it goes from there. For example the last time when I planned to Russia, suddenly there was a conflict in Afghanistan, a landslide in Pakistan, so I had to cut short my trip and change the route by entering Kazakhstan instead. Even for the upcoming trip to China, the only preparation I did was to get the visa and when I get there, I’ll decide on which route to take. Normally I don’t know how long I’ll be in one location or how long it will take to go to the next location. I also feel it’s kind of useless to do planning because sometimes from here the information that you get is so limited and outdated. Once I go there, then only I’ll be able to assess the actual situation and gather all the information from there itself.
How do you prepare yourself for the climate change then?
When I went to the Arctic last time, I had no idea in what sort of clothing should I wear, what is suitable for that kind of weather or how to survive in extreme cold weather. Usually wherever I go especially to extreme places, the first thing I will do is observe the clothing that the locals wear, what they eat and then I follow the local customs from there.
How long do you normally stay in one location?
If I don’t like the place I will keep going, if I like the place I can stay one or two weeks. When I was in Arctic I spent more time there to learn on how to survive the cold. Before this I didn’t even know the clothing terms used such as ‘based layer’ or ‘outer shell’ until I met with the locals and learnt from them. When I was in China I bought a jacket and actually didn’t realize that it was just an outer shell. I was wondering why I still felt cold after wearing the jacket and later on I realized that it was not the proper jacket to wear.
I feel that if you want to do planning and research before you go, it’ll take forever and you will never get ready so you might as well just go. I just plan the route and get my filming equipment ready, that’s about it.
Besides the filming equipment, what else do you bring on your bicycle?
I carry cooking utensils, camping gears such as sleeping bag and a mat, solar panels to charge batteries as well as some food. I don’t bring a lot of clothes except when I was in the Arctic but it wasn’t much because the jacket itself was so thick that it took up 1/3 of the space in the bag. All in all, I carry about 60kg of load on the bicycle.
When I was in Iceland, it was my first time filming, I was excited and brought along a lot of gear such as glide track and such. After cycling for three days, I had a punctured tyre, so I went to the nearest guesthouse and asked permission to place some items there while I continued cycling around Iceland for two months. I bring along the tools and spare tubes in case of emergency and able to do minor repairs. I don’t feel the need to know everything. What happens if you fall in a hole and had to do major repairs to the bicycle, you can’t be carrying welding items and such. For me, if my bicycle has problems, I’ll try to repair it, if not I’ll just push it.
Have you ever had any major problems along the way?
Not major ones but my bicycle did break once and of course I couldn’t do the welding on my own so I had to think of another way to solve the problem. In Iceland there were lots of tall grasses so I took those and turned it into a rope and tied the broken area tightly. At the time the screws had also fallen off. I secured it tightly with the grass (rope) and when that broke, I tied another bunch of it again and again. I had to find a way to survive because the journey to the next destination was quite long distance.
My mum watched your video and she wanted to know what did you eat when you’re on the road?
Mostly in the morning I’ll eat oats, raisins, honey for energy, and in the evenings just before going to bed, I carry some potatoes, take some snow or river water, heat it up until it softens, add some salt for taste and eat. But sometimes I do want some luxury food so when I reach a supermarket I’ll get spaghetti or tuna. When I’m in town, I’ll also eat at a restaurant, order some pizza just to enjoy some good food.
What are the safety tips to look out for when you cycle around the world?
Don’t look rich, I’m used to wearing something simple and sometimes the locals think I’m a hermit when I travel. Most of the time people would have this perception that there’s nothing to steal because of the way I look. When you keep smiling to people, when you’re friendly to people, that will tone down the suspicion from the locals.
When you get sick on the road, what do you do?
Normally I take stop and rest. I try not to take any medicine and let my body fight it out. When I was in China, crossing the Taklamakan desert, it was too hot and I couldn’t take the heat. Despite drinking a lot, I threw up and got weaker. Even though there weren’t any hills on my route in the desert but there were sandstorms along the way so I had to fight it and it was quite exhausting.
Do you have a regime or routine that you stick to before your trip?
No routine or regime before my trip. No matter how physically strong you are, that might not help much when you’re the road. You have to rely a lot on your own senses and surroundings.
Besides having to endure the harsh climate during your travels, what other challenges did you have to face?
The weather, terrains and high mountains prove to be a challenge at times because I don’t travel with a GPS. I learned to look at the stars from the nomads. They taught me how to measure time using the sun and pattern of the stars to navigate my way. I found it to be easier than reading the compass. I learned that there are two types of North, that is the True North and the North. They are totally different from one another. The higher the altitude, the bigger the difference between the two Norths. I try to see the world from a totally different perspective when I live on the road and I never measure time by weeks or days. I measure time by the climate, the terrains and surrounding. When I’m on the road I try to not know the days because everyday is a lazy Sunday for me.
Do you meet a lot of people along the way who end up following you on your journey?
Once, I met a Dutch guy at a guesthouse who was on a backpacking trip. We exchanged stories and the next day he asked me to go with him to the nearest cycling shop because he wanted to buy a bicycle. Two days later, we cycled together to the next destination. He followed me for a week until Kazakhstan border and then he turned back to the south while I headed into Kazkhastan. After that he cycled all the way to Vietnam and Malaysia.
You inspired someone! So have you encountered any strange things along the way, like do they come up to you and suddenly say hello.
I like to call it something new instead of something strange. I saw nomad people who were still living their life just like how they did so a thousand years ago which was something different and fun to see. When you’re on the road, you can see two different worlds. Over here (in the city) it’s normal to see an eight year old kid holding an iPad and knows how to use it well. But over there you can see an eight year old kid riding the stallion. When I took their photos, they laugh really hard after seeing their own face on the screen because it’s their first time seeing a camera.
Instead of you encountering strange things, they found you strange! What else did you see when you go off the beaten path?
In China there’s a lot of small villages that people have yet to see. That’s why I personally feel that travelling on a bicycle is simply the best because when you take the bus you normally go from city to city but when you’re on a bicycle you really go to villages where tourists seldom visit. For me the best are those that are in-between or non-tourist spots because they’re normally set up nicely. The tourist spots want to give what the tourists want to see in the place but it’s usually not the real local scenario. So cycling on the road and going into these small villages are the real thing.
And the people are often friendly when they see you?
Yes they are. When I stopped in this village somewhere deep in China, the villagers surrounded me and they started holding me and touching me out of curiosity. It was an interesting experience.
Is language a barrier when you visit these villages?
Yes it was. I had learned Mandarin on my own by getting a book and then picked up more words from the locals as I travelled. This turned out as I had expected because not all of the people in China spoke Mandarin. Due to the many ethnic in China, they spoke different languages such as Ugyur and Tajiks. Sometimes I communicate using sign languages too.
Have they ever invited you to their homes for dinner?
Yes they have. On my travels, I can say 60% of the time I’m camping, 20% of my time would be staying in peoples’ homes and 20% of my time would be staying in hostels.
Some people would have a perception or be afraid of inviting a stranger to their homes.
In Scandinavian countries there were a lot of good people and this happened many times. I would go to the supermarket and there was this old lady who came and approached me saying “Oh I saw you on this bicycle, where do you sleep?” So I told her I just sleep in the forest, under the trees and she invited me over to her house where she lived with her daughter. I was surprised that she wasn’t afraid of me but she was very nice. So I cycled to her house and she let me stay in one of the rooms. It was very clean. The daughter helped to wash my clothes, they cooked for me and told me that there’s another village ahead, about 60km where I could contact her friend who would be expecting me there. When I continued my journey, there were people waiting at the roadside and called out to me to stay in their home. This happened in the next few villages that I visited.
In Scandinavia alone, I encountered this at least ten times. Sometimes when I go to supermarket to buy food, I would chat with the cashier and he would suddenly take out his credit card and pay for my groceries. I’ve also experience staying in the hotels with good discounts. There was this one time in Norway, I didn’t have much money and it was so cold that I had to get indoors because the weather was quite lethal. So I went to this hotel in Norway, knocked on the door and explained to the owner that I only had 200 Krones with me for a night indoors. The owner looked at my bicycle and asked where I was from because he was shocked to see me standing outside in the thick snow. I told him I was from Malaysia and he invited me in quickly, putting me up in the most expensive room for the night. He cooked food for me and invited me to eat with my hands as he’s familiar with our local culture.
Another time I wanted to cross the fjords and was chatting with one of the passengers on the ferry when he paid for my ferry tickets. I’ve also had my hair cut in a barber shop in Norway for free where haircuts there can be expensive.
Is there anywhere else along the trip that you felt like you were at home?
Everywhere. Even like now, I don’t feel any different whether here or on the road because the people are generally really nice. Secondly I’m really comfortable when on the road. In the beginning when I first started I told myself that I have to do 80km a day and cycle at 30km/h. It took awhile to realize that there’s no rush in this adventure. I then started cycling at my own pace, sometimes stopping to read a book along the way.. I feel at home because of the things I brought with me like a good book.
Do you have any problems adjusting to life back here?
Not really because I know I’ll be going again and again.
When you’re on the road, cycling, how do you travel across the border?
I cross via land border. Asia can be a bit challenging but Malaysia-Singapore and Malaysia-Thailand is easier. If you talk about China crossing to Kazakhstan and then to Kyrgyzstan, it can be a challenge. There are language barriers which cause be being detained in Kazakhstan for a few hours trying to explain to the authorities that I don’t need visa. I couldn’t speak Russian so that was quite challenging.
For this next trip it will be totally overland? What are your routes?
This time I’ll be cycling all the way to Spain from Mongolia so my route is very simple. From Mongolia I will go south and I will stop only when I hear people start speaking Chinese so I’ll know that I’ve already crossed to China. After that from China I will just follow the sunset, keep on going to the west until I start hearing people speaking Turkish. Then I’ll continue until I hear people start speaking Spanish and then I’ll stop. There’s no such thing as getting lost because getting lost means going from point A to point B but ending up in point C. For me, I’ll start from point A to nowhere so there’s no way I will get lost. I’ll just go.
During your travels what would you say would be your most favourite place on earth?
The mountains. Since I was young I’ve always loved the mountains. It’s like a magical place when you’re at the peak because it’s so quiet. There’s just the sound of wind, there’s no boundaries between you and the stars or clouds below. You can just look up and feel closer to heaven and its pretty cool. Being in high places lets you see things from a bird’s eye view and you can see everything.
When you travel alone, how do you keep yourself company?
When I travel alone, I never feel lonely except for places that are really quiet and there’s nobody. Out there when I’m alone, I’m forced to learn the language, to trust strangers and to interact with the locals. Sometimes when I stay in the dorms, I talk to other travellers and chat with them. But when I go to places that’s quiet, I have the company of cats, the birds or just me talking to the camera. I’m totally fine with this because I like quiet places.
You recently did a video workshop and then you had a travel show appear on our local al-Hijrah channel. Will there be any future collaborations after this?
At the moment no plans yet, but I’m focusing on my documentary project to be out soon.
What are your tips to people who want to embark on such a travel adventure like yourself?
First of all don’t plan. Secondly try to get as close as you can to the locals and anywhere you go observe what they wear or what they eat. If you plan, you’ll just stick to the plan and you won’t experience much. For some an adventure is like a holiday.
I don’t consider myself as going on a holiday because to me living on the road is my life.