Articles & stories

Non-Stop Meditation

Even as a child in Malaysia, Jia Hong Tan knew that one day, he would set off on his own to explore the world. Thanks to the financial crisis in 2008, he was able to realize his dream, embarking on an audacious journey of self-discovery that took him to fifty countries over four continents.

It's a popular game, spinning a globe and waiting to see where in the world your finger will come to rest, then coming up with a story about that place. Imagination has no limits, especially for a child who has little knowledge of politics or geography. For Malaysian Jia Hong Tan, who was seven years old in the early 1990s and is now part of the Solution Partners Capital Market team in Singapore, it was always great fun to play that game with his friends. And it awakened his curiosity about the wider world. Years later, after graduating with a degree in physics, he began his career as a trader in equity derivatives for a major American bank in London. But when the economic crisis shook the foundations of the financial world in 2008, 24-year-old Jia Hong experienced a crisis of his own. He began to think about some fundamental questions. "I knew so little about the world, and I wanted to understand how society and the economy function," he recalls. "I wanted to see the world with my own eyes so that I could form independent opinions, rather than relying on second-hand information from publications like The Economist or the Financial Times." He began to prepare his ambitious round-the-world trip, 100 countries in three years, but before he could head off another three years would pass. One reason for the delay was his job. As it turned out it proved to have a positive consequence: He had a new girlfriend, Wei Wen, who had decided to join him for part of his adventure. 

On the Road – at One Point with a 40-Ton Truck

Jia Hong's trip was organized into three long segments that would take him to four continents and over fifty sovereign nations. Over a period of nine months, he traveled from Asia to Russia and Europe, then back to the Far East, where he cycled through Taiwan and Japan for two months. He then spent six months traveling from California via the Andes to Brazil, and another six months traveling from Egypt across the African continent as far as South Africa. "Machu Picchu, Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert, the Mongolian steppes, Italy's Amalfi Coast and the Caribbean San Blas Islands were among the most beautiful places I visited. But beauty is everywhere if you're willing to look for it." When it comes to the people he met, however, his favorite place was definitely Sudan, the only country in Africa where he didn't feel that he was treated differently because he was a foreigner. In the Sudanese capitol of Khartoum, he met some students who invited him to stay with their friends in Gedaref. "Despite their poverty, they were incredibly generous and hospitable. Spending two days with them made me realize how privileged our lives are," says Jia Hong. Equally unforgettable was a hitchhiking trip from the Ethiopian town of Moyale to Nairobi, where he was going to pick up his girlfriend from the airport. Riding along a dusty country road in a 40-ton truck, Jia Hong saw eerily deserted villages whose residents had been forced to flee in the night to escape tribal unrest; he heard stories of bandits with ties to Somali pirates who had held up similar transports; he encountered a policeman and two officers demanding bribes; and he was treated to the sight of giraffes, zebras and antelopes in the fading moonlight, on what amounted to a free safari – before finally reaching Nairobi airport just in time to meet his girlfriend. Traveling just 785 kilometers took Jia Hong 42 hours, while Wei Wen traveled the distance of 7,000 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur in only twelve hours.

Together through Thick and Thin

It was by no means clear from the start that Wei Wen would join Jia Hong on his journey. Just convincing his own family that South America and Africa weren't necessarily "dangerous destinations" had taken him three years. During the month he spent cycling through Japan, he was alone for much of that time, thinking about how to convince Wei Wen's family – who had a typically Asian skepticism about such adventures – that the trip was safe. He decided to ask her to marry him. "This was my way of showing my commitment, of showing that we would go through thick and thin together." Today, they are a married couple. 

What Did He Get Out of the Trip? Education

Surprisingly, there was never a time during the entire journey when Jia Hong wished that he could go home, not even for a moment. And it was in London, of all places, that he felt least comfortable – as he was meeting up with old friends. Climbing the career ladder, they seemed happy only when the conversation turned to their next vacation. "I suddenly remembered what it was that I had wanted to get away from, and I was glad to continue on my journey," he recalls. "A trip like mine is like an extended period of meditation and reflection, and I think that's the only way to find yourself." He recorded his experiences and thoughts on his laptop – not just to make sure that he wouldn't forget them, but also because he had promised his father than he would write a book about his travels. "If someone were to ask me what the one thing was that I got out of this trip, I'd say: the potential of education." Not formal education or vocational qualifications, but the proactive acquisition of knowledge, for example through the internet. "Despite the internet, we are far removed from being a global village. The internet can never take the place of a touch, an experience, the warmth of a stranger or the essence of humanity. These are things that you have to experience for yourself." By the way, mobile internet access can be found in any city, even in the most poverty-stricken countries. There was only one place where he wasn't even able to make a call because the cell phone was taken away: North Korea.