Amazing Women Doing Amazing Things:
13 Questions for Eleanor Moseman
In my search for amazing women to highlight in our Amazing Women Doing Amazing things, I knew I had to reach out to Ellen. I knew she was an amazing woman. Her story of traveling across China on a bicycle captivated me. I wrote Ellen to ask if she’d be a part of our community.
Ellen responded with heart and truth that I’ve learned is to be her engaging personality. Ellen is real. She’s a straight shooter. She has heart, guts, and a seriously insane sense of humor that makes me laugh when I’m alone and anticipate her next e-mail installment.
Eleanor has been in China since 2008 snapping photos and living life and a couple of years ago, she set out to from Shanghai on a project she labeled 2wheels4girls in an effort to raise funds for girls’ education in China. 18,000km later, Ellen is still on the road. This year, she was named one of Jupiter’s Travellers and her work has shifted to a new endeavor of documenting cultures and customs that are slowly disappearing in China.
We sent Ellen a list of 13 questions to ponder while she was making her way along the Silk Road in the Taklmakan Desert. Wind burned and dodging police in Hotan, China, Ellen found time to respond.
1. Your cause, 2 wheels 4 girls brings to light the disparity in educational opportunities for girls in the US vs. girls in China. What impact do you hope to have through this project and what would your dream outcome be?
It was mostly to just bring about awareness to under privileged and under served children, especially girls. The goal was 10,000 miles, which I’ve already accomplished. The journey has now developed into something else. I’m a photographer and I spent my summer in Tibetan areas, Kham, Amdo…which people know this as Western Sichuan and Qinghai…along with an illegal entry into Tibet. I found myself living with nomads and the hospitality and love from them was immense. It was a total enlightening experience. So, I’m actually in the process of changing my site to the “Wander Cyclist” because I don’t really have a route. I speak/read Chinese so I go basically on what folks tell me or people I meet and chat with. The journey is now continuing as a photo project dedicated to documenting the minorities of China, especially those that are under religious persecution, and learning about the disappearing customs. Western China is on a brink of rebellion right now and things are changing, quickly.
2. How did you learn about the education of girls in China and what inspired you to create change?
I’ve done some volunteer work and living in China, I took notice of how driven these young girls were to succeed and learn. Whenever I’ve had problems, if I found a high school aged girl, she could generally speak English. I would spend time with local girls, whether eating ice cream or even going to their home for dinner.
3. You are doing something so unique and so solo, how do you get your voice heard?
I talk loudly…ha…um…I don’t know. I’m in a very unique situation and my stories and experiences are extremely unique because I have lived in China, for nearly 4 years and I can speak the language. I’m also very accustomed to the culture and what is expected of me. Networking accounts for a lot, but it’s been slow. I’ve been at this project for almost 2 years now. But I’m never solo…there have been so many people behind the scenes to help me. It would be impossible without them.
People write to me asking about photography and cycling advice and I have to tell them…China is an old shoe to me. I really go off the beaten path to find villages. There is no fear of getting lost because my language skills. Sometimes I feel a little weary of giving advice because I don’t want to be responsible for someones death.
4. Have you always been into bicycles?
Always had one…just used it as a commuter bike. In college, between my roommates and I…we would have a large collection in the corner or hallways. I just found it as the best way to really interact with local people. When I’m on a train in China, I have to close my eyes because it’s frustrating to see all the good stuff go by.
5. How has the choice of using a bicycle influenced your experience and the interaction you’ve had with those you’ve met?
Of course. I get a lot of thumbs ups, a lot of “lihai” which is kind of like “cool” in Chinese. Most everyone in China has a bike or motorcycle. It’s always a conversation starter and a great way to get free meals and water.
6. What is the most commonly asked question of you when you are on the road?
In this order: “What country person are you?” “How old are you?” “Are you married?” “Do you have kids?”
7. Solo travel can be a lonely and desolate road. What keeps you going in those moments when solo feels very alone and difficult?
I make jokes or remember stories. I think a lot about past people I’ve met. Although, I’ve had a couple temporary partners along the way. At 18,000km now…I’m tired of pushing along alone. After my last partner, I realized how awesome it is to have camp company and someone to share experiences with. There may be someone joining me in a couple of weeks/months. He’s not sure yet…but I would love to have company again. It keeps some of the attention off of me when I want to sneak around for photos.
8. What’s the easiest, go to meal that you cook on the road? What’s the most difficult you’ve tried?
easiest: instant noodles
most difficult: rice pudding
9. Let’s talk TP: Do you crumple or fold?
haha, if I was Tibetan I would tell you I don’t use anything. But I’m not…I’m a folder.
10. You are inspiring and carry with you a very inspiring story. What inspires you?
meeting new people and getting some amazing stories on “film”. The Tibetans were very easy going with the camera. Loved it. Now I’m in Muslim territory and everything has been flipped for me. I’m not really sure where the hell I am right now.
11. In order to be an advocate, you have to have a strong sense of self-advocacy as well. How would you describe self-advocacy and how have you practiced it in your life?
Life ain’t easy. I come from a humble upbringing. The first to attend college on my father’s side of the family. Working class, blue collar family. I excelled at art but when college came about…I couldn’t afford the good schools I got accepted to. I found myself going to a mediocre public university that I really pushed my boundaries with. Education was really pushed on me by my parents. They didn’t care what I went to school for, just go to school. I don’t regret not going to those good schools, because I love the life I have now. But education is expensive, and can be really heartbreaking when you can’t go because of money.
Besides this, I’ve been working, near full time, since I was 18, and summers since I was 16. So, I’ve been clawing my way to the top for the past…um…awhile.
Some people may think a journey like this is vain or selfish…but I needed something epic in my life. Something to help me find me. And well…I did. I told myself I had to do something at 30. I’m pretty glad I waited because I think I enjoy this and appreciate it more than a young 20 something. No offense to any of those. But I do get a lot of girls in their early 20s wanting to do something like this. No rush ladies…when it happens, it happens.
I’ve had help from family and friends too. This has been very much a group effort.
12. One of the things we do in RYS is look at life from a new angle. How have you looked at things from a new angle since beginning your trip?
We have too much shit in our lives. Material, mental, emotional. Just way too much. It feels great to be traveling with the only necessities I need. Besides those care packages my mom sends out to me. I’m stronger, independent, self-sufficient, and somewhat fearless.
13. We’re planning a cycling trip around the world in 2015. What advice would you give to those just starting out on their journey?
You may not figure out what you are doing until about 10,000 km in…at least it took me awhile.
Also, laughter is a universal language. The past couple of weeks, these carts filled with Muslim men are just staring at me as they ride by. I started smiling and laughing and they return it. It really lightens a heavy mood.
Eleanor Moseman is an American photographer, nomad, and world traveler. She is currently cycling through Asia documenting hidden communities, disappearing traditions, and cultures in danger of being erased.
Update from Ellen on the road 3/8/2012:
Christine, I hope that made sense. I’ve been, primarily alone, in the desert for 2 weeks.
Side note. A lot of Chinese parents do not want their daughters to pursue Masters or Phd programs because, and I quote…”who would want to marry you?!” So highly educated women here are usually single, or have accepted that there may not be a man suited for her. Shameful.
I was talking to a young girl who said, “yes, my sister has a Phd and she is very lucky to have found a man that would marry her.”
“It’s the differences in each of us that makes this world so beautiful” – Ellen Moseman
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson