Exploring Remote Regions: An Interview with Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent is a British travel writer, broadcaster and public speaker.

Photo: Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

Her books include Land of the Dawn-lit Mountain: A Journey Across India’s Forgotten Frontier, which was a runner-up in the 2018 Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards; A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle; and Tuk Tuk to the Road: Two Girls, Three Wheels, 12,500 Miles….

She has also written and presented a number of stories and programmes for BBC Radio 4, including From Our Own Correspondent, Pick of the Week, Costing the Earth, and Open Country.

Antonia received the Royal Geographical Society’s 2019 Neville Shulman Challenge Award.

Talking About Books interviewed Antonia about her trips and what she enjoys about travelling alone.

TAB: You have written about your travels to Northeast India, Vietnam, and your trip from Bangkok to Brighton in a tuk tuk. How do you choose your journeys?

ABK: I’m always on the look-out for ideas and inspiration, and keep a constantly growing and evolving list of ideas for books, articles, radio programmes and expeditions. I find that ideas are like dough; some rise, while others don’t develop at all. I know when an idea has “risen” as I find myself waking in the middle of the night thinking about it. The next thing I know, I’ve fired off those first few emails that set a project in motion.

TAB: In your solo trips to India and Vietnam, you travelled by motorcycle. Why did you decide on this mode of transport?

ABK: I like to travel in very remote areas where there’s little or no public transport, so I need to have my own means of getting around. In Northeast India and on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I chose small, locally-made motorbikes as they were cheap, easy to fix and fun to ride. As I was on my own, I also wanted a bike that I could pick up by myself if I came off.

TAB: What is the hardest thing to deal with as a woman travelling alone?

ABK: I don’t feel it’s any harder to travel alone as a woman—travelling alone can be hard irrespective of gender. However, the things that make travelling solo tough—like not having anyone to help you when things go wrong—are also what makes it so enriching. Travelling alone teaches you to be more resilient, to figure things out for yourself. It’s why I love it so much.

TAB: You have mentioned your debilitating panic attacks, especially before setting off for Northeast India. How did you find the courage to go on this journey in spite of these attacks?

ABK: Despite having suffered from panic attacks, I’ve always lived a life led more by curiosity than fear. I want to explore, to tell stories, to find out about other people’s lives and loves and losses, and I’m not going to let the fear stop me doing that. Plus, as we all know, the fear of something is nearly always so much worse than the thing itself. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that “fear is a desiccated boneyard where our dreams go to die in the hot sun” and she is so right. If we let fear stop us, we are boxing ourselves into an ever-diminishing existence. We have to learn to accept and override our fears and, in doing so, make our lives bigger and brighter.

TAB: How do you deal with travelling through regions where you do not speak the local languages?

ABK: It’s amazing how much you can communicate with people through sign and body language! Google Translate has also been pretty useful, although in the early days it was prone to making terrible gaffes. I remember a waiter in a café in remote Laos saying to me once, via Google translate, “Do you want my balls for breakfast?” I’m sure he was offering me something far more benign than sexual favours, but I never did find out what.

TAB: What is it you enjoy most about travelling? And what are the moments that stand out for you?

ABK: As an inveterately nosy person it’s all about the stories: I love nothing more than sitting around a fire in a hut high in the eastern Himalayas, with a bunch of strangers from a completely different culture, hearing about their lives. I also adore the feeling of being completely alone in some distant mountains, miles from anyone or anything familiar. Freya Stark summed up this feeling perfectly when she said, “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure.”

TAB: You have recently been to Tajikistan. Are you planning to write about this trip?

ABK: I’ve recorded a BBC Radio documentary about it, and written various articles for publications like The Guardian, but at the moment I have no plans to write a book about it. The radio documentary was about snow leopard conservation in the High Pamirs, and is available here on BBC Sounds.

TAB: How did you start writing?

ABK: I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. I used to make up stories when I was very young and always had my nose in a book as a child, so I’ve always had that love of words. When I was at school I wanted to become a journalist, then somehow got side-lined into making television programmes in my twenties. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I really started writing, and it’s snowballed from there. Words are how I make sense of the world, and when I’m not writing, I’m reading, or thinking about stories and ideas. During the pandemic, writing my diary (something I’ve done since I was ten) was one of the lynchpins of my sanity. As well as being a valve for my frustrations, writing was my escape from all the grief and loss of Covid; a way of noticing, a way of nailing myself to the present moment. Writing is my lifeblood and I can’t imagine a life without it.

TAB: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I love your books and your sense of adventure. I am forward looking to your next book.

Read my reviews of Land of the Dawn-lit Mountain: A Journey Across India’s Forgotten Frontier, and A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle for Women on the Road.

Visit Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent’s website. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @AntsBK.

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