Your last name is O’Hara, but you grew up in Norway, correct?
I was born to a Norwegian mother and British father in Norway. My name creates a lot of confusion when I’m traveling – when I went to the US three years ago, the border guards brought over a Norwegian-speaking border guard to check if my Norwegian passport was actually me.
We know you love to travel. Have you always?
As a child I traveled a lot with my family, mostly to the UK to see relatives, but also to other countries in Europe and the US. I used to take travel for granted. I considered it “mandatory” and never questioned whether I liked it or not. When I finished high school, my friends and I went to very touristy places. Although the friends part was fun, the places themselves put me off traveling for a while. That changed in 2007 when four friends and I went from New York to Los Angeles by car. There is nothing like the feeling of getting up in the morning and not knowing where you’ll end up the next day.
You were recently traveling in Kyrgzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. What struck you most about your travels there?
Central Asia is a world apart. It remains concealed and mysterious. Most people I know in Norway are still unable to point these countries out on a map, let alone differentiate them from each other. There are hardly any tourists. I encountered about four of them during three weeks in Uzbekistan and none in Turkmenistn, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is, however, frequently visited by travelers fond of trekking and extreme sports, but they shun the cities.
Central Asia is a former part of the Soviet Union, and though communism is history, it seems little has changed. In Kyrgyzstan, enormous statues of Lenin still stand in the major cities. But Central Asia is not merely a Soviet antique. Traces of Djengis Khan’s legacy are easily found, and one of the high ranking clans in Kazakhstan claim to be direct descendants, and expect to be treated as such. Central Asians are proud of their historical heritage, and in particular, of their tolerance of and hospitality towards foreigners. As a traveler here, you can’t help but notice hospitable nature of the people. I found it to be the most enjoyable part of my travels in this region.
We want to know more about the people.
In addition to being genuinely friendly, Central Asians have a great sense of humor and wit about them. They certainly have nothing in common with Sascha Baron Cohens’s Borat. If you get lost in the streets and wear a confused look on your face, you won’t be able to count to three before someone offers a helping hand. Had it not been for all the people who helped me several times a day, I would porbably have given up and gone home after three days. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy common in the region can be a source of trouble for travelers. Police and officials can sometimes be vicious.
Having said all this, the people of the countries of Central Asia are obviously very diverse. There are quite a lot of cultural differences. Russian is the common language, but many languages are spoken. Most of them are Muslim, but very liberal. Hijabs are rare and vodka is a common drink shared among the locals. It is probably one of the safest areas in the world for women solo travelers. The crime rate is low and harassment is uncommon.
A big part of traveling for most of us is food. What was either your favorite or most interesting dish you encountered on your travels in this region?
Central Asians were nomads. Until the Soviet era, the people of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were nomads. Nomadic traditions involve a lot of meat. The food varies, as in most places. I can’t say much about fine dining, but I do know a lot about the street vendors’ cuisine. Usually they offer samsa (samosa), shashlyk (local kebab with grilled meat – lamb, chicken, horse or beef – on a stick), or plov (plof or pilaf) which is meat, carrots, onions, and rice cooked together for many hours.
Where are you off to next?
I arrived in Thailand today – a temperature shock to say the least. In the capital of Kazakhstan where I traveled form yesterday, temperatures can drop down to -40 C. Luckily it wasn’t that cold, but the wind is nearly unbearable. Having sent most of my clothes (all made of wool) home, I’ve spent the day shopping for t-shirts in Bangkok today. After Thailand I’ll probably head to Malaysia.
Thank you Sian for enlightening us on some countries that are perhaps a little less traveled. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and contributing to the Tripping Community! Please keep us posted on your adventures! Happy travels!