As the first woman to cross the world’s largest sand desert, aka the Empty Quarter or Rub’ al Khali, it’s no surprise that Hajar Ali continues to seek thrilling experiences in the world’s farthest-flung corners. She talks to The Loop about going off the beaten track.
You were the first woman to cross the Empty Quarter, what was that like?
When I crossed the Empty Quarter [back in March 2012], it was a statement on the ability of a female to mount her own expedition. But this feels like a lifetime ago now! It was an amazing experience to be part of history, but ultimately I am looking forward to doing other things that I can be remembered for.
What can’t you travel without?
My phone, credit cards, and passport. I’ve realized that you can pretty much buy any other “necessity” once you’ve arrived at your destination.
What do you look for in a destination?
Remoteness. The greater the schlep, the more interesting it is for me! A luxurious outpost also really helps. There’s an increasing number of like-minded hoteliers setting up the most luxurious hotels in the middle of nowhere.
What have been some of your favorite experiences?
I’ve had so many! Galloping through the Transylvanian forest was amazing. We went up some really steep slopes — the sort I’d have said no to if the guide had given me time to think. I was able to try horseback archery in Turkey last year, which was fun. I also loved interacting with meerkats in Botswana, and sleeping in star beds in Kenya, with nothing but a mosquito net between me and the sky.
Have any all-time favorite places?
In terms of cities, Istanbul is my absolute favorite, but I like Beirut and Buenos Aires, too. For specific places, I love Argentinian Patagonia, the Burmese Himalayas, and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFP). Myanmar is amazing, but Bangkok is always great for interesting new hotels, cafes, and shops. Mongolia is another place I’d return to. I’ve always wanted to play polo there!
Given all the off-the-beaten-path places you’ve been to, have you had any scary moments?
While living in Istanbul last year, my apartment in Cihangir was burgled while I was sleeping. The sense of violation aside, the resulting problems were frustrating. Lodging a police report at a station where no one spoke English, having to cancel a conference after everything — passport, credit cards, money, laptop — was stolen, and not being able to receive money at the local Western Union because I didn’t have my passport, were truly nightmare situations.
Where’s homebase, and why do you love it?
Last year, I experimented with a more mobile lifestyle, living and working in the UK and Turkey for several months. It was great, but ‘home’ is Singapore. It’s so efficient and compact, and everything’s within easy reach.
Is it exhausting, being on the road all the time?
It is! Sometimes more emotionally than physically. I’ve reached a place where I get tired of having to move so often and just want to be in one city for some time. I don’t travel as much now as I used to. When I first started Urbane Nomads [a bespoke travel site], I would often have just enough time to do laundry before packing for my next trip!
It was exciting, but it definitely affected my social life. Most of your relationships are inevitably transient. You have to decide what’s important for you. While I’ve been extremely lucky in the experiences I’ve had and places I’ve been, I don’t see it as a sustainable lifestyle.