Brian Linden: On the Essence of Travel
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
Thirty-four years ago this December, I left my Beijing university dorm and hopped a train headed for Xinjiang. My travel permit, which served as a domestic passport, had a stamp for Xian and nothing else. The Public Security Bureau refused to give me stamps for any of the areas west of Shanxi Province, so my travel there was like entering a country without a visa.
There was no tourism at that time, and the only travelers were visiting family or on business. There were few trains, so every hard seat was taken, usually many times over (including the luggage racks which were used like sleeping berths). During the long 75 hours ride to Urumqi, I did not have a seat until the 48th hour, spending the first day standing in the train’s vestibule (jumping off at frequent stops to relieve myself with most of the train because the toilets were stacked with people), and the second day sitting on the floor of the hard seat car. I arrived in Urumqi exhausted and was immediately whisked off to a government facility by the Public Security Bureau (the first of 13 times in the mid-eighties). They told me to head back east; I hitchhiked west.
Travel in China at that time was exciting, although far from physically comfortable. There were incessant challenges: sneaking into unopened cities, finding a hotel that would take a foreigner, and waiting hours in line for train tickets to the next city. However, I was, and continue to be, inspired by cultural differences and intellectual and physical challenges. Travel provides us with one of the best opportunities for self-understanding; by exposing ourselves to the unknown, by taking so-called risks, life transcends the conventional, the routine. Moving beyond one’s comfort zone is, in my opinion, the greatest joy of travel.
Exploration of China’s hinterland was the purview of the rare independent traveler. During that five-week trip to Xinjiang, I did not meet anyone who was traveling for travel’s sake. I spent four days on trucks sneaking across the Taklamakan Desert to the fabled Silk Road city of Kashgar and tried to make it over the border into Afghanistan, only to be told again to head east. Since there was no place farther west in China to go, I had no option but to start hitchhiking back to the train line. Six days of freezing bus and truck rides later, I made it back to the train line and another seatless three-day train ride to central China. (I still love train travel, by the way, and have spent over 150 nights on trains in China).
Travel in China has now become sanitized and luxury-driven. Fly hundreds of miles to the west and ride camels or pose with yaks alongside thousands of other tourists in staged representations of the past. Walk so-called ancient cities filled with bars and ’boutiques’ selling mass-produced souvenirs from China’s ubiquitous coastal factories. Many travelers are turned off by these superficial and soulless destinations. However, because the nascent domestic Chinese travel market is so large and predominantly driven by comfort and familiarity, the future of Chinese travel will be filled with more of these commercial re-creations.
The world has never seen a tourism market go from non-existent to a billion trips in twenty years. Such a change would overload any system, let alone one that had already experienced decades of physical damage to its tangible and intangible cultural traditions. I am happy that the Chinese are now able to explore this great country, and can do so in comfort far removed from the seatless train travel of thirty years ago. But I encourage all travelers- Western and Chinese alike- to be more socially conscious when selecting destinations. We in China’s travel field are creating development paradigms upon frail infrastructures. The Linden Centre has always believed that it was our mission to work within these constraints. We train local staff, many of whom had not spoken with a foreigner before arriving at our Centre, volunteer at schools, source foods from the village, assist the Dali government with travel planning and have established community service projects for visiting students, guests and volunteers. Perhaps most importantly, we have instilled confidence in the local communities by preserving their heritage rather than importing outside structures and staff. The village has embraced us because we embraced them- we have immersed ourselves into their genius loci, and they have, in turn, provided our guests with some of their most authentic and memorable experiences in China. These experiences are the essence of travel!
This post was written by Brian Linden.