My dream trip is to go around the world. No schedule. No itinerary other than a general direction: east, west, north or south. I’ll go pretty much anywhere as long as it’s a place I’ve never been before.
To me, travel is all about the unknown, whether that’s a culture or a people or a habitat. It’s okay when that lands me someplace uncomfortable or disturbing. I want travel to stretch my legs and my mind at the same time. It’s a way to dream while wide awake.
Someone recently asked me whether you need a vivid imagination in order to write. I suppose it helps. But what you really need as a writer is empathy. The ability to imagine how a character thinks, feels, acts. Travel is a way for me to live many another lives. In that sense, it’s essential for my writing.
There’s so much of the world I have yet to see. Though the gaps in my travel history are surprisingly hard to quantify. Depending on where you went to school, you may have learned that there are 4, 5, 6 or 7 continents. However you want to slice that pie, I’ve visited less than half. Still to go are: South America, Oceania, Africa and Antarctica.
The bigger the continent, the more likely there are to be gaps inside my gaps. Depending on where you draw the line between Europe and Asia, there are up to 50 countries in Asia alone. I’ve been to only 4 of those: China, Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia.
There aren’t enough days in a human life to step foot in every single country of the world, let alone linger long enough to get a sense of place. If I can’t actually sail the seven seas, then maybe reading about them will do the trick. I scour my regular sources of information like the New York Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian for travel tips. I tear out articles and stow them away for that happy moment in the future when I get to visit, say, Patagonia or Cuba.
looking for something
Yet, no matter how far my eye might wander, China draws me back. To Shanghai, in the first place, for all the obvious reasons. But China is much more than the cluster of mega-cities along the eastern seaboard. Or, so I hear.
There are the open plains and karst mountains in the south of China. I’ve only seen them in The Painted Veil, a 2006 film adaptation of a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. The village where the bulk of the action takes place is in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, on the border with Vietnam.
My Chinese teacher tells me that, in Sichuan province alone, there are glacial forests, waterfalls, hot springs plus lots of giant pandas. China has national parks and breathtaking landscapes. And, of course, there is the food.
Every province of China has its own signature style of dumpling, noodle or hot sauce. The farther afield you go, the more exotic the ingredients get. For example, the Naxi people eat local delicacies like yak jerky, deep-fried dragonflies and a kind of breakfast taco Yunnan style.
As delightful as all this eye and mouth candy might be, history is what draws me to China. There are 52 UNESCO World Heritage sites in China, thanks in part to some serious lobbying by the Chinese government.
Pingyao (Shanxi province) is home to the first Chinese bank. But it has another unique selling point.
Asia has fewer than 10 intact ancient cities like Pingyao, according to the US-based Global Heritage Fund. [But] even those with a claim to architectural longevity – such as Lijiang in China’s far west Yunnan province – have been over-restored to the point where they are more theme park than cultural relic.
Some cultural relics fall to war or natural disaster, like Chongqing bombed by the Japanese when it was Chiang Kai-shek’s wartime capital. Property development takes care of the rest. You need luck these days to stumble upon a piece of an old city wall or a bomb shelter cum restaurant.
The Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou was once the premier military school in China, closely associated with Sun Yat-sen and his Nationalist Party. For decades, the Communists demonized the Nationalists, even playing down their role in the war against Japan. The museum that has risen in the place of the old academy is one of the rare official instances of Nationalists being portrayed in a positive light.
who am i to disagree?
Rather than traipsing back and forth trying to find traces of Chinese history, I could just as easily head for Hengdian World Studios. It’s the world’s biggest movie lot, where epics like Zhang Yimou’s Hero are filmed. But that’s not all.
Hengdian takes its name from the town it dominates, controlling its land and its economy. When the lot needs to be expanded, the company blows up mountains, flattens villages, tears down temples, and bulldozes cemeteries. […] Hengdian doesn’t just want to make films; it wants to use its sets to tell the Chinese people their history.
There’s the Forbidden City (with or without Chairman Mao’s portrait), a Zen temple, the Bund, battlefields and the Winter Palace. All of it polished and painted as if new.
Of course, this is the theme park version of Chinese history. But that doesn’t make it any less valuable as a cultural relic. This is history wrapped up in a dream. That fact alone is worth pondering.
Lyrics courtesy of the Eurythmics: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)