Why do I travel? I think about that often.
After two years in Hong Kong, I came to the conclusion that I was going to travel in mainland China … alone. I’m not sure why really. I hadn’t been back to Canada for nearly a year, part of me wanted to return home.
However, another part of me felt the traveling was necessary, that there was something more to be captured before I left East Asia, that there was something left that I needed to do. So I set out on my journey with a small backpack and a basic understanding of the Chinese language.
I travelled on trains to begin with. I’d be lying if I said they weren’t overcrowded or uncomfortable, but there’s something special about traveling by train (not to mention they’re the cheapest way to travel in China).
Watching the Chinese landscape slowly scroll I was overcome by the immensity of the land I was travelling over. It’s a feeling that you simply don’t get in a plane.
I finally arrived in Xinjiang province: one of the least developed provinces in China. This region was originally inhabited by a Central Asian people called the Uyghurs. However, I could see this was a place in transition. With oil discovered in the region, the energy hungry Chinese government has been quick to “develop” the region, and encourage millions of Han Chinese to move into the area.
Despite this, it was still an area rich in character and history. I continued north, venturing into more and more remote areas. Eventually I reached a point where the borders of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, and China begin to converge.
It was here that I began to travel to villages that could only be reached by horse or by foot. These villages were inhabited by Khazaks, incredible horseman who herded everything from camels to cattle in the taiga forests.
It was here that I was truly alone; no one spoke English, many people didn’t even speak Chinese. I became very introspective at this point, and I spent much of my time writing down my thoughts in a beaten up notepad.
My travelling was no longer about meeting new people and seeing cool things. Rather, it was now about looking, about understanding. I was now in a situation vastly different to what I was used to and I suppose in essence, this was what I was looking for in my travels.
By economic indicators, these villagers were “undeveloped”. They had no running water, limited material goods, and most of their food came from the animals that they herded.
Yet these people did not seem any less happy than those in Hong Kong; a city in the same country yet worlds away. Nor did they seem any less happy than those of us here in Clearwater.
It’s amazing what you can learn from people you can barely communicate with. One morning after emerging from the yurt where I had spent the night, my eyes caught the last vestige of the sunrise . I looked at the alpine landscape that surrounded me, at the goats being herded in the distance, at the lake that was nestled nearby.
I looked for a long time, unsure of what I was feeling. It was then that I realized it was time. I was ready to go home. I went back in the yurt, grabbed my backpack and began what would be a long trek home.
Countless days would be spent hiking, riding in buses, taking trains, flying over the Pacific Ocean, and finally driving back to Clearwater. Yet each step I took from that point on brought me closer to home.
Now I’m back. I get up in the morning, go to work, see friends, visit with my family. Whenever I return home, it’s almost as if nothing has changed. Yet it has, I’ve changed. I did things in China I didn’t know that I was capable of.
So in the end, I’m brought back to that same question. Why do I travel? I suppose I still can’t answer that question for sure. So many of the things to gain from travelling are not readily apparent, or even describable. I don’t know how I knew it was time to return home that day, or whether I gained everything I had hoped for from my travels. But I do know that I have a better understanding of a people and their way of life. That I have a new perspective on life, with material wealth suddenly seeming far less important to me.
Perhaps most importantly however, I now feel ready for the next step in my life. On Aug. 25 I depart for the Middle East to begin my university education. I really must at this point thank the Clearwater Times for its generous bursary to aid me with my studies, and to the numerous others who have supported my education in other ways.
More travels await, perhaps in the future I will have a better idea of why I’m travelling. Then again perhaps not. I suppose some things in life do not have to be explained.