For me, travel has always been about the people more than the places. During my summer break, I travelled around China for five weeks. I saw everything from snow-capped mountains, glittering waterfalls and open oceans, to cultural wonders, dusty towns and soaring skyscrapers. But looking back, the parts I remember most are the moments I shared with people along the way.
The first part of my trip was travelling as a group with Ethan, Josh, Lucy, Alex, and Ben (the latter four also ANU students studying in China). Together we saw the unbelievably blue waters of Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan Province, ventured into Tibet for eight days to wonder at Lhasa’s Potala Palace and the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, and went north to Qinghai for a swim in China’s largest lake. The six of us shared too many unforgettable moments to mention here, but underwriting them all was the solidarity of the shared exchange-student experience, and the mutual recognition that we could all navigate this country much better now than we could six months ago.
After farewelling the others in Gansu Province, I began the next leg of my journey on my own. It made me realise that there are some things that are much better done as a group (such as making a fool of oneself on the dancefloor of a Tibetan nightclub), and there are others much better experienced alone. While most Chinese people will be curious about a group of foreigners, they become especially friendly to foreigners travelling alone – even more so to those who can speak some Chinese.
At the Lanzhou train station I struck up a conversation with a Hui migrant worker (the Hui people are one of China’s 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities). He told me about his daughter, and wanted to know the distinguishing features of Australian culture; I asked him if he like his job, to which he replied “Shì wèile shēnghuó, méi bànfǎ” (I work to live, there is nothing to be done about it).
In the ancient walled city of Pingyao, I stayed at a hostel run by what must be the town’s friendliest store keeper and his daughter Yangrui. During the day Yangrui ferried me around town on the back of her scooter as we chatted about Chinese history, and at night she taught me some much-needed strategy for playing Chinese chess.
In Tianjin I hung out with Pengpeng, a political economy student from Guangzhou. Our exploits together included wandering the Italian Concession and catching some live music, agreeing that she had the personality of a cat rather than a dog, and stealing a skyline selfie from the top of one of Tianjin’s skyscrapers.
On one nine-hour train ride with only a standing ticket, my trip was made much shorter thanks to the friendliness of Wenjing, a cosmetics saleswoman, and Huangdou, a Christian police officer from far northern China. My ferry ride from Dalian to Qingdao was similarly made much more memorable when two middle-aged Chinese men invited me to sit and drink beer with them. I soon found out they were the ship’s captain and chief engineer (fortunately not on duty for that journey!). They were very fond of telling me that even if we never met again, the important thing was that for that moment we were friends and the beer was plentiful. In true Chinese style I opted for the selfie approach to capture the aftermath of that particular drinking session.
But perhaps my most unforgettable experience was in the little Gansu Province town of Tianzhu, where I was adopted into the friendship group of four university students who had returned to their hometown for the summer. From the moment I made eye contact with one of them through the window of a coffee shop, I was never without company for the length of my stay in Tianzhu. I spent four unforgettable days with them and their slightly older music teacher, playing pool, strumming guitars, learning Chinese drinking games, being invited for homestays, and even enjoying an incredible graduation feast. The fact that I barely spoke a word of English during my time there made it all the more rewarding, and made the connections I made with my Tianzhu friends especially memorable.
Most of the content of our travel these days can be found somewhere within the pages of a Lonely Planet or a Trip Advisor review. From the places we visit, the transport we use to get there, the hostels we stay in or the scenic spots we photograph, most paths are already well worn, and we construct our trips from the prior experiences of others. But there is one aspect no travel guide can lay claim to, and that is the people we meet along the way, and who make our travel adventures truly our own.