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November 29, 2011

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On the road

HAVE backpack, will travel. Chinese young people increasingly are hitting the road for adventure and self-exploration. Very personal amateur travel books are big sellers. Yao Minji reports.

Zhang Jinpeng from Tianjin is planning a trip to South America while rushing to complete his second book, likely to come out in April.

Zhang is a professional backpacker rather than a writer, and his second book is about his adventures on the road, like his first book ("Ten Years As A Backpacker" (2010). The title for the second is undecided.

In his first work, Zhang tell 100 stories he collected on the road and traces his own 10-year journey from an ordinary university graduate to a professional traveler. Today tourism bureaus invite him to write about their destinations for Chinese readers. His books are in Chinese.

Published last October, the book sold more than 300,000 copies, according to his publisher, Citic Press. In a market where 50,000 is a success and 100,000 is a best-seller, these sales would have been impossible for a travel book just two years ago.

Now the book is the top-seller of its kind so far, but not the only success. Many personal-experience travel books have been published since 2010, and many have made good profits, encouraging publishers to produce more.

In the past, Chinese travel books were of two main types - practical "tool box" books providing tips on how to get someplace and where to stay and in-depth "cultural" travel books written by well-established writers.

Travel trend

For many years it was not easy for ordinary people to travel abroad, due to high costs, lack of knowledge about Chinese passports and complicated visa requirements. It was not until the late 1990s that most big-city people had passports. Many people in the countryside still don't hold passports.

"Chinese travel books were never so popular in the past," Li Jingyuan, chief editor at Citic Press, tells Shanghai Daily.

There might be an occasional, rare best-seller.

"But you can see the trend since last year, and particularly this year," he says.

Li is the planner and editor of Zhang's best-seller. She also handpicked two other successful travel books -- Sun Dongchun's "The Belated Gap Year" published in 2009 about how he quit job to and worked for NGOs in East Asia and Liu Chang's "Hitchhiking to Berlin" that was published in June.

Travel increasingly appeals to young Chinese, many of them influenced by Western music, movies, dramas and novels. They have become more individualistic, open-minded and questing than their elders.

Many young people are also asking what's important in life and questioning the traditional answers: stay home, make money, start a family, carry on the pattern.

Quite a few young people consider journeys of exploration. American writer Jack Kerouac's semi-autobiographical work "On the Road" (1957) has a big following in China. Some of them have hit the road, hoping for clues to a meaningful life.

In 2006, after working for two years Sun Dongchun decided to take a year off (known as a "gap year"). Foreign friends told him it's common to take a year off after college.

After he traveled abroad for the first time on business, the 22-year-old described his English ability as "middle-school level." Sun planned a three-month trip, starting in Thailand and traveling through India "to get a break from the highly repetitive job and responsibilities."

It turned into a 13-month trip through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, and on to Italy where he stayed in Naples. During that time he volunteered for NGOs, helping AIDS-affected people in India and caring for abandoned children in Pakistan.

"I wanted to put that year to good use; the urge was so powerful that I didn't hesitate to quit my job or worry about my small savings," Sun says in an e-mail interview. He is currently in Japan.

Sun's book, "The Belated Gap Year" (2009), was one of the earliest personal-travel books and it was mildly successful.

"It's a pity that the trend was just starting at that time, I can imagine even greater success if the book were published today," Citic Press Chief Editor Li says.

Sun's story resembles that of Liu Wen, and many others whose first-person travel books have sold well. Most of them had never stepped outside of China before age 20; their English-language skills were limited and it was hard to collect specific information when they first traveled abroad in the early 2000s.

While their writing isn't very polished, what attracts readers are their experiences.

"It is the story of growing from just an ordinary young person to becoming a mature traveler with many stories that attracts readers who feel the same sense of uncertainty or feeling lost," says editor Li.

To preserve the authentic, spontaneous voice, prose is generally unchanged.

This minimal editing is particularly evident in Liu's book on traveling in East Asia and Africa, "Bike, On the Way," (June 2011) although not published by Li's company.

It has been very successful among outdoors lovers, and Liu has been on a national book tour, invited mostly by outdoors and biking clubs.

Liu writes in very simple prose that those used to well-polished books might not like at first. The style matches his experience. In 2003, he closed his musical instrument store and left China for the first time, riding his bike and using small savings.

Over nine months, he rode more than 7,000 kilometers through 11 countries in East Asia and Africa.

He had awe-inspiring experiences: He worked odd jobs, lost his way, got into fights and was robbed, was solicited by prostitutes and also fell in love.

"I wanted to break away from the past and find answers to my troubles. But once I started, the troubles became insignificant. It became meaningless to think about the answer." It was about the journey, not the destination.

Solo travel has been rare in China, but Liu sees a trend toward individual travel, offering possibilities of freedom unavailable to a group.

"In the 1990s, everyone talked about music; you met someone who might be a guitarist or drummer. Now it's backpackers," says Liu. "They talk about cameras, visas, crossing borders and all that."

A common saying sums up youthful travel attitudes: The cost of an iPhone can take you to Yunnan Province; the cost of one square meter in the city can take you to Europe; a kitchen can finance a trip around the world.

Among the five travel books Shanghai Daily recommends, four are written by men. Some people think women shouldn't travel alone for safety reasons.

But traveling alone is not, or does not have to be, a problem, according to Wu Sumei, the only woman and professional writer among the five. Wu's book "Wandering Like the Hippies" (May 2011) describes traveling through East Asia and the Middle East; it was published by the People's Literature Publishing House.

"A lot of Chinese women travel by themselves, even more than Chinese men," says Wu. "Many are so called shengnu or 'left-over women,' in their late 20s or early 30s. They are skilled backpackers and very independent."


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