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December 14, 2011

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Sharpening travel skills in China

ON December 25, 2013, Jeff Martinez will embark on a trip around the world from Mexico City to Kiev. A 10,606-kilometer journey - if you take the most direct route which Martinez will certainly not - that has long been his dream.

Until then, he'll be enjoying a pit stop in Shanghai while honing his skills as a traveler, videographer and storyteller.


On December 25, 2010, Martinez was in a bar in Shanghai celebrating Christmas with newfound friends and sharing an unexpected first kiss with his now-girlfriend. He'd been in the city for less than a month then, but he was realizing why he'd always wanted to be here.

"I wanted to stay in Shanghai for a long time," he says sitting cross-legged awaiting a cup of coffee on the top floor of a café in Tian Zi Fang. "I had some kind of romantic idea of 1920s and 1930s Shanghai, this wild place where people from all countries are coming."

But when he decided to take a year off from working for a film company in Canada, the financial advantage of teaching English in South Korea was too profitable to pass up.

Three years later, that one-year break had become something else entirely. Still teaching English on weekdays, Martinez started taking his video camera out on the weekends and exploring nearby cities and villages. "It was a good way to kind of force myself out," he says.

He'd spend hours editing the footage and then posted the finished product on his website ( The travel videos gained him celebrity around town, people would recognize him on the street and promoters would send him flyers previewing the latest attractions.

Martinez says that while he enjoyed his time there, he didn't want to be trapped in South Korea. "I'd been there for three years and either I stay there for life or I got to get out," he laughs. With a dream of traveling around the world, but without the funds to do so, he chose Shanghai as his next base for exploration.

Since arriving in Shanghai, he's continued to shoot and produce travel videos; however, there was a period of adjustment.

"In South Korea I used to just get on my motorcycle and go, because every town, no matter how small, had a tourist map in English," he says. "And then I got to China and I was like 'Alright, where do you get the tourist map?' Apparently it doesn't work like that."

Still, Martinez has been able to find his way to some neat places (with the help of his Chinese girlfriend). His videos cover topics like the history of Jade Buddha Temple, the odd attractions at Shanghai's Oriental Land and the sterling reputation of combs made in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province.

He says his favorite trip was to Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang Province, because of the peaceful walk around the West Lake that was such a departure from the chaos of Shanghai.

"There's a certain allure to being in a city with big buildings, but you just go to get out," he says. "See some nature. See some green space. Some space without hundreds of people crushing you."

Difficult trips

Martinez has had some difficult trips as well. In November he visited coastal Qingdao in Shandong Province and things started to go wrong from the moment he hit the ground. The meter on the taxi that took him to his hotel ran too fast, the restaurant he ate at for dinner overcharged him and in a momentary lapse of judgment he slipped his wallet into his back pocket - 10 minutes later it was gone.

But these bumps in the road are one of the reasons that Martinez decided to escape the safety of South Korea.

"I realized that Korea was like living in a bubble and I developed some really bad travel habits," he explains. "People are going to try to take advantage of you. You may have to be smart. By being in China it's a better preparation. I know to watch out."

For prospective travelers looking for tips in finding their way around China, Martinez has one big piece of advice: "Be super-patient and plan ahead."

"It's the one that I hate the most because it's the complete opposite of how I travel," he admits. "I like to say, I got a couple of days off, hit the road, come back with a story. Can't do it."

Professionally, Martinez is taking his own advice and planning ahead. He's retiring his weekly travel video format for something more focused and scripted.

On December 25, 2011, he'll relaunch his website by featuring mini-documentaries of 10 minutes. The documentaries will be about people, food and culture.

Martinez says he's curious about the people he sees every day - from the motorcycle taxi drivers to the bicycle repairman whose bell wakes up him if he sleeps in.

"I'm intrigued. I just want to find out this guy's story." He wonders, "What does this guy live like?"

Martinez says he will be careful about how he presents his subjects. He doesn't want to portray them as exotic or strange but wants to make a human connection.

The switch to focused short films will also help him prepare to make a documentary about his planned world trip.

World traveler

Martinez's reason for wanting to travel the world goes back generations. Traveling is in his blood.

"I've traveled a lot during my life," he explains. "I started traveling before I was born. My family's been traveling. I want to share some of those stories and also see some things I haven't seen."

He chose Mexico City and Kiev as the starting and ending points because he is part Mexican and part Ukrainian. His grandfather was 14 when he came to Canada with his brother. They escaped from the horrors of World War II, though they lost their parents in a concentration camp.

Martinez says his grandfather used to tell him stories about the war. "In the middle of the war, everything is crazy and they don't know where their parents are, but they're sneaking past these checkpoints and they found this river, so clear you could see the bottom with big fish swimming, and you just sit there on the bank and relax," he recalls.

"When I heard that, I thought 'I've got to go to this.' It sounds like the most wonderful place in the world. I've got to find this river."

More memories pop into Martinez's mind and he remembers that the last time he saw his grandfather was Christmas Day. "Well, I can't put it off, then. I've got to start it that day," he realizes.

Jeff Martinez

Nationality: Canadian
Age: 37
Profession: English teacher

Self-description: Funny, passionate, adventurous.

Favorite place:
1933 Old Mill.

Motto for life: Have fun!

Strangest sight:
I saw a Chinese lady at the mall rockin' an incredible mullet and wicked trailer park outfit. It made me wonder how she learned about the style and why she might have thought it was a good look.

Worst experience: Living near the cheap market (Line 10 Tiantong Rd)

How to improve Shanghai:
Get rid of the people trying to take you to the fake shops on Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall. I like walking around there but being stopped every five minutes for DVD, watch, bag really sucks.

Advice to newcomers:
Get out and explore the city!


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