As I drummed my fingers on my laptop in search of our next travel destination, my boyfriend gazed over coyly and said “Look… I know that you’re not that interested in China, but don’t you think we should at least go to Beijing?”
“Nope” I dismissed, preferring to scroll through images of palm trees swaying delicately against a watercolour sunset. I envisioned myself unfurling into a Lotus position on a faraway Balinese beach. Coconuts, white sand, bliss…
“But what about The Great Wall?” he protested. “It’s one of the Wonders of the World, for God’s sake. I hate the idea of going back home after living in Hong Kong for a year without ever having been to China”.
He had a point, however, I had always been straight up that Beijing had never really appealed to me. With its reputation for being a smoggier version of Hong Kong where people find themselves perpetually wading through crowds and picking out black ear wax, Beijing ranked lowly on my list.
But I did have an itch to visit The Great Wall. It was one of those things that we all grow up seeing on National Geographic and in history books. It was a place that no-one in my family had ever been to and would provide a good story to tell in the future. With all of these things considered, and anticipating the inevitable lack of vegan options, I relented and began researching things to do in Beijing.
I read an article once where the writer tore apart millennials for what he coined as enabling “#wanderlustpropaganda”. To him, the desire to travel is merely an excuse for YOLO-ing our way through life without actually doing anything of real meaning. Nobody achieves anything by travelling, he surmises; we should all get on that employment ladder and start doing some real-life stuff. Y’know, like becoming the next John. D. Rockefellers and Einsteins or something.
This article riled me because it spoke to a lot of the anxieties that I find myself battling with. Millennials have been getting a lot of criticism lately for their decisions to travel over becoming the reverberating money machines that they’re supposed to be. We’re constantly pressured to live life in the fast-lane and to make our time count. But where’s the crime in slowing things down? For me, travel has always been about so much more than than living for an Instagram hashtag or just delaying the monotony of “real life”. The thirst to tick off more countries from my list goes far beyond these simplifications of solipsistic escapism.
But gazing up at The Temple of Heaven as my cotton vest stuck dankly to my sunburnt back, I wondered if maybe these writers had a point. I found myself at a familiar paradox of being faced with something beautiful and for some reason feeling very little. Collapsing beneath a large tree in soft, green grass was the best part of my inexhaustibly sticky and forgettable first day in Beijing.
When we reached the top of The Great Wall of China and surveyed the seemingly infinite trail carving its way through the bucolic landscape – it felt worth it, briefly. I started scripting the tale that I would tell my Grandmother who has never, and will never, venture to China. To wander along this 2,000 year old structure that holds such historic significance was a humbling experience that made my head spin with gratitude. I recalled watching this on T.V as a child when I would never have expected to venture so far from home. Visiting something of such grandeur and reverence leaves a lasting impression on you that is difficult to verbalise. But once the surrealism of The Great Wall had worn off, I was back to a feeling of disaffection towards Beijing.
Beijing wasn’t a city that I fervently despised by any means. The pollution wasn’t as bad as we expected and the crowds weren’t any worse than the ones in Hong Kong. Sure, the constant security searches were a major encumbrance and all the barricading that sent you back into the perilous worm-hole of exiting major tourist attractions drove me insane. But what really got to me about Beijing was the pointlessness of my time there. I realised the futility of going through the motions of ticking things off just because TripAdvisor had told us to.
I felt pressured to do these “touristy things” in order to make my time there worthwhile. My research of Beijing had painted an image of this fascinating city that would fire your imagination with its tales of Dynasties and Emperors living in glittering temples. For whatever reason, I just didn’t find it. Why were we really doing this? What was the point?
Sometimes when travelling we may come to the uncomfortable realisation that we’ve been travelling just for the sake of it. We’ve been doing something just because somebody else told us to or because we read about it on Lonely Planet. Travel shouldn’t be about the fruitless pursuit of ticking everything off of a “Top Ten Things To Do In X” list. It should be for you and your experiences rather than a story to recount at a hostel bar afterwards. We’re all capable of regurgitating run-of-the-mill travel stories, but opening ourselves up to more worthwhile experiences involves looking far beyond the typical tourist hot-spots.
What I realised is that the best things about travelling are those moments in between; those magical and unique experiences that are yours and yours only. They’re personal, provocative, and make you a little uncomfortable. Maybe they’re shared between you and somebody else or maybe they’re the subtle changes that take place on a nonverbal level when you go to a new place. Travel has this way of altering our perspectives and allowing us to see clearly; to find a root in the rootlessness of wandering and to ultimately come home to ourselves.
I constantly find myself succumbing to the social pressure of making every minute of my life count; whether that’s through a crafted travel itinerary or by filling every waking moment with something goal-orientated. This pressurised way of thinking insidiously makes its way into how we travel. It’s stems from a deep-rooted sense of needing to constantly be doing something that validates our existence. By living like this, we’re not allowing the real magic of just being to happen and thereby leaching the enjoyment from the experience. We’re constantly fed this myth that time is running out; that we’re going to lose our place on the graduate ladder and our value along with it. But time isn’t really going anywhere. Travel should be about the journey and not necessarily the end destination.
Have you ever had an experience like this? What has been one of your best travel moments?