I was delighted to discover that the idea of walking in contiguous slabs, from one place in China to another, resonated with other people.
One, Swedish businessman Lars Ellstr?m, is walking in stages from Beijing to Kashgar and has already reached the border between Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi province. He has covered a lot of semi-desert along the way, with a lot more to go.
The other, American businessman Anthony Caskey, is walking in stages from the North Korean border town of Dandong toward Kunming.
At the dinner, we discussed why it is such a good idea to walk alone through China’s countryside, always starting at the place the last walk was suspended, and continuing on toward a distant destination through ordinary random places.
The alternative is to do what most people do – drive in a group to a specific location, like a temple, a town or a park, spend time on a well-worn path probably with many others, then get back into the car and return to base. There is nothing wrong with the latter approach, of course, but the three founding members of the China Walking Club focused on the benefits of the former approach – walking unaccompanied from nowhere in particular to an equally anonymous somewhere else.
I asked both of them to give me their thoughts and insights, and here they are:
Lars Ellström: "Man has conquered the world by walking. That process started some six million years ago when our earliest forefathers got up on their hind legs and started to walk. By that means they could move in a rational and efficient manner; the hands became hands and could be used for other purposes, to pick berries and fruits or to carry weapons for hunting or defense. We have continued to walk. With childish curiosity and adventurous confidence we have ventured into the unknown, looking for new paradises beyond the mountains.
"I have never before devoted myself to walking but when I do now it feels like coming home. In the morning, before each day’s walk, I feel I am looking ahead to thousands of opportunities. The world is waiting for me and beyond each bend I will encounter new views and insights. It must be in my genes.
"Walking is our natural manner of transport and I think this was present in my thoughts when I decided to walk toward Kashgar, albeit in a vague and inarticulate manner. Since I started to walk westward, it has begun to sink in. It has grown and become a driving force.
"When you walk you see the road, the trees, the bushes, the flowers, the fields, the birds, the animals, the groves and the mountains in the distance. Not least do you also see people, their houses, tools, rubbish and everything else that informs you of their reality. And you can stop wherever and whenever you like to watch, contemplate and converse.
"By comparison, other manners of transportation seem distorting, confusing and defective – they offer only a compressed perspective of the environment one is traveling through.
"Sitting on a train, riding a bicycle or driving a car, you don’t see everything and what you do see passes so quickly you have no time to digest your impressions. And it might be difficult to stop and inspect more closely. The information you collect is piecemeal and scattered, and perhaps greatly deceptive.
"If you fly, you actually do not get any information at all except the instructions transmitted through the intercom system of the plane. You are literally locked up inside a tinplate bubble high above reality. First you are in one place and then, suddenly, in another. It is unreal.
"Traveling across large expanses of water is different. We cannot swim the oceans, and so to row or sail is the next best option. These forms of transport provide us with similar chances to see and contemplate as walking on land.
"In order to get to know the road to Kashgar, walking is certainly the best means of transport."
Anthony Caskey: "If an expatriate doesn’t like China or Chinese people, then I would recommend he or she do two things: first, read Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer by Tom Doctoroff to get an idea of how Chinese think; second, start a walk across a stretch of China. After three or four days or segments of walking, I think most if not all of his or her animosity toward the country and its people would have evaporated.
"The reactions of some Chinese in Beijing to my walk have been a bit of a surprise. I think it’s obvious I like the country or else I wouldn’t have walked 400-500 miles of it and continue to walk more. However, after telling Chinese about this hobby, some of them still ask, ‘Do you like China?’
"I wouldn’t start this hobby to impress women. More than once I’ve had what I perceived to be a pretty good conversation with a rather attractive, single Chinese woman professional perhaps in her early 30s at some business networking event. The conversation goes well until I mention this hobby, and then she politely ends our discussion and quickly finds other company.
"Some farmers, maybe 5%, have ignored me, perhaps because they were a little afraid, embarrassed or most likely focused on their work, but most of them are very friendly, many extremely so.
"One afternoon as I was walking along a river dike south of Shenyang, a farmer drove up on his motorcycle and stopped. He had brought his two-year-old son with him. He put his child in my arms, pulled out a camera and took a picture of the two of us. He then quickly took his son back and drove off. I don’t remember having seen this man earlier in the day, so I think he had heard about me from some friend of his who had seen me earlier.
"Since I’ve started long-distance walking in China, I’ve lost interest in taking traditional vacations. When I go back to the last place I stopped walking in the Chinese countryside, I feel a sense of connection to the place, and this connection grows each time I walk. I’ve never felt this depth of connection to any place I’ve visited on vacation."
I admit, walking alone through the Chinese countryside is unlikely to become a mass-participation activity. But Lars, Tony and I all agree that it is hugely rewarding for us personally, and also has a value for the people we meet and talk to along the way.
It is a hobby that would work just as well for Chinese as for foreigners, but I think in the current phase of China’s history, it is particularly helpful for local people to meet a lone foreigner for a few minutes on the road, and to become more aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the humanity and instincts that are shared by us all.
So I hereby declare the China Walking Club open. Anyone can join, there are no membership fees and you can make up your own walking rules. Just choose two places on the map, travel to one of them and start walking down the road. I would suggest saying hello to pretty much everyone you meet. That plus a smile is a great way to begin a conversation. And remember to carry a bottle of water with you.