Traveling the Ancient Road

It was going to be the last trip I ever made with a good friend of mine, William Chan.  We had been to a number of places together, including Nepal and Tibet when I was a colleague of his at the University of Hong Kong. By the time we took the Silk Road trip, I had already moved back to North America, first to University at Buffalo then across the Lakes to Toronto.  Our travel aspirations had diverged.

But the Silk Road was always going to be a good choice for a two-week travel together.  It was not too costly; China's far west could not be too expensive in any case and we were both prepared to do it the cheap way.  Not hostel kind of cheap, but we never wanted to stay in the five stars or travel by hired cars only. It was not too hard to plan; transportation and hotel were relatively easy to arrange so long as we stayed close to the main tourist stops.  In the end we flew to Urumqi and then tracked back by a combination of train and bus.  The Silk Road today was also hard to define precisely but that was a good thing because we could have chosen any combination of the many great places so long it included, well, the Muogao Grottos.  

So the Silk Road was a great choice.  I like traveling so much that rarely I try to understand why.  Why do people travel at all?  Perhaps because we want to see the world?  In this information age we could go on the Web and find in no time histories and photos of the grotto paintings in Muogao, or the ruins of Jiaohe. Or we could order books on Amazon to read about all the great things we saw on the Silk Road. But standing inside the caves at Muogao with a bunch of tourists and staring at the cave paintings while the official guide gave her official interpretations were different from reading Wikipedia entries and surfing the Web in late nights for travel photos.  And I would always have the stories to impress dinner companions about the trip, like how we managed to get two tours of the Muogao Grottos, by staying behind at the end of the first tour to join the next one without paying again.  But is that all?   

William was a great travel companion.  He would always travel prepared.  He had the Lonely Planet, and he read books about the places we would go before the trip.  I could then free ride on him for ideas of where to go and what to see.  I never asked him about what he liked about traveling, but if I did, I am sure he would tell me that the best part of it is discovering the world in one's own way.  So while one could learn about the whole wide world by reading books, surfing the Web, watching the TV and so on, only traveling gives a unique personal perspective to learning.  To people like William, this perspective is worth the money, the time and occasional hardship.  

I travel because I want to learn about myself, more than about the world.  I can't have more insights about myself if I stay in a familiar environment, because there are hardly new challenges.  My day-to-day existence is so predictable, so stale that if I had skipped a few days or a week or a month, and was asked a year later if I missed anything, I would have to say no.  When I am on the road, I become adventurous, trying things I wouldn't want to try at home, talking to people I normally ignore and saying things I dare not say.  To me, traveling is liberating.  Traveling is exhilarating.