Chinese-American backpacker tours China without a penny

Born in China, a 33-year-old American returns to his homeland to learn about its people and places without the distraction of money

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 4:31am

Having spent much of the past decade roaming the globe as a backpacker, Chinese-American Gu Yue embarked on a three-month "travel-without-a-dime" tour of the mainland in September to learn more about the country where he was born and its people. The 33-year-old shares his experiences.

Can you first tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Beijing's Dongcheng district in 1979 and grew up there until I was 11, when my family emigrated to the United States. After graduating I landed a job in finance with GE in Seattle. But a sense of crisis began to set in when I was only five months into the job because finance wasn't really my cup of tea and I also realised that it wouldn't be a wonderful life to have only two weeks of annual leave. In 2003 I decided to give myself a six-month gap before the next job to enjoy life like a young man. The gap went on for another two years and then longer, to where I am now.

How did you get the idea of travelling with no money in China?

I have travelled a lot in China since I relocated to Beijing, my birthplace, in 2006, but I did it most of the time as a tourist doing sightseeing. But if you travel with no money, you are somehow deprived of being self-sustaining and you need to mingle with people from all walks of life to make it. You get to know people not just as a customer but as someone closer to their lives. For instance, I and my travel partners lived with a group of homeless people at a Chengdu railway station for 24 hours in October. On another occasion we were given a ride to Chongqing by a local who drove an expensive Land Rover SUV and we were invited to stay at his two-storey villa for a night. You sometimes need to allow yourself to go a bit wild to enjoy the thrill of all the uncertainties.

How did you find your travel partners and why did they want to join you?

I selected my travel partners via an online appeal, and I have travelled with six of them so far and another three will join me later in the tour. Each of them normally stays with me on the road for about a week. They are actually very diversified in terms of their background, ranging from an investor in his early 30s to a 19-year-old girl from Hangzhou who had never travelled outside her city and a 61-year-old retiree. Most of them are very interested in travel, but afraid of hitting the road on their own, and so they want to find someone with experience for company. On top of that, many of them have found that such a way of travel is crazy but thrilling, so some simply signed up on a whim without realising how difficult it could be. Most of them didn't have the experience of camping outside or hitchhiking, so I would tell them to be ready for walking for dozens of miles a day, that they might not be able to have a meal for a whole day and, what's more, they must learn to brazen it out to get through.

Do you really carry no money at all?

Of course! I ask my travel partners to leave their money with my cameraman when they join me and to get it back by the time of their departure. Actually we made five yuan by working as porters with shoulder poles for half a day in Chongqing in October. Earlier we made another two yuan selling 20 used drink bottles we picked up in the streets of Chengdu, in Sichuan province , but we used the two yuan to buy three steamed buns in Chongqing.

How difficult is it to travel without money in China compared with your experience overseas?

I would say that it is more difficult to do it in China in some aspects. For instance, there are people out there who do not trust you or think that you are bad guys. There are other people who simply think we should pay for a ride and it was not right to ask for a free ride in the first place.

Have there been moments of desperation?

Yes. We were starving one day when we were in a mountainous village called Lijiashan, near the section of the Yellow River in Shanxi province, when we saw construction workers building a farmhouse. We asked the workers if we could work as labourers in exchange for a meal. While we were waiting for their supervisor to come back to make a decision, one of the workers kindly led us to the workers' canteen for some noodles. However, the middle-aged woman on duty at the canteen said we had to pay for the noodles and she only agreed to a discount, even when we tried to explain our travel plan to her. We were embarrassed but had no choice but to give up … You do feel humble, vulnerable and even helpless on the road without money, but we need to understand that people are not obliged to help you.

What do those people you have approached for help usually think of you?

I have to explain to people a lot because many cannot understand our travel plan. Some ask what on earth are we doing, while others simply tell us to take a bus to wherever we are going, because they apparently care too much about money. But there are people who are excited with the idea, and one businessman who gave us a ride on his way from Chengdu to Chongqing for a meeting even talked about cancelling his trip to join us.

What do you think you have gained most from such an unusual form of travel?

First of all, I still hold a lot of hope for the world we live in from the nice people I have met on the road. Second, I'm so enlightened by the way they perceive money, happiness and goals in life. There are a lot of people who are willing to help and don't care much about money, which provides a major contrast with the common belief in the broader community in China that people must work hard to make money, as money is a guarantee in their lives. Generally I have a better understanding of the country where I was born and the people. The one person who impressed me the most was an elderly man, in his early 70s, whom I spent two nights with at a Chengdu railway station. He said he chose to be a homeless person even though he is looked down on and lives on handouts. When I told him he would be better off if he'd gone to a government shelter or ended up in prison, he said he would rather have the freedom.

Are you happier than you were 10 years ago?

Definitely! If I'd carried on with what I was doing in Seattle 10 years ago, I would have been well established with a big house and a nice car by now and could even have become a middle- or high-ranking manager. But I realise from the life I have now that happiness is about living simply, so I have never regretted the decision I made then.

Gu Yue spoke to Raymond Li