He was the archetypal happy wanderer, a trenchant and witty writer, and a scientist some way ahead of his time; more recently, he’s become a poster boy for Chinese tourism. Xu Xiake was one of a kind, not least because he spent three decades on the road four centuries ago. He’s been called Imperial China’s Indiana Jones, but the moniker fails to do him justice. Born into a wealthy family of scholars in Jiangyin, west of Shanghai, in 1587, Xu was impelled by a curiosity bounded only by the borders of China, which during his lifetime was enjoying a period of relative prosperity under the Ming dynasty. Although some details of his life are open to debate, his 600,000-word youji , or travelogue, which was eventually published in 1776, some 135 years after his death, is packed with a wealth of detail. Xu’s learning and keen powers of observation led him to comment knowledgeably on geography, hydrology, geology and botany. Among other notable discoveries, he mapped the true source of the West River in Guizhou and was the first person to make a detailed study of limestone karst formations. Xu was a compulsive traveller and spent most of his life visiting what we would now call ‘beauty spots’ in China Julian Ward, author “Xu was a compulsive traveller and spent most of his life visiting what we would now call ‘beauty spots’ in China,” says Julian Ward, the author of Xu Xiake: The Art of Travel Writing . “He was very much a man of his times, and his concerns were perfectly in tune with the exuberant tastes of other late Ming literati. “Examining Xu’s writing serves to underline the breadth of achievement of a man who utilised both traditional and contemporary Chinese poetic language in order to express an emotional response to the landscape through which he passed.” Extremely unusually for those times, Xu’s mother was fully literate and she encouraged her son to read voraciously from his father’s amply stocked library. But at the age of 15, Xu failed the imperial examinations, which were seen as a stepping stone to a respected position in the hierarchy. Initially disappointed, he seemed set to follow in his father’s footsteps as a farmer and merchant. Then wanderlust took hold. According to some sources, Xu married at the age of 20 – possibly just to provide an extra pair of hands in the house – and then promptly set out for pastures (and mountains, deserts and lakes) new. He recalled his mother’s encouragement in his youji : “At home you’re like a fenced-in chicken or a harnessed pony. Go travel, and show me paintings of the scenery you see.” Xu’s timing was opportune as commerce in China was thriving and the transport network was opening up – though his favoured mode of transport was always his own two legs. Another factor in Xu’s favour was that physically and mentally he was an appealing hunk – almost two metres tall, with a muscle-bound torso, luminous green eyes and the air of an aesthete, according to admiring friends. One described him as being “as nimble as an ape and sturdy as an ox”. More poetically, another summed him up as “drifting with the water, floating with the wind” – or at least that’s how Qian Qianyi recounts it in his biography of Xu. But Qian also writes that “he found companionship among fairies, trolls, apes and baboons”. There was no stopping the young adventurer, who had adopted “Traveller in the Sunset Clouds” as a pen name. He strode to every province in China, taking in bustling cities such as Nanjing; the alpine scenery of Huangshan; West Lake, in Hangzhou; and Songshan Lake, in Dongguan; as well as Wuyishan, where nowadays tourists flock to ride bamboo rafts down Nine-bend River. Both Luoyang, at the confluence of the Luo and Yellow rivers, and Fujian featured on his itinerary, but time and again it was mountains – Hua Shan in Shaanxi, Tai Shan in Shandong and the Wudang range in Hubei – that drew him. There were no cable cars or walkways etched into the cliff face in those days: scaling a mountain entailed sheer physical effort, but at least the summit promised unadulterated solitude and a panorama to go with it, rather than a gift shop. Unfortunately the days of Xu Xiake are long gone, but there’s still a lot to do for a romantic like him Johnson Chang, curator “Unfortunately the days of Xu Xiake are long gone, but there’s still a lot to do for a romantic like him,” says Johnson Chang Tsong-zung, a Chinese cultural expert who co-founded Asia Art Archive, based in Sheung Wan. “If the peak of a mountain like Huangshan is packed like Argyle Street, it also means that it has captured the madding crowds and leaves the less celebrated peaks free for the independent explorer – something which would gladden Xu’s heart.” Xu was mugged on more than one occasion, frequently laid low by disease, swindled by unscrupulous landlords and traders, and often wandered for miles away from his route, having been misdirected or simply lost his bearings. Short of funds, he once traded a poetry recitation for a basket of mushrooms; on another occasion, he was reduced to bartering his clothes for food. There was little in the way of maps to help Xu on his way, so he had to rely on the advice of fellow wayfarers. While footslogging through Zhejiang province’s Taizhou prefecture, he wrote: “The red azaleas blooming in the green trees reflect each other and [helped me] forget the hard work of climbing. Going south from Jinzhuling, it happens that there is a Guoqing Temple monk who said: ‘From this road to Shiliang the mountains are dangerous and the road is long and it is not convenient to carry luggage.’” The monk failed to mention ferocious wildlife, and Xu later had to set fire to a field of tall grass by the road to scare off any lurking tigers. Still, whether he was broke, famished or fearful of wild beasts, Xu revelled in the beauty of China’s natural landscapes and the discoveries he made along the way. About Huading Peak, in Zhejiang, he recorded: “It seems it is not far from the sky!” But his writing often turned peevish when he came across other travellers, particularly when it appeared the locals were keen to make a fast buck from the out-of-towners. Entrance fees to famous grottoes were guaranteed to put Xu in a foul mood, likewise charges levied for using the rope ladders or bridges that led to them. “I refused to pay such monies, which were quite unjust, and made my own way to the place where I’d set my heart,” he wrote. He disparaged sedan chair hire on holy mountains and had nothing but contempt for the strapping young farm lads who would offer to carry pilgrims for so much per mile. Residents of Qufu – the birthplace of Confucius – had caught on fast, dangling three all-in tours, with luxe guests eating their fill at a banquet to the strains of an opera recital while budget travellers got rather plainer fare and a lute soloist before being shown the sights. Xu reserved particular ire for the world’s oldest profession, fulminating that at a resort outside Nanjing potential customers prowled the jasmine-scented streets while prostitutes sang ditties laced with double entendres from their windows. A nod and a wink were sufficient to make an assignation, and torch-bearing flunkeys would conduct clients indoors through a concealed doorway. “This is not the way educated persons should conduct themselves, and it runs contrary to all norms of moral behaviour,” he harrumphed. Considering that Mrs Xu had been left behind in Jiangyin quite some while ago, her husband’s observations might just have been tinged with envy. Towards the end of his travels, Xu appeared to lose a little of his brio. It started when an itinerant monk named Jingwen, who had become a close friend after accompanying Xu for part of the way, succumbed to dysentery and died, in 1638. Disconsolate, Xu buried his companion at Jizu Shan (Chicken Foot Mountain), in Dali prefecture, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. Yunnan was the last of Xu’s must-sees, one of the least accessible, and one of the most dramatic. Today, Tiger Leaping Gorge defines the touristic map of the province, whereas the much-visited Old Town of Lijiang would not have been so named when Xu paid a call on the local potentate. Eco lodges are now doing a roaring trade near Xizhou, which Xu passed through on his way to view the rainbow display of thousands of insects at Butterfly Spring. Having established himself as one of China’s first tourists – that is, someone who travelled for the pleasure of it rather than because work or some other factor – Xu returned to Jizu Shan at the end of his Yunnan expedition, in 1640, but by that stage was starting to feel ill. “After spending a long period in a malarial region, my head and limbs were covered in spots which gathered up in piles in the folds of my skin, while my left ear and left foot twitched from time to time. Two weeks before, I had thought it was a parasite but in fact there was none,” he wrote. Emergency medical evacuation was in its infancy in the 17th century, so the journey – by sedan chair – to his family home in Jiangyin took six months. “It was my longest and most arduous journey.” Once home, he displayed little interest in his relatives or his surroundings, and gave up the ghost in March 1641. Xu remained a highly respected if not widely publicised name until early this century, when the authorities in his home county proposed that May 19 – the date when he’d embarked on his odyssey – should become National Tourism Day, rustling up a million online signatures to support their case. The scheme got the official thumbs up from the State Council in 2011, and it didn’t take long for Brand Xu to catch on. Postage stamps were emblazoned with his image; his travelogue was republished both in an annotated scholarly edition and as a graphic novel; outgoing types competed for Xu Xiake travel awards and his name was adopted for rock climbing contests. The PLA Navy got in on the act, launching the 23,000-tonne troopship Xu Xiake in 2014. Walking trails were signposted with images of Xu in a variety of manly, outdoorsy poses, and his ancestral home was given a makeover and declared a national monument. There’s even a Xu Xiake Tourist Expo Park next door. The supreme irony is that it’s just the sort of place he’d have avoided like the plague.