Travel is for what’s along the way

As a farewell present, one of my classmates gave me a book he has published containing the title above. I fail to translate it adequately but, more smoothly, it equates to “travel is about the journey.” I read the foreword when I got home after our leaving dinner. His former high school headmaster plaintively queried why China’s youth don’t find their own country interesting to travel around any longer and would prefer to go overseas. My classmate it turns out is one of the exceptions. He was also top student in China in 2009 and won local headlines in 2013 for his efforts helping migrant workers book tickets home from Beijing during overcrowded holiday periods.

Though I wouldn’t know this without the gift of his book, the gesture was not as self-aggrandising as it may seem. He sidled up to me at the dinner and asked if I had a bag handy as he had a present for me. This in itself was unexpected since we haven’t spoken much this year, partly because I sensed it would tax my ability to communicate on his level, let alone in Mandarin. He hovered until I had retrieved my bag and waited until no one else was within earshot to fish out the signed book from his computer satchel and give it to me, covertly. It is about his travels around China and his encounters along the road.

I took a bus into school to deliver my final paper today. In my mind I was going to take a taxi but my legs took me to the bus stop and I realised I didn’t want to rush the drive anyway. Why hurry? The bus journey has mostly been one of the great joys of these few months of study. ‘Mostly’ because of course in the pouring rain in freezing January it was slightly less fun, but then I felt I was missing nothing by cabbing it instead. Sitting on the top deck in the front seat most days, then, has provided me with time to think, read or just gaze out of the window at the scenery.

Thanks to this time I now know what I am missing by rushing from A to B; the minutes given instead to “doing” at either end feels stolen from a longer journey during which you have a bit more time to “be.” Sometimes as I stand at the bus stop and close my world down to the immediate surroundings, denying the knowledge of the road beyond, the village behind, the town at the end of the road, I think I could be on an island in the Philippines, or Malaysia, or Thailand – any one of those holiday places where I feel like I am at a resort in the tropics. My village bus stop is a resort in the tropics.

The stops along the way seem arbitrary to one who misses the narrow concrete paths snaking into villages hidden by the tropical forest. At the most frequented path heads cluster packs of mongrel chairs presumably donated by local rubbish bins. As we burst out of the trees the distant lumpen hills darkly separate grey sea from grey sky and in the foreground the sugar cube village houses spill down to the water’s edge. In a taxi it is still beautiful to wind through the forest but you miss the fish farms and the islands in the bay. I can honestly say I have begrudged not a minute of my time on public transport this year. Plus, I worked out, I “earn” GBP5/hour for not taking a cab. Great wage for just being.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: tonight I get into a big metal tube and fly over six thousand miles. At the other end I will get out into a different world and a different life populated by people quite alien to the world in Hong Kong. I will have passed over millions of souls and avoided interaction with countless cultures. I may see a few fish farms as I leave and the Thames estuary as I arrive (I’m on the wrong side for the Shard, rats) but in between the world below me will be brown, green and blue if I am lucky and white if I am not. One day I would like to take that trip overland. For now I shall just have to hope that the person next to me doesn’t snore. We travel for what is along the road.