There are many ways to travel. You can backpack across a land, hopping from interesting, semi-convenient spot to the next. You could pack a huge suitcase and treat one city as a hub and bounce from place to place. You might book a trip through a tour guide. You might take family to a domestic beach. City getaway, rural hike, once-in-a-lifetime festival.
The reasons to travel are as varied as the people and places themselves.
I advocate for what I call bag-down travel. Let me clarify.
The Origins of my Travels in Asia
I decided to up and move to China for several reasons.
One, my major in college was East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and so this was an ostensible continuation of that. My brother majored in the Classics in college, yet had never gone to Rome or Athens. He unknowingly pushed me to the Far East after graduation.
Two, I wanted adventure. As many college friends found finance jobs in New York or tech in San Francisco, I knew I didn’t fit the mold. Frankly, it was purely due to lack of interest and nothing else. The jobs pay well, but outside that I found little satisfaction. This isn’t a condemnation; it’s a personal preference. I knew I wanted to see the world and going to China was my way of bucking the trend set by my peers.
Three, I was young. It’s cliched to the point of exhaustion: travel young, travel often. Broaden your horizons. Meet new people. Learn a new language. Be untethered. And so on. The benefits are endless, and I acknowledge them.
To me, there is one reason above all.
Why you Should Travel Young
Logistics. Being young allows you sleep in airports, crash on a night bus, rough a dirty hostel, walk ten miles a day, go to bed late, wake up early, deal with silly adversity.
Stretching these boundaries enables you to deal with unfavorable flight times with long layovers, opens up the possibility for transportation that’s otherwise prohibitively uncomfortable or expensive, lets you cuddle up on a cold airport bench with an armrest pushing at your kidneys. Or kidney in my case.
You can leave Friday afternoon from Beijing and land in New York City ready to go party with friends immediately jetlagged. You can land in Kazakhstan and hop in a stranger’s car on the word of a friend. You can deal with 12 total hours of Israeli airline security, just to see a friend in Tel Aviv for less than a full day. It means wandering cities with your passport in a plastic bag in your pocket to protect it from the tropics-induced perspiration. (Gross.)
There’s no way in hell families could travel like that. There’s no way a 50-year-old me would want to travel like that.
Traveling young allows you zip across the world for cheaper, quicker, all while enduring less desirable conditions.
(Oh, and all those intangible benefits too.)
This leads me to the idea of this essay. This type of travel is defined by time spent in your hotel, hostel, Airbnb, boat, whatever. It means spending as little on accommodation while balancing a decent location. You want to spend little as possible, obviously, so that you can spend more on doing. And a decent, central location for the same reason.
Obviously, low price and great location don’t go hand-in-hand, but you can balance it for sure. It’s all in planning. I once stayed in a relatively stinky “cabana” 10 miles and 1 hour from city center in Valencia as a college Eurotripper so that I could save $300. It meant heavily sacrificing location. It meant early starts and never going back til late at night. (6am as it were.) But it meant attending Las Fallas, perhaps the most inexplicable festival anywhere.
Bag-Down Travel means getting off the airplane, getting transportation to your abode, getting your bags down and getting out as quickly as possible to see the world. If that includes a quick shower, go for it. If that means a power nap, have at it. If the spirit of BDT is maintained, it’s good.
Example of BDT
I once lived in Zhuhai, China the border city for Macau. Living in southern China, there’s numerous options for airports: Zhuhai, Macau, Hong Kong, Foshan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou. Basically you should pick whichever is cheapest.
I wanted to get to Singapore for a weekend during the Dragon Boat Festival, one of the major holidays in China for which you get some days off. C-Trip is an app that lets you browse all China-related travel very quickly. Like many budget sites of its ilk in both China and abroad, it contains many deals with an exponential number of strings attached.
However, with some careful planning, C-Trip will almost always deal you the cheapest price around. Thanks for that!
Anyhow, living in China granted me the ability to work out a solid five-day trip with minimal time wasted traveling, and with zero jetlag. (Literally; Singapore and China are the same time zone.) If I lived in the US, there’s zero chance you can fit in a Singaporean weekend.
It went like this:
8:00am: Friday morning, I had to teach 25 Chinese college freshmen an introductory English class, of which three were reasonably proficient, and 22 didn’t want to learn. To be fair, if you had no intention of traveling, working or studying abroad, would you want to learn another random language?
11:30am: Both my classes let out. I bike from class to my apartment through the sultry, near-viscous air, a layer of perspiration clouding my vision.
11:45am: I took a quick rinser, which was as much to lower my boiling body temp as it was to clean off.
12:00pm: I’ve fully packed in 15 minutes, my philosophy on which is to complete it as quickly as possible. Your impulse is your best bet as to what you really need. No, you don’t need a deck of cards, just in case. Yes, you will need at least one pair of underwear. Anything else you forget becomes a usable souvenir for a month: Indian toothpaste, a Japanese toothbrush, Chinese underwear.
12:05pm: Hit up a taxi, using Didi, the company that thwarted the almighty Uber at its own game of being a carnivorous, amoral fiend. Every conversation with a Didi driver begins with me, the foreigner, in reasonably decent Chinese excusing myself, “Hey, I’m a foreigner. Sorry my Chinese sucks. I’m at 18 Jinfeng Road. Ok. Ok. See ya soon.” It always ends with an outsider speaking to a confused, blank stare back wondering if he was actually speaking Chinese. (Virtually everyone in Zhuhai is an immigrant from another province, with heavily accented Mandarin.)
12:20pm: Get to the train station ten minutes before my train to the south of the city, Gongbei, where there’s the border crossing to Macau. Ticket booth attendant cocks her head to the side, confused why a white dude lives so far away from city center.
12:30pm: Enjoy the inevitable bull rush onto a Chinese train. Even though your ticket has an assigned seat, it’s ritual to sprint as fast as you can to someone else’s, knock down a minimum of three people to their knees and feign confusion as someone reveals the seat you’re in to be theirs. What? Oh sorry. I must be the seat right next to it. What? No? That’s your wife’s and the other is your kid’s? I don’t know; it must be the train company’s fault. They’re always mixing everyone’s seats.
12:40pm: Chinese student spots a foreigner and procedes to practice English. He divulges that, albeit the Japanese committed atrocities in World War 2 on the Japanese, the real crime is that the Chinese government never apologized for its role in the Cultural Revolution. Both can be true; this non-sequitur is surely enough to get me kicked out of China, however. He finished with a very loud, very triumphant, “I hope someday all Chinese can be as civilized as the Japanese.” Oh boy.
1:40pm: Get down to Macau, an absolutely unpleasant border crossing at times. You get from mainland China to Macau on foot, a procession the migration on the Serengeti can’t compare to. Sometimes it takes ten minutes. Sometimes it takes hours. It’s always an experience. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the elderly hawk a loogie but ten feet from border security. Loads of standing, meaningless immigration forms and passport checks later, you’re free.
2:40pm: With a 5:30pm flight, I think it’s reasonable to snag a meal at one of my favorite restaurants in the world, Riquexó. It’s the wonderchild of an old Macanese women, cooking up Chinese-Portuguese fusion. It’s the kind of food that makes you sink into lucid daydreams, where the sensual pleasure of the holy shit I still have to catch a flight.
3:30pm: I catch the bus around the corner, hoping that it truly does only take 30 minutes to get to the airport. Fortunately, it does, and fortunately, Macau’s airport is miniscule. I promptly board and fly to Singapore.
9:30pm: I land, get to hostel, toss my bag down after passive-aggressively hustling the front desk through their spiel and head back out the front door.
9:50pm: I’m exploring Little India, one of Singpore’s renowned neighborhoods. Just like that. Class done around noon in China, and I’m exploring Singapore by night.
The Benefits of Bag-Down Travel
Even just a few years removed from that, it seems a little daunting. That is fairly aggressive travel, working on little rest, limited time constraints and high energy. I truly enjoy it, but it’s not also sustainable. That’s why I advocate, when you’re young, to engage on this type of travel to maximize the resources in front of you.
Let me know what you think in the comments below! Is this a normal lifestyle, ridiculous technique or only doable for short periods of time.
Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!