Tienanmen Square. Beijing, China.
I was talking with a traveller yesterday who just finished riding his motorcycle from Belgium to Russia and then by boat to Japan. He crossed through twenty-two countries before arriving in Hiroshima and finishing his trip.
What was most remarkable to me about his trip isn't what he saw. It's how he did it. He planned little: sketched a rough route, applied for visas, and got a motorcycle passport. He stayed in small towns, met remarkably friendly people, and had almost no problems.
Then he complained to me that a coffee in Hiroshima costs almost $3 and that the people were too busy and unfriendly. He was used to spending $10 per day for food and sleeping in the mountains for free. This stuck out to me because I felt the opposite way about Hiroshima but the same about Bali.
It got me to thinking: small towns are more pleasant than big cities, and tourist towns are the worst. How do you avoid tourist sights? How do you find nice small towns? You have to go off the map like this guy did.
It should be clear, but our map of the world is expanding rapidly. Almost every restaurant, cafe, hotel, or store with a name has an online review and pictures now. Think about how impossible that was just a few years ago.
In the Facebook age it’s actually fairly easy to travel and stay entirely on the map. You can visit the same towns, restaurants, and tourists sights that other people visit. Even when I accidentally open Google Now it decides to show me nearby photo sights, tempting me with more things than I'll ever have time to do.
Even being aware of options for other things that we could be doing can make travel harder than it should be. I'll never do as much as the next person. If I look at a social network or travel engine it’s designed to show me the highlights, but to me the most memorable parts of my trip aren’t the highlights that would be transmissible through pictures or digital stories.
The most memorable thing about places to me is the zeitgeist. It’s the minor places. It’s smelling what the air smells like in a town, looking at how people treat each other, and seeing what people do with themselves and what they keep in their houses.
Honestly, the only time that I think I’m not doing enough or not exploring enough on my trip is if I log into some social network or Google around and see what other travel bloggers write about a town. In my personal reward system, how I feel without comparison to other people, just sitting still in one place for a while and watching the world go by is fascinating enough. Striving for more — more sights, more foods, more beaches, more mountains — can just make me tired.
Going off the map
How does this translate into practical travel advice? The best advice I have for finding places to go is to ask friends or locals directly or to just take a long walk. Sometimes I find good cafes, small parks, or interesting sights. To me there's not much appeal in staying on the map or making plans. The joy of travel is in the adventure itself. I'll always miss something, so I try not to remind myself of what I'll miss or make too much of a plan about what I want to do in the future.
I'm envious of the motorcylist's trip not because of any specific place he saw, but because I have some sense of the mental challenges and rewards that he experienced. There's not a lesson that he could transmit, not a photo that he could give, that would make me want to re-live the specific towns and people that he visited. I don't want to pull out a map and chase down his vacation, I want to find my own. It's his framework for travel that I most admire.
The picture at the top of this article is from Tienanmen Square. I went there not because anyone suggested it, but because I've wanted to visit it for my entire life. I wanted to stand in the middle of that big space and see what it felt like. If there's any country you want to visit there will probably be places like this you'll want to see as well. I try to go find those spots, the ones that I can't miss. If I have time I'll read a history of the town before I arrive. If not, I'll just take a walk and find my own stories.