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Continued Travels Around the Hinterlands of China

I’ve probably spent more time in China than any other country on earth besides the one I grew up in. China is so big, diverse, and ever-changing that it’s impossible to ever truly have your bearings here. Constructing a concept of this land is like trying to nail a piece of jello to the wall: it just can’t be done. Like India, the USA, Mexico, or Russia, you can never “do” China. The size and cultural/ political/ economic dynamism are just too much. But I can say that I’m more familiar with this country than any the 50 or so others that I’ve experienced.

I’ve probably spent more time in China than any other country on earth besides the one I grew up in. China is so big, diverse, and ever-changing that it’s impossible to ever truly have your bearings here. Constructing a concept of this land is like trying to nail a piece of jello to the wall: it just can’t be done. Like India, the USA, Mexico, or Russia, you can never “do” China. The size and cultural/ political/ economic dynamism are just too much. But I can say that I’m more familiar with this country than any the 50 or so others that I’ve experienced.

Projected travels, Jan - March 2013

Projected travels, Jan – March 2013

My residency permit here runs out at the end of March, so that leaves scant time for continued explorations. My focus again is on the hinterlands of the Middle Kingdom, as this is where the most vibrant cultural and natural landscapes are. In 2005, I traveled through the south of China, spent a considerable amount of time in the SE Asia borderlands, and then finally exited the country via Laos. In 2007, I traveled up through Inner Mongolia and onward to Mongolia. Also in that year, I went south through the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region on my way to Vietnam. I recently just returned to Jiangsu province from a trip to Taiwan’s Kinmen Island, Guangdong province, and Macau. What remains of my “China hinterland” travels are the Koreas and the far West.

Upcoming travels

In January, I plan to visit South Korea.

In February, I plan to continue investigating China’s “ghost cities,” and will venture out to Henan province and Inner Mongolia. Also in that month I will try to get to Hunan province to do a special, undisclosed project, as well as get a look at Sky City One being constructed, which is set to be the tallest building in the world when completed, as I research an article on the great skyscraper race that is really a lens through which to view the current shift in global power dynamics.

In March, it’s time for the far west. I plan to travel through Xinjiang to Kazakhstan and then do a loop through Kyrgyzstan before returning to China via Kashgar.

Why these fast travels to the countries surrounding China?

This answer is simple: right now I have a residency permit that allows me to exit and enter China at my will. China is called the Middle Kingdom for a reason: it takes up the entire middle section of a vast amount of Asia. China is the middle ground between SE Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Mongolia, Russia,  and the Koreas. The liberty to transit through, outside of, and back into this land at my will means that I have access to a wide range of countries that would be far more difficult to access otherwise. After March the path to these countries will again be obstructed by the visa wall of the behemoth known as China.

Lick and promise style of travel

There is a benefit to crossing a border to get a quick impression of a new country. This is a benefit that I didn’t really understand in my early years of travel, which I now wish to capitalize on. To be blunt: borders are not just arbitrary lines drawn in the sand, they are dividing points between cultures, people, and political and economic systems. Crossing a border is to observe and experience very stark differences. I’ve never crossed a border in all my travels where there was a gradual, natural change between countries. No, crossing a border — even those in regions where the countries are relatively similar to each other — is to be suckered punched in the gut by sensory contrast.

The lick and promise style of travel was dubbed by my friend Andy Graham. It’s when you go to a country, take a quick look around, then leave with a promise to return. Loren Everly, another long term traveler, has a strategy of moving incredibly fast across large spans of geography, and then returning to the countries he had a good impression of for a long-term stay. This style of travel is very jagged, but has its benefits.

The fact of the matter is that while you may not learn too much about a country from a quick visit you definitely get an impression of it, which provokes an emotional response that you associate with the place.  These impressions, or emotional responses, are good guides as to the places in the world you may want to dig into deeper.

Filed under: China, Letter From The Editor

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3564 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

11 comments… add one

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  • Jack December 22, 2012, 12:57 am

    I await your arrival in Xinjiang. 🙂

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    • Wade Shepard December 22, 2012, 9:39 pm

      Definitely! Excited to get out there.

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  • felix December 25, 2012, 11:33 am

    Cool plans! I’d recommend checking out a bit of the Northeast as well, including the rather unique Yanji autonomous prefecture and its millions of ethnic Koreans. That is, if you can find the time of course, as it’s a bit far out of the way… but I’ve learned by experience, just as you have, that the coolest places in China are by the borders!

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    • Wade Shepard December 27, 2012, 8:48 pm

      Really want to, man. It is looking like we’re going to be here for a few months longer, so I think I should be able to do it all. I feel like I’m following in your tracks for many of these trips 🙂

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  • the candy trail ... Michael Robert Powell December 26, 2012, 10:50 pm

    Sounds great.

    I’m sure Kyrgyzstan will be to your liking – for an in-depth return.

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    • Wade Shepard December 27, 2012, 8:03 am

      For sure. Think I’m going to put it off a little until the weather gets better so I can get into the mountains.

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  • Chaya Shepard December 27, 2012, 6:29 am

    Whoa, Wade. We need to talk.

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    • Bob L December 27, 2012, 12:00 pm

      This reply made my day. Even Irene laughed, and she seldom laughs at what I think is funny enough to read to her.

      All us guys need great women around us to keep us a bit grounded. No telling what kind of trouble we would get into without you.

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      • Wade Shepard December 27, 2012, 7:46 pm

        Haha, yeah, I didn’t think it was so funny 🙁 Oh yeah, I think I’m going to have to tell her that Russia has been added into the mix as well. I’m in trouble now. (But I think we’ll be here until the end of June now, so that gives me a little more time.)

        You’re right about having a partner to compliment you and bring a bit of realism to the discourse. But I guess my wife’s influence of realism means that I do what I proposed above rather than walking across Central Asia or riding my blowup boat down the Yangtze haha. I don’t know how she puts up with this. I found a good one, for sure.

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  • hans863 January 23, 2013, 11:20 pm

    Sorry to bring this to you Wade, but construction on the Sky one skyscraper has still not started. I work close to the building site, and there’s no sign of it yet.

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    • Vagabond Journey January 24, 2013, 3:38 am

      @hans863 Hello Hans, Yes, I’ve been going back and forth with some of their PR people trying to get some information. After talking a big game for a while they’re not saying so much now. It seems as if there are some kinks in their plan. Please keep my updated if you see any progress — I bluntly asked if the project was really going to happen and I think I’ve been cut out of the media loop haha.

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