Exploring lifestyle options through travel

Youth expert P.T. Black

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SHANGHAI--The weather is warming up across China, and thoughts are naturally turning to spring…and the upcoming weeklong holiday in early May. Tired of Shanghai’s crowds and traffic jams, I’ll be hitting the road to Xinjiang, the vast and arid northwestern province that lies between Mongolia and Tibet.

I won’t be alone though; it seems like every under-35 in urban China wants to take a trip to the country’s remote western provinces. It is a clear trend in our youth lifestyle tracking – exotic travel is rapidly becoming a major aspiration for both working people and students. But these young adults want nothing to do with the matching caps of the package tours so familiar to their parents, or being herded to well-trod scenic spots.

For them, the ideal trip is a week of hiking and exploration, a remarkable development considering these types of travel are so new to China. The lush mountains of Yunnan or the dusty Silk Road are the perfect place for it.

Ling Yichun, a 19-year-old from Shanghai, for example, recently described his ideal adventure as a visit to Tibet’s “open skies, open roads, open minds. It will be a real break from the city and my friends will all want to come with me.”

The desire for off-road travel comes from the same basic behavior drivers that underlie so much of what inspires young Chinese. First, it’s new and fresh. Destinations like Hong Kong or Singapore are old hat to trendy youth in Shanghai or Beijing, but Tibet and Xinjiang are still unexplored by most people. These places offer a new set of sensations--different foods, spectacular and unique scenery, unfamiliar languages and colorful cultures.

Second, non-package travel--often an expensive proposition--is a social activity for like-minded people, particularly the rising number of young adults in white-collar jobs. A regular hiking trip requires specialized gear and apparel, most of it originating overseas. Off-roading requires an SUV, an even more expensive proposition (and impractical, especially in the crowded streets of China’s largest cities).

The associated costs have transformed off-roading and hiking into symbols of a successful lifestyle for young adults, even in second-tier cities like Kunming and Chongqing.

Ma Hongmin, 24, calls his hiking buddies “donkeys.” The Chengdu native says, “My classmate told me about a [hiking] BBS and I started reading it. I joined the club and soon was traveling with them. We started out eating rustic meals in the nearby countryside, and then went for a weeklong hike in the mountains. It was a great experience and a great way to expand my circle. I am hooked, and want to eventually go to the Himalayas.”

BBS sites, short for trendy online bulletin board systems, are a big part of the outdoor scene, as they allow young Chinese to trade tips online, exchange information about local customs and scenic sites and organize weekend excursions. The clubs eventually plan more elaborate excursions for major holidays, resulting in a web of convoys of like-minded adventurers driving into the countryside. You can easily spot various groups from their walkie-talkies and the matching club stickers on their cars. These travel clubs ultimately provide an intricate social network, and the social hub for the group.

Third, off-roading meets a thirst among young Chinese for independence. The antithesis of package tours, it is an activity with no rules and no prescribed behavior. Days are free and open; routes are at individual discretion. This style of travel resonates with their daily life, where new opportunities are available at every turn, and hierarchies and structures are oppressive and irrelevant.

The new generation of Chinese raised on stories of courageous people see independent travel as an opportunity and go for it, regardless of what has come before. They have internalized the story of Bill Gates, who followed his vision instead of staying at Harvard University, and they are ready to take their own risks. Contemporary China is a ripe marketplace for young entrepreneurs, and adventure traveling is a way to sample the freedom of that lifestyle.

As I pack for my adventure in Xinjiang, I will be thinking about the lessons of adventure travel. Leave the trips to Hong Kong and Paris to the older generation. Today’s young Chinese want to strike out on their own, to visit places where their parents haven’t been, including their own backyard. I look forward to seeing them in Kashgar.

P.T. Black is a partner a Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency based in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults. He can be reached at inquiries@jigsaw-i.com.
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