When We Stop Looking at the Sights, We Start to Really See.
“Nothing unexpected and wonderful is going to happen if you have an itinerary in Paris filled with the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. “– Anthony Bourdain
Sometimes when we travel, especially to large cities, we get so caught up in visiting all the famous sights we forget to really look around and soak everything in. But when we do that, we end up only capturing in our line of vision the city’s famous architecture and historic monuments. What we miss is everything in between, the pulse of the city, the heart of the people. After traveling to many countries, I’ve come to realize, what’s in between all these beautiful monuments are what really snaps that lasting photo in our memories.
Before embarking on our recent Central Asia adventure, we landed in Beijing for two days. Suddenly Beijing, this incredible city of over 24 million people (almost the population of all of Canada!), was a combination of both the familiar yet unfamiliar, in contrast to the adventure ahead. I had seen most of the famous sights before, such as the stunning Forbidden City and the spectacular Great Wall of China – historic must-see sights which stand the test of time. I had walked around the historical hutongs 胡同 (traditional alleyways) of Old Beijing. I had taken a bicycle taxi (rickshaw) and was so happy to see them still surviving in 2018.
This trip to Beijing was a different one. It was to prepare for our Trans-Siberian Rail adventure to Mongolia and then embark on two months in Central Asia, which was to us, the unknown land. With this mindset, we set out to see Beijing differently, with a different set of eyes. Instead of cramming in sights all day like a regular tourist, we just strolled the hutongs, ate at small crowded shops with the locals and at street side stands selling traditional yet simple local specialties like freshly-steamed baozi 包子, and hand-made wontons 馄炖.
As we strolled, I began to see a new Beijing I’d never seen before, yet one that had always been there.
I noticed the migrant workers at every corner engaged in dangerous jobs of welding and construction. I noticed them grilling lamb skewers on street-side stands. I noticed them riding the subway with us, but with huge bags full of all their belongings, their skin tanned by those long days, months, and years of working laborious jobs outside. And I wondered, how are they, these millions of migrant workers, coming from all walks of life with all different reasons to leave home for the unknown?
As we left Beijing and embarked on our Central Asia journey, we had the fortune to travel with several migrant workers along the way, once in Uzbekistan traveling by train overland from Kazakhstan, and once in Kyrgyzstan, in a shared taxi from south to north. The migrant workers we rode the rails with from Uzbekistan were returning from working blue collar jobs in Russia. Those we rode with in Kyrgyzstan were traveling from a small farming town in the south to the northern part of the country where there are more jobs for young men. We learnt they face similar situations to those we saw in Beijing, leaving behind their families for months at a time. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, we talked with our basic language skills and the help of google translate. They shared photos of their families and their homes; we shared our travel phrasebooks which they were intrigued by. They shared their food and helped us order lunch (due to our lack of local language skills). Before we parted, we snapped a photo together to keep for our memories and theirs.
When we hiked in Southern Kyrgyzstan from the small mountain village of Sary-Mogol, near the Tajik border, due to it being low-season, we had the rare opportunity to stay with a young Shepherd couple in the countryside who herd yaks, goats and sheep for a living. In Kyrgyzstan, we tried a lot of wonderful foods in the best restaurants of the big cities of Bishkek and Osh, ate at street-side stands and guesthouses with home cooked meals. But nothing could compare to the simple meal we shared with the shepherd couple in their home, and it stood as the only time we truly ate the traditional Kyrgyz way, sitting cross-legged on matts on the floor, with bread scattered across a “table” cloth, and all sharing a plate of the freshest yak meat (only killed 2 hours earlier, I might add) fried with potatoes in their one-room home. With the help of our guide’s translation, they asked us questions about Canada and we asked how a young Kyrgyz girl from Tajikistan ended up marrying and moving to the Kyrgyz countryside.
When I look back on this two-month adventure, I saw countless beautiful jaw-dropping sights. I took beautiful photos of the sunrise over Samarkand’s famous Registan, in Uzbekistan. I marveled at Astana’s fascinating 21st century architecture in Kazakhstan’s new capital. And I gazed breathless at the towering Alay mountains in Southern Kyrgyzstan, standing over 7,100 meters above sea-level. But now, back in the familiarity of my home, what reminds me I was really there in Central Asia was that memory of sharing a ride with the migrant workers, and that memory of sharing a meal with the shepherds in their home, entering a little bit into their world. Ultimately these experiences made me realize how little of the world I actually knew and how much I have yet to learn and discover.
Yet, it also made me realize how beautiful this world is, and more importantly, in the end, the most beautiful thing about the world are its people; the most wonderful travel experiences are those unplanned and often random interactions we have with them.
When we travel, in between snapping photos and rushing from one famous monument and museum to the next, we should pause. Take a look around. Sometimes the most memorable and meaningful part of our travels will be talking to that person sitting next to us on a train or that friendly local who offers us a cup of steaming hot tea.
So next trip, I encourage you to throw away your itinerary and make a new one, where you have at least one day to just walk.
Open your eyes, soak in your surroundings, linger for an extra few minutes.
And really let yourself see.
When I returned home from my two-month travels, I came across this 2017 hit Chinese-language song “Stranger in the North” “Piao Xiang Bei Fang” 漂向北方, (written by Namewee, a Malaysian rapper, and featuring Taiwanese artist Wang Lee Hom). This song tells the story of the migrant worker of Beijing, showing China’s famous capital from the gritty emotional perspective of a migrant worker who traveled far and wide, leaving behind their family, to earn money in a new world. It reminded me of those migrant workers I had just seen in Beijing, and encourages us to see the world through their eyes. It also reminded me of the migrant workers we met across Central Asia facing similar circumstances.
Take a look at this incredible video, read these heart-wrenching lyrics (officially in English, Chinese, and Malay), and think about those amazing people you’ve met along your travels.