Ai Sihua and Alexander come from Marseilles, France. They now reside in Yunnan, a province in Southwest China. Alexander is opening a restaurant, and Ai Sihua is a freelance writer and press photographer for a magazine in the province. They are good friends and often travel together in their leisure time. In the past few years, they have traveled around Yunnan and many places outside the province, including the Xinjiang Uygur and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Regions.
I have spoken with Ai Sihua much more than Alexander because Ai's Chinese is more fluent than his friend's. Ai Sihua is a handsome young man who is knowledgeable and experienced. He comes from a well-to-do family, and has received a good education. Although he is only 25 years old, he has visited many Eastern European and Asian countries. In 1993 and 1994, he traveled through Syria and Spain on foot; and in 1995, went to Ukraine to offer humanitarian assistance. Ai Sihua is a man who prefers to roam the world in search of adventure than settle down.
According to Ai Sihua, he would go mad if he had to live a middle-class life. He likes to live an exciting, fulfilling, and unrestrained life, following his own aspirations and imagination. All he hopes for is a life full of adventure and challenge. China is the land where he has realized his dream. In Yunnan, Ai Sihua makes a living by writing articles for publication. He concentrates solely on his writing three weeks out of every month; and the rest of the time he travels.
Neither a simple tourist nor a hunter of relics, ancient books, or local specialties, Ai Sihua and Alexander are travelers who focus on understanding China, including its history, culture, and traditions, and on personally experiencing its way of life. In China, they have traversed boundless deserts and desolate mountainous areas and have visited dwelling houses along ancient roads. On their journeys, they often eat at roadside food stalls and spend the night at inns. They have learned how to bargain and how to express their appreciation for the kind hospitality of strangers. Ai Sihua recently told me that street culture is drawing interest in some foreign countries, and that Alexander and him are members of the street tribe.
Wearing helmets, goggles, leather jackets, and leggings, Ai Sihua and Alexander drove an out-of-date, three-wheeled motorcycle with a sidecar along ancient mountain paths in Sichuan, a province in West China. As they drove on the snow-covered Minshan Plateau, Alexander was weakened by a fever. Faced with this unexpected problem, they decided not to go any further on the motorbike. So they discarded it, and walked about four hours in search of shelter from the cold wind and snow.
Greatly admiring them, I wished to travel with them. They gave me a lift in their motorcycle, and we journeyed along mountain paths to Guangyuan City in northern Sichuan Province. As we drove, at a speed of 100 kilometers per hour, the wind became stronger and I was disheveled. The dust raised by the motorcycle beat against my face and I could not open my eyes. The travel was not as easy and romantic as I had imagined. According to Ai Sihua, traveling without slight tortures is the same as staying at home; and it is not real travel.
In Guangyuan, we visited the rebuilt ancient Jinniu Plank Roadway, the Jianmen Pass, the first impregnable pass under heaven, the Cuiyun Corridor, a path lined with ancient cypress trees, and the Huangze Temple, the ancestral temple of Empress Wu Zetian (624-705) of the Tang Dynasty. We also tasted the well-known Jianmen Tofu. After several days of rest in Guangyuan, Ai Sihua and Alexander continued their travels without me.
(China Pictorial March 7, 2003)