Summer may be a time of escape, but era of enlightening discovery ended long ago

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, July 6, 2016
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With kids across the country loose from school on summer holidays, now is the time that everybody talks about leaving town, or the country. In fact, the annual family summer tour is now so obligatory that we almost forget that it is a fairly recent import.

If I choose to go to work by bus in the morning, I have to walk through the large Wusheng Road bus parking lot near Shanghai Museum. I have to prepare myself for the overwhelming smell of exhaust from so many buses ready to take holiday-makers to small-time destinations.

There is an obvious air of excitement among travelers busy identifying their tourist guides, usually by a small flag raised aloft. Everybody is in a hurry, and seems delighted by the idea of escape. These short-distance travelers consist mainly of local retirees and kids.

Many younger parents and children often head for domestic or overseas destinations that entail greater investment of money and time.

But if you ask your children what they might prefer, many would just as soon stay at home with their grandparents. They are as bored by the milling crowds at tourists sights as their parents, but they are more honest about how they feel.

Prearranged satisfaction is often elusive and self-defeating.

Organized travel — strictly scripted, carefully planned and precisely executed — has taken much of the joy out of exploration. If you look at the great journeys of the past, you find that they were generally not pursued for the satisfaction of travel per se.

Columbus did not know where he was going when he started, nor how far he had gone when he arrived, nor where he had been after his return. He achieved a discovery solely motivated by the desire to strike it rich.

With a map and Google Earth before us, and in the presence of so many GPS-enabling gadgets, it is no longer possible to derive the kind of satisfaction available to Columbus, or to Xuan Zang (born Chen Yi, c. 602-664), a Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler and translator.

Concerned about the incomplete and misinterpreted nature of the Buddhist texts that existed in China in his time, Xuan Zang decided to visit India, and started the journey when he was 26.

One can only imagine the intensity of the zeal that sustained this young man through his journey across some of the most hostile and inclement regions on earth. He went through Turpan, Karasahr, Kucha and Aksu before crossing the Tianshan's Bedel Pass into modern Kyrgyzstan. He then skirted Issyk Kul, continuing west and then southwest to Tashkent, and from there crossed the desert further west to Samarkand and modern Afghanistan and India.

He was not the first nor the last to attempt such a trip in ancient times, but I doubt if any of my contemporaries could be capable of this feat. We have many advantages, but we lack the devotion that empowered Xuan Zang.

A 30-episode documentary series tracing the Silk Road (made by NHK in the 1980s) affords a glimpse into the kind of hardships Xuan Zang might have undergone, particularly in traversing the snow-covered Pamirs that took a month to cross.

No pains, no gains

In Wu Cheng'en's "The Journey to the West" a fictionalized version of Xuan Zang has a magical fixer in the form of the all-powerful Monkey King.

But how did the real Xuan Zang manage the trip without such help? Where did he sleep? What did he eat? We have no clue today.

As a matter of fact, if you look through Xuan Zang's "Great Tang Records on the Western Regions," you find the text restricted mostly to observations of Buddhist interests, with few mentions of the personal hardships he experienced.

For Xuan Zang, satisfaction came from Buddhism and the over six hundred volumes of Buddhist sutras he brought back to China and then had translated.

I was enchanted by the sights and people Xuan Zang might have encountered in his journey. When one of the NHK crew's trucks got stuck in snow in a Tibetan village in Ladakh in Kashmir, a group of local children volunteered to help push it out. The crew discovered that all the children had small hand-held baskets with coal burning underneath their robes. The simple children all had smiles so pure and angelic that you begin to understand why in Buddhism the Pamirs are said to be a land with the purity of white lotus flowers.

It was also consoling to learn from the series that a village in Leh showed no visible changes compared with a drawing made by Sven Hedin (1865-1952) in 1906. By contrast, lacking faith and dependent on modern amenities, modern people take too seriously their petty gains and losses and fancy themselves "too smart" for any hardships that do not "pay." They have been enslaved by the comforts they take for granted.

In out consumerist society, the rise of organized tourism has ensured that tourists are insulated from the unexpected or the unscripted. Nothing is going to happen that is not scheduled to happen. Nothing is left to chances and everything is under control.

Ironically, when our inner light is dimmed, however eagerly we pursue exoticism and excitement as an antidote to our workaday conventionality, our actual satisfaction is often little more than the kick from a roller-coaster ride in an amusement park.

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