By Chen Yingying (China Features)
Unlike most Chinese retirees who stay at home helping their children, Zhang Guangzhu and Wang Zhongjin, grandparents of a 7-year-old boy in Beijing, backpack around the world.
They started in 2007 when the couple came across a 60-year-old Australian backpacker who was traveling alone in the Meili Snow Mountains in China's southwestern Yunnan Province. "I remember thinking if foreigners can travel to China alone, why can't we go to their countries on our own? “ says Zhang.
Zhang retired from China Huaneng Group, a state-owned power generation enterprise, in 2008. He says, "Staying at home every day is not the life we want."
In March of 2008, Zhang, 62, and his wife, 59, headed for the airport, carrying 30-kilogram backpacks. Qatar Airways took them to Athens where they began an 88-day, 16- country trip including Greece, Italy, Norway, and Germany.
Before this trip, the couple spent about six months learning daily English, and brief history and culture about these countries.
"I feel young when I carry my backpack," says Zhang.
Their bags carried Lonely Planet guides, printed tour guides, an emergency English book, an electric English dictionary, a 10-inch laptop, GPS receiver, digital video camera, battery chargers, an electromagnetic pan and an electric cooker.
He says, "Thanks to all that stuff we made it through,"
"During this trip, we were impressed by the different cultures and couldn't wait to take another trip to see more outside China," says Wang.
Their shoes were worn out and their savings of about 100,000 yuan (15,000 US dollars) were used up. Yet their desire for new places did not abate. They plan to spend their retirement money visiting 25 countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas in the rest of their lives.
“We even considered selling our apartment if our bank deposit runs out one day,” says Zhang. Their 2-bedroom apartment in Beijing Fengtai District is currently worth at least one million yuan.
“When we were young, we worked hard to make both ends meet, with no extra money for travel,” Zhang says. “Now is the best time in our life for us to travel around the world as individual backpacker. ”
These grandparents are not alone. Chinese outbound tourists spent 42 billion US dollars last year, according to the Annual Report of China’s Outbound Tourism of 2009 released by China Tourism Academy, a research institution of the National Tourism Administration.
The latest figures from www.Qunar.com, China’s largest travel information search engine, revealed that although group tours are still major part of outbound tourism, some 30 percent of Chinese tourists are choosing to travel on their own in the first half of this year.
The latest figures from the National Tourism Administration reveal that number of outbound tourists keeps climbing, hitting 47.7 million in 2009. Or it has multiplied by more than eight times since 1997 when the State Council endorsed the regulations that officially allow Chinese citizens to travel abroad.
Professor Li Xinjian, dean of the faculty of tourism management in Beijing International Studies University notes that deep changes in Chinese society have brought attention to peoples' desire for leisure.
"Economic development allows more people to travel. The proportion of individual tourists will increase, as tourists begin to seek more relaxation rather than cursory sight-seeing in their travel,” he says.
About ten years ago, he noted that most outbound Chinese tourists had to apply a business travel through travel agencies, and travel abroad as with a group tour.
Feng Jin, from the national travel agency CYTS (China Youth Travel Service ), says that now 139 countries and regions are currently open to Chinese tourists. And more than 20 countries and areas offer individual tourist visas to eligible Chinese applicants.
Hei Jian, 40, was bitten by the global travel bug in junior high school. He was influenced by the travel notes of the Taiwanese novelist Echo Chan (Sanmao). Nine years ago in 2001 when he first applied for a business travel visa to the European Union, the documents he had to prepare ranged from recommendation letter from his employer to the household register of his family. "Travel abroad today is much easier than ten years ago."
A frugal traveler, He has traveled to 65 countries and spent on average less than 5,000 yuan (735 US dollars) per country. "I save a lot from transportation and accommodation," he says. "Zero dollar" airline tickets (a special-offer ticket to promote sales), youth hostels the homes of the friends he meets on tour help him save money. "Also, I don't shop for luxuries. I prefer small, local craft souvenirs."
He Jian writes economic travel tips and travel experiences on his blog, Walking Through 40 Countries, one of the top ten sites at one of China's most popular blog sites, blog.sina.com.cn. His entries about his journey to North Korea have had over 200,000 readers since they were published in 2008. "I hope the experiences and tips I
wrote encourage more young Chinese to see the world."
China's top travel information website, Economic Travel Net (Go2eu.com) offers travel tips, itineraries, and experiences of outbound tours written by Chinese travelers. Chinese students studying abroad and white collar workers in China or abroad are the majority of the website's visitors. According to the website, economic travel means
not just saving money, but also backpacking, freedom, and simplicity in a journey.
Li Ziran is a member of Economic Travel Net. The 26-year-old Chinese woman became fascinated with global travel in elementary school, when she saw many foreign scenery photos at home and was infatuated with the Santorini islands in Greece.
During her sophomore year in Beijing Polytechnic University, she would go to the Beijing Capital International Airport and stare at the rolling information board, dreaming of the day she would be on a plane flying abroad.
"I imagined that the planes were taking me abroad to see the world, flying from one city to another, to places where I am a total stranger." she says.
She finally got a chance to go abroad after she graduated and landed a job in 2006. This year, she traveled to Malaysia with her parents, who run a company in Beijing. "I will never stop chasing my dream," she says..
As for the grandparents Zhang Guangzhu and Wang Zhongjin, they are preparing for a trip to South America, where Mayan civilization is a big attraction to them.
In the meantime, the couple are making their will for the disposition of their property after their death. “You know, we don’t want to make a mess of it to the family if anything unexpected happens to us on the road, ” says Wang.
“So that we always leave a will at home before we go on a new journey.”