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Interviewing Hong Mei | Roaming India on a Chinese Gap Year
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Interviewing Hong Mei | Roaming India on a Chinese Gap Year

Picture of Sophia Francis
Updated: 12 October 2016
In recent years, there has been an intriguing increase in ‘gap year’ journeys amongst the Chinese population. An unprecedented number of avid travellers, backpackers and cultural explorers have resigned from their jobs in search of what can be described as adventurous journeys to unexplored territory, taking their savings and discovering unknown destinations. We explore this truly remarkable trend and find out more about Hong Mei’s unique journey through India.
Hong Mei’s book cover © Hong Mei
Hong Mei’s book cover | © Hong Mei

Could you explain the recent growing trend of ‘gap year’ trips amongst the Chinese?

‘It’s a kind of paradox. Discontented Western students in the 1960s who wanted to escape their middle-class trappings by travelling like gypsies to undeveloped countries such as India are generally credited as the pioneers of backpacking and gap years. Meanwhile, in 1960s China, our government was persecuting middle class ‘bourgeoisie’ during the Cultural Revolution and forcing Chinese students from the cities to the rural countryside to live like peasants. Now 50 years later, China has become the fastest growing economy in the world, and has the second-most millionaires in the world. To be considered middle class’ is glorious, yet so many people from my generation (post-80s) are also striving to escape traditional trappings such as marriage and careers. I count myself among the ‘newly liberated Chinese’; since graduating college I have quit my job twice to take a year off to travel, with the most recent occasion being a year backpacking across India.’

Hong Mei writing her travel diary in Goa © Hong Mei
Hong Mei writing her travel diary in Goa | © Hong Mei

What were your prior experiences of backpacking? Have you undertaken anything of this level in the past?

India was the first time I had ever travelled outside of China, but the very first time I had travelled anywhere in my life was just a couple years prior, when I quit my first job to go backpacking across China’s 33 provinces. I spent nearly a year on the road, travelling from Tibet in West China to Heilongjiang in the distant north-east, and everywhere in between. That trip was my true test as a fledgling backpacker, and it wasn’t any easier just because I’m Chinese. Most people don’t know that Mandarin is not commonly spoken outside of China’s major cities, so the trip was just as much of a challenge for me as it would be any Westerner. And the fact that I had even less money than the average Western traveller really made it a hard journey. But it opened my eyes to my own culture and made me fall in love with travelling, which is why for my next destination I was intent on backpacking across all of India.’

The Ganges River © Hong Mei
The Ganges River | © Hong Mei

You must have learned and experienced so much of a culture that was less familiar to you. What were some fascinating notable experiences of the Indian culture that you encountered on your travels?

‘Even though China shares borders with India, it is probably one of the least-familiar cultures among us. The reason is mostly political, there’s been an intense rivalry between Chinese and Indian governments for the past several decades that it has been purposely blacked out of all our media and pop culture. To us, India is just some mythical land from Chinese classical literature. I had absolutely no preconceptions of Indian culture before I arrived, so you can image how awe-struck I was. The level of spirituality affected me the most; China is not a ‘religious’ society, and as a result we have become a very superficial and materialistic society. So India’s religious diversity and multitude of spiritual festivals, such as Kumbh Mela, really left a profound impression on me. It was also quite spectacular to witness ‘the world’s largest democracy’ in action; I saw protests and elections and other political activism by the people that in China would get you disappeared’.

We are interested in your access to some of India’s more restricted locations. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

‘Many of India’s land borders, including Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, as well as Andaman Islands, require special permits for foreigners. But for we Chinese, because India’s borders are hotly disputed by China’s government, these areas are totally off limits. But some places made acceptations for me. In Odisha, a state in Eastern Indian, all foreigners need an authorized guide to visit the southern tribal regions, but my guide refused to take me because I’m Chinese; there’s a rumour that the Chinese government are funding and training the Naxal-Maoist guerrillas who are based in the jungles there. I had to swear I wasn’t a spy or terrorist. Even after he agreed to take me, to avoid suspicion I had to tell anyone who asked us that I was Japanese. While I was down there, the roads were shut down by the Naxals, a train was blown up, and a mayor’s wife was kidnapped. It was an exciting visit. Early in the year, I wanted to go up to the Sunni Muslim tribal deserts along the Pakistan border in Gujarat West India. Permits for non-Indians are required there as well, but I was informed that no Chinese were allowed. I applied anyway, and was surprised when I was approved. The issuing officer said I was the first Chinese to ever be officially granted a permit, so it felt like I had made history.’

Gadaba tribal woman in Orissa
Gadaba tribal woman in Orissa | © Hong Mei

Planning and executing a long-term backpack journey is not easy. How did you prepare, and what sorts of difficulties did you experience throughout the course of your journey?

‘The embassy really dislikes that I tell this story, but the most difficult part of my journey across India was staying in India. We Chinese can only get a visa to India for a couple months at most – which is more than enough for the average tourist who only wants to spend a week or so visiting the famous sites. But when I first applied for a visa, I was only given one month! I panicked because this was less than a week before my flight. So I hurried back to the embassy in Beijing and plead for an extension. They were nice and gave me two extra months, but even three months isn’t enough when your plan is to backpack ALL of India. So the money that would have lasted me at least a couple years in India I had to spend on flights back to China every few months to renew my visa. And even that wasn’t easy; the consulate was very suspicious about why I wanted to keep going back to India (there’s decades-old tension between China and India’s governments). So, politics and bureaucracy killed my savings. After a year, I had to go home instead of keep travelling. Visas, not money, are the main reason why you still don’t see many Chinese backpackers abroad.’

Hong Mei book signing in Shanghai © Hong Mei
Hong Mei book signing in Shanghai | © Hong Mei

Your book The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me documents your journey across India. Can you tell us about the process of writing and publishing this travelogue?

‘It’s not something I ever anticipated. I had never written anything before this! I kept a couple leather-bound diaries with me in India, just something to jot down my observations and travel notes. I’d paste in my ticket stubs, food packages and other local ephemera. That journey, and my journals, were personal to me; I didn’t even keep a blog. I could not expect that someday I’d be doing media interviews about it. When I got back to China the following year, I noticed that travelogues by other Chinese backpackers were becoming very popular. But none of them had written extensively about India except for a few who spent maybe a week in Rajasthan or Taj Mahal. And here I was sitting on a whole book about India! So I spent a good many months rewriting my diaries into a long-form narrative, then sent the manuscript to a literary agent in Shanghai. Within a week they had several offers from local publishers who wanted to get in on this hot new genre. Now that my book has established itself here in China, I am considering having it translated for other Asian book markets, maybe also some regional Indian languages.’

Hong Mei during Holi festival © Hong Mei
Hong Mei during Holi festival | © Hong Mei

How does it feel to be known as the first Chinese woman on record to have backpacked through India? It’s a very impressive feat.

‘It’s been a bittersweet achievement, to be honest. I didn’t even know this fact until my book was published! Chinese and Indian media have been very supportive with their coverage, but the consulates and tourism bureaus less so. Backpacking is not something that governments want to endorse. They generate no revenue from backpackers, who only use public ground transport, stay in the cheapest flophouses, and drift around like debris for long durations. Tourism bureaus cater specifically to middle-class tourists who spend all their money on packaged tours and high-end facilities at designated tourist attractions. But what can we really glean of a country’s heritage and culture when we are trapped on a tour bus or inside some 5-star hotel? If I had just taken a tour, I never would have been able to participate in India’s religious festivities, or witness the political movements, or interact with the tribal groups. No, for me, backpacking is the only way to really travel. But in the eyes of tourism bureaus, backpackers will always be pariahs, pun intended (the term ‘pariah’ is derived from one of India’s lowest castes).’

Finally, what is next on your agenda? Are you planning to undertake any further journeys?

‘Well, before my book was published I said that I’d like to return to India to travel and write about the restricted regions in Northeastern India I was prevented from travelling to before because I’m Chinese. But since I’ve publicly talked to the media about the fact that my ethnicity prevented me from being able to travel to these places, I kind of upset the consulars and senior ministry officers who would have been the ones to grant me permission there. So I guess I’ll look to other countries in Asia. The thing is, China has political and geographical disputes with ALL of its neighbouring nations; in becoming a superpower, we’ve also become a superbully (sorry about that!). So, honestly, as a backpacker and being Chinese, I’m not sure where I am welcome…’