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Road to serenity

Updated: 2013-04-05 10:49
By Chen Yingqun ( China Daily)

Road to serenity

Yuan Tian poses with local residents when she was travelling in Maralal, Kenya. Provided to China Daily

 Road to serenity

Yuan with school pupils in Kibera, Kenya. Provided to China Daily

When Yuan Tian quit a secure job to travel, many of her family and friends questioned her judgment. But the writer has no regrets over a decision that changed the course of her career and her life

Four o'clock in the morning and a slim Chinese woman jumps off a truck piled with cabbages in the wilds of Kenya, her face covered with road dust and nothing but darkness around her. For many it could be a worrying moment, alone in a foreign land, but for Yuan Tian, 27, it was another part of a great adventure that took her deep into the culture of the country.

"That was the best part of traveling in Kenya," she says, speaking from a cafe in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. "I got to see the tribes of the country, which most travelers may never see."

Jack Kerouac's On the Road inspired generations of Americans and Europeans to travel, with its tales of a trip across the United States. Now Yuan Tian hopes do the same in China, with her African travel story.

"Many Chinese fly over to Kenya to see the wonder of animal migrations every year," she says. "But Kenya not only has animals, it also has brilliant culture and sincere people, which are the more touching and impressive things about this country."

Two years ago, Yuan, from Shenzhen, was working in the office of a financial company, earning a salary considerably larger than many of her age. Materially she was well off, but despite this she often questioned whether she was truly happy and whether there was more to life.

"I felt that I didn't belong there, that this was not the real me. I didn't want to repeat the same work day after day."

She became increasingly unhappy and eventually, after much thought, decided to quit her job and travel, heading first to India.

"My whole family were shocked; they thought I was crazy," she says. "But the trip to India was like a rebirth, which helped me find the courage to face the real me inside. Moreover, before that, I didn't know whether I could be a travel writer, but this trip helped me to find my future direction."

Yuan spent three months in India, the most memorable experience being a month volunteering at a meditation center, an experience she says helped her get to know herself and gave her courage to face the future.

Every day there were two meditation sessions, for an hour each morning and another after work. During the first people would express their emotions in any way they wished, often through dance, screaming and even crying, as long as they did not touch other people. During the second session they would relax and try to shake off life's burdens.

"I felt that I was refreshed with new energy and let go of all the negative emotions," she says. "I'm more honest with myself now and can take things more calmly."

Yuan's first book, a record of her travel and emotional change in India, sold about 15,000 copies in six months, which is a good start for an unknown author, says Li Mei, an editor with Beijing Fonghong Media Co Ltd.

"Her book is quite different from others, as she has described her mind and her thoughts about many things, which could have some resonance with her audience," Li says. "Moreover, her path is different from others. When she first left, she was in confusion, but when she returned, she was full of positive energy."

Even though family and many of Yuan's friends were unable to understand why she would give up a stable career to travel and write, He Yuan, her friend of more than a decade, was supportive.

"She has always been willing to take on risky challenges," he says. "When we went to Macao to bungee jump, some friends didn't dare to try. She tried it once, thought it wasn't exciting enough, and then tried again."

He describes her as being like a cloud -unpredictable and floating everywhere. Yuan likes the description and says anywhere could be perfect.

The India trip solidified her desire to travel and write and last summer she began her second adventure, across Kenya. Over three months she explored the country and worked as a volunteer in the Kibera area of Nairobi slums. Now she plans to publish a book on the experience called Kenya, Tamu Sana (Swahili, meaning: Kenya is very sweet).

"I didn't feel happy in Kenya at first, but after experiencing all the sourness and bitterness and then looking back, I just find everything sweet," she says.

Her favorite part of the country was the less developed northern areas where tribal culture remains strong. With few roads or tourists in the region, her means of travel was hitching a ride with missionaries.

"To me this culture was from another planet," she says. "We saw local warriors decorated with chicken feathers and sleeping in straw huts. The region is a desert and every family raises their own animals."

Working for a month as a volunteer in Kibera, the world's second largest slum, she encountered a quite different situation. Her job there was to help with documentary interviews as part of a project set up by the US film director Nathan Collett, which aimed to cultivate potential actors, following the shooting of his movie Kibera Kid.

The reaction of local people to the work was not as Yuan had imagined.

"They don't count on anyone to change their lives," she says. "I think Kenyan people have the spirit of exerting and striving hard without any let-up, which wasn't what I expected."

Yuan recalls staying at a friend's house in Nairobi when there was a transport strike. A friend left the house and returned with a corncob, which was broken into four pieces for the people in the house. One person ate just half of their piece and when Yuan asked why, he explained that he was saving the other part for another friend who might not have had money to buy food that day.

"While they cannot even feed themselves, they still save food for other people, which touched me greatly," Yuan says.

For Yuan, the main purpose of travel is to meet people.

"Although there was a lot of beautiful scenery to see, the thing that left the most lasting impression on me was things that happened and talking to people on my way from destination A to B."

In her books she aims to enlighten readers about people, rather than places.

"We may have a stereotype about a country, and people there may see us in a certain way," she says. "I want people to learn more about culture and people than scenery."

While she prepares to launch her new book, Yuan is also working on the translation of The White Masai, an autobiographical novel by German writer Corinne Hofmann.


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