It’s a long journey from Maastricht in the south of the Netherlands to the Chinese capital Beijing, especially when you use your thumbs to power the trip. But students Shaokang Li and Dandan Zhang managed it – hitchhiking across 13 countries and 40 cities in Europe and Asia in a journey that took them 63 days and opened their eyes to the world.
A year has passed since their grand voyage home. Curious about their experience and their new life, RNW’s China Desk went to visit the young couple in Beijing.
“The journey reshaped my world view”
“In October 2011, my girlfriend Dandan and I both graduated from Maastricht University. Student life had been so busy and intense for us that we hadn’t had time to really look at the world we live in. So we decided to take a slow journey back to Beijing,” says Shaokang. “We wanted to see with our own eyes the countries between China and the Netherlands. We wanted to observe the people and experience life on the road. It was an impulsive decision.”
“When I was a child, I always imagined what life and people in other places of the world were like. Our journey was the result of that imagining. The trip wasn’t carefully planned. With our Dutch residence permits we were able to travel freely through Europe, but we didn’t even have entry visas for most Asian countries.”
Despite the uncertainties, Dandan and Shaokang began their journey. From the Netherlands, they went first to Germany, then to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Rumania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, and finally reached China. The tensest part of the 63-day journey was being escorted by armed police through Pakistan until they crossed the border.
“I think travelling is a personal experience. Like peeling an onion, my thoughts and feelings emerged gradually along the way. There are different layers of impressions and memories,” Shaokang reflects. “The journey reshaped my world view as well as the way I carry myself in my surroundings. There are always a lot of uncertainties. Individual happiness and sorrows are insignificant compared to the wide world we live in. I try to approach the world with modesty and understanding. We are not the centre of the world.”
China is the place to be
After the journey, Dandan and Shaokang settled down in Beijing. Both have found good jobs, and they plan to get married next year. Dandan told us that family ties pulled them back to China. But even more importantly, China's economy is becoming stronger, and they believe they can realise their potential in their own country. “We find ourselves in a more familiar environment here, and we are more competitive here than in the Netherlands,” she says.
Shaokang agrees with Dandan that it is easier to pursue their ambitions in China, and their experience studying abroad is an advantage. “Overseas experience is not devalued as people think nowadays. It was overrated before, but now people begin to see such experience more rationally.”
Like other young people in Beijing, Dandan and Shaokang are facing plenty of difficulties. Housing prices have soared over the past decade and an apartment is beyond the means of most young couples alone. Social security, pension and other welfare issues are also big concerns for young people in China.
But Dandan and Shaokang are fighting not to give in to these pressures. “Young people in Europe are more willing to express themselves. They also have the guts to do what they want,” says Shaokang, “but young people in China are troubled by the insecurities in everyday life. We are strained, uncertain and dissatisfied. This should not be the case. While we are dealing with everyday pressures, we should also preserve some ideals for ourselves and cultivate our minds.”
Do they miss the Netherlands then? “Of course,” they laugh, recalling memories of their time in Maastricht. They hope they can return to the Netherlands one day and say what they miss most is the relaxed Dutch lifestyle. Dutch people enjoy chatting and will smile at strangers, whereas in Beijing people are too tense to be friendly.
But they’re determined to look to the future. “What I have done is already in the past”, says Shaokang, “yet the future remains unknown. That’s what makes life exhilarating. I don’t know what is waiting for me in the future, but I do know that I love my life, I love those who love me, and I love living in the world.”