Xiaopeng

Overall Rating: 4
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Story
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Style
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Author: Xiao Peng (小鹏)
Title: Ten Years Of Backpacking (背包十年)
Time: 2001
Destination:  China, The Netherlands, UK, France, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Maledives, Philippines, Tunesia, Canada, Tahiti, USA, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Russia, UAE, Cambodia, South Africa,
Length: 10 years
Type: backpacking

all that is wrong

The story: in the early 2000s, Xiaopeng is a young Chinese white-collar worker who decides to see the world. He travels around China, then ends up as an exchange student in the Netherlands. From there, he sets out to do the Grand Tour of Europe.

Upon his return to China, he gets involved with the media, and subsequently travels to many places, sometimes as a journalist, sometimes as a writer, sometimes as a sort of “cultural ambassador”. This book is about his journeys.

little stories with an extra topping

There is hardly a storyline here. The book is made up of more than 80 chapters, each of which is dealing with a destination, usually within in a few paragraphs; Xiaopeng visits a museum, Xiaopeng sleeps outside near the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Xiaopeng rides a boat down a river in the Himalayas.

There is a bit more than just that though. Each chapter is accompanied by a meta-text printed in italics. Within these meta-texts, Xiaopeng usually gives us some background information about how or why he went to a certain place, about his views on traveling or on life in general, or about things like financing a journey or dealing with sickness.

And he actually writes pretty well – at least he keeps it concise, and some of his metaphors are fun to read.

Then why didn’t I like this book then?

Xiao Peng’s three sins

There are three things that are wrong with this book:

  1. It seems overly commercial. More often than not, Xiaopeng’s writing reads just like a travel guide. There is one part where he describes a luxury hotel with such detail that you could wonder if he is being sponsored by the hotel.
  2. It lacks in content. Yes, Xiaopeng does travel to a lot of places, and he describes them, too. But I was missing stories, conflicts, reappearing characters, or just that particular piece of information that you wouldn’t be able to grab from an encyclopaedia. I’m not saying that there was no content here whatsoever. It was just too little.
  3. It’s often condescending. Xiaopeng keeps on lecturing us about how to do things. How to travel. How to behave in a foreign country. How to be nice to people. Uhum. Reading on, I couldn’t help but think that this was in fact not a travel book at all. It was more like a travel guide for people who have never traveled.

There are instances where Xiaopeng says things like:

“I want to tell the youth who are following in my footsteps that freedom and dreams – even if they seem unreachable – only call for perseverance, and they will not be just castles in the air.” 我想告诉走在我身后的年轻人,自由与梦想,虽然看似遥不可及,但是只要坚持,就不是空中楼阁。

Or:

“…actually, the thing that I like most and at which I am best, is simply traveling, and documenting my travels in order to share them with friends. If this counts as a line of work, then I can be more dedicated and more excellent at it than anybody else.” (…原来我最喜欢最擅长的却只是旅行,然后再把旅行记录和朋友分享。如果这算一种职业,我能做得比任何人都要敬业和出色。)

Ouch.

So what went wrong here?

The plan

I think here’s probably what happened. Some publishers approached Xiaopeng and told him: Listen, we’re going to grab a bunch of your blog entries and articles and turn them into a book real quick. We’re going to need you to add a few lines to each one, just to patch them all together! Oh, and your persona should be a kind of “guru” for all the Chinese readers who have never traveled, you dig?

Xiaopeng said yes, and this book is the result.

It’s a shame to think that this guy is a seasoned traveler with a mind of his own and a (mostly) likeable writer’s voice. He should try to come up with something more substantial. I would definitely read that.

But no more of this stuff.

who might want to read this

Xiaopeng’s feat of backpacking around China and Europe is negligible. His storytelling is generally weighed down by a lack of content, but his writing style is pretty good sometimes. There isn’t much in terms of observations and insights in this book.

If you want to read about a Chinese backpacker’s experience of China and Europe, you could give this one a try.

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