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Why do people travel? The art of reinventing yourself

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy. Photo: iStock The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isahan, Iran.
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The tourism business makes many promises. Your destination will be unspoilt, romantic, filled with adventure and banana pancakes, rich in giant Buddhas and fairytale castles, rife with cheerful locals and bargain-priced leather goods. It will be beautiful one day and perfect the next. Yet, somewhere under tourism’s weighty carapace of snow domes, batik, cocktails and coconut palms, you can still feel the beating heart of what it means to travel, and why we travel at all.

The journey is a fundamental human compulsion. We’re restless, sticky-beaking creatures with a nomad’s need to wander. Gustav von Aschenbach​, the central character in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, evokes “This yearning for new and distant scenes, this craving for freedom, release, forgetfulness … an impulse towards flight”. Travel author Jonathan Raban​ suggests a “sense of incompleteness” urges us along the road. “Every journey is a quest of sorts, though few travellers have more than a dim inkling of what it is they’re questing for.”

The journey as quest permeates human cultures and has supplied a chief plot structure in literature for thousands of years. The hero (and, more recently, the heroine) sets out on the road, overcomes dangers and often obtains a talismanic object, then returns home with a sense of fulfilment. The road itself becomes a metaphor for the journey of life, and a symbol of self-discovery and freedom for everyone from ancient Greeks to Hobbits.

The world’s religions talk about the road to salvation and are sympathetic to the idea of travel, despite its nonconformist tendencies. The notion of physical journeying for spiritual benefit is central to Buddhism and Islam, and is frequently practised by Hindus and Christians. The word “holiday” is derived from Christian holy days, and medieval European pilgrimage is arguably the precursor to today’s mass tourism. Medieval tourists set off for Canterbury, Rome or Jerusalem in the hope of spiritual grace. So, too, when we travel, we renounce our lives for a time and set off in search of the spiritual or, at least, regenerative. We visit sites said to be of particular significance and bring back relics in the form of souvenirs.

No surprise, then, that a founder of modern mass tourism, Thomas Cook, was a Baptist minister who thought travel should be morally uplifting. Some of his first tours were to the Holy Land, others to Switzerland, where mountains replaced dead saints during the Romantic era as objects of veneration. Arnold Lunn, the great Victorian tour organiser and rival of Thomas Cook, made it plain: “Men lifted up their eyes to the hills to recover the spiritual values which were clouded by the smoke and grime of the industrial revolution.” The restorative value of nature had been recognised since ancient times. However, the ancient Greeks built temples on hilltops and wellness centres in the countryside.

Although I’m not religious, I find release in journeys and, occasionally, an almost mystic happiness; most recently in Mutawintji National Park in the rocky red Bynguano Ranges near Broken Hill in outback NSW. The still silence of the gorges and their cupped water suggest a kind of magic, and the handprints of Aboriginal people are testament to 8000 years of human presence in this wilderness. In the evening, gum trees are sculptures in orange and the horizon is a dark purple hint of the night to come. As the sun sets, the moon is a cuticle of light in a pale blue sky. In moments such as these, I feel I couldn’t be in a better place.

This is, maybe, what saints and mystics feel when they’re at one with god. In any case, this transcendence of self is a reward of journeying. The great 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho​ set off on his famous journeys as an antidote to depression and soon found his mood lightened, as he was distracted by the passing scenery and changing seasons. His Narrow Road to the Interior is a deft portrayal of travel as a mechanism to cast off ourselves and our worldly trappings, to feel at one with nature, to wander free. It was a theme revisited by the American Beat Generation, whose writers greatly admired Basho’s poems.

Travel is my flight from responsibility, too; my leaving of myself behind. I can think as I please and go where I wish; living is in the moment. Elizabeth Barrett Browning called travel a “surprising riddance of one’s life” and extolled the “perfect solitude of foreign lands”. Oh yes. I can forget myself – transcend myself – when I’m surrounded by beautiful landscapes, interesting people and exotic otherness. Travel is about finding oneself, yet, paradoxically, about losing oneself, too.

The rewards of travel aren’t just spiritual, however. Another important aim of journeying has long been the acquisition of knowledge, an idea that particularly flowered during the era of the 18th-century Grand Tour, devised as an educational experience for the indolent offspring of European aristocracy. Grand tourists set off with a tutor for upwards of 40 months, not only because of the difficulties of travel but because of the amount of study involved. Travellers were expected to learn a new language, polish their Latin and artistic skills and familiarise themselves with great literature. Many took copious notes on architecture, gardening and the arts with an eye to improving their ancestral homes. The notion of travel as education is still alive and well: no coincidence, surely, that France and Italy, fundamental to the Grand Tour, remain among the world’s most-visited destinations.

My first-ever solo journey was to Greece, propelled by the enthusiasm and pretentions of youth. I plundered its ancient literature, scrambled uphill to every temple, peered at every museum amphora that I imagined would somehow make me a sophisticated European. I was a university student, and it was an intellectual journey. Curiously, it was only decades later that I finally made it to Rome: cradle of European culture, seat of the Pope, lodestar of the European romantic and cultural imagination during the era of the Grand Tour. My response was more emotional. I was almost a physical shock to walk past the Roman remains of the Eternal City. I was surprised at the electric current of thrill, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Much of travel is in the mind and Rome loomed large in my attic of cultural clutter.

But education can come in surprising places and isn’t just about accumulating ruins and cathedrals. A visit to Iran opened my eyes to a bigger world than newspapers were inclined to describe: a world of decorous, educated folk, a long and stately civilisation, an architecture of almost sublime beauty. It shifted my viewpoint. Now I hear about extremist Iran on television, but think only of poetry and roses, sloe-eyed people and the smell of flatbread on coals. I think of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, with its filtered light and aquarium-blue tranquillity. The proper journey is one during which you leave your certainties and acquired beliefs at home, and see everything with skew-whiff eyes and in unusual light. To me, one of the supreme joys of travel is that I’m still discovering exceptions to stereotypes, expectations turned upside down, smug cultural assumptions undermined. Travel isn’t just about new destinations but new eyes, as the cliche has it.

People forget that this shift in understanding works both ways, however. It doesn’t just give the visitor new ways to see the world: it may open the eyes of the host as well. This is something sadly forgotten by loutish tourists in Bali and topless sun-bakers on Mediterranean beaches. Go on a journey and you’re an ambassador – whether willing or not – for the country and culture you represent. When I lived in China in the late 1980s, at a time foreigners were scarce and glamorous, I became acutely aware that, for many Chinese, I was the only Westerner they’d ever encountered. I’ve never quite lost the feeling of my own strangeness to other people. The thrill and terror of living in China was that I represented much more than just myself, and at the same time when that self – and all its cultural certainties accepted since birth – was being turned on its head.

All this philosophising can seem precious. My journeying isn’t an overt decision to sit like Byron on a hillside, to make myself a better person, to feel some spiritual connection with the world, to tap my way to nirvana with a pilgrim’s staff. But I like to think that, over the decades, it has just happened anyway. Surely, I’m more enlightened than if I’d just stayed at home like Proust in his bedroom. Surely, remote places, unnerving differences and uplifting beauty have somehow soothed those parts of my troubled psyche that first urged me onwards. Or have they? Perhaps people who travel are people just perennially dissatisfied with the here and now, scratching an itch that never really gets resolved. Happy are they who just stay at home.

Well, either way, the reward of the true journey is that it makes you think. It challenges your perceptions of the world and your place in it, it educates and invigorates, it might even provide solace to the soul. And in my journeying, I’ve found not Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness but amazing places and people, pleasant surprises and the universal sympathy that binds us together in our shared humanity. The world enslaves me with its mysterious delights, and the winding road still beckons.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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