By Ngan Nguyen.
Robert Louis Stevenson, one of my favourite authors, wrote “Youth is the time to go flashing from one end of the world to the other – both in mind and body.” I totally agree with his idea, and for me, travel has certainly changed and shaped who I am today.
Media, such as television, newspapers, or the radio were full of stories about the dangerous Uyghur Muslim “terrorists” and the perils of travelling through western China. So, I was extremely careful when cycling across the Xinjiang region with my partner in the summer of 2015. This was my first long journey abroad, and it took us twelve months to travel from Vietnam to England. I remember once, as we stopped not far from a train station, a group of heavily armed soldiers passing by us. A Han woman took a picture of them. To my surprise, a soldier immediately grabbed her phone and deleted the picture. The station was in lockdown with soldiers shouting and pointing their guns at civilians. An old woman who didn’t follow their orders was grabbed by a soldier and pushed roughly onto the pavement. There were many checkpoints on the road. Sometimes, we were asked to stop to have our passports checked by the police and plain clothes officers.
However, from my perspective, the Uyghur people were extremely friendly. Most of them lived in small towns and in the countryside while the Han Chinese people occupied the big cities. The locals and the Han incomers live very separate lives; there seemed to be little interaction between the two communities. We stopped at local shops to rest and have lunch to avoid the terrible heat, which must have been more than 45 degrees Celsius. Even though language barriers prevented us from communicating well with the locals, their smiles won our hearts. A Uyghur police officer stopped us on the highway to check our passports, but after that, he gave us some drinks to make sure that we wouldn’t run short of water in this isolated desert. I don’t want to get too political because this topic is sensitive, so I’ll just report what I saw: tanks, soldiers armed with big guns patrolling the streets, a huge row of army vehicles on the empty road, weapons carried on trains in the middle of the desert in Xinjiang, and now – according to reports – “reeducation [concentration] camps” somewhere.
Another matter which I should mention is the way the media spread fear to people about Iran – George Bush’s so called “Axis of Evil” which has suffered under economic sanctions for decades. As a woman travelling through this country who was compelled to cover my hair, I was reluctant to observe the customs of this country, which has strong religious observance and unequal gender rights. Men seemed to ignore me and only approached to speak to my (male) partner. However, what I felt after staying there for more than forty days was how wonderful the Iranian people are. Their kindness was astonishing, and their hospitality might surprise any traveler. They invited us to sleep in their houses, although it was illegal to have a foreigner to stay, and offered us free fruits and drinks while we were pedaling in the heat. I remember once when we were looking for a camping site, we spotted a man who brought us to his house where we had a wonderful feast with most of his family members. Although they were clearly not well off and the two younger brothers were struggling truck drivers with unpaid salaries due, they opened their homes to us. Wherever we went, Iranian people welcomed us with big friendly smiles; this country was the last place where we received such amazing hospitality before entering Europe.
Last but not least is what I saw in Europe, especially in Italy and France, which would totally destroy anyone’s dreams of living in these so-called developed countries. To people from developing countries, they think Europe is the land of dreams. But they don’t know what happens here. There were so many people in terrible situations. Take this case as an example: I saw many young African women standing on the roadside waiting for male customers in drizzling rain on a very gloomy day in late autumn on the road outside of Rome. A friend of mine who worked for the UN explained that those women had no choice because their families in their hometowns were threatened to make sure they complied. In addition, there were too many young jobless people begging next to convenience stores or on the streets. Can you imagine how their lives are in the winter? Those big cities such as Paris or Rome are romantic places for tourists; however, they are very different place for immigrants.
There were so many stories on the road; the people whom we met and their stories gave me different points of view about life. I should reveal one little thing; I used to work in the media, and I understand quite well how marketing and social media target its users. That’s enough for me to understand the traps which they can set for those unwitting users who take everything they see online at face value and fail to critically evaluate what they access online and in print. Without a doubt, travelling has opened my eyes and revealed to me how little I know about this world.