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Yuan Tian travels in India, where she found the joy of positive energy. Yuan Tian / for China Daily
White-collar worker quit job to start a journey of self-discovery, fulfillment
Four o'clock in the morning and a slim Chinese woman jumps off a truck stacked with cabbage in the wilds of Kenya, her face covered with dust from the road and around her nothing but darkness.
For many it could be a moment of worry, alone in a foreign land, but for 27-year-old Yuan Tian it was another part of a great adventure that took her deep into the culture of the African 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 most primitive tribes of the country, which most travelers may never see."
Jack Kerouac's On the Road with its tales of a trip across the United States inspired generations of Americans and Europeans to travel. Now Yuan Tian hopes do the same in China with her African travel story.
"Many Chinese fly over 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, Shenzhen-based Yuan was working in the offices of a financial company, earning an enviable salary compared to many of her contemporaries. In material terms she was well off, but despite this she often questioned if 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," she says. "I didn't want to repeat the same work day after day."
She became increasingly unhappy with her situation and eventually, after much thought, made the bold move to quit her job and travel, heading first to India.
"My whole family was 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 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 one, people would express their emotions 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 around 15,000 copies in half a year, which is a good start for an unknown author, according to Li Mei, an editor with Beijing Fonghong Media.
"Her book is quite different from others, as she has described her inner 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."
Family and many of Yuan's friends were unable to understand why she would give up a stable career to travel and write, but He Yuan, her friend of more than a decade, was supportive.
"She has always been willing to take risky challenges," he says. "When we went to Macao to bungee jump, some friends didn't dare try. She tried it once, thought it wasn't exciting enough, and then tried again."
He describes her as being like a cloud completely unpredictable and floating everywhere. Yuan likes the description and says anywhere could be perfect.
The India trip solidified Yuan's desire to travel and write, and last summer she began her second adventure, this time across Kenya. For over three months she explored the country and worked as a volunteer in the Kibera slums. Now she plans to publish a book on the experience called Kenya, Tamu Sana (which means 'Kenya is very sweet' in Swahili)
"I didn't feel sweet 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 the Kibera area of Nairobi, the world's second largest slum, she encountered quite a different situation. Her job there was to help with documentary interviews as part of a project set up by 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 spirit and strive 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 transportation 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 his piece and when Yuan asked why, he explained that he was saving the other part for another friend who may not have had money to buy food that day.
"While they cannot even eat enough themselves, they still save food for other people, which touched me greatly," Yuan says.
People travel for different reasons: some to see grand architecture, others to experience nature and some to try new food. But 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," she says.
She says most Indian people she met focused on spirituality more than her Chinese contemporaries, but the Kenyans she met were more similar to the Chinese in their want for material wealth. 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.
(China Daily 04/05/2013 page5)