China / Life

A retirement home on wheels

By Xu Lin (China Daily) Updated: 2016-02-03 08:24

Hou Yingqian felt searing pain when she regained consciousness.

The 67-year-old didn't realize her spine was dislocated but knew she couldn't move her neck.

She also realized her RV had rolled over, crumpling its nose and door.

Hou and her husband, Zhang Zhiwu, 67, had been racing across Russia to reach Europe before their visas expired.

It had been a longstanding dream to travel the continent together.

But that dream dimmed when they struck the lamppost.

Still, the couple were back on the road in a new RV a year later.

"It's a lifestyle," Zhang says.

"It suits old people. We have time and savings. We want to travel at our own pace rather than with group tours."

The retired lawyer from Liaoning province's Dalian city has spent the past half-decade RVing through China and over 30 countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

Zhang turned the stories behind the 100,000 miles he'd racked up into a book in 2013. He's working on another about RVing to Europe.

Zhang and Hou focused on their careers and grandchildren until recently.

Hou watched their newborn grandson while Zhang first explored Europe in 2012, even though it was his dream to take her to the Eiffel Tower and Coliseum.

He'd often meet elderly couples on the road.

One day in Switzerland, a local couple asked Zhang where his wife was by pointing at his wedding ring and his empty passenger seat.

Zhang pantomimed to try to explain she was raising their grandson, as Chinese grandparents traditionally do.

The man then pointed at his wedding ring and watch.

Zhang understood - they should be traveling together.

"I know he meant we don't have much time left, so we must cherish it," Zhang recalls.

Two year later, the couple was on their way to Europe when the accident stopped them in their tracks. The following year, they hit the road again.

"The sceneries are endless," Hou says.

"Our home on wheels enables us to go where we want and when we want. We constantly have new neighbors."

Hou flew home after six months. Zhang continued through Turkey, Iran and India.

He barely speaks any foreign language and relies on body language and Google Translate.

"Toilet" is the most important English word, he says. He learned it from a French hitchhiker.

"I always meet warmhearted people who help," he says.

A Chinese couple in their 30s invited him to stay a week in their home in Sofia, Bulgaria. They drove him around and sent him off with rice and vegetables.

He gave them money. They secretly slipped it back into his pocket.

"They said it was like an elderly relative visited, and they were happy to see it as a family reunion," Zhang says.

Indeed, RVing - a longtime retirement-life staple in the West - is catching on among China's elderly.

"China's RV industry is developing rapidly," Zhang says.

"I notice more Chinese driving RVs to Europe. I hope more Chinese will enjoy this lifestyle."

The Chinese mainland had about 21,000 registered RVs by the end of 2014.

The number of campsites increased from nearly 40 in 2010 to about 500 in 2015, the Chinese Association of Automotive Manufacturers reports. It predicts 10,000 in the next five years.

Zhang's friend Wang Renhe designed his own vehicle and then hired a domestic company to manufacture it in 2006.

The 61-year-old retired university professor from Jiangsu province's capital, Nanjing, points out that many Chinese mistake the lifestyle as reserved for the rich.

"We save lots of money on food and accommodation, and can drive to scenic spots that are hard to reach by public transportation," Wang says.

"I'm confident about China's RVing because of government support and growing awareness."

He drove three times to the base camp of Qomolangma, known as Mount Everest in the West.

"The world becomes your backyard garden (with RVs)," he says.

His wife says it has changed her.

"You learn things you can't in school," 62-year-old Zhou Xiaojing says.

"It has broadened my horizons. The past decade has been more colorful than my first five."

The challenges that come with RVing are part of what make it worthwhile, she believes.

"Flying places is easier," she says.

"But RVing's fun is the process. We face many difficulties, like language. But we feel joy and a sense of achievement through resolving them."

 A retirement home on wheels

Top: Wang Renhe and Zhou Xiaojing at the Tanggula Mountain Pass on the QinghaiTibet Highway. Above: Zhang Zhiwu and Hou Yingqian, who traveled to Europe in their RV in 2015. Photos Provided To China Daily

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