Big Travel, Small Money


By staff reporter GONG HAN


IT was not until she turned 18 that Deng Shen first saw the sea. It was a defining moment that kindled her desire to see more of the world. In the nine years that followed, this young woman from Chengdu finished her undergraduate studies in environmental engineering under a joint China-Germany program, and obtained in Peru a master’s degree in environmental science. She went on to visit 90 or more countries and regions on six continents, during the course of which she learned five languages.



Deng Shen hitchhiked from Kenya to South Africa in 2011, traveling more than 8,000 km over two months.


Now 27, Deng is about to embark on a year-long globetrotting plan. Her Star Alliance Global Ticket will take her westward from Peru to circle the world and traverse 30 or more countries en route. She will carry out interviews with local residents, document different lifestyles and outlooks, compile an album of pictures for use in environmental education, write research reports, and do volunteer work in Africa. This great adventure will achieve her ambition of visiting 100 countries.


A Childhood Dream


As a schoolgirl, international travel seemed beyond Deng Shen’s reach. Her first intimation of the world outside China came from a desk mate in junior middle school. This girl’s father worked for a German company, and had taken her along to several European countries. Listening to her stories of what she saw and experienced abroad fired Deng’s intent to make trips of her own someday.


At age 20, Deng went to Germany as an exchange student for the final two years of her undergraduate program. Exemption from tuition and other fees and the income she legitimately earned from odd jobs enabled Deng to support herself and also amass a travel fund. Her German visa allowed Deng to travel freely in the Schengen region and obtain visas for countries in the Middle East and Africa. After taking vacations in the countries surrounding Germany, she soon ventured to other continents.


Every experience was memorable. To finance her stay in Jordan, Deng sought out an internship at an environmental NGO. And to minimize her living costs, she rented a basement room next to a mosque, whose morning prayer became her daily wake-up call. She was so enraptured at the spectacle of Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls while swimming there that she was almost swept away by its currents. In India she traveled on the famous, or infamous, trains of the populous subcontinent. “My feeling was that just breathing was a joy in itself,” Deng said.


In the process of hopping from one place to another Deng gained more self-confidence. After turning 24 she enrolled in a postgraduate program in Lima, capital of Peru, and began to learn Spanish from scratch. From there she took trips to Latin American and Caribbean countries. Deng has now seen all seven of the world’s wonders. She found Machu Pichu the most impressive.


Traveling has opened up a whole new world for Deng. She remembers being awestruck at her first sight of the starry desert sky at dead of night. “I realized then that there is so much happiness in life that money can’t buy,” she said.


Frugal Travel


Globetrotting is not as expensive as many might think, Deng said. The cost of one year’s living expenses and travel tickets is just RMB 30,000-40,000 – no more than the median cost of living in a Chinese city.


Ahead of each trip Deng would work to save a few thousand bucks. In many instances, though, her savings ran out on the road, and she had to work as she traveled at whatever jobs came her way. She has consequently worked as a waitress, tour guide, factory worker, translator, and sales assistant. She has also written travelogues, including her own photos, for the travel media.


“I am from a working class family, so am instinctively careful about money. I never overdraw on my bank card or ask my parents for money,” Deng said. Although her bank account has never exceeded US $10,000, nor has it reached rock bottom. She always has something to fall back on in times of need.


Deng has done a fair bit of hitchhiking on her travels. For the two months from late 2011 to early 2012 she and a Chinese girl from Guangxi she got to know during a stay in the Middle East traversed five African countries, all on free rides. Their 8,000-km journey started in Kenya, and ended in Cape Town in South Africa, by way of Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. A total of 62 autos stopped for the pair, among them private cars, trucks, vans – even a police car.


This adventure revealed to Deng another Africa, not the backward continent she expected, but a region where sharp-suited professionals drive to work, and where everyone is animated and friendly.



Deng with Mexican children in November 2015.


For safety’s sake, Deng teamed up with other young women for 90 percent of her travels. She has compiled a list of safety tips to share: “When hitchhiking, it’s safest to take a car where a woman is sitting next to the driver. The model of the vehicle and its state of maintenance denote the owner’s social and financial status. As for couchsurfing, peers’ comments are important, and it’s safest to stay with a family that has kids.”


The Great Unknown


Couchsurfing saves money and, more important, gives Deng insight into local life in a foreign country. When at home, she also makes her couch available to travelers. This way she has encountered many “wackos,” including one nudist, and a man from the Caribbean who had fathered 10 children with as many women.


Once Deng stayed at the home – a two-room hut made of plastic sheets – of a cross-dressing computer programmer in Taichung. Deng and her companion got along well with their host, and shared with him a meal of weeds prepared in his makeshift kitchen.


“The beauty of travel lies in seeing the unseen and becoming acquainted with the unknown,” Deng said, “exposed to different ways of life, we become more tolerant of different microcosms. This is maturity.”


During an excursion to Turkey in 2011, Deng received a call from her landlord in Germany. The two suitcases she left there had been taken away by the local Red Cross as unclaimed items. She was devastated by the news because almost all her belongings – clothes, books, collections amassed over past years and her ID card – were in the two cases.


Fortunately the baggage was later retrieved. But that anguished moment on being informed of this loss stayed imprinted on her mind. “One can never distinguish between what is of true value and what is simply a burden until one loses everything,” Deng said.


Consequently, on her return to Germany Deng sorted through her stuff, picking out the essentials and throwing out the rest, most of which were items she thought might one day be of use. She thus reduced her worldly goods to what would take 20 minutes to pack in a 20-kg-capacity travel bag and tote to any city.


“We should try to imagine beforehand: what would we most want to retrieve after losing all our belongings in a disaster? What would we most want to take with us on a long journey? Nice clothes and shoes, luxury trinkets? Do these really matter to us?” Deng asked, rhetorically.



Deng at a local wedding in India in May 2012.


Crowd-funded Globetrotting


An earth-circling trip on a Star Alliance Global Ticket is Deng’s long-cherished dream. She decided to make it a reality after receiving her master’s degree in 2015. The anticipated RMB 100,000 it would cost, however, was well beyond her means. But when she spoke of delaying her plan for a year and using the time to save more money, a friend proposed crowd-funding.


In June 2015 Deng wrote the article “Eighty-eight Things to Do for Global Travel” that kicked off her fundraising project. She offered six donation options, ranging from RMB 8 to RMB 2,888, and rewards that included such gifts as postcards bought during the planned trip, a pack of cards bearing the photos she would take on the way, and the book she would write about her adventure.


Money soon began to trickle in. The 100 donations she received that exceeded RMB 20,000 surpassed Deng’s expectations. But two more that arrived just before her departure – one from a Guangzhou-based chain pawn shop and the other from a private furniture company in Zhejiang Province – added up to more than RMB 40,000. They were, however, conditional. The pawn shop asked Deng to carry out a survey of local pawn shops throughout her trip and to include her findings in the articles she wrote. The furniture company wanted her to carry out market research on the Latin American furniture market and produce a report. The two donations have brought Deng’s travel funds close to RMB 90,000, RMB 40,000 of which will cover her flights.


“I am so grateful for everyone’s help, and am ready to reciprocate at any time. I would also like to call out to any women who may be interested in travelling with me,” Deng said.


Deng’s travels bring her fresh knowledge of the world and build a clearer vision of her future. During her months-long stay in Jordan, Deng joined the campaign to preserve the Dead Sea and West Asian wetlands. In Peru she was a volunteer for marine fauna preservation. In the Andes she made several visits to local Indians who had lost their lands to mining, and helped them in their negotiations with mining companies. Deng hopes she might someday work for UNESCO or a non-governmental organization.


“Some people travel to escape from reality; I search for my true self on the road,” Deng said.