Chinese sexagenarian backpackers go around the world

August 31, 2011Jing Gao4 Comments, , , , , , , , , ,

A Chinese married couple have both reached 60 of age, and have remained playful nonetheless. After they retired from work, they decided to size up the world with their itchy feet. They finished their backpacking trip around the globe that spanned 180 days and over 20 countries in five continents, including the Antarctic. They even made what they saw and heard known via the Internet, which has caught quite a lot of attention. They are 63-year-old Zhang Guangzhu and 61-year-old Wang Zhongjin. They refer to themselves as “Sexagenarian backpackers.” (Read about a Chinese college students who love Kerouac’s On the Road and hitchhiked across the nation.)

Six months ago, they embarked on the journey from Beijing, via Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to the frozen land of Antarctic. They slept on hammocks on Amazon river, went to Mass on Easter Sunday in Salvador, explored history in Peru’s Machu Picchu, swam in Tahiti, browsed around at fairs in India and Pakistan, and sat by camp fire in Australia. Because of the hassle of getting visas with a Chinese passport, they had to cross the Equator six times in order to finish the journey.



The most unforgettable stop is the Antarctic that very few on earth have the courage or opportunity to set foot in. They even camped in the snow ground. They dug a big pit in the snow-covered ground and lied there overnight like two penguins. “The Antarctic is a place of extremes. There is no hospital. Had anything gone wrong, you wouldn’t have anyone to help,” asked Chai Jing, a female reporter with China Central Television (CCTV). “I think it doesn’t matter. I have already lived my life so incredibly,” Ms. Wang said.

Ms. Wang said that she did not know how to hunt and peck. But ever since the start of the trip, she has grudually got the hang of browsing the internet and chronicling her trip. She brought a laptop with her. As long as there was internet access, she would update their blog and microblog. Many were touched by their globe-trot. Some wrote, “You are really cool grandpa and grandma.” Another wrote, “Youth is not in one’s age; instead, it is in your curiosity of this world.”


From South Africa to the South Pole. From the South Pole to Ayers Rock in Australia. Everywhere they went, they jumped in front of the camera. “You young guys can jump. so can we. I am not old at all,” Wang said.

Mr. Zhang and Ms. Wang are grandparents of an 8-year-old boy. Zhang was a middle-level manager at an enterprise. He quit his iron rice bowl job of an employee at a state-owned bank at the age of 42 after growing tired of the monotony of life and chose to become a businessman. After both retired, pension becomes their main source of income.

Their full-time backpacking career was inspired by a foreigner at a local wedding banquet in Hutiaoxia (literally Tiger Leaping Gorge), Yunnan province in China’s southwest back in early 2007. “I said to her at that time, ‘A laowai (Jing: casual and harmless Chinese slang for foreigners) can come to such a remote place in China on foot. Why can’t we go out? He can come to our China without mastering Chinese. We can also go out without mastering any foreign language,’” Zhang said. “My first reaction is, ‘He is out of his mind,’” Wang said.

After getting back to Beijing from Hutiaoxia, Zhang announced to his family that he was going to take out all their life savings and go to Europe to scale the Alps. To his surprise, his wife is as bold. She proposed the idea of kayaking on Amazon river.

Then Zhang officially started planning their itinerary. In addition to web research, he spent seven hours on average every day learning English. In March, 2008, they boarded the airplane to Athens.

“Our first stop is the airport in Athens. When it was time to ask for directions, he stood there without a word. I said, ‘Hurry up.’ He told me he did not know how to say it  (in English). I didn’t either. I was so annoyed, ‘You don’t know how to say it and you’ve taken me out?’” “I could read it verbatim. But once I was to go out and make conversation on site, my mind went blank. I could not come up a word.” Although they finally got the directions, they forgot to ask the ferry schedule, and were left stranded in a port on their first night.

On that 3-month maiden journey, they went to 16 countries in Europe. Later expeditions took them to the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and so on.

Asked why they did not opt for a guided tour with a group which translates into a sense of security, they said, “You can’t see other groups while being in one of them. Then your way of thinking will ossify and you become a real frog at the bottom of a well. Uncertainty can bring fear as well as novelty. Perhaps we have a mischievous, adventurous gene in our bones.”

Both their backpacks can weigh as much as 40 pounds each. Wang said she had got used to it. Besides, she felt invigorated when she leaned her back against the backpack. “Lifestyles in the world are multicolored. We wanted to experience all kinds of life.”

CCTV reporter Chai Jing interviewed the couple for her news documentary program INSIGHT.


Chai: Will you have the concern that as you grow increasingly addicted to travelling, if one day, you run out of money, what to do next?

Zhang: We will sell our property and travel.

Chai: Do you think you can really part with that?

Wang: No big deal, these things, really.

Chai: Many people might say, so many parents have saved up money throughout their lives to leave it to their offspring, their children. And you spent this money on yourselves, on travelling, have you ever been worried about what they may think?

Zhang: Chinese are overprotective of their next generation. If you fight on your own and make money on your own, the joy you get will probably surpass the joy you get from inheriting it.

Wang: What we do is also a big amount of fortune as heritage. Spiritual heritage.


Their journey was not all roses. One night, Wang’s body temperature reached 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 Fahrenheit. She was seriously dehydrated, and all her vital signs tested abnormal. They had great difficulty in communicating with the staff at the emergency center she was rushed into. However, Wang said, she was not afraid, as her father’s death changed her views of life.

“My father lived until 90. But his twilight years were very bad,” Wang said. With medical science as developed as today’s, Wang believes living to the age of 80 or 90 is very normal. “You retire at 60 and live until 90. If you are going to live the same life day after day and year after year, wouldn’t it be like waiting to die?” Wang said.

Zhang Guangzhu thinks there is always risk out there when one leaves home, whoever he is, and one should always be psychologically prepared. Therefore, every time they set out on a trip, they would make their will and leave their last words. In their will, they put down one sentence for their daughter, ‘If we are missing, please do not come to look for us.’ Wang explained that the process of searching for the beloved is soul-crushing, and manpower and material resources will have to be expended, “So (we asked her to) please let us rest in peace, so that she can live her life peacefully as well.”

“No biggie. After all, we have bought life insurance,” Wang said.

(The article was compiled by Ministry of Tofu based on information from the CCTV news program INSIGHT and the web.)


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4 comments to “Chinese sexagenarian backpackers go around the world”

  1. Jay K. | August 31, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    damn these guys are amazing, I hope to do something like this in the future, it has got to be a dream for many.

  2. Magnus2010 | September 1, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    This is every Chinese person's dream. AM I RIGHT??

  3. [...] saw this on Ministry of Tofu the other day and was marveled at this couple.  This is a great way to practice your Chinese [...]

  4. I delight in, lead to I discovered exactly what I used to be taking a look for. You have ended my four day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

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