Next up in the series of interviews with members is Michael Johnson, known around these parts as Lavafalls. Michael's been a Travellerspoint member since January 2008, but in that time he's been a prolific contributor to the wiki travel guide, sharing a wealth of first-hand information about China, his native Chicago and elsewhere. I thought I'd find out a little bit more about his interest in travel, his passion for China and his travel plans for 2009.
Posing in front of the Statue of Liberty.
When did you make your first big solo trip?
Well that is a weird question. Technically it would have been when I was 18 years old. My high school had a deal where if you could put together a community service project you could graduate a month early to do it. So I found a Habitat for Humanity build in a small Maori village on the Bay of Plenty and went for 2 weeks. Afterwards I did a road trip with some of my co-volunteers down the west coast of the South Island.
When I was 22 in the summer of 04 I went to Ecuador with a class. Afterwards I traveled solo for about a week and half. The first really big “solo” trip I did was from Singapore to Hanoi over 7 weeks during my first Chinese New Year in ’06. I called the trip the bird flu tour because everyone was freaking out about it then. I decided just to embrace it.
So you've obviously had an interest in travel for quite a while. What is it about travel that appeals to you?
What is it about travel that interests me? Well since I was small child I was always interested in explorers, I was the kid that always read the picture books on explorers. Learning about new and interesting places always excited me and to this day it does. I think as an adult what interests me in travel is seeing how similar and different places and people can be. I like to go to places that seem out of time and the modern world hasn’t slammed into them too hard. One of my favorite places I have traveled to is Mongolia for this very reason. People still living nomadic lifestyle and in touch with the land that they have traditionally lived on.
At the same time I like to travel in order to flush out my life. It is so easy to get stuck in the routines of life to the point were everything starts to become a formula. There is a certain freedom that comes from being on the road and not knowing where you will be in a few days or only having a rough idea. Personally I believe this is good for me because this reshuffle of my life makes me a lot happier. After a big trip I can re-adjust things in my life because the routine has been broken.
Did you travel much as a kid?
My family did travel a lot. We did a lot of outdoors stuff such as skiing, hiking and camping. Saw lots of national parks and other beautiful places. One really big trip we did was going to Brazil for a bar mitzvah. That was super cool, even though I was only nine I remember it very clearly. Another really cool trip was rafting the Grand Canyon; I think that trip is what really made me love the outdoors.
You've travelled quite a bit around China. What initially attracted you to China?
Well that is a funny story. I have always had a slight interest in China mainly stemming from human rights stuff I did in high school and college. Right before I graduated from college I flipped out, the standard 23 year old way and called my dad. I had originally looked into working in China but decided not to. Well after the call with my dad I decided to give it a second chance, I called and they said I had 24 hours to make up my mind. So I decided and went.
Although I was bit shocked when I arrived. I had never been to a country that didn’t use my alphabet and when I saw all those characters on the board in the Shanghai airport I went “Holy crap! They actually use these things.”
China does have such a unique culture. Did you experience culture shock?
I had some really bad culture shock a few times. After living in China for a about three months there was a period of time when I was not working I was lying in my bed watching DVDs and eating Pringles. That lasted about 3 weeks and I actually came out of it quite quickly after it was over. Although to this day I really can’t eat Pringles because I just ate too many of them.
There were other brief moments. In the expat community in China we use the terms China moment, China Day and the worst of all the China week. And it wasn’t a normal week without the occasional China moment, such as the ladies at the department store really trying to sell you sheets and throwing different ones into your cart. Or when you misunderstand the bus ticket office window, because she said there was an afternoon bus but really there wasn’t but if I was Chinese I would have understood that.
At the same time though most cultures I have noticed have more in common than not. I just feel it is more natural to try and focus on the difference than on the similarities.
Sunset over Qinghai Lake, China.
For people visiting China for the first time, what would you suggest is the one place they must visit?
That is a huge question. Well the easy answer would be Beijing or Yanghsou. I personally feel Shanghai is a bit overrated but maybe living there for a year made me bored of the place. I think the key part behind any China trip is balancing the different aspects of China. China has amazing culture, traditions, natural beauty and weird things. Most people just focus on the culture and traditions and I feel they get burnt out. Some of the most beautiful places I have ever been to have been in China. These beautiful places range from Namsto Lake in Tibet to the mountains outside of the Monastary near Boyan Hot Inner Mongolia.
The strange is the hardest to find, yet the easiest if you are looking the right way. One example is on an overnight bus ride from the border of Mongolia to Beijing. Along the side of the highway were giant bronze statues of dinosaurs for several kilometers. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Other examples are stumbling upon weird markets in random small towns or watching a cop walk out of a pink light barbershop just to adjust his pants.
Do you have any travel plans for 2009?
I am going on a weekend trip to Montreal in April and then maybe a big trip to China this summer. A friend might actually come this time! We are thinking of starting where the Great Wall enters the ocean, then follow it out west camping, hiking and drinking beer the whole time! Then there is a chance I might be going to my best friend’s wedding in a small village in northern Thailand this Christmas. Somehow I am supposed to start grad school this fall.
Check out these past interviews in the Talking Travel series: