Couch surfing the world

Couch surfing the world

A student stayed at the homes of total strangers during a year travelling the globe

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Echo Xu (front row, second from right) and fellow traveller Lee Ze-shan with her hosts, Iranian Mohammed Ashk (front row, far left), and his family.
Echo Xu (front row, second from right) and fellow traveller Lee Ze-shan with her hosts, Iranian Mohammed Ashk (front row, far left), and his family.
Photos: Echo Xu
For one year Echo Xu Ya-ting lived a life of a "modern gypsy" - travelling through 11 countries and regions, "surfing", or staying, on the couches in strangers' homes.

"I went first to Vietnam, then Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, India, Nepal, Iran, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh," says the mainlander, who is now a student at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. "I took all sorts of local transport - trains, buses, trucks and vans selling tomatoes and melons, and taxis - even a Mercedes-Benz or BMW. It was fun."

Couch surfing is a popular travel idea among Westerners and is growing in popularity among younger Chinese, such as Xu. It involves staying in the homes of locals, rather than hotels, to reduce costs and gain first-hand experiences of the inhabitants and culture.

Many websites are available to help would-be "couch surfers" link up online with potential local hosts and set up their arrangements.

Xu, 22, who comes from a typical mainland family, read about couch surfing in a book. But it was not until last May, when boarding a plane after doing volunteer work abroad, that she set her sights on travelling.

She says: "After my first flight, I promised myself I'd go out and see more of the world, meet more people and listen to more stories."

When she revealed her travel hopes to her family, the idea was not well-received. "My parents thought I was crazy and selfish."

After three months of discussions and negotiations, she finally got her parents' approval. Thanks to friends, schoolmates and teachers, she collected 30,000 yuan (about HK$37,000) to pay for the flights over the year. "I was overwhelmed by all the support and warm encouragement from them," she says. "It made me cry."

Her trip started after she made her first request on one couch surfing website and received a reply. "Every day was a surprise - I didn't know where, or with whom I'd be staying at night."

She met many ordinary, yet wonderful people - and other couch travellers such as mainlander Lee Ze-shan - as her perceptions of the world, especially of Iran, changed. "Before going to Iran, I'd very little knowledge about the country, except the cliche of it as 'a country of terrorists and terrorism'," she says. "But the Iranians I met were the most hospitable and friendliest.


Xu and her "first Iranian mama"

"Everyone wants to take care of you and show you the best of their country. I was given small gifts by strangers on the street.

"The Iranian families I stayed with are talented in music, and fun; they took me stargazing in the desert and hiking in snowy mountains. I was fed feasts of Iranian food - I put on five kilograms over the 36 days - and was treated like a daughter."

Her travels meant more than just "broadening her mind"; she was able to see the world and do good work for local communities, such as painting classrooms to brightening up a primary school in Hetauda, Nepal, and turning a flooded playground into a garden with students and teachers at a school in Vientiane, Laos.

"It's like getting an ideal education of people, the world and life by experience, rather than by books," she says. "I've learned the meaning of freedom in a country where people are suppressed, yet still try to find a way around it. I've learned the meaning of respect from people who choose to follow their traditions wholeheartedly.

"Most of all, my travels convinced me the world is ours and everywhere can be home. Embrace every chance and challenge life offers without fear, because things will always work out in the end."



Xu stayed with a tuk tuk driver's family in Cambodia.


She made postcards with students in Laos.


Xu helped paint walls in a primary school in Nepal.


With the children in Nepal


Paragliding in Turkey

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