Flags Shanghai Lao Jie / Shanghai

From Shanghai to Cape Town: Stories of an Epic Journey Overland

 Flags Shanghai Lao Jie / Shanghai

The British academic, author, and Conservative politician, Rory Stewart once said: “In an age when journalism is becoming more and more etiolated, when articles are becoming shorter and shorter, usually lacking all historical content, travel writing is one of the few venues to write with some complexity about an alien culture.” It is with this passion, effort, research and gifted storytelling that some of the greatest works in travel writing are born.

Over time, the appetite for such works has dwindled, replaced by roundups and list-form pieces that have emerged to satiate the quick attention spans of digital natives. Yet, when many of us take the time to read these traditional stories we are captivated by their graceful sentences and descriptive prose. We’re not so quick to scroll directly to the next large, high resolution image, but instead, we throw our other leg up, sink back, and allow the words to penetrate slowly as vivid visualizations come to life.

Iain Manley and Claire van den Heever of Old World Wondering have spent much of there adult lives traveling the world and documenting their epic journeys through eloquently written long-form narratives. They’ve trekked across Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent searching for the soul of each place and finding the untold stories that reveal deep personal connections, cultural traditions and the idiosyncrasies that make each pocket of earth distinctly beautiful.

We caught up with Iain and Claire to learn more about their Kickstarter project that will hopefully fund an epic journey from Shanghai to Cape Town overland. We were curious to find out what inspired them to set off on this expedition and what they hope to accomplish by documenting their encounters through beautifully crafted literary travelogues.

Culture-ist: What inspired you to embark on a journey from Shanghai to Cape Town overland?

Claire: We travelled overland from London to Shanghai in 2006 and 2007, and discovered how much overland travel can teach you about connections: connections between people, cultures, languages, food, and geography ““ across regions and countries. This, our second overland journey, is about making connections between several fascinating regions in the Old World. We want to experience the transition between Han-dominated eastern China ““ where we lived for three years ““ and western China which is, in many ways, an extension of Central Asia. As we continue along our route, these connections will too. Iran, for instance, is a vital link between Central Asia and the Middle East, where we spent time on our last journey and, naturally, there are close ties between the Middle East and North Africa. As we make our way down Africa’s east, closer and closer to our native South Africa, we hope to learn more about the part of the world that we come from, before arriving in Cape Town which we last called home eight years ago.

Culture-ist: Why do you believe that documenting this journey through long-form dispatches is important?

cape townIain: I think long-form dispatches from a single journey are one answer to the many problems typical of both destination-focused travel writing and news features. The old model of a travel magazine supported by advertisers from the travel industry has given us the “destination piece”, which is essentially a brochure for a particular place. Even when a tourism board isn’t paying the bills and the writer documents a negative experience, the audience is still imagined as potential holidaymakers, trying somewhere on for size.

The problems with news features are more complex. In Shanghai, I got to know a number of hard working foreign correspondents with the best possible intentions. I realised how often they were reporting on events that they had not witnessed themselves. Instead, they were recycling reports by other journalists, including Chinese government agencies, because they couldn’t afford to travel for every story. That’s just news reports, which by their nature are also very short on context. Good long-form news features ““ which are much more time-consuming to produce and as a result are in some jeopardy themselves ““ will do at least two things right: they will outline the story’s historical and social context as well as inserting the writer, with his or her own limitations and set of prejudices, into the narrative. Those are both things that separate the genre from the news report, but because news is always topical, it distorts our picture of the world in other ways.

A news feature and a travel narrative about Iran, for example, are going to tell two very different stories. A journalist will go to Iran to write about something specific: their nuclear program, say, or women’s rights or protests against the government. That’s important work, but because most people have put together their impression of the country almost entirely from what appears in the news, they think Iran is a dangerous place to visit, while any traveller will tell you that Iranians are the most hospitable people in the world.

Claire and I are not travelling from Shanghai to Cape Town to chase stories. We are doing it to give substance to our picture of the world, and we think the best way to share that picture is through long-form dispatches. That’s not to say that we won’t sometimes write journalistic stories. We have before and will again, but the stories we are most interested in are about processes that are too slow or subtle to make the news, like the transformation of Gokarna, a village in South India that inspired one of our most popular long-form dispatches.

Culture-ist: If your Kickstarter campaign is successful, how do you plan on using the funds?

Claire: We currently pay for Old World Wandering by writing for two Hong Kong-based financial magazines, but that just isn’t sustainable anymore. To give you an idea of how much time we spend on Old World Wandering, our dispatch about the Chinese community in Vientiane is 9,576 words long and took 71 hours to write, not to mention edit, post ““ with photos ““ and promote. It’s been translated into Chinese ““ twice ““ as well as Lao, and Daisann McLane, National Geographic Traveller’s Editor at Large, called it “the best writing I’ve read lately on the most under-reported Southeast Asian country.”

A successful Kickstarter campaign would allow us to focus all our energy on writing about our journey as it unfolds, both in a series of dispatches, and as a book at the end of the journey.

Culture-ist: Will people be able to follow your epic journey as it happens via social media networks and through posts on Old World Wandering?

Claire: Absolutely. We travel with a smart phone, using social media to post photos, updates and snippets from the road regularly. We’ll also continue to publish a combination of long-form dispatches and shorter pieces on Old World Wandering, as we’ve done during our last twenty months in India, China and Southeast Asia.

Culture-ist: Do you think this project will breathe new life into the concept of long-form journalism and inspire others to see the importance of keeping this form of art alive?

Iain: I think it could, in two ways. I think that if our Kickstarter project succeeds, we’ll be one step closer to a model that can sustain long-form travel narratives without relying on the travel industry. That’s the first way. The second way is by proving that young, unknown writers can build a career for themselves independently, online. If we had presented Old World Wandering as a specialist publisher of long-form travel narratives written by anybody, I think our Kickstarter would resonate more easily. Every other successful Kickstarter project that prioritises long-form non-fiction has sold itself as a new home for the best writers, and normally they include a list of well established names. We’re sticking to just two people making one journey, because we believe that journeys ““ not destinations ““ are one answer to the problem with travel writing, which is about so much more than holidays.

Culture-ist: How can people learn more about your project?

Claire: Visit our Kickstarter project page here, where you’ll find a list of rewards for people who back the project, including postcards from Silk Road oases, photo sets and a long weekend in Istanbul. You can also become a fan of Old World Wandering’s Facebook page, or follow @iainmanley or @clairevdh on Twitter to hear about the progress of both our Kickstarter project and our slow journey across the Old World.

About Claire and Iain:
OLD WORLD WANDERING is a travelogue documenting two overland journeys across Europe, Asia and Africa. It is written by Iain Manley and Claire van den Heever, a South African couple who, after eight years travelling and living abroad, are now slowly making their way home, across Asia and down Africa’s east coast to Cape Town.

IAIN co-founded African Boots, which follows the ups and downs of the Sino-African love affair. He has written about subjects as diverse as the internationalisation of China’s currency and the link between travel and nostalgia. His first book, about the pirates, prostitutes and opium peddlers of old Singapore, was published in 2010.

CLAIRE is the author of Paint By Numbers, a book about China’s contemporary art scene, due for publication in October 2012. She wrote it in Shanghai, where she spent three years learning to speak Mandarin.


Featured photo by d’n’c

Cape Town photo by Crystian Cruz

seven mile miracle oahu
The Culture-ist