Perpetual journeyer Kyle Johnson craved freedom and adventure over material possessions and left the ordinary life to explore the world…
A lot of us are bitten by wanderlust and often daydream of quitting the rat race and opting for a life of full-time travel. But it isn’t easy after all. It does take a lot of courage to leave your home and set out to explore the world without a planned itinerary for life. Known as a global nomad, Kyle Johnson, fondly known as Gu Yue, is one person who has travelled from the fjords of Patagonia to the streets of the Mediterranean. Having left his job at General Electric to pursue a career as a professional backpacker, Kyle has documented his experiences in two bestselling books along with a couple of well-received television programmes. One of his most popular projects is a series called To Berlin By Thumb that talks about Kyle’s 100-day hitchhiking journey from Beijing to Berlin, only to visit his girlfriend.
Excerpts from our chat: (PS: Hope it inspires you to chase your dream!)
Q: Tell us something about yourself and your unrelenting passion for travelling the world.
I was born in Beijing and moved to the U.S. at the age of 11. Since childhood, I’ve always had a sense for adventure and exploration. After university, I worked for two years at GE Capital pursuing finance. But very soon, I realised that was not the kind of life I wanted to live. For the past twelve years, I have been spending majority of my time travelling around the world, living a lifestyle that emphasizes on personal freedom and growth than stability and material wealth. I think traveling is a great way to understand this world and ourselves.
Q: You have done something that most people just dream of doing. What is it about travel that inspired you to quit your job and travel full-time?
I think my purpose of travelling have evolved over the years. When I decided to quit my job, I wanted to escape that mundane cycle of work with only two weeks of vacation a year. I didn’t want to repeat the same day over and over again. But I realised you cannot escape the reality forever, so instead I decided to change the reality – and make travelling my job.
Q: Most people can only see the glamorous side of ‘travel’. What are the hardships that come with it? Also, tell us about the pros.
I think the single biggest challenge is the “uncertainty” of everything. When you have a regular job, you know what you’ll be doing tomorrow; you know you’ll have a job the next year. For my job as a documentary travel filmmaker and professional traveller, I try not to plan everything on my trip. Instead, I just let random people and events decide my path. The uncertainties often cause some anxiety but also give me many wonderful surprises. I also have to deal with the fact that as I am working independently, I have no way of knowing if I can continue working like this the next year. Your desire to work is fully fueled by your passion.
Q: What’s your travel style?
Adventurous, spontaneous, getting to know the local people and culture, definitely off-the-beaten-path.
Q: How has travel changed you as a person? And how has it changed your perspective towards life?
Travelling has been my ultimate course in life. It made me realise what makes me happy. Living out of a rucksack for years, you learn that material wealth is not the answer to happiness or self-fulfillment. When you see so many people in different countries, you become aware that there really are actually billions and billions of lives, and that each of us have a unique story to tell. At the same time, the little problems in our lives are so insignificant when looking at the bigger picture.
“Living out of a rucksack for years, you learn that material wealth is not the answer to happiness or self-fulfillment”
Q: How many continents and countries have you visited so far and what are your favourites?
I’ve been to five continents and around sixty countries. I find myself always going back to the countries I’ve visited. India is definitely one of my favourites. India is like the Amazon Rainforest (The Amazon rainforest, covering much of northwestern Brazil and extending into Colombia, Peru and other South American countries, is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, famed for its immense biodiversity) for cultural and religious diversity.
Q: From the budget travel perspective, what regions of the world offer the best value?
Definitely South and Southeast Asia. Good valued accommodations, great street food and cheap public transports.
Q: What is your budgeting mistake that others can learn from?
Leave some money to indulge yourself on a nice local meal once in a while. Trying to save every last dollar but missing out on the delicious local food is one of my biggest regrets.
Q: What is the simplest method to save money as a traveller?
Invest your money to get the best value. A clean family guesthouse is the same as a five star hotel since you will spend most of the time outside.
Q: People often say ‘You don’t need money to travel’. Is that true?
Literally, it can be done. I once traveled with absolutely no money for 51 days in China. I hitchhiked, camped in public parks or in the wild, wiped tables at restaurants for food. It was really hard as I was often hungry, but you will be surprised how many friendships you make when money is not in the equation. People think they need a lot of money to travel but it isn’t true. In reality, I end up spending more money paying rent and going out to restaurants while living in Beijing than I do while travelling.
Q: What are the common mistakes new travellers often tend to make?
Spend too little time in each places and often rely a lot on guide books and online reviews.
Q: Have you surprised yourself while traveling doing something you never thought you could?
Constantly. I force myself to do things out of my comfort zone as a way of learning about myself, like when a friend and I hitchhiked across Eurasia from Beijing to Berlin in three months.
People think they need a lot of money to travel but it isn’t true. In reality, I end up spending more money paying rent and going out to restaurants while living in Beijing than I do while travelling
Q: Tell us about a memorable travel experience that puts a smile on your face every time you think about it?
I was riding a very unreliable motorbike across Central and South America a few years back. While riding in the Altiplanos of Bolivia, there was a blockade. I had to make a detour on a very remote dirt road. I rode all night, it was pitch black and the headlight of my motorbike was failing. I almost fell off the bike several times. I was exhausted mentally and physically when I stopped the bike and leaned back with my face staring into the sky. It was filled with the most brilliant stars and the Milky Way arching over me. In the moment of desperation, I saw the beauty of the universe, and understood how tiny and insignificant I am. The obstacles in front of me suddenly seemed a lot smaller.
Q: What’s the most frightening incident you’ve experienced while travelling?
Being in a drunken guy’s car as he raced through the winding roads in the mountains of Georgia (the country). Also, getting an insect’s sting on my right eyeball at the Amazon Rainforest. The allergic reaction was so severe that I thought I would die.
Q: Which is that country you desire to visit again and again? Why?
India. It’s so vast and diverse. I’ve been to India three times. The next time I come here, I’d like to visit the northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Q: What are the major differences between the traveller you were when you started and the traveller you are now?
Now that I travel for a living, there is more of a purpose. I liked the carefree ways of traveling when I was younger and I still do that once in a while. But now, for most of my travels, I have more challenging objectives and go more in-depth in terms of getting to know the local ways of life.
Q: What’s one place that is completely under the radar, isn’t on anyone’s bucket list but deserves to be?
The most under the radar places are the ones that only the locals know about. I don’t like to make bucket lists as I think the journey is more important. So, I suggest wherever you travel, get to know the locals, and ask them about good places.
Q: What’s your mantra of packing your luggage?
Less is more. The less stuff you bring the more stress-free you will be.
Q: What’s your trick of packing your travel bag just perfectly and avoid over packing?
Take it with you for a half day trip in your own city. If you think it’s too heavy, then it probably is!
Q: What are the keys to truly soaking in the culture and food of a place?
Live like the locals. Stay in family guesthouses or even better stay with a couchsurfer. Ask the locals about places to eat; usually cheap doesn’t mean it’s not good. Go to a cooking class, it’s a great way of understanding a culture through food.
Q: What’s the weirdest food you’ve tried while travelling?
Raw seal meat preserved in seal fat on the Arctic Coast of Alaska.