Xu Xia Ke 徐霞客 (1368–1644) was a Ming Dynasty geographer who travelled throughout China, mostly on foot for 30 years. He was credited with the discovery of the Lancang River 澜沧江 in Yunnan Province which would become the Mekong in Southeast Asia and the Nu River 怒江 which would become the Salween in Myanmar.
Xu Xia Ke recorded his observations in great detail. He quickly shot to fame and throughout his journey, Xu Xia Ke often did not have to pay for food and accommodation. Many people felt honoured to host and feed him. How does he differ from today’s influencers?
Unlike during the Ming Dynasty, travelling has now taken many different forms. The majority of tourists go for creature comforts or even luxury. Exploration and discovery are seldom high on one’s agenda. There is always YouTube to spoil the surprise. Most people don’t really mind and it’s practically impossible to travel like Xu Xia Ke anymore. Even in the remotest corners of the earth, nobody has more to add to Wikipedia. Modern travel writers (those who still managed to attract an audience decades ago) rely more on personal insights than on information. Interestingly, there are still folks who attach bland historical and geographical information to their pictures and try to call it travel writing. That “style” has been killed by the internet years ago. From writers like Paul Theroux or Pico Iyer, readers wanted insights and not information that could be easily gleaned off the web.
Insightful travel writers still exist, but while they may be eager to share, fewer and fewer people can be bothered to read. Knowledge and insights are no longer as valuable as they were during Xu Xia Ke’s time. In this day and age, most people are able to travel themselves. They no longer need to read others’ stories. In fact, they can make their own in the form of Instagram photos of food iconic spots.