A lonely traveller: One Chinese woman’s path to freedom

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Publish Time: 2022-06-10 Author: Kou Jie From: People’s Daily Online

Su and her RV. (Photo provided by Su Min)

On the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, about a 24 hours’ drive from Lhasa, the Chola Mountain looms ahead of eastbound traffic. Su Min gripped her steering wheel and watched the approaching mountains through sunglasses with rose-colored frames.

It was May 17, the 600th day when Su fled from her abusive husband and started to drive across China. Her grey hair, which falls past her shoulders, was pulled back from her face in a shining barrette. The 58-year-old grandmother was driving a white RV, which she bought with a 150,000 RMB loan after her old Volkswagen Polo was totaled and salvaged on the road.

"I grew up in a small village in Tibet. My childhood fantasy was to own a car so that I could leave my village and explore the world. This dream has finally come true, albeit a few decades late," said Su.

Driving away from the old life

Su and her daughter in the 1980s. (Photo provided by Su Min)

Growing up in a small Tibetan village, Su was the "black sheep" of her family, often ridiculed for her "unrealistic and unfeminine" dreams of driving her car to explore the outside world.

"In the 1970s, Tibet’s traffic was terrible. We had to traverse the mountains to get to school, which took at least a few hours. I told my family that it would be wonderful if I could drive my car and see the world through my own eyes, and they all laughed and said, ’Driving is not something that girls do,’" said Su.

Like many Chinese women of her time, Su gave up on her childhood dream and began a life of marriage and motherhood. She began working in a factory in 1981, but lost her position when it was closed down several years later.

"I was laid off, and my monthly pension was only 1,000 RMB. Whenever I asked my husband for financial assistance, he responded with crippling sarcasm. I had to endure his bad temper and belittling, and I desperately wanted to escape," said Su.

"To be despised and ignored by others is something no one desires. I even contemplated suicide for a time, but then my childhood dream came back to me, and my desire for freedom and living my own life has grown stronger each day," Su continued.

Su’s decision to buy a car and leave the abusive relationship had been bolstered by the rising tensions between her and her husband. Over the next couple of years, Su worked multiple jobs, which included serving as a supermarket porter, street cleaner and delivery woman, in order to support her family and save up to purchase a vehicle.

"It feels great to work hard for the life you want. Working multiple jobs was exhausting, but it was worthwhile," she said.

Su purchased her first car in 2015, a white Volkswagen Polo, after saving and working diligently for many years. However, her desire to travel was put on hold until 2020, when her twin grandkids were old enough to start kindergarten. After decades of being a wife, mother, and grandmother, Su has decided it’s time to pursue her own dreams.

"Before I left, my husband asked me, ’What will happen if every Chinese woman is as selfish as you?’ And I said, ’Then they’ll be just as happy as I am,’" said Su, with a grin on her face.

Su set out on her journey on September 24, 2020. The only things she had were the old Polo car, which had a habit of flashing its "check engine" light even when nothing was wrong, and a small, pale orange tent she stored on the roof of her car, which she called "a Squeeze Inn."

Embracing her new self 

Su poses for a photo during a road trip to Tibet with her friends. (Photo provided by Su Min)

Over the next 600 days, Su visited over 150 cities in eight Chinese provinces. After years of wishing for such a life, she finally experienced the thrill of freedom.

“Holding the steering wheel, my destiny was in my own hands. I could choose the direction I wanted to explore, making the decisions that would make me happy, and it felt really great,” recalled Su.

Throughout her long journey, she has encountered countless fellow travellers, some even older than her. Su learned valuable wilderness survival skills from these strangers, including how to fix engines, navigate treacherous mountain roads, distinguish edible from poisonous mushrooms, as well as how to become a social media influencer.

With the help of vloggers she met on the road, Su launched her video channel in 2020 named "Old auntie’s self-driving tours." Her inspiring stories have made her a rising social media influencer with millions of viewers.

"My monthly pension barely covers my gas costs. But social media has given me a platform to share my stories with people who need inspiration, as well as the funds I need to travel further," said Su.

Su finally replaced her cramped Polo with a new RV in 2021, and she was confident in her ability to repay her 150,000 RMB loan by the end of 2022 all through the earnings she garnered from travel videos.

"Many viewers, particularly women, have told me that my stories have inspired them to pursue their dreams and live the life they desire,” Su revealed. “I have fully embraced my new self as a liberated, self-assured, and independent woman, and I hope they can do the same."

The right to liberty 

Su is now a social media influencer with millions of viewers. (Photo provided by Su Min)

"Throughout my extensive travels, I’ve encountered many travellers. There are many ways to live, and people have a great deal of freedom to choose the life they want to lead. For me, this defines human rights the best," said Su.

In the most recent episode of her Tibet travel videos, Su advised her audience to have the courage to explore their own path, with diversity and freedom having become ideals encouraged in China following the rapid development of the Internet and the transformation of people’s traditional mindsets.

"Our modern society has placed women on an equal footing with men, but many of us are still enslaved by our traditional mindsets, forgoing the opportunity to fight for an independent life. No life is unable to be restarted, it’s only individuals who are unwilling to do so," said Su.

"If my life has taught me anything, it is to be mentally free and to choose your path, and luckily, Chinese are now having more and more options to live the life they want," said Su. 

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