Travel Blogger Interview – Andy Smart

This interview series feature interviews with travel bloggers and writers. If you are a travel blogger and a writer, and have something to share with and say to your readers, please get in touch with me at [email protected] I look forward to hearing from you!

In this first interview series, let us meet another travel blogger Andy Smart. Andy moved to China from UK about 10-11 years ago, and his blog focus on his expat life there as an English teacher and a resident. As a Chinese, I quickly developed a strong interest in his blog and found that he delve deep into Chinese culture and traditions. He wrote stories with authenticity and a great sense of humor. I have had few chances interact with him on both of our blog and each interaction was though provoking. I also recommend his book “Just Turn Left on the Mountains.” It is a classic book revealing other parts of China that travelers rarely take notice. 

"Its bitter hardships alongside those precious moments of joy, remind us that life is worth living and to be in the moment as much as possible." - Andy Smart, travel blogger on Just Turn Left.

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Welcome Andy! Could you please tell us about yourself and your blog.

Just Turn Left is an offshoot of my book Just Turn Left at the Mountain, Trials & Tribulations Meandering Across Chinese Borders. It’s a three year travel yarn of when I left the UK back in 2005 and headed to East Asia looking to settle down and start a new life.

As an expat, China is a never ending source of amazing experiences and I realised that I needed a new way of recording it all so blogging turned out to be the perfect platform.

I love seeing the bright side so always write with a smile. If I’m laughing while I’m writing then I know that things are heading in the right direction. My favourite form of writing is with anecdotes in the first person present taking the reader right there at that time reliving the story vividly.

I also want my readers to experience both sides of life, bringing elements together swiftly and unexpectedly; its bitter hardships alongside those precious moments of joy, remind us that life is worth living and to be in the moment as much as possible. In reality you never know what’s just around the corner so it makes sense to take the reader by surprise.

My work has to be accessible to everyone like we’re friends taking the journey together. I make mistakes just like we all do, some of them embarrassing, some of them down right idiotic. Most importantly though is the necessity to recount the excitement and love of travelling conveying it to the reader. For me it’s a simple unclouded formula. Job done!

I try to make my blog as colourful as possible. Visitors need to feel welcome when they come through the door. I also chose the theme to highlight each post as best as possible. I don’t post daily. Each one takes time and a lot of thought. When I hit publish it feels more like a mini work that’s going out with an accompanying feeling of satisfaction and achievement.

Beijing - Changdian Temple Fair - Spring Festival 2016

How did you get into travel blogging?

When I hit the road all those years back I couldn’t afford a camcorder or much of anything. My camera didn’t even have a memory card in it. Instead, my friend Jessie who’d just returned from India told me to keep a diary, record everything and keep all my tickets. Hers was an inspirational masterpiece and from there I never looked back. I write everything in as much detail as possible on blank A4 paper folded up and kept in a pocket book which then gets added to the others in a sealable thick waterproof bag. Believe me, a detailed diary is by far the best way to cement memories that will last a lifetime.

In 2005 I had no idea about blogging or any form of social media. In China I couldn’t access Facebook or Flickr so instead I would find an internet café and type a few paragraphs to people from the diary. After a few months people started commenting that they really liked my writing style and from their encouragement things went from there.

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I believe keep a journal definitely helps with blogging.  Given the perception that travel blogging is one of the best jobs in the world, what is your opinion?

Yes, really it doesn’t get much better. I do think though that just likes anything, it’s important to keep up a positive energy about the writing. I’ve also been a teacher for over twenty five years and keeping your lessons alive and fresh every time is an essential skill. It’s something that you have to apply yourself to in the same way a comedian applies themselves each time they go on stage. The same goes for travel writing. You have to convey the excitement as if you are on the road for the very first time and that’s a tough one to be doing every post.

Given your current background of being an ESL teacher in China, what things can non-native English speakers do to improve their writing?

China approaches English learning in a very formal and academic way. Students do little in the way of real speaking practice and it’s so ingrained that a lot of writing therefore lacks any fluency or rhythm. How can you write effectively if your own knowledge is based almost entirely on basic grammar structures? The single most important bit of advice I would give to any student as crazy as it sounds is to do some work on their conversational skills and learn to become more natural and fluent.

I’ve done a lot of translation and proof reading and the other problem that seems to crop up a lot are huge sentences that could easily be broken up into smaller parts. When we do that, language starts to become a more effective tool for expression rather than just conveying information.

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Your blog looks fantastic with many insiders’ stories about China. What is your word of wisdom to break into travel blogging?

The real secret is to stick around your country of choice for as long as possible. Most people hit the road for a few weeks with their creature comforts waiting for them back home. If you want to write successfully then make time to be away for extended periods and immerse yourself into the culture. Everything has been done these days and there are very few unexplored places so when you write it had better stand out and grab one’s attention by the neck.

Writing with honesty is also a key component for me. I write with no ego but rather recall every stupid blunder or terrible decision that I make. I am the absolute king of uncool. If I’m scared or lost I’ll add it. If I make a bad value judgment I’ll add that. If I make a huge error regarding historical or geographical information I’ll still include it for fun. Some things you see along the road may be unpleasant. Some things may go against the grain of public opinion but at the end of the day you have to write in your own way with your own special defining signature.

What is your favorite travel book?

My inspiration to break away from my sofa in the UK was a TV series and book called ‘Long Way Round’ documenting Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s motorcycle trip from the UK across, Mongolia Russia, Canada and America. It was the ultimate amateur catalogue of blunders and tests while endearing the viewers to them and their support crew. I read the book from cover to cover in no time, watched the show countlessly, becoming quite OCD about the whole thing. In the end it became too much for me. I just had to do something like that myself.

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Apart from traveling, blogging and teaching, what is your dream job?

I don’t think it’s a dream job so much as a dream way of life. Somewhere along the line I’d love to get away from the city and become self-sufficient. I’ve plenty of journeys on the cards and also a dream to write a series of fictional books. It’s something that’s been stewing away in my mind for over ten years and I think about it every day. Two months ago I took time way from blogging to start story boarding, making it to five out of eight books with the bulk of the last three partially thrashed out. It’s going to be amazing!

I already started reading your “Just Turn Left at the Mountains” and I laughed loads, and I cannot wait to read more of your fiction books. Do you have any travel bloggers/writers in mind that you would like to meet in person (excluding me).

Definitely my friends Evelyn and Steve who can be found at https://wanderlets.com/ Ev’ and Steve took early retirement, sold everything and bought an RV. They now spend their lives roaming the States and writing about their adventures. They especially endeared themselves to me while Steve endured months of physical pain in the last few months of his job followed by a lengthy wind-down and house sale. I remember being so excited when they got near to leaving and so happy for them when they went hunting for the RV. To be able to roam the country like that must be an amazing feeling. Another blogger called Kiwi Bruce I’d love to meet has just completed a fantastic bike trip across Japan and South Korea. When he got back he sent me many e-mails filled with up to date information and tips for being in the road, something that I’ll be doing again in a few weeks’ time. Big shout to Bruce who can be found here https://whatisbruceupto.com/ . Lastly my dear online pal Clare Marie who lives in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. It looks like total bliss where she lives. Find her at https://aroundzuzusbarn.com/

China - Shanxi Province. Pingyao

Thanks for the nice travel blogs recommendations. Now share one less-known place to visit in Beijing.

I always love to find places that are off the tourist radar and do something a bit different. I guess once you are away from the obvious places like Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall then things will always get a bit quieter. The Great Wall is terrific in the winter by the way.

You can’t not love Houhai Lake especially at night but if you venture north-west for fifteen minutes you’ll come across the lesser known Xihai Lake and the surrounding hutong area of Jishuitan. I’ve always loved it there. I guess for something out of the box then Chaonei 81, Beijing’s notorious haunted house is always strangely available to go and have a wander around. Be careful not to speak out of turn to the spirits there though.

 I lived in one of the house in Hutong for two weeks at my first visit in Beijing and I always remember it. Tell us one of your favorite Chinese phrases and explain the meaning.

I think the one that I use a lot is ‘zi yan zi yu’ which means ‘I’m talking to myself’ ha ha. I do a lot of that these days as it helps me focus. Well that’s my excuse anyway.

The other one I love refers to the popular men’s hair statement in Beijing known as the ‘comb over’. It’s actually an idiom: ‘di fang zhi yuan zhang yang’ which translates to ‘the provinces support the capital i.e. the remaining hair surrounding the bald head are the provinces and the bald head is therefore the capital. If someone is bald but has remaining hair above the ears and round the back of the head but no comb over, one can say ‘Di Zhong Hai. Zhong yang bu zhang’. This actually refers to the Mediterranean Sea surrounded by land on both sides. Bu zhang also can mean ‘no central minister’. Hilarious!

Thanks Andy for the interview. Continue enjoying your life in my homeland!

Note: All images belong to Andy Smart. 

Julie Cao

Julie Cao is a travel blogger, travel writer, and global citizen currently living in Toronto Ontario.

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