Explore, Experience, Learn, Share – The Vision behind my expeditions by Roger Chao

Since I am married to an Asian-American my life has become not only so much better as regards to life as such, but it continuously gives me another, very healthy perspective of  pretty much everything, including travel. It is great to continuously live in a kind of cultural bridge building atmosphere like this and therefore, when I saw Roger Chao in LinkedIn, an Asian-Australian explorer, I really wanted him to write about cultural exploration. And so he did, read his great article below!  An article which really deals with every aspect of the life of an explorer! You can reach Roger at rogersteppe@gmail.com

Explore, Experience, Learn, Share – The Vision behind my expeditions


Roger Chao

There are those people today who live the same life, day-in day-out – predictable, risk-free, dreamless. They are the harshest critics of those who choose to break free from this mundane existence.

In this world, too many people are afraid to pursue the life they truly desire, too afraid of being criticised by others, too afraid of failing, too afraid of not knowing the way.

However, there are also those who choose to follow their dreams, those who choose to rebel, those who strive to be free – those who live. Stay true to yourself. Break free from the chains of society – and live. May you too have the strength and courage to pursue your dreams.

Throughout the globe, distinct geographical, environmental and political climates have shaped each community to the form it exists today, resulting in a diverse array of cultures worldwide. Diversity offers us opportunities for inter-societal sharing of ideas that help us solve the problems within each other’s communities.

Living in and being involved in the global economy means that our actions and decisions affect those living on other parts of the planet. Climate change has also opened our eyes to the fact that how we live our lives can have global ramifications. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, and the world becomes increasingly integrated and globalised, diverse and unique cultures are rapidly disappearing.

These things can’t be solved by monthly charity donations (though I am not suggesting that you stop!). Have a look around and see some other ways of living. Why do we choose TVs and cars? Did we even choose it? Could we do things differently, and still be happy? Should we do things differently?

The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages (www.livingtongues.org) reports that on average, one distinct language is being lost every two weeks with 50 per cent of all languages estimated to be extinct in 100 years’ time. In a recent study published in the eminent scientific journal Nature, Sutherland and colleagues (doi:10.1038/nature01607) found that 46 languages have less than 10 native speakers left and 357 languages with less than 50 speakers, with the languages becoming extinct at a far greater rate than animal species.

I believe that cultural diversity is important, and valuable enough to be preserved. There is a lot of indigenous knowledge (natural resource management, care for local flora and fauna, history, medicine, societal relations, political structures, economic systems, moral codes) that is only to be found within the hands of peoples that have lived in the region for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Also, as each of these different cultures has evolved throughout unique geographical and political climates, there are many different elements of societal culture, ideas and tenets, which are unique to their situation. Thus, by maintaining the diversity that is present on this little jewel of a planet, we are not losing potential for ideas of how to organize our society. What elements and practices in these other societies might we be able to incorporate into our society?

All my expeditions (or journey’s as I prefer to call them) and subsequent documentation have not been about unquestioningly valuing all cultures as equal, not about blindly promoting tolerance of their customs and ways of life, nor one of moral relativism either, but rather one of questioning my own lifestyle, their lifestyle, our own beliefs and practice, and their beliefs and practices. This involves learning what tools they use and how they use them – both in terms of locally available resources (natural capital, flora and fauna) and the values and tenets of their social, political, economic and legal systems.

Learning from other cultures consists of seeing what does and what doesn’t work for certain cultures, what problems their cultures have and what beneficial elements they have. Then, one must ask why it does or doesn’t work. By seeing what faults our culture may have, what solutions other cultures may have to this, and what problems they have, we can better find solutions to the universal problems that plague humankind. Thus, in the process, one ends up questioning their own beliefs, and garnering new knowledge or ways of looking at things.

People often are not concerned with the preservation of the diversity of different cultures and the knowledge they have acquired, not so much because they do not care, but because often they do not know. If they saw and understood the importance of these cultures, they would be more likely to be moved to act. When people can connect first hand, empathise, sharing joy and sadness with these people, they will be emotional attuned to their cultures, more able to see themselves in their shoes, not so far removed. Once people see and understand the beauty and importance of these people and cultures and their indigenous wisdom, they will hopefully understand and promote the preservation of this diversity and its acquired knowledge. This is what I aim to do on all of my “journeys”.

From this foundation itself, stems other questions, which I hope people may go some way towards answering in time (if possible) or even just questioning. Are other cultures important? If so, why are they important? Are we all part of the same or independent nature/culture? What is our role/place in a world full of many disappearing cultures and indigenous knowledge? I hope that that of my journeys and their subsequent documentation will help people explore some of these (and many more) questions, and move them to search for answers.

As I travelled throughout the world on numerous journey, I hoped to get a glimpse of and document many other lifestyles. I aimed to do this as an observer, without tarnishing the very cultures we were trying to document. However, when venturing into a foreign environment as an observer, it is a trade-off between minimal impact on these cultures (to capture them in their most pure form), and documenting it to help people understand it. By entering these fragile and uncontaminated cultural areas you often cause change to the indigenous populace by altering, bringing in, taking away, or even unconsciously changing them; how much of this is legitimised by the documentation of these people? This has also ways been one of the larger issues concerning the planning and logistics of my journeys, which required careful attention (almost like a getting Ethics approval for a research project).

These vanishing cultures if not documented now, will have their wisdom and knowledge (which has been gathered throughout the centuries and passed down from generation to generation) lost forever. Our current lifestyle as it is, is not the only way to live, there are many things wrong with it, it is only by looking to how other cultures live that we can progress. It is only by looking at other groups lifestyles that we can see how we can change ours, what works in their way of life, what doesn’t, what works in our way of life, what doesn’t, that we can truly move forward. This is what journeys was all about for me. They are as much introspective journeys as they are physical journeys, catered towards helping me learn more about myself and the world, and helping other people do the same.

My personal journeys:

For me, journeys are an opportunity to really grow and learn. There are always very real risks involved in such enterprises and I recognise that I am often stepping well out of my comfort bubble – that my security will only be centred squarely on my wits (and sometimes my reliance on other people), not on my house, or my car, or mobile phone. The diverse range of environments I have encountered throughout my travels, both geographical, social and political, have all been very testing.

In a world where we are so focused on surviving in our own isolated economic driven culture, the idea of taking a person out of that and placing them in a foreign society without Western technology or material wants – “living to live” – has always been intriguing for me. How would I survive? How would I live without the things we take for granted; piped water, electricity, mobile phones? It is always  interesting to find out what draws us humans to seek out these foreign cultures and what we have in common with them – it it something innate, something socially constructed, or something else? How would my experiences of these people change me? How would I cope when I was thrown into a foreign culture, a situation of unfamiliarity, people I did not know? Would I experience a feeling of alienation and anomie, or would there be some underlying connection with humanity that I would experience that we always make me feel part of it and not distant.

There are a number of reasons I decided to partake on the many journeys I have: the challenges that they  presented to myself and what I presently considered to be important; the opportunity to see and record some of these special people and places; and the opportunity to bring to the public the knowledge these local cultures have gathered over the centuries.

Culture, and the importance of community:

One of the lessons that I have learnt throughout my travels has been about the importance of community, something I have found that a lot of cultures place a lot more importance on than what we do. I have often (but not always) found that our society is one of freedom, individualism and competition,  compared to many of the more communitarian cultures I have encountered.

A friend and I were once riding through the Kazakh steppe in mid-winter, the snow was mid-thigh deep and the temperature around -30c, with the wind blowing a gale. As the blizzard picked up, we soon decided that the safest course of action was to stop pedalling and try setup our tents. We were already extremely weary, as no matter how much we pedalled and pushed, we were only making about 3km/ph due to the wind, snow depth, and friction in our drive train. Out in the distance, we saw what appeared to be a stonewall. Guessing that it might be an animal shelter, we started the long trudge through the snowdrift to it, hoping to use the stonewall to protect our tent.

As we neared the stonewall, a shepherd suddenly appeared. It turned out that what we thought was just a stonewall from afar, was actually his house. We were quickly ushered inside where a cow dung fire was roaring away, fed a mountain of food and put to sleep in thick woollen blankets.

Later that night, when we were all sound asleep, we were awoken by a knock on the door. An exhausted snow covered shepherd staggered in. Just imagine this man covered in animal skins and fur with a thick layer of snow over him. This small man (he probably weighed less than me) looked about the size of a large gorilla due to all the layers of clothing he had on, maybe that’s how legends of yetis came about!

This shepherd lived some 15km further up in the mountains, and was on his way home  out through the steppe (no tracks existed, and the snow out in the centre was waist deep) when the blizzard picked up. With the snow too deep to continue, his horse getting cold, and him nearly getting lost in the blizzard, he was looking for a place stay the night and have some hot food and tea to warm up. If he hadn’t stopped for shelter, it could have been fatal.

He was immediately taken in, the stove relit, food and tea heated up for him, and given a mattress and blankets to sleep on, before the hosts retired back to bed. No payment or anything was expected of him, and the hosts were more than happy to be awoken from their slumber to cook for him.

This wasn’t just a once off incident either, we experienced this same hospitality countless times in our travels, it’s their way of life.

These shepherds are spread few and far between with their nearest neighbours often 10’s of kilometres apart – sometimes even 100s of kilometres apart, with just mountains, barren steppe, desert and snow between them, with no food, or shelter in sight. It is only by having the ability to stop off at any residence they encounter that they are able to make the journeys that are such an important part of their livelihood.

This tradition of hospitality stretches back as far as anyone can remember. Any person can at any time, turn up at another person’s residence and be expected to be helped out.

Without this spirit of hospitality, generosity,  compassion and humanity, people would not be able to survive in these harsh environments. It is only by helping and supporting each other as part of the same community that these people are able to survive.  Their survival is dependent on each other. This community spirit that they harbour is something we can all learn from.

Let me leave you with one more proverb I encountered during my travels. I won’t attempt to explain it, I’ll leave what you take away from it up to you.

“Without nature there can be no life worth living. But where is nature’s voice to tell us?”

Roger Chao is an accomplished mountaineer, white water kayaker, caver, rock climber,polar expeditioner, backcountry skier, bike tourer, and hiker. He is also a fellow of the RoyalGeographic Society and on the executive board of the Australian and New Zealand Chapter of the Explorers Club.


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