TCC Member Spotlight: Hongyu Yang, Arlington, Virginia

Hongyu visiting stone villages 100 miles from Sana’a, Yemen in January 2012

I was born with sense of curiosity and spirit of adventure and these have always been with me. At age 5, I led a few classmates and escaped from kindergarten to home. Looking at the map, I imaged what those places looked like. Back then in China, visiting foreign countries was not common; I could only dream. But domestic travel was possible. With several classmates, we backpacked and visited nearly half of China during my first summer break in college. When coming to the United States to study, I embraced the opportunity, and guess what: travel! My job involves lots of international travel, which I enjoy greatly.

How did I discover the TCC? It was a long process. In 2009 curiosity led me to join a local travel meet-up in Washington, D.C. I gave presentations of my travels at the weekly meetings. One person at the meeting asked me how many countries I had visited. I said, “107.” The person suggested, “You are qualified for a travel club, which is only for people who have traveled to 100 or more countries.” I asked, “Where is it and what’s the name of the club?” But I could not get more details. Curiosity and persistence drove me to Google—I found the TCC! The rest became history. I set my goal when I joined the club: 150 by 2012; 193 by 2015; 300 by 2017; and 325 (now the # is 327) by 2020.I am at 320 currently (my last was Socotra) and am on track to achieve the goal.

With traveling to so many places, I have so many memorable stories that happened at a certain time and situation, which cannot be repeated. In January 2012 Yemen was at war. I contacted nearly 10 local travel agencies; most of them did not even bother to respond to my email. A few answered with just a few words: “Don’t come, it is too dangerous here.” But one sent good news. My friend and I wired money and got the visa. We arrived at Sana’a international airport! Our driver was there to receive us. After a few exchanging words, I found his English was limited and not enough to communicate at a substantial level. So, I asked, “what other languages do you speak except Arabic,” he said, “Spanish!” He spoke Spanish like a native. That’s wonderful, I speak Spanish too! Our driver went to Cuba to study economics for six years under a scholarship from the Soviet Union. Back then Yemen was two countries. He was in the communist part. When he finished studying in Cuba, the two Yemens were reunited. He chose to work as a tour guide because the pay was more lucrative than working for the government. Knowing the local people and their life always fascinates me.

In December 2011 there was a window that was relatively safe in Iraq. I was there for a customized 10-day private tour for two people. We had a Mercedes Benz Sedan, a driver and an interpreter. We drove all the way from Bagdad to Karbala, Najaf, and Nasserriya, visiting the legendary city of Babylon, walking through Saddam Hussain’s palace, spontaneously visiting a Bedouin family in the Mesopotamian desert, canoeing in the Tigris River, and crossing the border from Basra to enter Iran. We ate with local people and wandered around in the night market like locals. I did not feel in danger at all.

In Kabul, my tour guide managed to persuade the soldiers to let me visit the royal place. The building was like a skeleton with bullet holes. No one lives there. The soldiers had nothing to do and were playing volleyball. I asked if I could join them; they were so happy to have me.I enjoyed playing so much.That was an unexpected and wonderful experience.

Talking to the local people and visiting schools are some of my favorite activities while traveling. If I see a school or hear children’s noise, I would unconsciously walk towards them. As I design and implement education projects in developing countries, I always love to see schools, classrooms, and students. In Asmara, Eritrea, I was surrounded by kindergarten children. In Havana, Cuba, I was once invited by the teacher to sit in the classroom in a secondary school to chat with students.

There are so many stories to share and so many beautiful memories to appreciate. To me, travel is learning, is understanding different cultures, and is education. The more I travel, the more I feel I need to learn.

Hongyu visiting a kindergarten in Asmara, Eritrea, in December 2012