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China gets taste for 'couch surfing' travel

By Wang Xiaopeng and Fu Shuangqi (Xinhua)

09:36, October 31, 2012

BEIJING, Oct. 30 (Xinhua) -- University student He Yao recently got back to Beijing from a 16-day stay in the Republic of Korea (ROK) for which she didn't spend a cent on lodging.

With no relatives or friends there, the 23-year-old girl managed it thanks to couch surfing, the worldwide concept of offering travelers a couch or a bed to sleep on for free.

The people who offer free accommodation are called "hosts," while their guests are "couch surfers" under this system, which is becoming increasingly popular in China.

The novel concept, which directly hooks travelers up with local people, was invented by American technology and Internet consultant Casey Fenton in 1999. Before a trip to Iceland, he emailed students at the University of Reykjavik, asking if any were willing to offer him a free place to stay.

To his surprise, he received many offers of hospitality and stayed in the country for free.

After getting back to the United States, Fenton decided to promote this experience. Four years later, in 2004, he and several partners founded Couchsurfing, a social travel network to facilitate "couchsurfing" members with like-minded hosts.

The method of travel started to gather enthusiasts throughout the world not long after Couchsurfing was established. According to statistics released by the network, there are about five million couch surfers in more than 96,000 cities around the world.

It was from this network that Beijing-based He successfully found four hosts to accommodate her in the ROK in September. During her trip, she stayed at the homes of a police officer, a university student, a math teacher and a civil servant. Three of them offered her a separate room, while the college student shared a bed with her.

"This was a fantastic trip filled with luck and courage!" He says. The hosts treated her to local delicacies, night clubs and nighttime views.

Although she did have safety concerns on this, her first experience of couchsurfing, He says they were dispelled by the network's detailed verification and references, as wells as a vouching system.

Couchsurfing was introduced to China a few years ago, and the network reveals that China now ranks 10th in terms of the population of couch surfers. The top three countries by this measure are the United States, Germany and France.

On popular microblogging site Sina Weibo, more than 1,000 bloggers label themselves "Couch surfing host," with a user named "Couch surfer's trip website" attracting more than 13,000 followers alone.

Couch surfers in China are also known as "Tang Seng," after the eminent Buddhist monk who carried out a west-bound pilgrimage to procure Buddhist sutras during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

As monks often call the people who accommodate them "Shizhu" in China, the hosts of couch surfers are also nicknamed this way.

Chen Hui, a host in Xiamen, a coastal city in east China's Fujian Province, explains she accommodates couch surfers because she believes this is a way to communicate with people from different places and backgrounds.

Chen works at home, and she enjoys talking with the couch surfers who stay at her home.

"A girl from Hong Kong who I received this summer has become a good friend of mine," Chen says.

Lack of courtesy has been a problem challenging the spread of couch surfing in China. For this reasons, Chen prefers to have contact with a prospective guest before she offers a lodging place.

"I turn down applications from those who immediately come out and say they just need somewhere to sleep," she explains.

A couch surfer herself, Chen has found people in big cities like Hangzhou, capital of eastern Zhejiang Province, are more willing to offer a free place, but it is not easy to find a host in smaller cities, where people tend to be more reserved.

"I traveled to Shaoxing, also in the province, this summer, but I failed to get a free place," she recalls.

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