We wanted to share this picture with you. It was taken at Hongquaio Station in Shanghai as we started our travels through south east China.
We hope the vastness comes across, but you need to know the station was even bigger, all the ticket offices with long queues are out of shot, so of course are all the platforms. This scale says so much about China’s new railway system. Over the past 10 years, China has constructed a staggering 22,000 kilometres (14,000 miles) of high-speed railway track, that’s two-thirds of the world’s total. A commitment to building long term public infrastructure that western politicians, with their short-term job security, can only dream about.
Travelling at a top speed of 250 km/h, our high-speed train to Suzhou covered the 80km in around 25 minutes. Tickets cost us £5 each.
Seemingly everyone in Shanghai converges on the historic riverfront area, called The Bund, in the afternoon and evening. Excited children run along the boardwalk. Policemen blow their whistles to keep the crowds moving. Those with SLR cameras set up tripods.
The view across the Huangpu River of the Pudong District skyscrapers is just wonderful, perfectly proportioned for photographs, certainly a top 20 experience of this gap year. In the foreground on the left, the iconic Shanghai Oriental Pearl TV Tower, and in the background on the right, the Shanghai Tower, at 632 metres, the second tallest building in the world.
Then, as the sky turned black, the lights across the water created an even more amazing spectacle. But there was another show too. All along the waterfront couples were being professionally photographed. Pre-wedding images to share with family and friends.
In People’s Park on any Sunday morning, an extraordinary site. Older people sit with upturned umbrellas displaying carefully typed notices.
Initially, Hilary thought it might be some sort of selling, Roger wondered if these were accommodation ads.
In fact, behind every umbrella and notice is an anxious parent trying to find a partner for their (inevitably only) daughter or son. The ads are aimed at other parents in a similar state, and we were told this is all initiated without their child’s knowledge.
Probably, it’s as much to do with bringing a new salary into the family as having grandchildren. There are no photos just cv style details, with a focus on education and jobs.
It’s a symptom of the problems younger people have in finding partners. Works hours are long and demanding for going out much. And thanks to the ‘one child policy’ there’s some 35 million extra males under age 40, with a famed arrogance and inability to sustain relationships.
Outside our hotel in East Nanjing Road, older people with skeletons and muscles to stretch, start their Tai Chi exercises early. Bodies that lived through the cultural revolution, are now witnesses to the economic revolution.
We had a map, a rough idea where we were heading and started walking. It’s the best way to feel part of a city.
The fastest lifts in the world took us up 118 floors in 29 secs to a record height.
Although it’s not the world’s tallest building, that’s Dubai’s Burj Khalifa which Roger has been up, the Shanghai Tower has the world’s highest observation deck.
Opened in 2015, the Shanghai Tower is a multi-purpose vertical city, with a 120 degree architectural twist that makes it so beautiful to look at, as well as strengthening the whole structure, allowing its lighter framework to be more wind resistant.
It’s amazing to look so far down at the 1920s riverfront buildings of The Bund, the almost insignificant other skyscrapers, and the miles and miles of apartment flats radiating out in all directions. This is a city of 24 million in a country of 1.2 billion. Welcome to today’s China.
After Mao died in 1976, Deng Xiaoping took over, declaring “To get rich is glorious” and the entrepreneurial Chinese spirit was unleashed. Just 35 years later, China is the second biggest economy in the world, and responsible for lifting the largest number of people out of poverty.
We wanted to include China in this trip, as it’s key to so much that’s happening in the world. To provide context to today’s macro events, to reflect upon the seismic changes happening, to appreciate the type of world our children will live in, there’s a need to understand China.
So with a route that begins in Shanghai and ends in Hong Hong, we aim to travel away from the iconic tourist spots, trying to get under the skin of this beguiling country.
We were only there a few days, but here are some thoughts, albeit fairly random, about Korea…..
Korea has had a rough deal over the past 107 years. We all know the superpowers and their Cold War catalysed the division of the peninsula after 1945, but we didn’t realise prior to this, since 1910 in fact, the country was occupied by the Japanese.
The Koreans we spoke to just get on with everyday life and don’t try and worry too much about the apparent nuclear threat from the North. They follow developments on tv, but then switch over to romantic drama. They live for the moment. To them, it’s just another escalation that’s previously included assassinations, invasions, missiles and axe murders. But dreams of a united Korea will depend on renewed direct contact between the two governments.
Although population numbers have increased rapidly in the last decades, and the profile comes across as very young, the birth rate is declining and experts are predicting the population may peak as early as 2024. So the government is incentivising marriage (with new housing) and births (with money).
Ordinary Koreans hate the power, and corruption, of the large family corporations that control so much of the economy – which are known as the Chaebols. Think Samsung, Lotte and Hyundai. Amazingly the revenue of the 10 largest is more than 80% of South Korea’s GDP, with Samsung accounting for 20%. Although they powered Korea’s economic success in the last few decades, today many think the Chaebols hamper future growth.
Tourists are made very welcome here. The Korean Tourist Board displays a nice line in workwear (see top photo), provides great maps and guides in English and even offers a hotline for tourists to ring whenever they are stuck, lost or have a complaint. Although there are lots of historical treasures to visit, many of them are recently rebuilt from scratch. In our opinion, it’s best to visit the country for its modern lifestyle rather than its history.
Young Koreans love to sing and are performers at heart; in both Seoul and Busan we enjoyed watching many street acts. But the young are very image conscious, always checking themselves in mirrors, and their smartphones, and spend all their time out-and-about taking thousands of selfies. But we were delighted to see that alcohol or smoking doesn’t seem to be part of their culture.
Like Japan, South Korea is an incredibly homogeneous country. We saw hardly any mixed relationships or indeed many foreigners who live here. In Busan or Seoul you do not see posters in the street promoting the benefits of diversity (unlike Jasper and Sydney).
In 1945, two Americans drew a line across their map of the Korean Peninsula. Above the 38th parallel, the Soviets would demilitarise the Japanese (who had controlled Korea since 1910), whilst below the task would fall to the Americans.
72 years later, there’s still a divide, just a bit more diagonal. But now a very dangerous and sad one; for families separated, for a people divided and for millions who live with the threat of nuclear war. Plans, hopes and dreams potentially obliterated on the whim of Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump.
On a grim wet day, Roger travelled 50 miles (80 km) north of Seoul into a grim landscape – beyond the civilian exclusion zone and Freedom Bridge, down one of the North Korean tunnels and looked across the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
This is a view that should make many world leaders, past and present, ashamed. All of them too powerful, all of them men, and all of them pathetic creatures who nurture power instead of healing.
In 1989, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Europe was able to move out of the shadow of WWII and the Cold War. When will Korea be able to?
If you plan to do this Try and book the combined Joint Security Area (JSA) and DMZ tour. Because of the joint South Korean/American military exercises taking place whilst Roger was in Seoul, all tours of the JSA at Panmunjeom were cancelled.
This is an exciting city in which to spend three nights.
The “financial controller” (also known as Hilary) had relaxed the spending limits a bit, so after a terrible place to stay in Hiroshima (noodle smells from below and a bathroom shared with the owner), we splashed out on a nice hotel. The price was still pretty cheap, but we found a gem, a boutique style hotel that offered a great atmosphere. Pictured above, it’s called Hotel Manu, for when you are next in South Korea. It’s so super-cool, we spent all three evenings in-house drinking beer, eating pizzas and giving each other massages.
Now we know we are supposed to be seeing Seoul and its culture and vibe, and we did do a bit of that (see below), but sometimes as a traveller you just want a place called home, food you can pronounce, white Egyptian cotton sheets and lots of chill-out time.
We hired some bikes and cycled along both banks of the River Han for miles. Wonderful views, with a cafe stop on one of the islands in the middle of the river.
A few minutes from our hotel was the Sungnyemun Gate. Originally built in 1398, it was one of the four main gates of the city.
Hilary at Seoul Tower. From here we saw an ocean of skyscrapers. Enough for 24 million people.
Right outside our hotel in Seoul is a new walkway, a bit like the High Line in New York, except this is a converted roadway. It welcomed us to the capital from the station, and what might have been a difficult walk across lanes of gridlocked traffic, became a lovely stroll through pots of plants and trees, mini-cafes, kids’ trampolines, tiny art galleries and a pool to dip your toes in.
Opened just four months ago, the 2km walkway is called Seoullo and it’s a great example of how city planners should be putting pedestrians front of mind.
And as we walked it, we couldn’t help reflecting on the abandonment of London’s Garden Bridge project. Such a shame that this visionary idea couldn’t be made to work.
We noticed women only carriages, stipulated on certain carriages during morning and evening rush hours, first on the Tokyo metro system. Our China expert Sophie, told us they were introduced because of the high levels of groping by men on crowded trains.
We’ve since also spotted these notices on Korean metro lines (above). What is the problem here? Aren’t we living in the 21st century in cosmopolitan egalitarian societies?
We note that this week a British Labour Member of Parliament (MP) has been making similar suggestions for the London tube. Glad to say that egalitarians have pushed back and said the solution should be prosecuting men for behaving badly rather than restricting women’s freedom.
Now some of you might say it’s not restricting women, but as Yvette Cooper MP says, “Why should women have to shut themselves away to stay safe.” And Sarah Wollaston, MP added, “In countries where women are segregated on public transport, it’s a marker for disempowerment not safety.”
Sad and depressing to see that in 2017 sexual harassment is still such an issue in advanced societies.