We would definitely put Singapore into our top three city experiences of the gap year, alongside Vancouver and Sydney. After an incredible programme of land reclamation and development, the compulsory stop-on-the-route-to-Australia is now a city destination in its own right, with some of the world’s most distinctive attractions.
The Gardens by the Bay with its Supertrees (see our next blog) and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (the building on the left in the photo above) have simply rebranded the city, giving it a new visual language for the Instagram age, and as tourists it’s initially hard to see beyond them.
But we were also interested to explore an earlier Singapore, the city of Raffles, the Japanese invasion and the birth in 1965 of an independent country. So we spent time walking up the Singapore River, through Fort Canning Park and loved the National Museum.
Singapore is without question a clean and green city, a clear reflection of an efficient, orderly and wealthy society. It has come on a ton since Hilary was here in 1987, when the river stank, there were still rows of squalid Chinese shanty houses and lots of spitting in the streets.
You know it’s not looking promising when the top rated place to visit on TripAdvisor is a shopping mall.
How can a modern temple to global consumerism, built no doubt with foreign investment and kick-backs, be the most popular destination – where are the inspiring museums, historic buildings or peaceful parks?
We are in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city with three million people (that’s three times the population of Birmingham in England), yet there is nothing remotely aesthetic here. In fact we saw the most attractive place as we left – the airport terminal.
So, before our flight to Bali, what to do with our day? We took super cheap Uber’s (making them illegal here doesn’t appear to be on the cards), to a couple of eclectic sites; a cigarette factory and a Russian submarine. So our theme for the day was ‘things which kill people’.
But instead, we probably should have used our day in East Java to visit Mount Bromo, but that would have been our ninth volcano of the gap year.
Indonesia has the world’s largest number of Muslims and is also the fourth most populated country.
We decided to come here because it’s almost a forgotten state. Mention Indonesia and you can see friends desperately thinking where exactly it is, what islands does it comprise of, and isn’t there always an army coup or fighting going on there?
There’s also a World Heritage Site to visit.
But first we had the capital Jakarta to see. The 20m people who live here apparently tweet more than any other city on the planet. It’s major landmark is the 132 m (433 ft) imposing National Monument built to commemorate the struggle for Indonesian independence.
We felt we had arrived back in South America, with obvious pockets of poverty and bad pavements, and dangerous roads. But the people are so friendly and courteous, with a soft line in Islam; no niqabs have been seen, just optional hijabs, with many working women and men content to cuddle babies.
We took the train from Guangzhou direct to Kowloon, then the ferry to Hong Kong Island.
20 years after Britain handed back the colony, it still feels a bit like a border crossing: you get stamped out of China at Guangzhou, Facebook can be accessed again, and the massive skyscrapers of Shenzhen give way to the rural remoteness of the new territories.
Currently, the journey takes 1 hour 53 minutes, in a year or two, when the high-speed link opens, it will come down to just 43 minutes. See this as a metaphor for the creeping “mainlandisation” of Hong Kong.
After five previous massive Chinese cities, we hoped Hong Kong would feel different, but unfortunately it didn’t. In fact, we found ourselves simply wanting to escape the ubiquitous noise and crowds, and everything we liked about Hong Kong was a reflection of its past: the Star Ferries, the Lugard Road walk around Victoria Peak, the quietness of Stanley Beach, and sitting on the top deck of a historic “ding-dong” tram.
When we leave Hong Kong, we’ll miss the Chinese people, but we are in need of some peace and quiet.
The amazing Canton Tower and the 7th tallest building in the world make a statement. Today, just like the last 2200 years, Guangzhou is a city built on global trade.
This historical terminus of the maritime Silk Road is the 7th biggest city in the world with a population of 14m. And the River Pearl Delta’s greater conurbation of 57m people is the Factory of the World. Wikipedia tells us, nearly 5% of the world’s goods were produced in here in 2001.
We are having an extended stay in Xiamen, a prosperous and rapidly developing city on the coast opposite Taiwan. Time to do what the locals do.
During an 8am walk in the well-kept park, we were invited to join a group of middle-aged men for tea, their caged song birds in the background. This spontaneous hospitality was lovely, but it was impossible to have any meaningful conversation, beyond a few Google translate sentences.
Throughout the park, communal and artistic endeavours suggested an inner depth to the Chinese. The park was alive with singing, dancing, board games and exercises. But unlike the buses and pavements, full of school kids and millennials, most people here were much older, with time to start the day part of a community.
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.
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.