Potentially our toughest travelling will be the gap year finale. Our 22nd country is a travellers’ enigma.
India is the stuff of dreams, colour, smells, extremes, contradictions and sacred cows.
English authors and historians have been trying to sum up the country for the last 300 years, never quite capturing it. We are looking forward to our own individual experience. What will the next three weeks hold for us?
To help our planning, on our last afternoon in Kuala Lumpur, we popped out to get a guide book.
We’re glad to say, our flight out of Bali to Singapore wasn’t delayed by the volcano.
It was time to leave Bali, but we boarded the plane feeling we had only scratched the surface of Indonesia. The impression we have is that the real beauty and spirit of the country lies beyond Java and Bali, across the seas to the other 13000 islands. After all, it’s a country with hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, 700 spoken languages, the 4th largest population in the world and the 14th largest land mass.
So, with its wonderfully friendly people, who laugh a lot and don’t take themselves too seriously, and incredible good value, it’s somewhere we might well return to. But, next time we’ll have to give ourselves weeks and weeks to do it justice, to island hop at will, to immerse ourselves in local communities and to trek into the wild countryside.
In short, we’d like to see more of the fishermen who take their boats out each morning across picture-perfect isolated islands, and less of the traders who sell motorbike parts and brooms in the polluted noisy streets.
But how lucky we are to come here at all. We got to see wonderful Borobudur, travelled across Java by train, and saw the sunset from Bali. Wonderful memories.
Our base on the west coast of Bali, about an hour’s drive north of the main resorts, is more Costa Rica than the south of France. And we like it that way.
There’s a hippy-like charm to the beaches. Surfers wait patiently for their next wave, beautiful millennials assume yoga positions, and met-last-month couples smile hand-in-hand. Australian expats are up the earliest, walking along the shoreline past the spaces cleared for the next stage of “touristisation”, probably wishing time would stand still.
With boutique shops and beauty salons lining the road down to the beach, this isn’t the place to escape the pace of change. But where is today?
But change brings facilities and fun people, and to chill out we both joined a 90 minute intense yoga session, our presence raising the average age by some 10 years. Hilary looked great throughout with brilliant posture. Roger wasn’t quite so supple. So, to his list of post gap year actions, he’s added joining a class.
Leaving the Chinese mainland firewall behind, here are some thoughts on what we saw and learnt during our 16 days in the cities of south east China.
A brief chat with a woman in Hangzhou revealed that everyone is worried about going against the “system”. Keeping your head down and not stepping out of line is the only way to live here. A book Hilary read whilst out here (Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash), suggests “Western democracy wouldn’t work in China, it is too messy”. We can say China isn’t democratic, but maybe, in the West, we spend too much time and energy debating stuff we ourselves have no power over; the illusion of democracy.
In a country of 1.3 billion people, the “system” is creating amazing change. Everything here seems to happen faster; the scale and growth of the new cities, the building of the high-speed train network etc. It’s like everything happens here four times faster than in the west, and a generation lasts only five years. And ironically our Western short-term thinking contrasts with the Chinese government’s planning mindset of decades and centuries.
China has seen the largest internal migration in human history with millions of young adults moving from the countryside to the cities over the last thirty years. Two phrases linked to escalating property prices have become common parlance, ant tribes: those who commute long distances and rat tribes: those who live underground in the big cities.
The “system” doesn’t get in the way of being an independent traveller. We could go anywhere we pleased, never felt targeted or watched, and could dress and behave as we wanted. However, it would have been a very different story if we stood on the street corner shouting “Down with the Party”.
The reality in China is often deeply at odds with conventional wisdom. The Chinese are renowned for their hard work ethic, but the younger generation of “mini emperors” are condemned for laziness and arrogance, we saw plenty of illustrations of this on the buses and metro. Although the “system” is the religion, and millennials are meant to be very materialistic, there’s a lot of interest in Buddhism, which is “approved” by the current state as it reinforces China’s cultural heritage. And by the way, Christianity is the fastest growing religion here.
There appears to have been a huge change in public standards since Hilary’s last visit here in 2010. Then, it was all spitting and smoking and the person who shouted loudest got the seat/ticket/table. Now people are more considerate, especially of foreigners. We were given seats on several tubes, specially waited on at restaurants and one woman even bought train tickets for us when we had no change. We learnt that the Shanghai authorities had issued a guide to all its citizens on how to behave in public.
There was ready access to the internet at our hostels and cheap hotels. But whilst we could see the BBC and Fox News, The New York Times was blocked. Likewise, Facebook, Twitter and Google search were offline. But we were fine with Yahoo search (remember that) and What’s app. One interesting aside, at least to Roger, was the personalisation of Apple maps here, showing China’s ownership of the South China Seas.
Scattered around Suzhou, near China’s Grand Canal, are ancient water towns – communities built within a network of small canals, a bit like Venice or Bruges.
We travelled on the new metro line out to Tongli. With its small classical gardens, canalside walks, over 40 arched bridges and wooden gondoliers, it was a pleasant place to explore, despite the large number of Chinese day-trippers from Shanghai. Is China the first country in the world that doesn’t need overseas tourists to build-up a major tourist industry?
Yet thankfully, with older women peeling nuts on the street or washing clothes in the canals, it was still a bit rough around the edges, all traces of authenticity not lost in the rush for a tourist takeover.
But from the look of the renovations taking place, we suspect Tongli will soon be another Dubrovnik or Amalfi, lovely to visit but not in the least real.
Right next to our hotel in Suzhou is a brand new, six story temple of upmarket fashion.
On the ground floor, international brands such as Versace, Cartier and Salvatore Ferragamo, suggest we are in an enclave of the historic global elite, rather than a provincial city 80 km outside of Shanghai.
However, the simple fact is there’s so much money right now in the industrialised parts of China. So, next time you buy a “Made in China” product, think of the factory owners shopping here with cash.
The Chinese love international brands and are prepared and able to pay outlandish prices to buy into their cache. Yet, as you ascend the shopping centre escalators, Chinese originated brands, that are pretending to have European providance, start to appear. It surely won’t be long before Chinese-led fashion houses dominate the catwalks.
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).
We are sad to be leaving Japan; 15 days here was simply not long enough.
It’s a first world country that’s so different to ours. So an easy place to be a traveller, but also authentic, quirky and compelling. Here are some observations we are taking away….
Past and future
Japan was our gateway to the futuristic world (Korea and China are to come), but it’s also a country that cherishes a past of civility and manners.
It’s this perfect combination that makes the place so lovely to be in. When we were young, we read and saw films about a 21st century where technology and machines, coupled with a new human kindness, created an enviable lifestyle for all. Is Japan the closest we have come to it?
We queried why so many French visitors come to Japan, with a French language exchange student; “It’s because of animation” she told us. We queried further, so she explained that the French and Japanese share a love of animation and from an early age French school children see anime/manga, a massive cultural export, and become intrigued by Japan and its way of life.
A significant number of Japanese wear face masks. We were unsure if this was to protect the individual from inhaling smog or catching a disease, say at exam time, or possibly to protect others from any cold/flu that the wearer had. However, our helpful Hong Kong student (the one who told us about Japanese toilets) said that teenagers also wear these masks to cover up acne and other issues with their faces.
2020 is coming
Everywhere, buildings and temples, such as the Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto which was covered in scaffolding, are being buffed up for the 2020 Olympics that Japan will host, and there’s a real push to get the country tourist-friendly. No doubt, the country will put on a great show, and all the hard work will be worth it. But, because of the heat, we don’t envy the marathon runners.
Old houses not valued
We were surprised to learn there is no market for old houses; purchasers inevitably knock down the existing house and build afresh. Also, Homebase and B&Q wouldn’t do well here, as there is little appetite for home improvements that will never pay back. Back in 2008, this meant there were no toxic loans or housing bubble to burst.
Regretfully, this thinking has also applied historically to public buildings, most of Japan’s famous castles were demolished in the 1880s, leaving just a handful for the millions of tourists.
Avoiding the hills
As we travelled the length of Honshu by train, we noticed that the housing is squashed into the valleys, whilst huge areas of forested hills, that in other countries would be prime real estate, have no buildings.
Our Japanese expert Sophie tells us it’s because of two things: the threat of earth tremors which happen on an almost daily basis and the fact that the Shinto religion, adhered to by 80% of Japanese, believes that hills are sacred places.
Travel by public transport and you constantly hear little jingles reminiscent of happy, childish ditties. Used ahead of public announcements, each route or company seems to have their own version, a kind of audio branding.
Whilst places in the UK and elsewhere take pride in being “announcement free”, Japan simply loves all forms of public address, either pre-recorded multi-lingual on the bullet trains or personalised by the conductor on the buses.
Keeping Japan tidy
Japan is spotless. You could sit down and eat your lunch off the streets, anywhere. (Which we sometimes did). In local parks there is no litter, tramps, dogs or general squalor. There must be thousands of people involved in keeping Japan so clean, but we saw few of them, and ironically finding a rubbish bin is near impossible. Perhaps it’s simply because the Japanese don’t create the mess in the first place.
When asking some women how old they are, we’ve been stunned by the answers. Women with no wrinkles, who look to be mid twenties, are actually in their forties or fifties. And girls that appear to be 13 year olds are often much older. What creams do they use?
By contrast, Japanese men seem to age before their time. Roger spent an hour talking with a Japanese father who looked about 65, and was surprised to discover he was only 52. Maybe, in this gender-unequal society, there is far too much pressure on the men to be the sole breadwinner.
It’s the people who have caught our attention. Mannered, calm and with a Japanese twist of shyness, not readily making eye contact. Across numerous districts and micro-cities, searching for the unusual, the historic and the quirky, we used our three words of faltering Japanese (konnichiwa, dōmo arigatō, sayōnara) to engage with as many people as we could. Fortunately, as ever, English is the universal second language.
Train conductors, retailers and hostel staff were so kind; and not in a sycophantic way. It’s simply genuine, taking responsibility for helping out, taking a pride in their country. This is a land of smiles and bows. No-one is expecting a tip.
Cities are perhaps the most supreme human social achievement. Millions of people just getting along. And here in the world’s biggest city, men can walk down the street with wallets hanging out of back trouser pockets, commuters obediently put tickets through machines which they don’t have to, and one young man told another to step back from Hilary’s view.
Sitting in our hotel room in Canberra, planning our time in Australia, seems a long time ago. Since then we’ve enjoyed ourselves so much and lived a perfect lifestyle. And on balance we were right to limit our travels to five main locations (Sydney, Canberra, Cairns, Darwin and the Red Centre).
We’ve stayed in campervans, a friend’s place, Airbnb’s, and backpackers hostels. Swam amongst coral, explored gorges and watched open air cinema. It’s been easy travelling, with everyone speaking English, plenty of rests and many staggering sights.
But you come away, appreciating you have only scratched the surface of this massive, wild and sparsely populated country. Flying back to Sydney, we travelled over nothing, and we mean nothing, for at least one hour.
Reading papers, watching the equivalent of question time on tv, talking to people, we got a sense of the wide diversity across this great country. The liberal cities compared with the agricultural stations, renewable energy verses a return to coal, a welcoming hug to the world verses a nostalgia for the 5Os.
Bill Bryson has described Australians as a cross between the British and Americans. Despite living in a harsh environment, they have the positivity and entrepreneurship of Americans, rewarding hard work without any hint of class divide. But they also have customs carried over from Britain, such as a speaker in their Parliament, and a peculiar affection for the Queen, beer and cricket.
To us, based on numerous short interactions, Aussies are direct and straightforward in their conversation, with a dry sense of humour which can be very disparaging about themselves. We imagined they could become great mates, but maybe it would be harder to make deep friends here.
To sum up, Australia is a nation on the up, still young and aware that they are building one of the safest and attractive societies. We are so pleased we had the opportunity to visit a bit of it and to spend time with so many welcoming “mates”.
But it’s time to move on, especially as Australia is so far the most expensive country we have been to on this gap year.