A Travellerspoint blog

Eastern China

Ni hao from China once again, I’m writing this from the lovely town of Pingyao, SW of Beijing which represents something of a microcosm of the rest of the email as its virtually the last ‘old Chinese’ town of any size but this means there are lots of tourists too - all of which I’ll write about later. I spent most of my time in the last few weeks in the big, terribly nicknamed cities that are dotted along the Eastern seaboard and seeing some of the many millions which make up the population up close. Getting onto a packed provincial train at 02.23 last night I was reminded there really are a lot of people here...

Whilst I did love Japan I did struggle with the portions so it was great to return to China and indulge my Count Fosco like appetite once again, after getting the boat from Japan and taking my last look at the ocean for a while I arrived in Shanghai where its downtown joins the likes of Hong Kong and Tokyo on the list of fascinating cities I’ve been to recently. For around 100 years until the end of the Second World War various coastal ports in China were nicked off them by the European powers as the country went through something of a semi colonized period; Shanghai competed with Hong Kong as the most important and is certainly a city where you feel the different eras of the city all around you. Thanks to the laid back boulevards and villas of the French Concession area, the city got the usual lazy nickname of ‘Paris of the East’ (shared with 8 or 9 other Asian cities) and being a port as well as the widespread Orientalism prevalent in the West at the time developed something of an unfair reputation for China as an exotically ‘sinful’ place with stories of the opium dens and ‘Shanghai girls’. An updated but equally lazy nickname is ‘the New York of the East’ (shared, ludicrously, with Jakarta) as the city has grown to be probably the financial capital of Asia with a bustling populace paired with the soaring ‘scrapers above.

Visually one of the nicest things about the city is the way it’s developed a clever symmetrical architecture along the river showing off its past and present, on one side is The Bund with its famous colonial era buildings and on the other is the financial district of Putong which topped by the stratospheric Shanghai World Financial Centre is reminiscent of Lower Manhattan. They even sell ‘I ♥ SH’ t-shirts- though I can’t see them catching on in the same way.

With all the $ flying around the city is ground zero for the new, wealthier China; perfectly summing up modern China in the city centre is the Chinese equivalent of Rodeo Drive improbably flanked by a statue of Marx and Engels on one side and the site of the 1st Chinese Communist Party congress on the other. Like its multiculturalism though I felt the affluent centre was something of a false front, almost like it was bolted on as the real, near endless city can be found in the suburbs. And like most Chinese cities this isn’t quite so impressive and certainly not very interesting.

I spent much of the early part of this trip in The Philippines and Indonesia which, certainly outside of Africa host some of the least likable urban areas in the world. Therefore seeing nicer cities has definitely been one of the best things about travelling in the more developed world in the last few months. Aside from the cleanliness and lack of danger they’re easy to get around as they all have metro systems built since the ‘80’s and has put in perspective how bad the systems in New York and especially London are- got the technology too early I guess. In China though I think they’ve taken the modernization program a bit far in urban areas and whilst they’re somewhat orderly and fairly comfortable they’ve also had a lot of their character stripped away too.

Spending the last few weeks in the Eastern heartlands of the Han Chinese I’ve had a good view of quite how many of them there are; despite India’s best efforts recently China is still the most populous country in the world and it’s held that rank for a long time.

China does huge engineering projects very well: more recently the Three Gorges dam and railway to Tibet but probably the most famous historically is the Great Wall. However, whilst lesser known the construction of the 1800km Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou in the 7th century linking the Yellow and Yangtze rivers was probably more important in the development of China, both economically and as a means to unify the massive country. It massively increased interregional trade and led to the growth of the cities along the route like Beijing (Northern capital), Nanjing (Southern capital) etc. as well as Suzhou which became one of the 15 or so Asian cities to be nicknamed ‘The Venice of the East’. Even though it looks absolutely nothing like the unique Italian city it’s still better than Venezuela (Little Venice) which is one of the worst named countries in the world.

Lazy naming aside the vast network of irrigation canals linked up various other colourfully named rivers (Red, White, Pearl, Jade etc.) meant an astonishing amount of fertile land could be supported and with it comes a gigantic population.

In the post Mao era though the population structure has changed and in the cities the seething mass of humanity at times feels almost intimidating. In only 30 years or so the population has gone from being overwhelmingly rural based to the near 50-50 urban/rural split population of today and its cities have ballooned in size with estimates of anywhere between 50-100 cities of over 1m+ people - most of which you will never have heard of. Mention names like Wenzhou, Fuzhou or Tianjin (and I really could go on) to any non-Chinese person and unless they’re involved in shoe or steel production etc. they’ll almost certainly draw a blank- yet they’re all cities similar in size to London. One you probably have heard of is Shenzen opposite Hong Kong on the mainland, in 1980 it was a fishing village that won a national lottery to become a special economic zone with various government conferred benefits. It recorded annual growth rates of up to 45% and in a mark of just how fast China’s growing, in 30 years the huge No. of immigrants to the factories that sprung up there means it’s grown to 14million people and pretty high up on the biggest cities in the world list. Quite amazing.

Even though I’m normally fairly comfortable in very large cities, in China there’s simply too many of them with often nothing of interest about them. The cities sprawl for many km of industrial suburbs and in the name of development any older parts of cities were normally totally flattened to make way for gridiron rows of ugly but cheap and functional residential towerblocks to house the populace. The city centres all house flashy shopping districts but there’s no sense of history in their identikit styles and the suburbs are certainly monotonous. The population apparently prefer living this way though as whilst they’re away from their families in the provinces they have all mod cons at hand and since only a generation or 2 ago at most, the majority of people lived in the countryside with no access to running water and electricity etc. aesthetics is a secondary concern. There are exceptions to the boring Chinese city stereotype, Nanjing for example has retained its merciless city walls (Ming era) and Beijing for the moment still has pockets of older neighbourhoods but often even cities with rich histories like Guangzhou (Canton) or Chengdu have had virtually all memorable features demolished and been rebuilt in such a way that they’re near indistinguishable and consequently disappointingly forgettable.

Where I find Chinese cities really do come to life are in the parks- they are literally a breath of fresh air in the LA like haze which blights all Chinese cities. Whilst naturally not an extroverted culture at all, in the parks they seem to leave their inhibitions at the gate as they enjoy quite a wide range of pursuits. Tai chi is the most common activity in the morning and brilliantly in China you get outdoor gyms which everyone can use- not just those who are willing/able to pay $100 a month or whatever it is they now cost in England. As the afternoon goes on the people start playing instruments and maybe some karaoke or even theatre before most memorably at night huge groups of ballroom dancers convene- and in total contrast to the West these activities are done almost entirely by older people. As in other Asian countries the elderly occupy a much more respected and visual part of society than they do in the West and that’s thanks mainly to a chap called Confucius whose hometown of Qufu I next visited.

Confucianism is a way of thinking which is very popular/important in other Asian countries but as one of the most influential philosophers of all time has near dominated Chinese society and the national psyche for 2,500 years. As the gargantuan family mansion and worlds biggest/oldest cemetery in Qufu display, the Kongs ranked 2nd behind only the Imperial family as the most respected in China and even now still wield influence in society.

Via high moral standards and individual responsibility Confucianism strives for social harmony and living towards the common good; it fills something of a religious void in China and aims to create order to good effect. In a lot of ways this is true but in the modern world its’ limitations are also now pretty visible.

One of the biggest pan-Asian traits in contrast to the West I’ve noticed on my travels is the emphasis on doing things for the group rather than the individual.

Probably the easiest way to describe it would be that if most peoples conception of the American dream (and increasingly applicable to Britain, Australia etc.) is about the successful status of an individual- in their job, house and all the rest of it, ‘the Asian dream’ in contrast is about the successful status of the ‘group’ be it the family, community and ultimately even the country rather than how any one individual is doing.

In China kids are brought up to be one of the crowd rather than individuals and success is something that’s achieved through quiet humility and patient effort over time rather than more visible examples of creative brilliance and I think there are pros but also cons to this systems.

The importance placed on education in Confucianism is paramount and in contrast to other Asian countries is done on a very egalitarian basis. Regardless of your economic status in Confucianism everyone has the right to education but it prioritises the rote learning rather than displaying creative intelligence type. This means that Chinese students are extremely diligent but even to university level exams here are mainly about regurgitating stuff you’ve memorized as students aren’t allowed let alone encouraged to think differently about issues or challenge ideas. As a result they perhaps lack the skills to think ‘outside the box’ a bit; to highlight this issue much of the storm over that Scandinavian prize last year was basically because China feels huge shame at placing so much importance on education, especially maths and science yet this not translating to internationally recognized breakthroughs.

As children, other activities aren’t encouraged unless they show a particular aptitude at something (ie can do to professional level) so they’re expected to study a few core subjects very hard with little time to develop outside interests. As a result (generally speaking) Chinese people aren’t particularly well rounded- if you ask a 17yr old what their hobbies are don’t be surprised to hear ‘studying’ following the obligatory ‘computer games’, ask someone 15yrs older and you’ll often get nothing more interesting than ‘smoking and playing mahjongg’.

The huge flipside to this though is that with no-one ‘reaching for the stars’ very few have a crash landing either, so as with other Asian countries with its tighter group units China suffers far fewer social problems like drug addiction or homelessness relative to Western countries. Unemployment barely exists as a concept and the importance placed on the family structure means they rarely break down but in the modern world that idea is coming under pressure.

In Confucianism it’s the role of the individual to fulfill their role in society eg servant serves their master, citizen serves the ruler etc. but arguably the 2 most important of these relationships are children serve their parents and women serve men.

In East Asia older people have a far greater role in every area of life- politics, in business and even things like entertainment and I think that’s a positive difference from the West where older people are often ignored and shoved into an OAP home or similar. That would be inexcusable in China where Grandparents are the centre of the home and indeed due to their seniority call most of the shots in the household. One line of Confucianisms most famous set of teachings The Analects (which I’d struggle with) is: “Whilst Mother and Father are still alive do not go on long journeys”- and that’s certainly true in East Asia where between the ages of finishing studying and retiring you’re basically working for others with little opportunity to travel, time to pursue your own interests or even attempt a slightly ‘riskier’ or less secure career. Under Chinese law there is no state pension so children are both morally and legally obliged to be financially responsible for looking after their parents which sounds OK but often doesn’t remotely work in practice. In Singapore they have the same system and the government sometimes has to take people to court for not looking after their parents, even when ‘defendants’ give heartfelt evidence about how they were beaten daily and haven’t spoken to their parents for 20years they still always lose!

Another example you may also have seen is the recent story about the disgraceful request by the Chinese government for higher compensation from the New Zealand government for parents of the Chinese victims of the recent earthquake, the reason why they felt they deserved more was because the single child policy means that the parents now have no financial support system for their old age!

Whilst looking after older generations is obviously a positive thing the extent to which it’s prioritized in China means it does kill off a lot of freedom for the individual to seek their own path when they’re younger.

The single child policy has arguably exacerbated this as Chinese people now go through an unusual ‘growing up’ curve; with only one child in the family as children they’re lavished with attention from 4 grandparents and 2 parents and this has led to the so called ‘Little Emperor’ syndrome whereby children become used to being treated and having their wishes always fulfilled. In China both physically and mentally children really are children (no sexual images in the media or access to drugs etc.) ‘til much later than elsewhere, I always underestimate teenagers or students ages by 3 or 4 years as they come across as much younger and without seeming to have much of an adolescent phase. But then when adulthood hits they’re suddenly under huge pressure. As they’re the only child they have the hopes/expectations of the whole family on them which in Asia is a very big deal and moreover are expected to provide for them financially ‘til they die. So very quickly they go from a situation where they’re treated like children ‘til the end of their studies then once they start working they have the weight of the whole family on their shoulders. Unsurprisingly mental health amongst young people in China is getting worse and worse as they’re simply not equipped for the transition to becoming adults.

Thanks to the one child policy China has also become one of the worst places in the world to be a bloke as there are just too many men, and no being gay doesn’t help as homosexuality ‘doesn’t exist’ here. Limiting the family size greatly exacerbated the problem of prioritizing males in society; traditionally it was the duty of the son(s) family to look after parents so families with only daughters had no means of financial support for their old age. Previously families would have more children ‘til they had a son but under the one child policy the terrible situation developed whereby if a family had a daughter they were setting themselves up for financial ruin; through infanticide and illegal scans leading to abortions etc. China now has something like 50m bachelors as there just aren’t enough women to go round. You certainly don’t notice this imbalance in the cities but in dying ‘1 horse villages’ you pass through all over China the population often appears to be a very sad mixture of old people and their aging sons who’ve stayed behind to look after them. The Chinese government realized the problem some years ago and they relaxed the policy in some situations e.g. you can have a 2nd child if your 1st born is a daughter and eventually lifted the restriction altogether on rural couples but as I wrote about in India (and the recent census there has just confirmed) the social problems caused when you start ‘playing with nature’ are really not worth it and both countries provide ample evidence why being able to choose the gender of your children should never be allowed.

One of the other consequences of being so densely populated and the country getting richer is that China now has one of if not the biggest domestic tourist industry in the world and I would unfortunately have to rate that as one of the worst things about visiting the country. When I was here in 2003 outside of Beijing I saw about 10 foreigners in a month but since then (as in the rest of the world) the overseas tourist market has exploded in China and I think I saw about 30 foreigners wandering around today alone- but they’re definitely not the problem. In recent years it’s become far easier for Chinese to travel abroad (though still not that easy) with normal people now able to get passports whereas before it was just people connected to the party in some way; however due to the weak Yuan, restrictive visa policies from other countries and the usual fears about foreign languages/food etc. they rarely go beyond their own borders, though like America that’s understandable as there’s shedloads to see and do here.

Whilst I can think of other more insensitive travelling nationalities, the Chinese would definitely rate as the most boring in my eyes. Independent travelling is rare as they (almost always aged 50+) prefer to put on brightly coloured caps (so their guide can identify them) and play follow the flag in utterly massive groups (50, 70 even 100 isn't unusual) as their tour guide sprints them through whatever attraction they’re seeing. Visibly in their sheer numbers and audibly as their guides compete to see whose megaphone shouts the loudest they really can ruin virtually any sight. Even in the most important places it’s remarkable how little interest they seem to take where they are beyond eating whatever the local animal on the menu is and taking lots and lots and lots of photos in the same 2 poses- either smiling with a v sign diagonally across the chest or that scary hands by the side with no facial expression they use for family portraits. And now the weather has got better there are absolutely thousands of them everywhere and since all attractions are government run it must be one heck of a big revenue generator…

When I was here in 2003 I barely noticed the cost of attractions but with a growing middle class with money to spend the government has jacked prices up several hundred percent and now don’t seem to follow the laws of economics as far as I can work out.

By Asian standards China is no longer cheap but it’s not an expensive country to travel in either, the food is cheap and delicious and if you’re prepared to sleep in the excellent hostels and don’t need a soft sleeper on trains the daily spend doesn’t come to much…unless you go to any tourist attractions during the day that is; everything in China down to the smallest temple and even viewing platforms has a price tag. And they’re not cheap- put it this way having come from one of the most expensive countries in the world (Japan) it feels very strange to be paying 3x the price for comparable attractions in China.

In most Asian countries they have dual pricing systems whereby foreigners pay a lot more (up to 20x) for attractions, normally I don’t mind this too much as it’s I think it’s important that as many locals as possible can learn about their heritage and some countries are very reasonable (Vietnam, South Korea) although others (Nepal, Sri Lanka) definitely get a bit greedy so you have to be quite picky about what you see. In China far too frequently I find myself having to decide whether or not something is worth doing and often regret not doing them or do pay the money then feel utterly ripped off once I’ve done so. I was heavily warned by others about the prices so it wasn’t a surprise; temples and other cultural sights I can take or leave although you often have to pay $10-15 just to visit a lot of smaller, prettier towns. However, echoing just about every foreigners view of travelling in the country it’s the national parks where things become really insane. The fake student ID I bought off a dodgy Indian guy on the Koh San Road has proved to be the best $5 I’ll ever spend but even with a student price most national parks cost between $20-50 for entry, an absolute fortune - but I’m here so I wanna do stuff.

These costs all make China pretty much the most expensive place I’ve been for attractions but what makes none of this logical is that that isn’t a foreigner price- it’s the same for everyone. So to put this into some sort of local context it would be the equivalent of paying about 200 quid per person to go to the Lake District! I don’t think you’d get many takers at those prices somehow. When I was at the national park at Wulingyuan I got chatting to a middle aged guy who explained how he’d driven 6hrs the day before with 4 other members of his family then got quite a shock when he saw the entrance fee, since they’d made the journey they decided to go in anyway but he spent some $225 on the various entrance fees. I genuinely did feel like putting my arms round him as assuming he’s got a slightly above average income this would mean he’d spent getting on for 10% of his annual salary on a day trip to a national park. A day trip! Aside from the folly of seeing national parks as a way to make money it means quite clearly it’s only the rich who can afford to do stuff, and I guess in China there’s so many of them that the demand curve will just keep rising whatever price they’re supplied at.

Bewildering really, but I can also see why a surprising number of foreign visitors aren’t that impressed by China using the understandable logic that domestic tourists + the costs of doing stuff have ruined much of interest here.

That’s not me though by any means, I really love lots of things about China; the people are friendly in a non-intrusive way, I’d pick the history as richer than any country in the world and whilst the cities are often boring the hugely varied landscapes of the country are absolutely gorgeous. Like just about everywhere else in Asia I find the culture absolutely riveting to observe and there’s something awe inspiring seeing how fast the country is growing and evolving. Even though I’ve been away quite a while now I find I still have virtually no desire to come home and continue enjoying life on the road. I’m now gonna climb some mountains and then will be heading to Beijing.

From Pingyao,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:32 Archived in China Comments (0)

Kanto and Kansai

Hello for the 2nd time in Japan where this email contains some good and some bad about the country but definitely nothing ugly- aesthetics play such a key role in Japanese culture that seemingly nothing ever looks bad. From the buildings to the people to the environment even manhole covers, everything seems to look gorgeous in Japan. My, it’s weird too but with its cultural uniqueness I’ve found it utterly captivating, thought provoking and left me definitely quite enamored with the place.

In the aftermath of the previous week’s earthquake/tsunami the Rising Sun at the Imperial Palace was at a somber half-mast and with an aftershock a day the world’s largest city was very quiet during my time there, even the world’s busiest railway station (Shinjuku) and the famous Shibuya street crossing were fairly muted. The neon signs which form such an important part of the city’s iconography were turned off to save electricity although I was most disappointed at both the J-League and baseball games being cancelled L.

The city doesn’t have a center as such but half a dozen skyscraper clad neighborhoods which were mesmerizing to wander round and view the various elements that make Tokyo one of the most dynamic urban experiences in the world.

Whilst the bay, fashionable shopping streets and the imaginative red light district were all great I think the otaku (boy geeks) and otome (girl geeks)areas in Akihabara aka ‘electric town’ will live longest in the memory. Otaku roughly means something like ‘geekery’ and for this Tokyo is the world capital; it’s another great journey into the peculiarly Japanese brand of weird as you shop in 10 story department stores filled with nothing but comics, collectible figures and a bewildering array of gadgets.

I found the cosplay (costume play) actors more interesting to look at though; basically these are kids aged between say 13 and 25 who dress up in a variety of outfits like maids and nurses. Often this is just a way for them to show off, as with the posing ‘Goth Lolitas’ (really, that’s what they’re called) but mainly it’s used as a novel way of selling stuff and attracting attention to a store. Probably the most famous type are the maid/butler cafes where in taking the Japanese politeness/submissiveness fetish a bit far the boys/girls wander round paying you insincere compliments whilst they serve you tea and cake. As frequently happened in Japan I found the over attentiveness a bit unsettling (you get a “Hello and Welcome”! in convenience stores and even public toilets) but the settings were even worse. Whilst most of them understandably sport Alice in Wonderland style designs, on the ceiling of one of the cafes in the otome district they had a huge poster of a pair of half-naked male manga characters in a homoerotic pose. Welcome to Japan.

Global top level cuisine has apparently undergone something of a revolution when Michelin discovered Japan a few years ago, very quickly they realized that the whole rating system had to be rethought as Japanese food is so good, now remarkably both Tokyo and the Kansai conurbation have more starred restaurants than London, New York and Paris combined. All that was obviously way out of my price range but I did get to see plenty of strange ‘foods’ or perhaps ‘things being eaten’ would be a better description which has been a theme throughout Asia.

When it comes to meat Asians are much less wasteful than Westerners using every possible part of the the usual suspects as well as other Asian staples like snake and dog as you get used to seeing people tucking into things like pigs ears or a dogs hindquarters. However, they also don’t seem to have qualms eating well, virtually anything, put it this way there’s a Chinese joke that goes “What’s the only thing with 4 legs a Chinaman won’t eat? A table.”

In the Philippines the national delicacy is called balut which is a fertilized duck egg which according to the diners preference is eaten at different stages of embryonic development though the practice of sedating monkeys, slicing the top of their scalps off then eating their brains with a spoon (whilst the monkey’s still living) has to rank as one of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard of but that’s The Philippines. In SE Asia they’re really into their insects with the usual suspects like grasshoppers as well as things silkworm cocoons eaten not at all infrequently. In East Asia the food has got even stranger as despite Japan’s best efforts to empty them of life the food mainly comes from the sea, even if it’s dangerous. The Japanese love eating the poisonous fugu and as one particularly memorable scene in Oldboy showed Koreans love eating sannakji or baby octopus that’s still alive. Now and again people die as the still moving tentacles cause them to suffocate- they can’t really have too many complaints though eh? They also love their sea cucumbers and various other anemone type things, in their bright purple, orange and blue colors it definitely reminded me of the Jonathan Swift quote about the first man to eat an oyster must have been very brave. In Japan one of the most common ways to eat out are in izukayas where bars serve food in a tapas style. You see some amazing things in the most normal neighborhood bars, aside from the bee larvae and shirouo no odorigui (the tadpole like almost creepy ‘dancing ice fish’, again eaten live) probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen eaten is shiroko which appetizingly enough is the sperm sack of male fish.

Truly vomit inducing –I’m fairly confident I will never eat meat.

Moving on there’s a theory that you can tell how civilized a country is by the size of its middle class, and by this measure Japan stands right up there alongside the Scandinavian countries as one of the most civilized in the world. Between the end of WWII and 1990 the Japanese economic model was rampantly successful and I’d personally rate it as the best system in the world at the time. There is a long held policy of big companies like Mitsubishi known as kereitsus having business interests in lots of different areas(banking, manufacturing etc). They’ve been implicitly backed by government in a variety of ways (loans, tax rates etc.) with the goal of creating full employment and being the mainstay of an economy based on export led growth.

Unlike in the UK for example, in Japan when companies made a profit, instead of adopting a ‘quick, give it to the shareholders’ approach Japanese companies consistently reinvested most of the profits back into the company. This allowed the famously creative R&D divisions in areas like electronics or automobiles to flourish and meant that despite the drubbing it received in WWII for the next 40 years or so it was probably the most successful country in the world. With the goal of doing things for ‘the greater good’ the government has also retained control of and (note to Margaret Thatcher) crucially, invested in the magnificent railways, post office and efficient welfare system . Altogether this has meant Japan developed into a country where financially at least next to no-one is left behind and virtually everyone is middle class. In a great change from other Asian countries you hardly ever see either needlessly flashy cars nor homelessness, crime or other poverty related problems. On a personal level I’d place it as Exhibit A on why fettered or managed capitalism is the best system to run a society. When you consider the size of the population and the variety of environments which make up the country it really is a phenomenal achievement.

By 1990 in terms of its economy or infrastructure Japan had achieved the goal of the worlds most developed or advanced country… but about this point the overheated economy led to the bubbles on the stock and housing markets to pop and the economy has struggled to grow ever since. The country has spent most of the last 20 years vainly trying to retake their preeminent place in the world economy but I think the time would have been better spent in trying to change the work/life balance of their lives.

Living in one of the most formal and pressurized cultures in the world may have brought them success financially but as the infamous suicide rate will attest it does cause other problems. There’s a Japanese saying that ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ and in a culture where conformity is nearly everything it appears people aren’t given enough freedom to develop emotionally in their own way and consequently the Japanese struck me as an uptight and generally unhappy people.

One thing I did find difficult about Japan and which nearly every foreign visitor to Japan remarks on is how little attention you get; not exactly an extroverted bunch in 5 weeks just one person tried to speak to me and I’ve certainly not been anywhere where I’ve fitted in less but to no interest whatsoever from the locals aside from when it’s their job e.g. shop assistants.

But then I realized that the Japanese are like this with everyone, whilst Londoners are rightly criticized for living in a bubble i.e. we only speak to people we know Tokyoites are about as unemotional as is possible. On the Metro they barely seem to breathe let alone talk and any eye contact they accidentally make with anyone will last either 0.1 or 0.2 seconds. Whilst the bows and smiles are an inherent part of the formalities they observe, natural laughter and easy jokes isn’t really the way here and it continues the theme in Asia of people in richer countries being less friendly/happy than in the poorer ones.

During this trip I’ve been forced to think quite a lot about what makes people happy; it’s been educating seeing people in very poor countries like India or Nepal being very happy but at the same time richer populations like the Taiwanese or Singaporeans are visibly much less content with their lot. The challenging and slightly uncomfortable conclusion I’m trending towards is that in Asia at least the more religious people are the happier they seem to be. In somewhere like Hong Kong or Singapore far and away the people with the lowest quality of life are the Filipino women brought in as maids and nannies for wealthy local families as they work tedious backbreaking jobs 6 days a week only to send 80% of their wages back home to their families. However, on Sundays they have their day off and the public parks in those places become a party scene as they noisily chat, eat and sing with a sense of effervescence that the gimlet eyed locals looking on can only dream of.

Whether it’s Christianity in The Philippines, Hinduism in India or Buddhism in several countries despite having far fewer life opportunities and a low material quality of life the populations in those countries seem significantly happier and friendlier than in more secular places like China.

In this sense Japan is no different from their other wealthy neighbors and the last 20years maybe represent something of a missed opportunity to change the setup of the country somewhat.

Like most of their fellow Asians the Japanese work unbelievably hard but whilst I understand this work ethic in developing countries in Japan it now seems unnecessary as they enjoy (and have done so for some time) one of the most comfortable lifestyles in the world. One morning bleary eyed I got on a train at 6am on a Sunday to see kids on their way to cramming school as even they’re expected to do 15+hr days at least 6 days a week. One student I met said she did 35hrs waitressing in a restaurant as a part time job whilst she went to college by day! And they receive just 5 days holiday a year- it’s insane! The situation seems to be that people have plenty of money to spend on an unnecessary level of comfort with the expensively wrapped food, designer clothes and toilet seat heaters yet don’t have enough time to spend with their families and friends. As a result they’re emotionally very cold and seemingly not too enamored with the situation, I think if they had a more European i.e. relaxed style approach to work and the personal development of the individual the economy would still be OK but their quality of life would be much, much better than it currently is and consequently they’d maybe be happier.

And as Richard Littlejohn agrees (so it must be true) there is a darker side to the Japanese too; due to their treatment of POWs during WWII Japan did terrible damage to their reputation in countries like the UK or Australia. However, amongst their fellow Asians the Japanese are truly detested. Many Western countries have superiority complexes and Asia’s no different, Thais, Chinese and certainly Koreans are guilty of it but worldwide even Israelis might come second to the Japanese. Throughout the early 20th century when they built their empire in Manchuria and Korea through WWII in SE Asia their barbaric treatment of the local populations will simply not be forgotten or forgiven. The Indian freedom fighter Chandra Bose enlisted Japanese help to train his men to fight against the British but after a couple of months had to abandon the plan as the Japanese treated the Indians ‘like animals’ and were far worse than anything they suffered under the British. They destroyed virtually all of Koreas cultural heritage but most famously in 1937 China suffered the so called Rape of Nanking where high command instructed Japanese troops to massacre between 200,000-300,000 the local population and rape around 50,000 of the city’s women for essentially no military gain. Even now hotels in China have signs up saying ‘No Japanese allowed’ and whilst to be fair Japanese Prime Ministers have made various apologies over the years and give very generous financial aid, their annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Jinja shrine to honor Japans war dead- among them 14 Class A war criminals means relations with their neighbors are perennially frosty.

At 127million people Japan is the 10th biggest country in the world yet only around 1% of the country isn’t pure Japanese and the rest are Chinese or Korean so ethnic diversity there ain’t. But this is starting to cause problems; most developed countries have an ageing population problem but Japans is the worst in the world. With a fertility rate of 1.3 only Italian women have less children but Japan also has the highest life expectancy in the world (a whopping 86 for women) meaning that under current predictions by around 2040 just 40% of the population will be paying for everyone. One of the easiest ways to improve this position is by bringing in lots of immigrants (eg the UK) as they have more children but in Japan it’s difficult to see that ever being adopted. About 8yrs ago the unusually flamboyant prime minister Junichiro Koizumi tentatively floated the idea of introducing an immigration policy for the first time in the countrys’ history but despite the logic of this plan it was absolutely shot down by both the opposition and the general public. Whilst they’ll grant 2 year visas to English teachers or Pinoy cleaners/prostitutes the idea of them settling down, having families and becoming a long term part of the ‘Japanese’ population seems unacceptable for the country at this stage, despite the damaging implications this has for both their economy and ability to evolve as a society.

Whilst just about every other developed country have accepted their position and responsibilities in the global village to take in asylum seekers etc. Japan seems unwilling to do so, content in their own world. In its desire to remain firmly ‘Japanese’ a strong vein of xenophobia surfaces and foreigners can never fit in; however this in itself creates a truly unique feel to the place and makes it a fascinating, alien culture and society to observe.

Japan is often described as a ‘2 paced country’ and if Tokyo represents the side running into the future then the old capital Kyoto and the nearby even older capital of Nara represent much of the Japan which remains rooted in tradition. It is a quite amazing place, with over 2,000 temples and dozens of World Heritage Sites there are more ‘sights to see’ than any other city in Asia and like Rome it’s one of those wonderful spots where people live around 1,000yr+ old buildings as an integral irreplaceable part of the city. In the national rebuilding of the country after WWII most urban planners had an affair with the wrecking ball so most Japanese cities including Tokyo possess few buildings which were built earlier than about 1960. However, for several centuries Kyoto was the nations’ capital and whilst it eventually lost political and economic status to Tokyo it stands as the country’s historical and religious heartland.

The rectangle shaped city is bordered on 3 sides by forested mountains and in building nearly all of the biggest wooden structures in the world the architects had the usual Japanese knack of gloriously incorporating the natural environment into the designs. It very much represents the Japan of the imagination as I spent days exploring the city’s shrines built onto the cyrptomeria lined hillsides with my favorite one being the torii covered Fushimi Inari. Based on a set of mountain shrines are several KMs worth of walking paths, not unusual in itself but virtually every step of the way is done underneath a bright vermilion tori (entrance gate to a Shinto shrine) to leave literally thousands all over the mountain. Dotted around are statues of foxes (symbol of good luck) which would be fine but they’re open mouthed with their fangs bared and designed to look scary, you’re allowed to walk the paths at night and catching sight of one in the lamplights is a pretty scary almost supernatural sight. A much more pleasant nocturnal memory is the infamous geisha distract of Gion, it’s simultaneously a very old fashioned yet very lively neighbourhood. In early evening you can still see the glamorous ones shuffling round in their mesmeric kimonos en route to their evening engagements and in the twilight along the river it’s a pretty enchanting sight in a magical place.

I got my timing very right and very wrong in Japan, the Winter lasts quite late so I decided not to visit Northern Honshu and Hokkaido as all the national parks, including most guttingly Mount Fuji were still closed. Having said that visiting in the school holiday month of March meant I could get a rail pass which single handedly made the country affordable. Since the beginning of the economic crisis the Yen has been stronger than Mariusz Pudzianowski as all the banks abandoned the Dollar, Euro and Pound. After the quake/tsunami its value went even higher to its record level so trying not to empty my account has been ‘challenging’ to say the least. Before I came here everybody I spoke to about Japan said the same thing, in the same tone that “I don’t mean to be racist but…” (then immediately contradicts themselves) has become a commonly used phrase: “Japan’s great but jeez it’s expensive”. I simply haven’t been able to afford to do some of the classic Japanese experiences like the bullet train ($30 for 15mins) or an evening with a geisha (around $2000) and the first things I’ll do when I return to China is gorge on fruit (about $1.50 an apple) and get my hair cut ($40) as it now looks worse than Andy Murrays. Well, maybe not that bad.

With all that in mind being able to travel 5 whole days (and I even got a free 1.5 days extra when no-one stamped it!) for just $130 was an absolute Godsend in a country where even by English standards nothing is cheap, very much a stroke of luck.

Being here at this time of year was also great because it’s the time of the legendary sakura, Japan is absolutely covered in cherry blossom trees and at the beginning of April they all come into bloom. In the absence of a big Christmas style festival the entire country goes crazy over it, aside from everyone taking hundreds of photos of the spectacle they host hanami parties where every spare foot of ground in the parks are taken up by picnics as people get drunk and generally celebrate the beginning of Summer. When the wind blows the petals come down like a pink snow and aside from being a beautiful sight it’s a lot of fun to be around.

I ended my time in enjoyable city of Osaka which was a perfect place to get a last dose of the Japanese urban experience. Something else the Japanese are very good at is putting on big scale entertainment options and it was great fun going up on the worlds largest ferry wheel and possible best aquarium- they’ve even got a whale shark! I couldn’t explore the Blade Runner like landscapes in Tokyo but Kansai hasn’t been affected by the quake so I got to enjoy the pulsating neon of the amazing Dotombori district. At night the streets and all the scrapers are covered in a blaze of electricity in the form of moving ads on billboards and even sides of buildings, like Time Square or Picadilly Circus but over a much larger area. Just fantastic, yet again I found myself struck by just how unique Japan is- there’s just nowhere almost anywhere like it.

I’m not sure what it says about me but as I’ve got older I’ve definitely realized my happiest (and most mischievous) moods are when I’ve been drinking the night before. As in Korea alcohol is very much the social glue which holds Japan together and feel like I’ve been living the dream a little bit recently. Thanks mainly to my friends the 3 Ss: soju, shochu and sake (and some very friendly expats) I seem to have been in a blissful semi- permanent drunken haze for the last effortless couple of months. Japan is an amazing place to be on so many levels, whilst for financial reasons I couldn’t stay any longer I was still there for over a month and I do feel very, very privileged to have had the opportunity to visit. I certainly intend to return in the future.

Now it’s time to return to the Big Red One as I take the slowboat to Shanghai.

From Osaka,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:30 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Kyushu and Western Honshu

Onsen (hot spring) Attendant: “Sorry, no enter”

Me:” Errr.. why?”

OA (pointing at the liberal sprinkling on my torso): “No tattoos”

Me: “Why?”

OA: ”Yakuza”

Me: “…. Do I really look like I’m Yakuza?”

At which point I just ignored him and entered anyway. I then spent the next hour being pointed at and whispered about behind hands by the onsens other patrons, which when you’re naked is quite disconcerting let me tell you. Hello to my first few weeks in probably the only place in the world where people say I look like a gangster- the Land of the Rising Sun, 5.5M vending machines and 48 member pop groups. Yes I’m in Japan. Of course the quake/tsunami off Sendai has dominated the news since the weekend but just to prewarn you the email subject is Kyushu and Western Honshu rather than Eastern Honshu where the earthquake was. Whilst I’d love to recount a stirring tale of survival delivered in a hardy Corinthian style I would have to make it up, though I have written a bit about it. Also this one doesn’t have a U rating so you may wanna miss out the section after the Shinto shrines…

I began my Japanese travels in Kyushu, the Southernmost of the 4 main islands, Whilst much of the country is still covered in snow the climate down South is much more forgiving and after spending most of the last few months struggling with chopsticks as my hands were too cold to grip em properly it was appreciated being in a sunny climate. My southernmost stop was the breathtakingly sited city of Kagoshima. When you’re walking around the streets you get grit in your eyes and a film on your teeth- that’s because of the stuff the huge volcano Sakurajima spits out. It sits just 4km away and has been in a state of constant eruption for the last 65 years. In Napoli’s twin city everyone wears face masks, the city is covered in a fine level of black ash and as I kept looking up towards the peak at the latest rumble and smoke ejection I realized I’ve not been to many cities with a more amazing natural setting, your eyes kept getting drawn up to it yet it was a strangely relaxing place to be for a few days.

Volcanoes are a key feature of the landscape as Japan ranks only behind Indonesia in number of active ones though I was really gutted not to be able to hike the Kirishima route where you get to summit 5 active volcanoes in one day. However, one of them started erupting a few weeks ago so a huge area was closed off though I could see it and took a few photos from the train.

But whilst taking photos of the clouds erupting out of the volcano was great, seeing photos of a different type of cloud in the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima will maybe live longer in the memory.

With hindsight Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour and the US during WWII seems a strange one as they had terrible supply routes (Japan has very few natural resources) and had no expectation of actually defeating their much bigger foe; merely hoping to form a better negotiating position to gain territory elsewhere in Asia. This policy obviously slowly backfired but Japans isolated geographical position left the US with a dilemma of how to end the war with a strategic advantage over the USSR. Whilst they knew Japan was slowly being defeated due to the whole ‘shame/losing face issue’ the Japanese simply wouldn’t surrender and with the defeat of Germany the fear was that the now free Russian army could simply move back to Siberia and mount an invasion of a near defenceless Japan. This could in theory have created a Red empire of a size that the Allies thought might be unmanageable; therefore the decision was made to drop the recently developed A-bomb, bring a quick end to the war and be able to dictate Japans future.

Most of central Hiroshima was destroyed but now has a very interesting feel to it with plenty of striking ‘60’s and ‘70’s concrete modernist buildings; they might not be to everyone’s taste but seeing the harshness of the lines of the Peace museum or the Cathedral it felt a strangely appropriate way to commemorate the city’s destruction. It’s a tragic period of human history and some of the exhibits in the excellent museum were pretty shocking. Some of the photos of burn victims and their subsequent health problems were difficult to look at but the personal accounts of how people lost their loved ones especially parents recalling their children slowly dying unimaginably painful deaths from Black Rain will probably remain with me longer.

However, on a grey, rainy day I found much less visited Nagasaki sadder and I’d maybe rate the 2nd A bomb as one of the US’s lowest moments. Nagasaki is a small but interesting place as it was the only port allowed to trade with the rest of the world (restricted to China and Holland as the Japanese didn’t trust Catholics!) for several centuries and subsequently became the centre of Christianity in Japan. Even now it very strongly retains a small town feel, it’s spread out over a number of coastal hills punctuated by gorgeous Shinto shrines and for various reasons was an odd place to hit. It’s in an isolated spot and didn’t have all that much heavy industry; a long way from anywhere else it was bombed only by accident as the first target of Kokura was too cloudy on the bombing day. Inexplicably Truman gave the order to bomb the city even though it had a 250 man Allied POW camp and with Japan already having signaled it was going to have to surrender most scholars agree the decision to launch was done almost exclusively as a warning to the USSR for the years ahead. The 2 bombs had a similar death toll (initially 75,000 rising to 150,000 with the after effects) whilst the first bomb could be justified as a means to end the war, akin to Dresden the death and destruct ion caused by the Nagasaki attack just seemed a cruel and largely pointless punishment to inflict on the defeated population.

Japan cut itself off from the world for a long time and its isolated island position means that it developed as something of a cultural Galapagos, not having all that much in common with even China or Korea. It occupies an unusual perhaps unique position in that despite having one of the most distinctive cultures in the world and pretty much everyone having awareness and opinions on it, due to the cost/distance of getting here very few people actually make it. As a result it’s an extremely rewarding place to visit and as I’ve walked around Japanese cities I’ve found myself noting lots of things as being very different, for the most part in a good way.

One of the things I’ve really loved so far about Japan are the aesthetics of the place and the sense of visual stimulation you feel just from wandering around and looking at things. From more obvious imaginative areas like the manga comics/cartoons and the tranquil gardens to more mundane things like apartment buildings the Japanese have an uncanny ability to make nearly everything look interesting. On a human level the Japanese are super trendy too and when not in their regulation work suits everyone seems to have their own personal sense of style which they don’t mind flaunting. Whilst it’s not something I normally pay too much attention to I’ve really noticed and loved the clothes people wear here. The schools uniforms are fantastic, boys start off wearing Donald Duck style tops and shorts even in Winter before graduating to handsome tunics with brass buttons all the way up that the likes of Dr. Sun Yat Sen would have looked good in. In contrast the girls start with full length skirts then just seem to grow without changing them so by the time they’re 16 you can see why camera phones have to make that ‘click’ noise, but more on that later.

Perhaps the most distinctive item of Japanese clothing is the Kimono and they really are gorgeous to look at, they tend to be in soft rather than bright colours and will normally have the beautiful nature designs on the obi (sash) on their back. Whilst younger women only tend to wear them on special occasions unfortunately its quite a common sight to see older women wearing them on the street and it’s certainly the most flattering way I’ve seen to grow old gracefully.

I’ve also really appreciated the more low key style of the Shinto shrines here. After having seen my fair share of temples on this trip I was ‘templed out’ as they say but rather than the stunning images of Buddhist or Hindu temples, Shinto shrines are much more understated and I’ve grown to love seeing em again. They tend to be made of wood and use white and black more frequently than bright colours ,also as they’re usually built to Japans geography ie on forested hillsides or on prominent coastal locations they’re both very photogenic and fit in much better with the natural landscape than religious buildings normally do.

But whilst some things are of a good difference some are better filed under the weird and definitely the area where this has been most noticeable these first few weeks is in the representation of sex and the sex industry generally….

Different countries in Asia occupy extremes in this area; despite being home to the Karma Sutra India as a country would have to have the most hypocritical attitude towards sex I’ve seen. Everyone from the government to the media to ordinary people there seem to believe Indians somehow have higher moral standards about it than Westerners and that everyone’s a virgin til they’re married etc. Yeah right.

In reality though, even ‘quality’ newspapers like ‘The Times of India’ for example will show photos of Bollywood starlets looking very beautiful and elegantly dressed on page 3 but on page 13 will, every day have a gratuitous photo of someone like Kelly Brook or Paris Hilton in a bikini. Similarly the IPL (Indian Premier League) has scantily clad cheerleaders but one of the conditions is that they have to be brought in from overseas. In other words it’s fine to use sex to sell… as long as it’s white not Indian women.

The genders don’t mix at all and there’s definitely no sex education so Indian men are the most immature you couldn’t hope to meet. As a white bloke they seemed to view me as some sort of oracle and way, way too often I found myself in a decent convo with blokes as old as 30something about cricket or similar when they would start asking the most inappropriate and often disgusting questions about sex. I realized my shoulders hunched in and my body involuntarily started forming into a defensive ‘ball shape’ as 200 decibel klaxons went off in my head whenever this happened telling me to ‘abort’ and leave immediately. Ultimately though I’m a bloke so could ignore it but just about every female traveler to the subcontinent has a canon of truly foul stories of things the men said or tried to do to them. Definitely one of the most negative aspects of traveling in India.

Much better was in the stricter Buddhist countries like Myanmar, Tibet or Bhutan where, preoccupied with getting off the wheel the people gave off a pleasing aura of being above it all. A ‘Yes we’re aware of it. And….so what?’ kind of attitude... There’s no media obsession with it and people definitely don’t talk about it but in a much more relaxed way than you’d find in Muslim countries for example.

Whilst Thailand and The Philippines are rightly famous for the prostitution and ‘sex pats’ etc culture and you’re confronted with it in lots of places and situations in Asia they’ve been the exceptions. Until I got to Japan and now I just don’t know what to think.

This place is weird, weird, weird. Various international studies show that Japanese couples have less sex than all other major nationalities but some of the stuff you see here is way beyond the pale of what passes for mainstream elsewhere.

Japan has the worlds biggest porn industry, which is fine but maybe as much as 1/3 of it isn’t actually human based (I thought that was the point) but sukebe or manga porn. Even convenience stores will have a wide selection of manga porn that goes off into all these strange subgenres and it’s seemingly un-taboo to display it in public. It’s a testament to just how weird Japan is that the strongest memory of my first few weeks here isn’t seeing the A-bomb dome in Hiroshima, aftermath of the quake or erupting volcanoes but seeing the middle aged suited salaryman bloke in front of me on a train reading a sukebe magazine where most of the content seemed to be bestiality set in space. You’ve probably heard of used schoolgirls panties sold in vending machines- well that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what else is on sale (used shoes, water bottles etc). There’s a TV show where girls lose their virginity live on air and they have quite incredible establishments called ‘no pan kissa’ bars which have floors made of mirrors and the waitresses don’t wear underwear. And if you pay extra you can lie down on the floor.

Unsurprisingly whilst all that’s bemusing/amusing there’s a much darker side to it too. As the high profile Lucy Blackman and even creepier Lindsay Hawker cases showed to the West, ritualistic sexual murders happen a bit too frequently here and the country has a very high domestic violence rate. Another strange Japanese practice are the ‘mizuage’ collectors, these are basically men who collect girls virginities as a character explicitly explains in Memoirs of A Geisha if you’ve read it. They normally go to South East Asia and bribe the parents of peasants to sell their daughters as they believe it gives them powers of reinvigoration and longevity. Of course.

In parts of Japan the age of consent is as low as 13 and it’s quite staggering how institutionalized paedophilia is here, you can buy magazines of kids (and I mean 7 or 8yrs) in their underwear and you may have heard of the long established practice of compensated dating. This is where men will pay schoolgirls to go on dates with them and there have been various scandals where teachers have made some extra money on the side pimping out their students. As with many Asians the Japanese don’t talk about social problems and ignore them rather than accepting they exist but it really is quite shocking to most foreigners what goes on here and is something the country has to tackle.

After leaving Hiroshima I headed onto the lovely city of Kanazawa on the Sea of Japan (or East Sea for the Koreans amongst you) which is where nuclear problems of another type began. As my Mum noted afterwards via the No of ‘Are you OK? Emails she’s had to send me I’ve travelled a seemingly disaster proof route on this trip. I’ve managed to narrowly avoid: flooding and a typhoon in Taiwan, more floods, a typhoon and a volcanic eruption in the Philippines, 4 earthquakes and a volcanic eruption in Indonesia and even the long running political protests in Thailand. And once again I got lucky in Japan-whilst coming from a country that effectively doesn’t have natural disasters I should feel lucky but I guess that’s simply life on the Ring of Fire.

I did feel the quake and several subsequent aftershocks (or at least I think I did) but at the time even though the house I was in was shaking and my feet started going from under me I thought it was just an abnormally loud thunder clap- frankly it may well have been. Whilst Col. Gaddafi and even the Japanese PM (he was on the point of being forced to resign over taking a big ‘donation’) were probably pleased the quake has dominated the news so much this one definitely wasn’t ‘the Big One’ or daijishin as it’s called here. A major fault runs SW of Tokyo (the March 11 quake struck in the sea NE of Tokyo) and historically there’s been a quake every 60 yrs on average on that fault, the last major one was in 1923 so it’s now 20yrs overdue. When that hits then in a city of 36M you probably would be counting the dead in 6 figures rather than the 4 or low 5s that have been predicted from this incident which struck a relatively unpopulated 4% of the countrys land mass.

It’s been oft remarked in the news coverage that the Japanese are better prepared for a disaster than probably any other country and I think that’s true on several levels. They’re sufficiently rich that they can build quake proof structures and coping systems which poorer countries can only dream of eg compare the death/damage count from the ’10 quake in Haiti with this one. More than that though the Japanese are phlegmatic if nothing else; in the deeply held Japanese desire of doing things for the common rather than individual good people won’t panic, there’s barely a trace of self pity and it’s difficult to see how the hysteria that took off after Hurricane Katrina (which was a much smaller disaster) for example would happen here. Much of the reason for that and one thing that really has been apparent is how differently the local media reports things versus international sources; I watched some of the local coverage with a half Japanese half American girl who translated the reports and the difference in language used is remarkable. As one of the ills of modern rolling news coverage/internet blogging etc. international sources have been guilty of over-sensationalising reports by exaggerating danger levels and using gratuitously emotive language, in contrast the Japanese reports urge people not to panic buy resources, to follow local government advice and focuses mainly on giving out information on what’s happening rather than focusing on more eyecatching stories. Western crisis reports tend to show a fast and noisy montage of images of the disaster which just hasn’t been the case here, it’s all done using much more measured language and just generally gives the impression of the situation being brought slowly under control. For example one of the reports from the BBC showed people running in Tokyo station and the commentary described it as “… people frantically dashing for trains South to escape the possibility of a nuclear fallout”. Well, I was there about the same time and yes some people were running for trains but in a giant commuter station at rush hour that will happen. If anything people seemed remarkably unbothered, indulging in the Japanese metro pastimes of dozing and playing with their mobiles. Rather than contemplating the incoming apocalypse.

Far and away the biggest downside of the quake for me was not getting to meet my friend George, he’d been living in Tokyo for the last few months but was 100km NE of the city ie nearer the quake epicenter when it hit. He really did have an adventure and unfortunately found himself sufficiently traumatized that he preferred to fly home rather than stay in Japan any longer. This was really gutting as aside from not being able to see my first familiar face in a year it left me with fairly unclear plans for the next few days. However I’ve got across Honshu with no problems and tomorrow I’m gonna do the opposite of FCO advice and go see “how they live in Tokyo”. There have been powercuts in the last couple of days and daily aftershocks but I don’t think I’m gonna start glowing.

So after that rather disparate set of issues I’ll try and be a bit more normal next time,

From Nikko,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:27 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Republic of Korea

Hello once again, I write this after a few hugely entertaining weeks in the awesome ‘hermit kingdom’ where only 40% of the population aren’t called Kim, Park or Lee and where yesterday I ‘found myself lost’ in the biggest store in the world. It’s been one of the coldest Winters in memory here, virtually the whole country has been covered in snow and even the mighty Han that runs through Seoul was totally frozen over which was quite a spectacle. However, thanks to glorious sunshine reflecting off the snow I’m very tanned, covered in freckles and since Jonathan Tehoues late intervention last Sunday have a huge smile permanently imprinted on my face. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve enjoyed Korea so much.

In Seoul one of the tourist attractions is the recreation of a village that’s only 100 years old, which is fitting as even in the tumultuous 20th century few countries experienced a rollercoaster as much as Korea did. Whilst travelling in Asia and viewing different societies I’ve found my opinions and emotions on them to be much stronger than in other areas I’ve been to. So I found myself immeasurably frustrated by the unfairness and inequalities of life in The Philippines or Indonesia but just in awe at the sustained successes of the likes of Singapore or Taiwan; and Korea falls firmly in the second group. The first 45 years were spent under the brutal Japanese occupation before the country was cruelly split by the US and USSR who were just beginning to play the Cold War game. The Korean war is sometimes called The Forgotten War as the Vietnam edition stole its thunder later on, a nasty fratricidal conflict it is however in the Guinness Book of Records as the most international war in history (over 70 countries were involved in some way) as it became the first proxy conflict of the Cold War. The country remained divided and was left in ruins but within 50 years the country had completed an awe inspiring comeback. The transformation from a poor agrarian society to the G20 presidency with an Olympics and World Cup thrown in has been called ‘ The Miracle on the Han River’ and as with the other Asian success stories it’s been achieved primarily due to the almost stakhonovite work ethic of the people to improve their lives. Koreans work harder than almost anyone else on earth – (normally 6 days a week and taking more than 3 of your 5 days of your annual holiday at once is frowned on!) and this is most of the reason for the growth of its world brands like Samsung and Hyundai. The last 3 or 4 generations have gone through the wall in both economic and political hardships including a couple of strict military dictatorships and limited freedoms but Korea now boasts one of the best standards of living in Asia and in fact comes pretty high up on global lists.

My first stop was the seemingly boundless capital Seoul, whilst very few non Koreans could place it on a map it struck me as one of the best cities the world doesn’t know it has. There’s simply loads to do by day or night with a fantastic metro and a great set of urban parks meaning that despite its huge size (23m or so) it was actually quite a relaxing place to be- I’m not in India anymore. I managed to hook up with a couple of expats and had some epic soju nights followed by some painful football the next day but undoubtedly the strongest memory I have of Seoul will be the tour to the DMZ just 50KM away.

Bill Clinton described it as “The scariest place in the world”, which considering he has to share a bed with Hilary are obviously some pretty strong words. I don’t think I found it overtly scary but it is a creepy, eerie place with the sheer quiet being perhaps the most memorable impression I took of it. The armistice agreement from 1953 was that the 4km zone would be created separating the 2 sides and as a mined (to stop invasions from the North) no mans land it has become something of a haven for wildlife. On both sides of it are propaganda villages to show the other side how they’re living though of course neither are fair representations. In the South the government gives the farmers huge financial and logistical incentives to live there including no income tax and fully paid health and tuition costs but the Northern one is a set of empty but maintained buildings like something out of a horror film. The competition for biggest flag is currently being won by the North as the paltry 100m high flag pole in the South is dwarfed by their huge 160m effort which, topped by a 600lb flag is one of the biggest in the world. After entering the UN camp you’re allowed to see the negotiating tables which are still in constant use as the war never officially ended - only a ceasefire was signed. You technically cross into North Korea on their side of the table but as the American corporal barks at you to keep moving you were reminded you’re in one of the most potentially hostile places on Earth- as recently as last year a South Korean tourist was shot dead by Northern guards after wandering too far. The Southern soldiers were really creepy looking in static poses, strange outfits and huge sunglasses which reminded me of a cross between Mum-Ra from Thundercats and the sinister wardens in Cool Hand Luke. You’re also allowed to go to the ‘Bridge of No Return’ where POWs are returned to either side and which you may (or maybe just me) remember from Die Another Day when James Bond is released. The Northern soldiers don’t come close but have their binoculars firmly trained on you at the other end of the bridge which is quite an unsettling feeling. It really was a memorable few hours.

During the World Cup in the Summer I felt pretty sorry for the commentators who were under strict instructions to refer to the 2 Koreas as the ‘Republic of’ and the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of’ rather than just South and North. I never saw any signs or official announcements which referred to the country as ‘South’ Korea’, maps often don’t show a border and there’s no doubt that reunification is the ultimate goal of both sides of the peninsula. Like Taiwan and China they are ‘one people’ and the labeling of South and North implies that they’re somehow separate which no-one in Korea believes. However, in the last 20 years amongst the younger generation the belief has grown that reunification would be too difficult to manage as the two countries have developed into two of the most distinct societies in the world. Under the Dear Leader the Northern society has devolved into a system more akin to Confucianism on MDMA than anything Engels et al envisaged , meanwhile via some of the lowest tax rates in the world and extensive market deregulations the South has become one of the worlds most capitalistic societies. Aside from the GDP gap, as those fantastic night photos from space show, the never ending display of neon lights in highly urbanised South Korea make it one of the most switched on areas in the world but in contrast North Korea is black with no internet or mobile phones and the power goes out by 7pm even in Pyongyang. The lifestyle gulf between the two sides means any reunification would need to be excruciatingly tightly controlled over perhaps 30-50 years and would make the problems in Germany since 1990 look miniscule.

During the war the North was only able to remain Communist thanks to the introduction of Chinese troops forcing the southern troops back to the DMZ line and once again, as with so many of the big geopolitical issues in Asia, China appears to hold the key to a solution. The last thing China wants is a new war on the Korean peninsula as it would result in vast numbers of refugees crossing its borders as well as the possible threat of a nuclear fallout so it’s believed that behind the scenes they’re lobbying the Kim family hard to adopt Chinese style economic reforms. This would also be good for the Chinese as it would be another big trading partner but in the short term those in charge in the North seem unwilling to change things too much. The history of Korea is a sad one of being continually bullied and having their culture (tangible or not) destroyed by their bigger neighbors in Japan and China. Yet the recent national story is one of survival but they’re still not totally free yet; as one of the last unresolved issues from the Cold War and obviously an issue the people feel so strongly about I found myself really hoping those in the North are free to rejoin their brothers down South again as soon as possible.

After Seoul I took a brilliant overnight ferry to the island of Jeju which was about as far removed an experience as can be from the PELNI ships in Indonesia earlier on in the trip and summed up why Korea was such an enjoyable place to travel in. About 10pm an announcement came over the loudspeakers that there would be a disco on deck so I checked it out and was greeted by the bizarre and wonderful sight of a mini rave of sorts. They had a singer and rigged up some strobe lighting but I couldn’t stop laughing for the first few minutes; it was about -3 excluding any wind chill and snowing with the East China sea giving the boat a nice list to dance to. There were about 60 people gaily tanked up on soju and going for it wearing brightly colored Goretex jackets. The average age was about 42, I was the only foreigner onboard and for some reason all the blokes kept pushing me into dancing with their wives as the boat threw us around. Gloriously entertaining it only lasted about 10 songs as it was just too cold but they finished with a great little firework display and then all the passengers started plying me with soju and yummy makkoli (milky rice wine) so I went to bed very drunk. Happy days.

Jeju itself is one big volcano sitting a few hours off the Southern coast and is the prime holiday destination for Koreans. The volcanic sand beaches lead up to the huge crater peak in the centre of the island and has some impressive volcanic phenomena including the globes longest lava tubes which were great to walk in. The volcano is South Korea’s highest peak and being extremely easy to climb is one of the best places to see Koreans participating in their national pastime of hiking. Korea was a nice change from virtually everywhere else in Asia in that sport is very popular on all levels. Aside from their consistent top 10 finishes in the Olympic medal tables and World Cup appearances, at grass roots level people of all ages and both genders are much more active with hiking being the most popular activity in a country which is 70% mountainous. Just outside Seoul is the worlds most visited national park and the vast crowds of hikers are an amusing sight as they outdo even Germans in how professionally equipped they were. They all seemed to spend several hundred dollars on brand name hiking clothes with all the accessories like crampons and as I was wearing construction boots and a hoodie I did feel a bit out of place. After taking the late ferry back to the mainland outfit wise I fitted in much better when I spent the night in a jimjiblang. They’re basically saunas that you can sleep in and would have to rank as one of my favorite things. Maybe ever.

You put your stuff in a locker then proceed to the (segregated) baths where there are pools of different temperature, whilst you have to go nude it’s very family friendly and definitely not somewhere Justin Fashanu would hang around. After bathing you’re given a blue t-shirt and shorts outfit to wear (girls wear pink and kids yellow) and you can then spend the evening in a variety of ways: getting something to eat, watching films or even karaoke. You then pick a sauna room at the temperature you desire, go to sleep on the floor and then wake up and go to work or catch your onward bus or whatever. Simply brilliant, even during the week they’re really popular and seeing as they cost about a quarter of the price of a hotel bed I just wish they’d break out of South Korea!

One of the other things I’ve loved about being in Korea is its cultural prowess, indeed in terms of producing entertainment I’d pick it out as my favorite country in Asia. In part because I’ve been away quite a while now, even with the internet and satellite TV I really have been well out of the loop of Western culture in Asia, certainly commentators who refer to ‘a global homogenization of culture’ are for me way off the mark in Asia. Aside from missing Big Brother Champions League (who won?), I’ve got no idea how Peter Andre has fared since splitting from Jordan, sorry Katie Price (or is it Reid or something else now?) and I’ve seen literally maybe 8 or 10 Hollywood films in 20 months. Unfortunately only the biggest, most expensive Western films make it to Asian cinemas so the likes of Saw 6&7 and Resident Evil: Extinction will have to wait til I return. I’ve seen only the worst Hollywood can offer in the form of Salt, Avatar, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen and God help me GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra; terrible one and all but it’s definitely music I’ve missed the most.

Again I’m not exaggerating when I write I heard maybe 10-15 American songs in the first 18 months of this trip, I can pick out individual songs by a few artists and whilst you can probably imagine it’s hard for any man to go so long with no Girls Aloud, the one English song I did hear was We’ve Gotta Fight for this Love by Cheryl Cole (sic. how did that go then Chezza?).

As anyone who’s been to Thailand will confirm Bob Marleys Greatest Hits on a loop is the compulsory bar CD in SE Asia but generally speaking on the radio for instance the locals just are not interested. In South America I really got into quite a few acts and some of their songs became a soundtrack to the trip but that hasn’t happened in Asia. With a couple of exceptions (Indonesian grunge and Burmese pop stand out) I haven’t overly enjoyed the music, I don’t believe the tonal languages lend themselves to singing and even the famed Bollywood songs in India didn’t do it for me as they always had the same whining love song style rhythm which grates on your ears very quickly.

Somewhat surprisingly China has much more Western music and some fantastic films although that’s mainly from Hong Kong but I think Korea’s been my favorite. Whilst not too well known outside of Asia their dramas and soap operas are akin to the Egyptian or Mexican industries in terms of their continent wide popularity and as film buffs will tell you modern Korean cinema ranks as one of the worlds best. Musically too the production values are much slicker than elsewhere in Asia and you even get to hear things like hiphop which I highly approved of. Korea’s also well known for ‘K-Pop’, producing very catchy songs by very pretty girl/boy bands and I seem to enjoy them a bit too much with my favorite being The Wonder Girls, who are indeed wonderful…

Korea has the nickname of The Hermit Kingdom as for centuries they cut themselves off from the world ala Tibet, Korea nowadays rarely makes the headlines and beyond the split peninsula issue few people know too much about it. Also despite being a pretty big country (50m popN) it’s now effectively an island little visited by foreign tourists and outside of California there’s no real communities of note abroad. Therefore its something of an unknown quantity to most Westerners but nonetheless I found it an immensely enjoyable and easy place to travel in. Despite the tricky language (too many syllables) there’s information in English up everywhere, it’s incredibly safe and in a nice change from China its relatively compact size meant getting around was quick and easy. Koreans were wonderful to be around too, super generous and friendly I’d pick them out as the politest people I’ve come across, where even the bus drivers say hello and thank you it’s the sort of place where seemingly nothing goes wrong and it’s difficult to see what could stress you out.

Koreans are also a very good looking people (maybe the most attractive in Asia), although they had an unfortunate overemphasis on appearance- female Seoulites in particular would have to rival Italians or Muscovites as the vainest people I can remember seeing. Much of the life of Korean girls seem to revolve around shopping in designer clothes stores then spending 20minutes on the metro using the vanity mirror built in to her mobile phone cover to do her makeup. When she’s a bit older and arrived at her destination she can use one of the many plastic surgeries dotted around and even later in life she’ll likely go to a hair salon and get the ubiquitous ‘bubble perm’ which seemingly every woman above 50 must have.

One of the most prominent aspects of the vanity craze is all the ads for skin lightening cream which has been a constant all over Asia; Asians traditionally associate darker skin with working outdoors and therefore poverty so lighter skin is a long held beauty trait. It was probably India where it was most blatant- the bestselling lightening cream for men called ‘Fair & Handsome’ would have ads where a dark skinned boy tries to talk to a girl and gets ignored then puts on some cream and voila he’s in! In Korea, a lot of middle aged women look disconcertingly like MJ in his later days but Japanese women maybe take it the furthest with their ugly, ‘super size’ sun visors and full arm length gloves giving them a ghoulishly unattractive level of whiteness. Although that’s not to say that ‘white people’ are seen as more attractive full stop. Rather than Brad Pitt and Claudia Schiffer, the ‘Asian beauty perfection’ often shows mixed race Eurasian models with perfect Asian hair and features but very (i.e. photoshopped) light skin which frankly nobody barring maybe air hostesses (Ryanair don’t operate in Asia) seems to look like. I don’t get it.

I ended my time in Busan which despite being one of the worlds biggest ports is a surprisingly pleasant place to be with pine trees and brightly coloured houses covering the hills rising up in the city centre. Walking around the harbor area in the sun yesterday I can’t help but feel a tad sad to be leaving, I had to veto going to North Korea on visa/cost grounds (eg little change from $2000 for a week) which represents one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had so far on this trip. However, the alternative aint exactly a bad one as tonight I take the ferry to the Land of the Rising Sun…

From Busan,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:19 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

South East China

Hello once again from the Orient where the weather is probably even colder than England which everyone moans about in the emails I received from home this Winter. Weather aside, to offer one bit of advice about traveling in China- avoid travellng around Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) at ALL costs. Chinese trains normally have 4 classes (hard/soft seat and hard/soft sleeper) but in the last couple of weeks when I’ve got a ticket at all it’s been 5th class ie no seat. The worst journey I’ve done probably left mental scars as I spent 24hrs sharing the space between compartments with 22 other people. According to the news the other days 250m people travel in the run up to the holidays with up to 80m per day on the most popular days as the hordes of migrant workers return to their villages from the cities- it’s really not been fun trying to get around.

Before getting to Qingdao I was in the coastal province of Fujian where perhaps the highlight was seeing a red (the colour of marriage in China) wedding in one of the famous round houses. The round houses are these giant, several storied donut shaped dwellings made of compressed earth. The inhabitants will all be from the same clan and up to a thousand people can live in them so getting to sleep in one was a bit of a treat. As I passed by one in a neighboring village the family of the red dressed bride insisted I join them at the reception meal though I felt like I would have to be rude as I sat down to eat. In China vegetarianism is associated with poverty and on occasions like a wedding for ‘saving face’ sake amongst their peers a family wouldn’t serve many vegetables. On the table I was sat there were 21 dishes to be shared amongst 8 people, 1 rice, 2 dessert style sweet dumplings and no less than 18 meat dishes. So I ate lots of rice and drank plenty of the rice wine, rather than eating the dog offered to me.

Fujian is also one of the provinces with the highest emigration rates, aside from being the most populous race in the world the Chinese are also the most widely spread- and perhaps the most discriminated against. Aside from the big populations in places like Canada or Peru it's a testament to how widely and seemingly randomly spread they are that in places as diverse as Buenos Aires, a border town in Suriname and even rural villages in Tanzania I've seen them receiving some pretty heavy racist abuse from the locals. And whilst this is in part due to their slightly secretive, non-integrationist culture the main reason for that is that they're almost invariably much more successful than the locals- but their success shouldn't be begrudged.

Whilst China has one of the richest political and military historys of any country in the world it’s social and cultural history is equally fascinating. Whilst the so called Triad ‘Snakehead’ people smuggling rings have generated a lot of press in the last 10 years or so, people moving abroad and the growth of the diaspora has been around for a long time in China. When the North won the Civil War in the States and slavery had all but ceased to exist in Europe and its colonies, a great demand arose for menial laborers to whom the West could pay little more than survival wages, and so in stepped the Chinese. Drawn mainly from the Southern coastal states the Chinese were sent all around the world as ’coolies’ in promise of a better life and ended up doing much of the hard labor for the building up of overseas infrastructure in the form of North American railroads or South American mines for example. Of course the Chinese make exemplary employees, as in SE Asia the work ethic in China is quite astounding and by putting in so much extra time as laborers or more recently in factories eventually they could own their own capital and then by keeping their shops or restaurants open 15hrs+ a day, even in the most trying circumstances they seem to rise quicker financially than most of the natives in the countries they've moved to. Their focus on education is also really admirable, in England they came with few skills beyond cooking so opened restaurants but a couple of generations later they're closing down as their children do better at school than any other ethnic group and now become lawyers and engineers. Similarly in the States some of the most prestigious colleges in California are apparently trying to find ways to put a cap (negative discrimination?) on the number of Chinese origin students doing medicine as their academic records are so good that they're simply taking up too many of the spots relative to other races.

In many ways they’re pretty inspirational in their determination to succeed whatever their circumstances at birth and I found it’s an almost agreeably voyeuristic experience traveling in China once again and seeing the country booming as it has been for the last 20 years or so.

I find it deeply ironic that both China and Vietnam are both officially Communist countries, as without a doubt and by some distance material wealth has the greatest importance of any cultures I’ve been around. Whilst the Chinese don't seem to lie as much as their shamefully dishonest Southern neighbors, they certainly have the reputation of being incredibly canny with money or famously tight depending on how you see it. Credit cards have yet to take off in the country to any meaningful extent as people are so averse to getting in debt and a Chinamen in Borneo told me one of the rules they live by is that a man should never 'spend' more than 10% of their income beyond the staples like housing, food etc.
To illustrate this on the news the other day was a report saying that despite their increased wealth even when it’s snowing people in China don't turn the heating on- they just put on extra layers. That’s certainly been my experience this Winter, when you come inside after a day in the snow aside from a small foot heater they make no other effort to warm up other than getting under a duvet so the houses are freezing unsurprisingly! It was notable that on television people seemed to always pick prosperity rather than the usual banal options like good health and world peace for their New Year wishes and they just give money out to their relatives as presents, coming from a family where money is banned for Xmas presents I found that a bit sad. Furthermore showing off the bewildering attitude the Chinese have to religion Chairman Mao of all people has assumed a ‘Prosperity Saint’ status with his hometown of Shaoshan becoming a shrine for people to go to pray for prosperity for their family or business. It’s very weird and the importance placed on material wealth and it isn’t something I agree with or understand entirely about the culture.

Before reaching Fujian I spent barely any time in cities this month spending my time largely in the countryside; after leaving the booming southern coast of Guangdong I headed up into the states of Guanxi and then Hunan where the views come firmly out of the Chinese imaginations scrapbook. The landscapes are mainly formed by the beautiful and fairly incredible limestone karsts which shoot up majestically from the forests and rivers of Southern China. Whilst common in South East Asian seas eg Thailand or Halong Bay in Vietnam you don’t see them too often on land. Despite the cold, I’ve had some wonderful days cycling along the bucolically charming areas around Yangshuo or hiking around Guilin and to me the karsts represent a rural China from old Kung Fu films or ancient poetry and it made a really pleasant change from the modern, monocultural uniformity of the cities. I also got to climb China’s ‘favorite mountain’ Mount Huangshan which looked gorgeous covered in the snow although for me the best spot to view them was the incredible Wulingyuan national park. Quite a way from anywhere it apparently has a greater concentration of peaks and karsts than anywhere else in the world, with characteristically whimsical Chinese names (eg ‘Lovers Returning After Long Absence peak’) and covered in snow they would have to rank as some of the most memorable landscapes I’ve ever seen. I’ve climbed a couple of other mountains too and perhaps foolishly ignoring the danger factor I’ve found doing so much exercise in the snow really invigorating and the perfect way to keep myself motivated to do stuff every day in the cold weather.

Traveling in more rural provinces gives you a very different view of the country as they’re much less developed than other areas of China, and so whilst China definitely is booming it’s a slightly more uneven and complicated picture than is often presented in the Western media.

I think the most important quote in the post Mao era was Deng Xiaoping’s “To get rich is glorious” statement in 1978 and the rampant success of China’s economy since then has been one of the world’s biggest stories of the last 30 years or so. As when I was here before in 2003 there’s a strong feeling that you’re traveling during an exciting time in China’s history; the entire country feels like it’s being transformed, almost like a building site with cranes and constructions sites of roads, bridges and even entire new cities everywhere you look. China has become the worlds 3rd biggest economy by turning itself into the workshop of the world exporting some $1.5 trillion worth of products annually, its near endless supply of cheap, hardworking labour has made the country extremely attractive to foreign investors and is much of the reason why the price of consumer products have relatively come down in the West in the last few years. Whilst there are plenty of criticisms (lack of employment rights, currency manipulation etc.) you can make of the system which has enabled such rapid growth I can’t help but feel that ‘on the ground’ the population have put the work in over many years and richly deserve the higher quality of life which they’re now starting to enjoy.

The problem is that probably the second most important thing Deng said “It doesn’t matter if some areas get richer first” – in other words development hasn’t come evenly. There are various ways to geographically measure China’s inequality gap, East vs West or coastal vs interior areas for example but probably the most striking gap is between cities and the countryside. As recently as the mid ‘80’s China was one of the most equal countries in the world but now it’s one of the most unequal; for instance a resident of Shanghai has a GDP of nearly $5000 but a poorer Western province like Gansu will average less than a tenth of that. Major Chinese cities will have CBDs akin to those in the West where you can easily spend $100 on a shirt or a night out if you so choose but traveling in rural areas is a vastly different experience with far fewer amenities and an aging population. As hundreds of millions of young people migrate to the coastal cities to seek their fortune those left back in the countryside have almost become an economic underclass expected to do little more than feed their richer fellow countrymen in the cities at a very poor wage; whilst China now has plenty of entries on the world richest people lists at the same time 1 in 7 of its population still live on less than a dollar a day.

Overall though I think I agree with Mr Deng’s second statement and that inequality in China is a relative problem rather than an absolute one – which I didn’t feel was the case in other Asian countries. Aware of the threat of possible future political disturbances the government have made huge efforts in the last 7 or 8 years to try and address the issue by pumping huge amounts of money into the interior and certainly that I’ve seen poorer Western provinces like Yunnan have surprisingly good infrastructure thanks to government help. At the very least with the ongoing electrification of the country as well as nationwide clean water supplies the poor in China have access to far more than in almost all the countries it borders.

Having a system in China where the people can’t interfere in politics, only try to make money and most of the government’s aim is to simply foster an environment for an ever growing economy is seemingly a perfect setup, once they returned to a capitalist economy it was always going to work. I think the lack of democracy in China is something that is over written about in the West; under the firmly held belief in Confucianism it isn’t the place of the individual to question what decisions their seniors make. You simply respect your elders and their decisions unquestioningly, which is part of the reason why China has for a long time had something of a gerontocracy. The role of politicians is very different compared to the West; when something goes wrong they have a convention Michael Howard would agree with where it’s the lowest ranked person involved who’ll take the blame and the people see the top leaders as ‘good Emperor’ like figures who can come in and fix things very quickly even if it’s their fault something has gone wrong in the first place. Around 60% of British MPs have come from legal backgrounds and so are able to talk their way out of almost anything (and incidentally is much of the reason for the expenses scandal a couple of years ago), in contrast Chinese politicians tend to come from engineering or economic backgrounds so they’re good at making strong planning decisions but never have to justify their decisions to anyone except their bosses and so have very different skills to Western politicians. The ability to influence influential people behind the scenes is far more important than how you come across to the public and even at the top level politicians can be remarkably bad at public speaking and thinking on their feet. A couple of famous examples of this include a press conference on the controversial Three Gorges dam project when the minister in charge couldn’t answer questions on the negative aspects of the project from foreign journalists so simply repeated over a dozen times that it would create hydroelectric power. Lord Coe and Ken Livingstone also managed to humiliate the organizers of the Beijing Olympics when on an official visit in 2007 they started posing uncomfortable questions about the games legacy which their hosts simply had no answers for and had to abandon the meeting in diplomatic shame.

The worlds biggest Chinese minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia play no part in politics almost at all in exchange for the ability to trade freely and even in countries like the US or UK where they’re unlikely to receive too much discrimination they’ve collectively made few efforts to gain office of any sort. Even the other ‘Chinese countries’ of Singapore and Taiwan have been effectively one party states since they gained their independence and politics plays a very limited role in society in comparison to European countries.

Since starting to open the country up to the outside world in recent years aside from the occasional use of force (most famously Tianamen Square in ’89) the government seem to have had fewer problems maintaining power and that’s down to what has been termed by some writers as ‘The Deal’.

This is the name given to the unwritten agreement between the people and the government that provided the economy grows and their living standards continue to rise the people won’t argue too much with the political status quo. Backed up by terrific economic growth, rising living standards and heavy surveillance of any subversive activities (e.g. the country’s 30,000 censors who run ‘The Great Firewall’ on the internet) this agreement has worked extremely well for the last 20 years. The crunch will come when the meteoric rise of the economy starts to slow and logically the people might start to feel they should have more say over who governs them. The Communist leaders are well aware of this and took evasive action at the beginning of the current international economic crisis pumping billions of their cash reserves into the economy to support construction projects, create jobs and maintaining the double digit growth rates the country has officially enjoyed for some years now. As you’ve probably read this has created quite bad inflation however and the growth of asset bubbles particularly in the big cities, when the bubble eventually pops and the party finds it can no longer guarantee such visible improvements in peoples lives it will be very interesting to see what happens to the country.

Having made the point about the Chinese not being too political a race there have however been a few indications to the contrary in the last few years. The introduction of elected village councils have been greeted enthusiastically by the people though there are no plans to extend it beyond such local levels. More amusingly a couple of years ago the Chinese version of X Factor was opened to the public and within minutes all the internet servers had crashed as so many people tried to log on to vote. The government got so worried that the people would enjoy the voting experience too much and by the next week’s programme had instructed the producers to remove the public vote and just have judges!

Much to my surprise this month a couple of local guys have come up to me and told me how they want to see China have a democratic revolution, they cited the terrible corruption in the country as well as a general lack of freedom as the main reason for their desire for change.

It’s quite easy to see their point; Chinas justice system for example is non-existent – whilst crime is very low by world standards if you’re arrested you’re almost certainly going down guilty or not with no chance of appeal so unsurprisingly the people are fairly petrified of the police and have as little to do with them as possible. Any decision made by an official, however corrupt can’t be questioned and like Singapore and other places the media is so controlled that you literally can’t believe anything you read or view on the news, after Sky showed the events in Tianamen Square overseas channels are banned and even things like Facebook are off limits. However, a strong government does have benefits; as with Italy under Mussolini the trains do run ontime here and if the government orders it positive projects like new Metro systems will be built with no holdups or notably in the 1990s deforestation was stopped almost overnight once Beijing clamped down. The guys I spoke to seemed a bit naive thinking every democracy is like Europe and once I explained the problems with it in developing countries like India i.e. politicians just argue and don’t get things done they conceded there isn’t a one-size fits all policy. Certainly the ongoing progress of China makes it an endlessly exciting place to observe and study.

Despite transport issues it was quite cool seeing the New Year celebrations which is the equivalent of Christmas for the Chinese. Qingdao was a former German concession (akin to Macau or Hong Kong) but was lost along with WWI, nonetheless they left an interesting architectural legacy which along with the pleasing seaside setting makes it one of the more interesting cities to walk around in China. Whilst I enjoyed looking at the buildings undoubtedly my favorite street was ‘Beer Street’ as the Germans most famous legacy was teaching the Chinese how to brew Tsingtao. There are statues made of beer bottles, it’s sold everywhere in beer bags on the streets and even the hostel I was staying in gave you free beer every night J .

New Year was fairly quiet outside by day as although the buses were still running I had to live on pot noodles and the sweets everyone gives you as no restaurants were open. But in the evening things started getting livelier; fireworks are really cheap in China and an evening walk on the 2nd was like a fast track to getting post traumatic stress syndrome as I found myself constantly jumping out the way of the thousands and thousands of bangers and mini Catherine wheels the kids love to throw around. Great fun though.

From Qingdao I had to catch a flight out and after much Seoul searching chose South Korea. With The Orient still in the cup at the 5th round for the first time I genuinely did have thoughts about coming home- which hadn’t happened before on this trip. I guess I have quite distorted priorities in my life… Til next time

From Seoul,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:12 Archived in China Comments (0)

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