Easterly Does It

September 28th 2010
Published: October 5th 2010
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Leg 1: Beijing-South Korea-Japan-Shanghai

An Auspicious Start
We were sitting on the deck of the Suzhou Hao, plying our way past craggy islands and bobbing fishing vessels, whilst gulls (with South Korean accents( squawked overhead when a Korean dude gave us a nod and a hearty hello. We beckoned him to sit down next to us, and he took up the offer with a warm smile.

Alas, though, conversation was never going to flow smoothly. He did know fives times as many English words as we knew Korean, but that only made 10. However he was keen to know where we were from, so he took a stab.


I was flabberghasted. Of all places. Here we were sailing from Qingdao on the Chinese coast to Incheon on the start of 2 1/2 months bumbling around Asia; a journey that is due to finish in Tashkent - at the heart of that little stan. How did he know? A curve ball if ever there was one.

It seemed especially bizarre since I don't class myself as having a particularly Uzbekistani collection of facial features. In fact, despite being 23, many Chinese refer to me as Harry Potter - who certainly does not possess the same aesethic qualities as your average strong-jawed, imbearded Uzbek of Turkic descent.

If it had been a cheaper thriller book this opening exchange would be a (rather heavy handed) sign that ultimately all will be well. I shall therefore take it as such.

Let the adventure begin.

By the way, I should clarify that actually "Uzbekistan" is not one of my two Korean words - but the phonetic pronunciation in Korean sounds much like the Chinese - WuZiBieKeSiTan (incidentally my second favourite word in Chinese - behind the word for ugly, "nankan", which literally means "difficult looking").

Heading East
The first segment of our trip took us to South Korea and Japan. Two countries I found fascinating enough in themselves, but all the more so for their contrast to China. They were also a sharp lesson in the power of expectations.

South Korea
I had very few expectations for South Korea. What you hear of it largely concerns politics with perhaps some passing references to their love of pickled vegetables served on tiny dishes. Thus for me there was a large void in between that needed filling.

And the void was filled with a pile of delightful surprises. Firstly the confident, overt friendliness of Koreans. Coming from China where shyness (and only shyness) often prevent those day to day moments of friendliness, it was a bit of a revelation to me.

Transfering from the port to the center of Seoul involved a standard proceedure involving getting to the subway, gaining an understanding of its particular percularities and getting from the subway at the other end to the hostel. The journey though was made a complete breeze because we were escorted the whole way by a chain of Koreans eager to see where these backpackers hailed from, and where they were going. One by one they took us under their wings and when paths innevitably diverged another local would be ready to step up for a chat and to offer directions.

On top of that Seoul and Busan are both very liveable, relaxed cities that hide their considerable sizes well. Things are easy, things are efficient, things are cheap. It is a country that is 80% as developed as Japan, while being 80% as cheap as China. Happy with that.

Granted, nothing in Korea will blow your mind (with the possible exception of the rawest, strongest garlic I've ever encountered), but for us it was a collection of pleasant experiences and warm hearted people.

One thing definitely to be recommended in Seoul, and something that sums the place up nicely, is a great little trail up in the hills around the city that follows the old city wall as it skirts the grounds of the presidential palace (the Blue House).

In the 60s some DPRK marines had attempted an assassination within the grounds, so security is still high. To use the trail you have to register your passport and get a badge. Then motion sensors, fences and CCTV keep you to the path (and wall). On top of this there are a series of border guards every 50m who radio ahead your prescence. No photos allowed (not even if there's a Peregrin Falcon perched 10m away)

Yet this is Korea. The trail was free, the staff friendly and even the security guards (dressed in matching North Face tops) were very apologetic and polite when they asked to inspect my photos. I was surprised they didn't offer us Kimchi as we toddled round.

When it comes to expectations though, Japan is a different kettle of fish. Everyone has a clear image of what they expect to Japan to be like. But for me it was full of suprises - it wasn't what I expected.

First up it wasn't crammed full of robots and cutting edge technology. It wasn't a society where everything is done with the nod of a head and the click of the button. Even ATMs mostly don't have english and often didn't accept foreign cards. It's far more normal.

Before I visited I'd forgotten that it has to be a functional place as well. There has to be people cleaning toilets (often of the squat variety), emptying rubbish bins and selling turnips.

And it doesn't feel new and sparkling. Certainly not nearly as new as South Korea, and even parts of China. Again this is something which surprised me, but which instantly makes sense - because the development is so much older. Japan boomed in the 70s and 80s, and it's noticeable. Even the famed Shinkansen trains are now 35 years old and feel a little tatty around the edges when compared with Chinese D trains and the Seoul-Busan express.

Things aren't as santized as you expect - the country isn't the gleaming white surface that is expected of everything Japanese. It's feels like it's been lived in - like a digital watch that still functions as it did but has a few scratches and a frayed strap.

If China and Korea are looking forward, then Japan is also noticeably looking back. Back to 1990 when it really did rule the world. (In 1990 Japan had a staggering 60% of all the world's real estate value). This is most noticeable in Akihabara - Tokyo's famed electronics district. We went to find robots that would simultaneous cut your toe nails and rustle up a triffle. We found arcades full of consoles offering "Street Fighter 1", electronics shops that sold disposable cameras and Manga shops that wouldn't know what a Kindle was if it hit them in the face. It's like the years of economic recession and stagnation just haven't happened at all.

But all these things are not bad things. Japan feels homely, liveable and easy (even if the English signage is woefully worse than in China). They are endearing and innevitable - of course these ludicrous expectations can't be true of the whole place. It has to function after all.

Having said that, some things are true. There are vending machines everywhere, incredibly polite and reserved people, crazy comic books, ridiculous fashions, swarms of salary men and toilets with rectal jets.

Japan has also drawn me in. I'd like to learn more, not least its fascinating language. Noticeably a descendent of Chinese (beyond just the characters) yet with remarkably different pronunciation (which is wildly easier) and grammar (which is wildly harder) it has a curious writing system that contains three interchangeable (from my limited understanding at least) ways of representing words.

I'm also amazed at the differences between China and Japan. Up until a few hundred years ago the two cultures shared a vast amount, but then isolatory regimes in both countries (the Qing and Edo respectively) sent them diverging wildly. Now the two places have remarkably different atmospheres and cultures (beyond just a wealth difference), as if they've forgotten their basic world geography.

On top of this Japan is also a country that is begging to be explored. It is oozing with hidden gems - temples, shrines and castles. In China you can go days without seeing anything pre-communist, in Japan you can barely go yards without finding history. The food also requires further exploration, and it would be a long expedition I would embrace with valour and no little energy. (Natto - rotten bean cheese - aside that is)

Of course having good guides help you see anywhere, and having tour-guide Olly kindly put us up in Nara, and the Keio students' excellent hospitality in Tokyo really helped.

We left Japan with a blast of the horn and a westerly bearing for the two day passage to China. Ferries really are the way to travel, and it felt so perfect entering China by ship, across the Yellow sea and into the port of Shanghai. A journey many more notable westerners than ourselves have done down the centuries, and one that perfectly shows off the scale of Chinese industry. Inbound into Shanghai were a stream of empty container ships, teetering on the surface, while steaming the other way was a heavily laden succession of ships full of Chinese goods, heading for the wider world.

Hello China. Nice to be back, I hope you kept those dumplings waiting for us...

I actually write this from Lijiang in Yunnan, a week into our Chinese segment (and thanks to a busy schedule the first opportunity I've had to put some thoughts through the keyboard).

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